High Reps, Low Weight vs. Low Reps, High Weight

Is it better to do low reps and high resistance or high reps and lower resistance? This is one of the most popular questions floating around fitness industry today. Although an athlete’s exercise program might be very different from a body-sculpting program, there is one thing they should both have in common: their workouts should be challenging.

A challenging exercise program means fatiguing the muscles. How you do that is up to you and your goals. Different resistance and repetition combinations both can result in improvements as long as the muscle is completely fatigued, which means the last few repetitions should be difficult to complete. You can do this by doing 10 sets of 8 or 4 sets of 20 – either way you’re doing 80 reps. As long as you are completely fatigued when you are done, you’re going to get a great workout and arguing over who got the best workout is just splitting hairs. 

Before I go further, I have two common issues I’d like to address.  Women are often so concerned about bulking up (like this big girl in the photo) they don’t exercise aggressively enough to get the results they desire. They stay away from heavy resistance and low reps in fear of getting big. In most cases, unless they are taking performance enhancing supplements and eating in a way to encourage rapid muscle growth, they shouldn’t worry about getting too muscular.

The guys tend to do the opposite. They often do too few reps with too much rest in order to lift as heavy as they can. Some of this may be pride, since they’d have to go down in resistance to do more reps. Just for kicks, I’d love these guys to reduce resistance, double their reps & trim their rest time – I bet they’d be panting like a crazed cat and crying like a girl!

If you want your muscle to change, it simply has to be challenged.

Think of a callous. You don’t get calluses immediately. A matter a fact, the opposite happens. The skin thins, tears and even bleeds. It’s only in time your body builds the layers of protective hard skin, but that won’t happen unless you continue to stress that area.

Bigger, stronger muscles only come when your body realizes it has no other choice but to get stronger so it can endure what you put it through – and perform well. It responds to the demands you put on your body. If you don’t challenge it, there is no reason for it to change. Whether it’s heavier weight, more reps or more sets, you must give it a bigger task than it can currently handle. Then, it’s the repetitive literal wear and tear that you put your body through to get your body to respond.

Football player, Terrell Owens, is a perfect example of sculpting a physique with more than just heavy weight. Although I’m sure he lifts heavy too, he’s also known for doing various types of training including cardio, conditioning, and using Bodylastics bands. This type of training, along with a stellar diet, sculpted T.O. one of the most sought after physiques in the NFL.

Low reps and big breaks would be like raking the yard once a month. It doesn’t matter how hard you work on that one day, it is very unlikely you will build calluses because there was too big of a rest between the actual work, allowing your body to fully recover. However, if you start raking repeatedly everyday, I guarantee your body will get the message and give you some nice calluses to work with.

This is how your muscles work too. It doesn’t matter how heavy you lift, if you let your body fully recover with a long rest between sets or you aren’t working out consistently enough. If your muscles aren’t being fully fatigued, your body won’t respond the way you want it too. It is the repetitive breaking down of the muscle that forces your body to heal and grow stronger.

Now, what that said, there are totally different training techniques for specific athletes, like power-lifters. They may lift extremely heavy for one rep with extended rest, but honestly – have you seen a power lifter that had a physique you wanted? (photo, left, to prove my point – ewe! Sorry! I can be impressed with your strength, but you look more like a blowfish than an athlete.) In addition, they have to eat a ton in order to gain the weight they need to push more weight. The fact is, most people are not training to lift a car or bend a frying pan. They are training to sculpt their physiques and this is the type of training I’m talking about.

Skeptical? The proof’s in the pudding!

Look at gymnast’s physiques (yummy!). Everything they do is repetition, conditioning and cardio – much like our boot camp. We have over 1,000 success stories proving you don’t have to lift heavy or do low reps to gain muscle and sculpt a body. In our BCx Boot Camp program, our clients gain and an average of 6-9lbs of muscle and lose between 10-15lbs of fat in one 4-6 week boot camp program – all without using one heavy weight. Like a gymnast, their training consists of body weight movements, like push-ups and plyometrics, with high-rep resistance exercises using Bodylastics bands with very little rest.

“Your body reflects how you eat more than how you train”

One of the reasons our boot campers get great results has a lot to do with their eating. The people who don’t gain muscle don’t eat the protein they need to gain lean mass, which brings me to my final point – your body reflects how you eat more than how you train.

If you exercise like a ballerina but you eat like a football player, you are more likely to look like a football player than a ballerina – even if you wear a tutu! If you are prone to bulking up, it’s important that you eat accordingly. If you have a hard time gaining weight, then you have learn to eat how you want to look. It’s easy to fixate on your training and forget all about the diet portion of your program.

So, unless you are one of those rare people who are totally satisfied with the way you look, you’ll need to watch what you eat and maintain a challenging workout routine no matter how many repetitions you choose to do.


Owner of Lift Vero and motivational "pfitness, pfood and pfaith" blogger in Vero Beach, Florida.


  • victor

    I just came across this article but i was wonderin wen you say doing 4 sets 12 reps to fatigue does that mean i should fatigue at the end of every set or just the last set n how do i know to increase resistance . wen the last set becomes easy or wat?

  • Linda F4X

    I love that you address the fear most women have of bulking up when training with heavier weights (or resistance training in general). That being said, I still believe lower weights and more reps are the way to go.

  • Matt G

    This article is crock. If you look into muscle hypertrophy, you’ll see that while there is a purpose to low weights high reps, there is an equally good purpose to low reps high weights. Also, if you can do eighty reps of any weightlifting exercise and keep exercising that muscle, your weight is too low. As for any illusions that low weights high reps is what you do to tone, and get strong but not bulky, it isn’t. This technique is done by bodybuilders to get the biggest muscles possible. Google muscle hypertrophy, and don’t preach your perspective as fact, especially if you are not entirely sure about the subject you are talking about.

    • Bonnie Pfiester

      I am not sure what you are referring to. I am fully aware how someone should train for bodybuilding, as well as for toning. If my article confused you, feel free to pull out a quote so I can explain where I was coming from.

  • Tony

    I know you aren’t writing for seniors, but as a 70’s guy, I do higher reps with lower weights. I want to make sure I strengthen my ligaments and tendons as well as my muscles. Those weaken in old age and lead to injuries that can slow you down. Strengthening ligaments can also protect you from common aging problems like Achilles tendon rupture, Rotator cuff tears in the shoulder and hip and knee injuries.

  • Tom Talley

    Perfectly explained. I get stuck on X number of reps and my body gets used to it. While I may be happy with music size I am not happy with performance so I have to decrease the weight and do higher intensity/less rest to get more flexibility, tone and conditioning.

  • Christallin

    Another excellent article. Keep ’em coming. I am trying higher weights with less reps (8-12) for 3 sets right now for my arms. They are the hardest part of my body to respond. Even my abs respond better than my arms. But I’z tryin’. We’ll see how it goes.

    • Bonnie Pfiester

      keep it up!! it will pay off. You can also blast your arms by doing 12 reps x 4 sets but VERY little rest. Try super setting and mixing it up constantly. Never let it get stale. 🙂 Keep up the great work and let me know how you do! 🙂 Glad u like my articles – really appreciate your feedback!!

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