Are you one of those old school gym rats who believe heavy and low 6-10 rep resistance training the best stimulus for muscle growth? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us (yours truly included, so I’m not pointing any fingers) believe that the best stimulus for muscle growth is heavy lifting in the 6-10 rep range. However, recent scientific findings show that the classical heavy and low 6-10 rep training might not be the best way to induce muscle anabolism…
More reps might be better
The classic weight lifting recommendation for building muscle is to lift relatively heavy (over 70% of 1RM), or within the 6-10 rep range (1, 2). However, a recent study has shown that a training mode with lower weight and higher reps actually is more effective at inducing muscle anabolism and muscle growth (3).
This study had subjects perform 4 sets of leg extension at different loads and volumes (reps):
90% of 1RM to failure: corresponding to 180 lb for 5 reps (90 FAIL)
30% of 1RM to failure: corresponding to 62 lb/24 reps (30 FAIL)
30% of 1RM with a total work output similar to the 90% 1RM protocol: corresponding to 62lb for 14 reps
The scientists measured myofibrillar protein synthesis (the type of muscle protein synthesis that makes the muscles grow) and several anabolic signalling pathways in the trained muscles.
This is the first study to show that low-load high volume resistance exercise (30FAIL) is more effective at increasing muscle protein synthesis than high-load low volume resistance exercise (90FAIL). Specifically, the 30FAIL protocol induced similar increases in myofibrillar protein synthesis to that induced by the 90FAIL protocol at 4 h post-exercise but this response was sustained at 24 h only in 30FAIL protocol. The 30FAIL protocol also stimulated the anabolic signalling pathways to a greater degree than the other exercise modes.
What does this mean?
This finding counters previous recommendations that heavy loads (i.e., high intensity) are necessary to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (1, 2, 4, 5). It is now apparent that the extent of muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise is not entirely load dependent, but is also related to exercise volume (that is, number of reps in this case). Thus, the total volume of contractions (number of reps), independent of load (intensity) apparently results in full motor unit activation and muscle fibre recruitment
Now, probably you’re thinking “am I supposed to start lifting like a chick” to build muscle? I want to point out that this study only investigated the effect of one bout of resistance exercise, comprising four sets) on muscle (myofibrillar) protein synthesis. In order to get a definite answer, long-term training studies need to be conducted. According to a personal communication with the head researcher (6), one such training study has been done and is now awaiting publication. With the reply “we are very confident in the short-term data”, at least I will start to throw in some high rep sets here and there in my training program. But in order for this to work, you have to train until complete failure. No sissies!
1 American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2009 Mar;41(3):687-708.
2 Kraemer WJ, Fleck SJ. Optimizing Strenght Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts: Human Kinetics; 2007.
3 Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, et al. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PloS one. 2010;5(8):e12033.
4 Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, et al. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. European journal of applied physiology. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60.
5 Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2004 Apr;36(4):674-88.
6 Phillips SM. Long term effects of high repetition resistance exercise training – Personal communication. 2011; July.
About Monica Mollica > www.trainergize.com
Monica Mollica has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Nutrition from the University of Stockholm, Sweden, and is an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer. She works a dietary consultant, health journalist and writer for www.BrinkZone.com, and is also a web designer and videographer.
Monica has admired and been fascinated by muscular and sculptured strong athletic bodies since childhood, and discovered bodybuilding as an early teenager. Realizing the importance of nutrition for maximal results in the gym, she went for a major in Nutrition at the University.
During her years at the University she was a regular contributor to the Swedish bodybuilding magazine BODY, and she has published the book (in Swedish) “Functional Foods for Health and Energy Balance”, and authored several book chapters in Swedish publications.
It was her insatiable thirst for knowledge and scientific research in the area of bodybuilding and health that brought her to the US. She has completed one semester at the PhD-program “Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health” at Baylor University Texas, at the department of Health Human Performance and Recreation, and worked as an ISSA certified personal trainer. Today, Monica is sharing her solid experience by doing dietary consultations and writing about topics related to bodybuilding, fitness, health and anti-aging.