Lighter Weights and More Reps or Heavier Lifting and Less Reps?

Lighter weights and more reps build muscle just as effectively as heavier lifting and less reps.

Go heavy or go home! That’s the common slogan found all over gyms, all over the country. Many lifters have been inspired for years by the heavy lifting feast of Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman for packing on massive slabs of lean muscle. This is going to be another myth buster article, because a new study from the prestigious McMaster University, has research suggesting that lighter weights and more reps is as efficient as heavier lifting and less reps. This new research contradicts the old myth that the best way to build muscle is to lift heavy weights. Researchers recruited two groups of experienced weightlifters for 12-weeks, and trained with a whole-body protocol. One group lifted lighter weights (up to 50 per cent of maximum strength) for sets ranging from 20-25 repetitions. The other group lifted heavier weights (up to 90 per cent of maximum strength) for 8-12 repetitions. Both groups lifted to the point of failure. The researchers were really interested in whether it was the heavy weight or the training to absolute failure that was increasing muscle growth. The researchers had both groups maximally activate their muscle fibers using both light and heavy weights. At the end of the 12-week study, researchers analyzed muscle and blood samples and found gains in muscle mass and muscle fiber size were increased similarly in both groups. The researchers were quoted as saying “Fatigue is the great equalizer here. Lift to the point of exhaustion and it doesn’t matter whether the weights are heavy or light.”  Another consideration is to take a high quality protein, like Protein Rush, before and after exercise to enhance muscle gains.

Training to Failure in Conjunction with Whey Protein Enhances Protein Synthesis

New research is the Journal of Nutrition reports that taking a high quality whey protein, such as Protein Rush, in conjunction with training to failure enhances muscle protein synthesis regardless of using a lighter weight. The anabolic effect of resistance exercise appears not to be dependent on resistance exercise intensity but rather on the volume of exercise performed and that loads were lifted to muscular fatigue. Some researchers have suggested that maximal muscle fiber recruitment, which could be achieved regardless of intensity, was a principle factor for stimulating increases in muscle protein synthesis. What this means is that as you are lifting weights, type I fibers are recruited first. As type I fibers fatigue, type II fibers are recruited. Researchers reported that taking sets to failure seemed to enhance the anabolic effects of whey protein regardless of how much weight was lifted. The researchers had subjects consume a whey protein drink (15 grams of whey protein) at rest and before exercise. They then had the subjects perform leg exercises, and then they had muscle biopsies taken to measure markers of protein synthesis immediately after. The subjects performed either:

– 4 sets at 90 percent of maximal strength to failure (90FAIL)
– 30 percent work-matched not to failure, OR
– 30 percent to failure (30FAIL)
So in sum, the researchers had the subjects lift heavier weights to failure (90% of a 1-RM) and lighter weights and more reps to failure (30% of a 1-RM), and light weights not until failure (30% of a 1-RM).

At the end of the study, protein synthesis was increased after exercise for 24 hours after exercise was performedAdditionally, the researchers reported that regardless of intensity or weight used, the researchers found that muscle protein synthesis was observed only after exercise performed until failure (i.e. 90FAIL and 30FAIL), which may suggest that maximal fiber activation (especially of type II fibers) is necessary for activation of muscle protein synthesis after exercise. When exercise in the lightweight group was not taken to failure, protein synthesis did not occur. The researchers speculated that protocols eliciting maximal fiber recruitment (i.e. both type I and type II fibers using manipulations of load and volume to induce fatigue) during exercise are critical to enhancing the anabolic effects of exercise for at least 24 hours post-exercise recovery. One may question how can a weightlifting programs using such a lightweight be effective for enhancing muscle protein synthesis? You have to consider although one protocol (i.e. 90% of a 1-RM) lifted heavier, the lighter weights and more reps program (30% of a 1-RM) lifted longer. What this means is that bodybuilding may want to vary their workouts using both heavy and light protocols in conjunction with using a high quality whey protein such as Protein Rush to enhance muscle protein synthesis. This suggests that bodybuilders can get similar increases in protein synthesis with the performance of low-load and high volume until fatigue.

Robert W. Morton, Sara Y. Oikawa, Christopher G. Wavell, Nicole Mazara, Chris McGlory, Joe Quadrilatero, Brittany L. Baechler, Steven K. Baker, Stuart M. Phillips. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2016; 121 (1): 129 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00154.201.

Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, et al. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than highload low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS ONE. 2010;5: e12033.

Burd NA, Holwerda AM, Selby KC, West DW, Staples AW, Cain NE, Cashaback JG, Potvin JR, Baker SK, et al. Resistance exercise volume affects myofibrillar protein synthesis and anabolic signalling molecule phosphorylation in young men. J Physiol. 2010;588:3119–30.

Burd NA, West DW, Moore DR, Atherton PJ, Staples AW, Prior T, Tang JE, Rennie  MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Enhanced Amino Acid Sensitivity of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Persists for up to 24 h after Resistance Exercise in Young Men. J Nutr. 2011 Apr;141(4):568-73.

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