Most people would say the answer to that (title) question is “as much as possible” – but they’d be wrong. If muscle growth is your goal, using as much weight as possible, in each exercise, would certainly be a mistake.
The correct answer is this: “As much weight as possible, provided it’s realistic for the number of reps you have planned for that particular set, provided your form is perfect, and provided it’s near the end of that sequence of sets.” That’s three important qualifiers, and they must each be considered with honesty.
Honesty? Yes, it’s easy for us to deceive ourselves, in regards to this. There are several reasons why this happens. We mustn’t let our ego, or wishful thinking, or unrealistic expectations, mislead us.
Going for the Burn – vs – Going for the Weight
If using the maximum weight in each exercise, built muscle most effectively, powerlifters would have more muscle than bodybuilders – yet they don’t. So we must ask ourselves, “what builds muscle?”.
There are two parts of the muscle – the myofibril and the sarcoplasm. Each one of these has the ability to grow, but each grows with a different type of stimulation. It should be noted, however, that how much each of these (myofibril and sarcoplasm) CAN grow depends (to some degree) on one’s body type (somatotype).
The myofibril is the cord-like fiber that generally responds best to high weight. So, now we must ask ourselves, “how high a weight?”. Would the myofibril respond best to a weight that allows only one repetition (a one-rep max)?
Unfortunately, we only have empirical evidence as reference. It appears that the myofibril responds better (in terms of muscle growth) to a weight that allows six to ten repetitions, as opposed to a weight that allows less than that. Endomorphic, large-frame people seem to grow better with heavy, low-rep sets. Ectomorphic, smaller-framed people, seem to respond much less (or not at all) to heavy, low-rep sets. Personally, I don’t grow very well at all, with six-rep sets.
The sarcoplasm is essentially the “fuel tank” of the myofibril. A muscle is made up of large, tubular bundles called “sacrolemma”, in which there are numerous myofibrils, surrounded by sarcoplasm. “Sarcoplasmic training” is when a person performs an exercise (a set) that lasts longer than about 30 seconds (15 repetitions, at a minimum) – but could last as long as 90 seconds, or more. The burning and fatigue experienced with high repetition training has been the focus of much study recently, and has been dubbed “Time Under Tension” (TUT). It has been demonstrated that this type of training (with slightly lighter weights, obviously) produces “as much, or more” muscle growth, as does the use of higher weight with lower reps.
Of course, each of these types of stimulation can produce growth in a different part of the muscle. Reps can go as high as 50, but averaging between 20 and 30 reps per set seems to be the best for sarcoplasmic stimulation of a muscle. So a good strategy is to start with the lightest weight and the highest reps, and increase the weight while decreasing the reps, in subsequent sets. Personally, I like to use a 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10, 5 rep strategy. That way, you hit both parts of the muscle, and it produces an incredible pump.
Here’s where we must be honest with ourselves – in the selection of weight for each of our sets. The amount of weight our training partner just used on his set, doesn’t matter. How you’ll be perceived by the attractive girl who’s watching you workout, also doesn’t matter. How much weight you saw a guy using in the same exercise, in a magazine article, does not matter. How much you think you “should” be lifting in this particular exercise – does not matter.
What DOES matter, is how it feels; and whether or not you’re doing the exercise properly – whether you’re able to get the “required” number of repetitions with good form.
Let’s say your workout plan calls for this next set of Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extensions (i.e., flat bench “skull crushers” with dumbbells), to be done for 20 reps. You’re actual goal – whether you realize it or not – is to make that muscle reach maximum burn (….assuming your goal is to make your triceps grow), and have the burn be prolonged (more time under tension).
So you pick up a pair of 30 pound dumbbells, because you don’t want to be perceived as a “baby” in the gym. You start your set, and by the time you get to the 11th rep, you start to run out of gas. By the 13th rep, you realize you won’t make it to 20 – and your buddies are watching. So you start “throwing” them up (using momentum, initiated from your lats, at the bottom of the rep). Your arms feel like noodles, by the time you get to the 16th rep. Your form on the 17th rep look so sloppy, it’s hard to tell what exercise you actually doing, and you can’t get the last three reps. Clearly, the 30 pounds dumbbells were too heavy, for this set of 20 reps.
It would have been much better if you had selected a pair of 25 pound dumbbells. It doesn’t matter what the number reads on the dumbbells, or how it compares with what someone else would use on that same exercise. The only thing that matters, is how it feels to YOU. And whether or not you could do the full 20 reps, with good form, so that maybe only the final rep or two, it becomes a little sloppy, and it burns like crazy.
Don’t be embarrassed that you’re doing 20 reps, instead of a “super heavy, super macho, set of 8 reps.” I’ve spent the past 38 years in a gym, and I’ve seen who grows, and who doesn’t – and how they’re doing it. I’ve also seen a lot of people get injured, using sloppy form, because they were hell-bent on using more weight than was practical.
Heavier Weight or Higher Reps – Which Builds Muscle Better?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people’s muscles grows more with good form, higher reps and lower weight, than it does using heavier weight, lower reps, and sloppy form. I know this first-hand.
When I started lifting weights / bodybuilding, at the age of 15, I started using higher reps and lighter weight (average 20 reps per set). And I did pretty well in competition, having won Teenage Mr. California and Teenage Mr. America, by the time I was 19. I continued with that type of training, successfully, until I was about 30. And then, for some reason, I started thinking that maybe I should been using lower reps and heavier weight. As an ectomorph, I was never able to get “huge”, so now I was beginning to suspect that maybe it was because I had been lifting too light.
So I started using heavier weight and kept my sets around the 10 repetition range. I did that for the next 20 years, although I only competed a couple of times during that period. I DID noticed that I wasn’t as big as I used to be, and I assumed it was because I was older. I even tried adding more sets, and going even heavier, dropping my reps to about 6. But the only thing it produced was sore joints, and more frustration.
Then, in 2011, I read an article by (Iron Man Magazine – editor in chief) Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson, in which they were talking about the research that had been done recently on sarcoplasmic (high rep) training. I called Steve and had a nice conversation with him. I decided to give the higher rep thing a try. However, I made the mistake of keeping the total number of sets high as well. So I ended up over-training.
The following year (mid 2012), I started using only one exercise per movement (note: most body parts only perform one movement, with the exception of pecs and traps), and my 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10 rep protocol (which has now become somewhat famous, thanks to Steve Holman mentioning it in several articles). And BAM ! Growth like never before.
Mind you, it’s difficult to use very much weight when doing 50 reps in one set – but the pump is insane ! Every subsequent set, I increase the weight a little bit, and drop to the next number of reps.
For example, when I do Decline Dumbbell Press (my favorite chest exercise), I use a pair of 25 pound dumbbells for my first set of 50 reps. Guys half my size typically use a pair of 50s for their first set of 10 reps, so they look over at me and wonder what’s up. For my second set, of 40 reps, I use a pair of 30s. I use a pair of 35s for my set of 30 reps; a pair of 40s for my set of 20 reps; a pair of 45s for my set of 15 reps; and a pair of 50s for my set of 10 reps (….and then I do three breakdown sets of 10 reps each, with progressively lighter weights….so my final set is actually of 40 reps).
I keep my form “perfect” on these sets – the dumbbells are kept wide (almost like a fly, but not quite), I pause in the stretch position, and I deliberately contract / squeeze my pecs at the top of each repetition.
The result? My pecs have never been this big! I used to use a pair of 80 pound dumbbells before, and I was younger – so I should have been bigger before, right ? Yet here I am at the age of 54, using 50 pound dumbbells, and growing better than ever. And I’m only doing a total of 10 sets for chest (5 sets of Decline Dumbbells and 5 sets of Decline Cable Cross-over / simulating a Dipping Movement). But it’s more than enough stimulation, doing them with this kind of intensity – I’m sore for days afterwards.
Higher Reps Means Fewer Sets
Again, I only do one exercise per movement, and I do 5-6 sets of high reps, with a breakdown on the final set – for all body parts. That’s the beauty of high reps (aside from growing much more)…..you don’t need to do as many total sets. In fact, if you do too many sets, with high reps, you’ll over-train. But why do more if less works better?
Proof is in the Pudding
It seems most people tend to start with too many sets and and using as much weight as possible, believing “more is better”. And – if they get any results at all – they stick with that method. They rarely make the assumption that less might be more – fewer sets and less weight per exercise (but more reps). So I encourage you to try it.
I’ll be stepping on stage this coming June, and you’ll be able to see the results that I’ve gotten with this program. I’ve been doing this – exactly as described above – for the past year and a half. By the time the contest rolls around, it will have been a full two years of doing this program. Then, feel free to see what I looked like in 2012 or 2011, and make the comparison for yourself. It will be significant.
I firmly believe, higher reps with lower weight, and fewer sets, produces FAR better muscle growth, than the conventional method (more sets, higher weight and lower reps). And forget about how much you think you “should” be lifting. Keep your form good, and go for the burn. You’ll be happy you did.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition.
Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book.
He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.