There is a common trope among beginners in the fitness community: “I don’t want to lift heavy weights because I don’t want to bulk up, I only want to be toned.” The science behind muscle gain and strength training can be a little confusing – even contradictory from time to time.
So, can you build muscle doing high reps with low weight? The short answer is: Yes, you can. But this type of response, as most short answers do, comes with a little caveat. High reps using low weight is not the most effective method you can use. First of all, you should define what your 1RM (also known as your “one rep max,” or the maximum weight you can lift during a particular lift) is before deciding what low weight means for you.
I have been training for long enough to have tried multiple routines, and I understand high reps using low weights might not be the most efficient way to build muscle, even if it might work when you are a beginner. After all this time, I have started to understand why scientific data can be counterintuitive and how to make sense of perennial gym principles based on subjective experience.
If I can bench press 60 kg and your one-rep max is 100 kg, “low weight” would not mean the same thing for either one of us. Second of all, you have to understand; it doesn’t matter what you do when you are a beginner. You can do high reps, low reps, high weight, low weight: it doesn’t matter.
When you are on the beginner’s phase, as long as you are generating enough stimuli for your muscles tissues to break down -which pretty much anything can accomplish that if you never trained before-, you are going to build muscle.
The problem with this method is the beginner’s stage time-lapse doesn’t last for long – and neither does high reps low weight for building muscle. Before you know it, your body is adapted to the stimuli generated by high reps and low weight routine, and you are stuck.
To change the stimuli, you either have to increase the number of repetitions to an absurd amount or increase the weight. The latter is more often than not the chosen option by most people, and before you know it, you’re doing a mid or low reps high weight routine – what you should’ve been doing all along.
As you can tell, a high rep low weight scheme isn’t the most efficient way to build muscle – or is it? There are a time and a place for that kind of thing. If you understand how to program your routine correctly, you can make use of this type of exercise. It doesn’t matter if you are not making your gym routines yourself. Understanding why you are doing something might be the difference between doing it right or not doing it at all.
High Reps, Low Reps, Little Weight, a Lot of Weight: What’s Going On?
If you are trying to build muscle, there are two important things you have to understand. First of all, what you do in the gym is half of the work. It sounds counterintuitive. But the truth is, to build muscle you need to fuel your body first. That leads to the second thing – and probably the most important thing regarding building muscle– your diet.
You can try every single routine there is out there and pay thousands of dollars to professionals. But if your diet isn’t right, you are not going to build a gram worth of muscle. Before you even think about the rep range and how much weight you should be lifting, ask yourself: is your diet the best it can be? Are you eating two grams of protein per kilogram?
Do you have enough fat in your diet? Fat is of utmost importance for hormone production. Dietary fat is directly linked with testosterone (hormone) production. And carbs, you need them. Forget about keto, and whatever fad diet there is going on right now, get good carbs in you.
Once you have taken care of your diet, you can decide what you want to do in the gym. If you are a complete beginner, you shouldn’t be doing high rep, low weight routines. There are two ways of building muscle: Through hypertrophy (building muscle) and neuromuscular adaptation (aka strength training). For optimal muscle building, you need both.
The first thing you want to do is get a strength foundation. To accomplish that, you need to get your neuromuscular adaptation into intermediate levels. Compound barbell lifts – squats, bench press, and deadlift – are your best allies here.
Low reps and high weight is your goal. Afterward, you can move into hypertrophy to finally develop bigger, stronger muscles. High reps and low weight is reserved for resistance training, for example, what a boxer might want to do to last 12 rounds. It’s not ideal for building muscle.
Why would you want to develop a strength foundation instead of jumping right into hypertrophy, if hypertrophy means building muscle? First of all, because it’s fun! But most importantly, because the stronger you are, the bigger weights you can move. If you can use bigger weights, you can make use of hypertrophy more efficiently.
Usually, you’re training hypertrophy when you are doing between 8 to 12 reps, no more no less. If you go higher, you are doing resistance training. If you go lower, it’s strength training. Consequentially, the only way to progress hypertrophy is by using more weight – as you can’t move from that rep range.
You can jump right into hypertrophy training and do 8 to 12 reps slowly increasing the weight, or you can develop a strength foundation to do way more weight when you move into a hypertrophy phase. In the end, bigger weights lead to bigger muscles, if you can program correctly.
The bottom line is this: You can build little muscle doing high reps and low weight, but it’s not ideal. You must plan your routine correctly and make use of all the repetition and weight ranges available, to make the best out of your time in the gym and develop muscle in the best way you can! And of course, don’t forget your diet.
How to Make the Best Out of a High Rep, Low Weight Routine
If you are dead set on doing a high rep, low weight routine, there are good news and bad news. The good news is, you can build muscle doing it. The bad news is, it’s going to require major efforts from you when it comes to programming.
You are going to be constantly changing routines and performing different exercises to keep your body from getting used to the stimuli. If you are not progressing with the weight, you’ll get past a certain point where more reps are useless (Usually after 30 reps). To fix that, you’ll have to keep your body guessing, always changing weightlifting routines.
“Doing High Reps and Low Weight to Burn fat” Myth
A lot of people believe high reps and low weight isn’t good for building muscle but instead is a great way to burn fat. Studies show this isn’t the case. To burn fat, you have to lose weight. To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than you need. It’s the only way. When you are eating fewer calories than what you need, your body will start to look for energy by feeding off your muscles and body fat.
And there’s the tricky part: People who perform strength training routines (low reps, high weight) can maintain muscle mass and burn more fat than people doing high rep, low weight training routines who burn more muscle than body fat when they lose weight.
Strength Training to Build Muscle
As you have realized, strength training is the best way to build muscle. But it’s not something you should depend on. You should aim to mix things up doing a great routine that has it all: Strength developing exercises, hypertrophy exercises, and even high reps and low weight exercises to improve cardiovascular health. If your only objective is to build muscle, then you’d want to do a strength routine for a couple of months and then move onto a hypertrophy routine.
Is your Gym Routine the Most Important Thing When it Comes to Building Muscle?
It’s important, but it’s not the most important thing. There are four equally important things when it comes to building muscle: Gym routine, technique, diet, and rest. Performing poorly in any of these areas can lead to injury or failure in building muscle. If you have to choose one to be the most important of them all, it’s diet.
Should I do Cardio or Stick to Weightlifting if I Want to Build Muscle?
If you want to stay healthy while you build muscle, you should be doing cardio. Ideally, you should focus yourself on HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) two or three times a week after your gym sessions or do it on rest days. Keep in mind, adding cardio to your routine means you’ll need to eat more to make up for burnt calories. Bear in mind cardio isn’t necessary to build muscle, only to stay healthy.
I Have no Access to the Gym or Weights. What can I Do?
If you can’t lift weights, due to economic or health reasons, you can build muscle regardless. Calisthenics can be your greatest ally if you can’t make use of weights. Bodyweight squats, regular pushups, handstand pushups, pullups, and many other variants can help you get bigger muscles.
But keep in mind it won’t be nearly as effective as weightlifting and you’ll quickly plateau unless you find a way to add weight. If you have no other choice, calisthenics is a great thing to do!
If you like this post? Don’t forget to share it on Pinterest!