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Which is better: high reps & low weight, or fewer reps & higher weight?

The age old question of high reps + low weight or fewer reps + higher weight?

Honestly, it depends on what your goals are, but let’s break it down!

For the sake of ease, I’ll generalize here. When you’re lifting very light weight with high reps, you’ll gain some definition but see a bigger increase your endurance rather than muscle size. However, heavier weight and going to failure will result in an increase muscle size rather than a big increase in endurance.

I want to put an asterisk here before I continue: seriously, don’t be afraid of packing on the muscle as a woman. It’s extremely difficult and tedious to do– even for men. Adding muscle mass takes years and requires optimal nutrition, too. To give you an idea, I train for hypertrophy (muscle growth) and therefore lift “heavy” enough (which is relative & varies person to person) to fail on my last couple reps. I also eat adequate protein, carbs and fat. It took me a good year of working out regularly to see any sort of increase in my muscle mass and even then no one would ever describe me as bulky or big; if anything you might finally notice I’ve been working out  😂

So all that to say, the “better” choice depends what your goals are, but we can look at it from a very high level and say low weight and high reps will generally give you more endurance and less muscle gain, while heavy weight and fewer reps will give you some endurance and more muscle gain. And ultimately, if you want to increase muscle size, you *need* to train to failure.

There’s some variation in studies as what qualifies as high reps vs low reps, but here’s a general guideline for you:

What qualifies as “high reps”?
12-15 reps (ie, 3 sets of 15 pushups means you do 15 consecutive pushups without stopping, then rest, and do two more sets of 15 consecutive pushups) with a short break in between sets between 30-60 seconds MAX.

What qualified as “low reps” for hypertrophy (muscle size)?
6-12 reps with a longer break between sets (60-90 seconds).

There’s rarely one single answer for any question that starts with, “what’s the best way to…” because it depends so heavily on what you want to achieve. But hopefully this will give you a nice guideline for how to approach your training if you’re just starting out.

Over to you! Do you have any fears about strength training and getting “too bulky”? How do you currently prefer to workout? 

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Liz

    April 10, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    You have this backwards- you lift higher reps with lower weights for an increase in muscle size and vice versa

  2. Avatar

    Ashley

    April 10, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Liz, she has it right. Low reps, high weight builds muscle.

  3. Avatar

    Julianna

    April 10, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    Yes! Love this. I am just starting this whole lifting heavy and going to failure to try to build muscle and maybe someday notice some definition. Thanks for breaking it down in an easy to read/ comprehend way.

  4. Avatar

    Kirsten

    April 12, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    Thank you Erin for your helpful information. I train with a guy so it’s nice to have a woman’s perspective. 💜

    1. Avatar

      Erin Motz

      April 15, 2019 at 7:49 pm

      Of course! Working out with a man is awesome and fine but it IS nice to have someone of the same gender.

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