There are many schools of thought when it comes to lifting weights. Should you only lift heavy if you want your muscles to grow more efficiently and gain strength faster? Does lifting light weight for more repetitions “tone” your body? What is the difference between doing 3 sets versus 456 sets during a workout session (I am sure everyone has seen this person who never leaves the gym). There is no definitive answer that I am aware of. However, in this blog I will summarize the data from a research article I stumbled across recently.
What Studies Show
To begin with, does lifting heavy weight for less repetitions produce more growth than lifting light weight for higher repetitions? According to this study the answer is no – contingent that both are lifted to muscle failure. When you lift to complete fatigue, your muscles are forced to recruit everymyofibril they can to move the weight. Therefore, lifting heavier does not recruit more of your muscle than lifting lighter when exercising to failure. As a matter of fact, this study found that lifting lighter to fatigue actually caused more myofibrillar protein synthesis rates 24 hours after exercise. Is this significant? The researchers believe that this may be predictive of long term gains in muscle.
How many sets should you do if you want to achieve optimal muscle growth? According to this study, you develop more muscle growth doing 3 sets rather than 1 set. This follows the same concept as discussed above. As you do more sets, your muscles fatigue and are forced to recruit more muscle fibers. When more muscle fibers are recruited, the body responds by creating growth to counter the demand placed upon it. Then what is better, 3 sets or 15? The answer to this is unclear and is probably dependent on the individual. However, it appears clear that doing higher volume within reason tends to be more beneficial for growth.
Improving Strength & Increasing One Rep Max
What about if you want to improve your strength and increase your one repetition max? The study found that lifting heavier weights is actually more beneficial than lifting lighter weights for more repetitions. These observations are in line with previous work that has shown that strength gains are due to a combination of muscle hypertrophy and neural adaptations. It makes sense that if you want to improve your one rep max you need to train using similar high weight, low rep movements that increase a similar demand on your muscles and nervous system.
It appears that muscle growth is not dependent on how heavy the weights are you lift as long as you lift to failure. In addition, the study found that long term muscle growth may actually benefit more from a high repetition, low weight strategy. With respect to volume, it seems that more sets increases muscle growth. If you are looking to increase your one repetition max, you may need to train heavier though. This is only one study and information is best gathered when taking a look at the body of research on the topic. However, the information provided is useful when you are developing a gym strategy based on your goals. Need help developing a plan? You can always visit our health partners, The Rochester Gym, for advice.
Image courteous of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/5268559005