The Big Bodybuilding Dilemma
The Case For More RepsMore reps is the only way to go for bodybuilding, right? Fortunately, there's more than one way to get the body of your dreams. So why do so many people claim "low weight high reps" when talking about getting jacked? Structural hypertrophy is a term many throw around because you are able to work solely on that muscle. The high reps cause more microtrauma to your muscles, meaning they have an opportunity to grow. So if getting jacked is your goal, why isn't doing more reps with less weight always better? The short answer would be that a strong muscle is also a big muscle. The more muscle mass you have, the more weight you should be able to move. The only problem is that strength comes from nervous system efficiency, not necessarily the amount of muscle you have. That leads us onto using more weight.
The Case For More WeightLifting heavy weight in a low-rep zone is mostly geared for powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Done correctly, low reps with heavy weights can also build a massive amount of muscle also. Moving heavy weight works your nervous system and provokes the high-threshold motor units to put in overtime. If you switch from a high rep to a high weight training routine, your body will be shocked with the unfamiliar output it needs to produce. Every movement requires great form and intense focus. This allows max motor units and muscle fibers to be recruited and it teaches your body how to turn off antagonistic muscle groups. You'll get jacked, you'll get strong, and your body composition will be different than those who train with high reps.
Muscle Endurance Vs Nervous System TrainingThe main difference between lifting high reps versus heavy weight is whether you are training your muscles for endurance, or training your nervous system for work output. Training fewer reps per set and more sets will give you a shorter time under tension and a longer rest between sets. You are training your nervous system to produce more power and use every motor unit of your muscles to do so. While lifting heavy causes trauma to your muscles to grow, the main focus is nervous system efficiency; how much power can you produce. When you train higher reps lower weight, there will be of course more reps per set, fewer sets, the time under tension is much longer, and there will be shorter rest between sets. This causes more microtrauma to your muscles, causing them to grow. A bonus to a higher rep workout is that your muscle endurance and conditioning improves. The constant tension and elevated heart rate makes lifting higher reps more metabolic and can help improve overall health. With higher weight sets, your work output and conditioning play a factor in how much you lift, how long your rest periods need to be, and if you will even be able to finish all of your sets. Knowing this, it should be easy to see that incorporating both types of lifting into your arsenal will create the best overall physique and strength levels.
Form vs. WeightBeing unable to lift with correct form causes injuries and can make it so that you don't even work the muscles as intended. It's important to spend time as a beginner to not touch anything less than 5-8 reps. The singles and triples you see the mammoth powerlifters do in their training are specifically calculated and they've put the time under the bar. As a beginner, you have to take the time to get hundreds, if not thousands, of reps under the bar before you are able to truly master proper form. Day in and day out you come up with a habit or ritual every time you step to that bar. Every little mistake makes for a more difficult lift, and ultimately injury. So if you are new to the gym, spend time getting form down, progressing with weight when possible, and worry about being consistent with your diet, workouts, and form.
Wrapping It UpIt's been said time and time again, consistency is the key to success. Everything you eat, every activity you join in on, and every rep you take needs to mean something. Going to the gym to throw some weights around doesn't do anything, especially if you don't have a plan or goal in mind. Hitting a plateau? Try switching things up. Have you been training heavy for the last few months and just can't keep increasing weight? Start lifting with 65% of your maxes and start busting out high rep sets. Maybe you are tired of training with high reps and you are looking to start putting up big numbers. Switch to a 5-8 rep per set scheme and watch your strength gains skyrocket. The neural-metabolic continuum I briefly touched on earlier is more or less a fancy term to understand if you're working your muscles or your nervous system out. High reps with low weight hit your muscles hard. You know you're hurting, but you keep going. High weight with low reps will still leave you sore, but you will feel drained and tired after your workouts. This is due to the nervous system taking a beat down while you lift like Ronnie Coleman. The total work volume - reps x weight - is a good way to force muscle growth and become a monster.
"As long as you're doing enough volume, you'll positively adapt to the training. Volume acts as a driver that overloads the body to make an adaptation, also known as supercompensation." - Sean Collins, C.S.C.S.Quit overthinking and start lifting.