It’s common for the average person who hasn’t been to the gym for a while to be hesitant when walking into the free-weight area, and even the assisted weight machines. Much of this anxiety stems back to your high school years when the bigger kids bragged about how much weight they could put up. Maybe you were even one of those kids. But, after taking time off, you know that you won’t be able to put up the big weights you want—and you shouldn’t. Trying to lift more than you can is a sure way to injure yourself—and what could be more de-motivating than that? Still, there may be a way to get the same results you’re looking for with lower weights than with high weights that you’re not ready for yet. So, whether you are looking to put on mass, tone-up, or build strength this technique may not only help you feel more confident in the weight area, but also help limit injuries.
For decades, the general rule of thumb is that if you want to build muscle you will use moderate weights and 8-12 reps. If you want strength, you would use heavy weights with lower reps. Heard that before? I’m sure you have, it’s how we all grew up. But, what if there was another way to look at how you work out?
Do you want bulging biceps or massive calves? Do you want to break your personal bench best? Or, do you just want to look good? Ignore high reps, low reps, high weight and low weight and focus on fatigue. “Fatigue is the great equalizer here,” Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., reports. Phillips is a kinesiology professor at McMaster and the senior author of the study, wrote about the research. “Lift to the point of exhaustion and it doesn’t matter whether the weights are heavy or light.”
In his study Phillip’s team asked 49 men around 23-years-old to perform a 12-week total-body resistance program. He divided the participants into two groups. One group focused on high reps (20-25), lifting 30% to 50% of their one-rep max. The second group lifted 75% to 90% of their one rep max while focusing on low reps (8-12). Both groups were asked to lift to failure for four exercises: inclined leg press, barbell bench press, machine-guided knee extension and machine-guided shoulder press.
After the 12-week program, each participant was tested for muscle mass and the results showed that both groups achieved the same gains in strength and size, with one exception. The bench press was higher among the low-rep group.
So, why the equal gains? There does appear to be a simple formula and it happens to be perfect for those hesitant to hit the weights. The total work volume (reps X weight) is a great calculation to achieve your results.
Of, course, over time your gains will grow as you add on more weight, so don’t be surprised to find yourself pushing up heavier weights and lower reps as your strength grows. But, for the average person looking to bulk up, or the aging athlete who wants to compete again, this is a great way to get back into the game and both see results while avoiding injury.