Training strategies come in many forms and different people have different views on what is the best way to build muscle and lose fat. However, the reality is, there are many factors that come into training – not least genetics, natural size, strength, barbell/dumbbell weight etc…
For example, the general view would be that high reps would involve a low weight and low reps would involve a heavier weight. However, one man may be able to rep out 20 dumbbell presses with 30kg while another might only be able to do 5. Man 1 might be the size of The Rock Dwayne Johnson while man 2 might be the size of Zac Efron. Both have minimal fat and are in good muscular shape, which one you’d prefer to be like is your own personal preference.
Let’s forget the science for a second and apply some “commonscience”. Professional sprinters are generally bigger and more muscular than marathon runners (comments below if you disagree). Sprinters are all about short bursts of power (lower reps) while marathon runners repeat lots of (high) reps over great distances. Sprinters apply more strength and marathon runners use more endurance. Now let’s look at an example linked to weight training. Hafþór Björnsson, a world class strongman and Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the HBO series Game of Thrones, is huge at over 2m in height and 180kg. His training is generally very heavy weight with low repetitions of 1 – 5 reps and long rest periods. On the other hand Rich Froning Jr. – Crossfit Athlete and once dubbed the fittest man in history is 1.75m and around 88kg. He’s got no shortage of muscle, but to compete in the crossfit games his training involves heavy weights by many people’s standards, but with higher repetitions and lower rest times than Hafþór. This is the difference between raw strength and strength endurance.
So, the point of this common science is that it’s not just about low or high reps. It’s about what are you trying to achieve and the reality is, for most of us, a combination of low and high reps will be most effective. It’s beneficial to develop some raw strength, but for a more rounded fitness and physique you will want some strength endurance. Although it’s important to bear in mind, your natural genetics and how your body responds to training and nutrition might play a key role in balancing how much high rep and low rep training you do. It’s worth noting that 220lb+ pro bodybuilders are generally strong dudes with some serious strength endurance.
If that’s not enough to convince you that you need to do both then you can turn to the science (references at the bottom of this article). According to research a combination of low repetition heavier strength training and high rep metabolic conditioning is the most effective way to lose fat and build muscle – plus, as mentioned, it’s linked to your goals.
In principle, if you regularly combine methods that push your muscles to the limits (muscle over load) in terms of strength and strength endurance with the right nutrition and rest you are likely to see benefits. However, if your aim is to be a strongman or you want to push your strength up to be able to do more reps with heavier weight, arguably, low reps with heavier weight (assuming enough calories and appropriate recovery) will get you there faster.
In addition, consider your body state. If you are generally slim and below average strength, there is a high chance that lower rep heavier training will be more effective for you until you are more advanced. On the other hand, if you’re strong or naturally above average in strength and size, but want to be more lean, try dropping the weight and increasing the reps. Although, it’s really important to note, no type of training is likely to be optimally effective all of the time and without good nutrition and recovery.
Nicholas A. Burd, Cameron J. Mitchell, Tyler A. Churchward-Venne, Stuart M. Phillips. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise . Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2012.
Jackson NP, Hickey MS, Reiser RF 2nd. High resistance/low repetition vs. low resistance/high repetition training: effects on performance of trained cyclists . J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):289-95.
Geliebter A, Maher MM, Gerace L, Gutin B, Heymsfield SB, Hashim SA. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(3):557-63
Mitchell CJ, Churchward-venne TA, West DW, et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113(1):71-7.
Buitrago S, Wirtz N, Yue Z, Kleinöder H, Mester J. Effects of load and training modes on physiological and metabolic responses in resistance exercise . Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2739-48.