The more efficient way to build muscle: Reps or weight?

I think there might be a factual answer here, so that’s why I put it in GQ.

If I’m looking to build muscle tone (I guess that’s the right term), is it more efficient to do several reps on a resistance that is quite a bit less than the maximum that I can lift, or is it better to try to lift as much as I can for only a few reps?

Let’s make this concrete. Assume I’m using a legpress. Right now, I can do about 15 reps on 160 lbs of weight before my legs say “rest.” I can do about 5 reps if I bump it up to 170. Am I better doing 5 reps at 170, or 10 reps at 160?

I am male, 27, and otherwise healthy, if that matters.

The standard answer is that high weight low rep builds muscle mass and strength and that lower weight higher rep builds definition and endurance. The usual middle ground is to lift the weight you can do between 8-15 reps with.

The are many non-standard answers however: pyramids, reverse pyamids, periodization, etc.

FWIW The American College of Sports Medicine’s position statement:

So start out at the 10 reps with moderate weight.

Wow! That’s a lot of detail. Thanks!

I’d say that, from a practical point of view, your best bet is to do both heavy, low-rep work and the high-rep stuff. This to keep your body guessing and adapting, and to ward off boredom. In other words, the periodization discussed above, hobbyist - style.

For most of this year I followed a low-rep program. Can’t tell how refreshing it felt to switch to a high-rep one a month ago. At the end of and after a training session, I’m equally spent and sore this way. Clarence Bass has a couple of interesting article on reps and results on his webpage:


“Advanced beginners” often fret about how to train just right for optimal results. But it seems most important is simply to train consistently, creatively and hard while eating and sleeping well between training sessions.

Personally I find the most effective for building strength and muscle is to train with low reps, high weight and relatively long rest periods. I tend to do 3-6 reps with as heavy a weight as possible, with 2-3 minutes rest between each set, for 4 sets. So on your leg press I’d personally do 5 on 170. Partly it’s also because I find high reps get really boring after a while…

Just an echo of what’s been said: all the theory aside what matters is that you keep excercising with regularity - if it’s boring you won’t do it - unless you like boring (I actually enjoy a boring slow long run, it let’s my mind drift.)

For me that means mixing up weights and aerobic and usually doing weights as part of a modified home circuit training: a bit on the home elliptical (manual powered) or ancient treadmill followed by a short mixed set of some compound moves (things like T push-up, dips, military press, bench presses with dumbells, dead lifts, curl to press on single leg, single leg rows, lat pull downs …) then back on the machine and then another set and maybe once more through the cycle depending on how much time I have. And generally 10-15 reps but sometimes mixing it up just for the variety. And changing which compound lifts I do just for the fun of it too.

But then I’m a log time married middle aged guy, not trying to build vanity muscles or win any events, just trying to keep some modicum of fitness in the time I’ve got to give it.

Each person has to find how they most enjoy meeting their own goals.

Part of my problem is that, currently, one trip through the circuit at my rec center on campus (about 15 machines) 3-4 days a week exhausts me. My legs and arms feel like rubber afterward, but they don’t get sore. I have to rest a bit before I go 35 minutes on the elliptical.

My usual routine is one trip through the circuit and 35 minutes on the elliptical, 3-4 days per week. When I don’t go to the gym, I do several sets of push-ups and crunches through the day. I do those until my arms and abdomen are sore.

As others have said, the common wisdom is that high-weight, low-rep workouts build strength and muscle mass, while low-weight, high-rep workouts give endurance, toning, and definition. As also noted above, unless you’re doing this for many hours a week, there’s not a lot of difference; it’s more important to exercise consistently.

Yep. For 99% of non-pro weight lifters, the most important thing is simply to get to the gym on a regular basis.

I think it’s also good, as others have suggested, to change your workout strategy once in a while. I realized, a little while ago, that i had fallen into a routine of doing 3 sets of 8-10 reps per set, for each exercise. I consciously changed my routine to a higher weight/fewer reps/more sets workout; i shifted to 5 sets of 4-6 reps with heavier weight. Over the next three or four weeks, i saw a noticeable increase in my strength.

Now, like many people in modern society, in my everyday life about the heaviest thing i lift is a bag full of books or a saucepan full of pasta. I don’t exactly need to be strong for my day to day activities. Also, while i can harp on about how good it feels to be healthy (and it does), i also like the idea that, with summer on the way, i won’t be embarrassed about how i look on the beach. So pretty soon i’m going to switch my workout back to higher reps and lighter weight, and i’m also going to focus a bit more attention on my diet and my cardio to see if i can shed a bit more weight around my waist.

One thing to keep in mind, and I know this will be hard for a 27-year-old male, is that you’re much more likely to injure yourself “going big”. And when you’re injured, you can’t train much, if at all.

Unless you’re trying to compete in body building contests, stick mostly to low weights/high reps. Personally, I try not to do anything I can’t do 10 reps of.

Full disclosure: I did plenty of stupid high weight lifting in my younger years. And had my share of injuries (especially shoulder).

A long time ago I read something on weight lifting that I follow to this date, if you are not in body building but just to increase tone and strength. Do exercises of the upper body with a weight that you can do 8 reps. Increase the weight incrementally as your muscle group gets stronger; i.e., when you can do 12 reps consistently. Remember that the eccentric portion (the return to the starting position) is just as important, if not more, than the concentric and should not be rushed. As to the core muscles and lower parts of the body, start out with a weight you can do 15 reps. When you are able to do 20 reps consistently, then increase the weight.

I have to say I completely disagree. If you warm up thoroughly before each exercise and get your technique right, there’s no reason why you should be injuring yourself, no matter how heavy a weight you’re trying to do. Even if you go for a weight that’s far too heavy, you shouldn’t get injured unless your technique slips during the lift. You just won’t be able to lift the weight!

That’s true, but the problem is that a lot of guys who try to lift very heavy weight (especially when they’re not very experienced) are also guys who have truly terrible technique.

Some of the form i see in my gym is just diabolical: incredibly arched spines, awful jerking motions, letting the weights down far too quickly, bouncing, short range of motion, and a whole bunch of other bad stuff.

Also, the shoulder is something you have to be careful of, even with decent technique. Sometimes all it takes is a slightly wrong movement to hurt your rotator cuff, or to twinge your shoulder muscles in some way or another. I’ve always been very careful about technique, and i’m happy to sacrifice weight for good technique, but i still managed to hurt my shoulder a couple of years ago doing behind-the-neck barbell press. If i do them now, i use a Smith machine to make sure i don’t over-extend my shoulder.

I love free weights and hate the machines. I would also never go for high weight/low rep with free weights, even with a trainer spotting me and coaching on technique. Exactly right that an error in technique, even a small one, can be harmful with weights near your limit. I work out in my basement and believe that free weights with compound moves give me my biggest bang for my time invested buck (wait for a machine? bleh!), but those gym center machines do have that advantage: it is harder to do it wrong and to hurt yourself so you can do some higher weight sets safely.

statsman if you are feeling rubbery you are working out just fine. 15 machines tends to repeat some muscle groups as well as doing multiple sets (My “set” is maybe just 6 - 8 different lifts, depending on the day.) “No pain no gain” is crap. Your work out approach sounds like a very good plan.

I agree, but that’s why I think people should be advising beginners to use good technique rather than advising them to not lift anything heavier than a “10 rep” weight. I’ve never done behind-the-neck barbell presses: they’ve always seemed to me like over-extension of the shoulder is an inherent part of the exercise? I wince when I see people doing it in the gym.

Well I guess I’m in the minority here - its all about the higher weight, you should be trying to increase the weight you lift at every opportunity in order to increase muscle mass.

If your goal is to be ‘toned’ that breaks down into two things 1) Muscle Mass 2) Low fat content, these are a combination of diet and exercise. If your diet’s not right you’ll never gain the physique you’re looking for.

You create muscle through breaking down the fibres through exertion, this happens far faster through heavy weights then light ones - which tend to build up lactic acid or simply tire you out before they have great effect.

I do agree with everyone that simply going regularly is the most important thing but a good routine and a bad one can make all the difference in how motivated you are - maybe you should post your workout here?

And you shouldn’t be doing more than a warm-up cardio on a day you’re weight training anyway.

For any one who is interested, here is a newer edition of the American College of Sports Medicine position statement on Resistance Training, this time the whole article, not the abstract. They have updated slightly.

Our personal anecdotes and repeating what we each believe it is “all about” is all well and good, but they actually do review and grade the evidence.

Again, it is not really the same thing for every person. Different goals require different approaches to optimize results.

Some highlights …

Sri Theo’s approach that it makes sense to always be increasing to maximal lifts is just wrong according to them. Variety is key.

As far as how much load goes (the original op), well that depends on who you are. (But still don’t forget to mix it up)

As far as the mechanism of hypertrophy goes, and the common belief that trauma (breaking down muscle fibers) is an essential factor of training, there is this:

Nothing about breaking down fibers being required in there. OTOH, that lactic acid (and other waste products) seem to be somewhat essential to maximizing results.

And there is no reason to believe that you “shouldn’t be doing more than a warm-up cardio on a day you’re weight training” - many will alternate days, but there is no reason to have to.

Sorry for the double post but something I think makes sense (but have no study to back me up on) is a variation of the pyramid set. Start with a weight that you can only do 4 or 5 reps with, then with no pause drop a level and do another 4 or so (until you can’t do more) and then some weight dropped - that way you are maximizing the point that you are lifting at the edge of fatigue through a whole weight range. Easier with machines than free weights though.

That and mixing up the exact mix of exercises that your circuit consists of, even as you target the same groups overall.

statsman what do want to accomplish with your training? Bulking up? More strength? Better endurance? Overall fitness with a lean sinewy look as your ideal? Support some particular physical activity or sport? General health? Seriously the “ideal” approach may be different depending on the goal.

Huh, the more you know. Counteracts most of what I’ve learnt but I guess it says what it says.

Considering I know a lot of people that have got really good results doing a basic 5 x 5 (pretty much this it shows how much simply turning up gets you - I can now squat more than 1.5 times my bodyweight after less than a year, so its still possible to get good results in a different manner.