high reps vs low reps workout


high reps vs low reps workout

Working Out Can Be Confusing, Right? Right, working out can be extremely confusing. What if you want to gain strength? What if you want to bulk up? What if you want to maintain what you already have? Well, you walk into the gym and all common sense can just fly out the window because you don’t know if you’re doing the right workout, the wrong workout or just making a plain fool out of yourself.

In fact, at the crux of your workout dilemma is whether you should be doing high rep or low rep workouts and what is best for you. You can ask 5 different people and get 5 different answers but there are some specialized nuggets of knowledge that can help you on your way to accomplish your workout goals which may have seemed impossible at first. Now, let’s begin our journey of getting you on the right workout track.

What is This Neural Metabolic Continuum Thingy?

Before you pledge your allegiance to any one kind of workout, first, you need to understand the science behind the workout, especially reps. Whatever your fitness goals may be and whatever type of workout you are involved in, one thing usually becomes crystal clear: you plateau. There’s that one point where no matter what you do, you’re not gaining strength or bulking up. This is because the body is stuck and isn’t being made to adapt. Your body is a lot smarter than you give it credit for. It isn’t going to do what you want it to do until you incorporate the key principles of neural metabolic continuum.

No, you don’t need a PhD to understand neural metabolic continuum. According to bodybuilding.com, in its simplest form, it allows you to recognize whether or not it’s your muscles that are actively engaged or if your central nervous system (CNS) is involved. In other words, the different rep ranges can produce a different response based on whether neural or metabolic factors are involved. Before we get any deeper, let’s look at some of the factors involved with each.


  • Fewer sets per rep

  • Increased number of sets

  • Shorter amount of time under tension

  • Longer rest period


  • More sets per rep

  • Decreased number of sets

  • Longer amount of time under tension

  • Shorter rest period

So, what does all of this really mean? When you are training in the low reps, the body is adapting in a neurological way. The central nervous system is better able to produce more muscle fibers, which in turn increases strength. When you are training in the higher reps, the body is instead adapting in a metabolic way. This is when the muscles get bigger and a person is more likely to bulk up.

Let’s go over a quick example. If you’re looking to be in the neural camp, you might do 5 sets of 3 reps. You would do the sets as quickly as possible with a rest period of 3-5 minutes between each set. However, if you’re looking to be in the metabolic camp, you might do 4 sets of 10 repetitions. You would use a tempo of 3 seconds down, then no pause in the bottom, followed by 1 second up. You would take a 60-90 second rest period between sets.

See, that wasn’t so hard, huh? Since you’ve gotten all of that down, now let’s get into the specifics of low reps and high reps and which work for your particular case.

Whats the Deal with Low Reps?

low reps high weights

You might think higher means better but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to reps. First of all, low rep is defined as anything from 1 to 5 reps per set. Once you choose to focus on low rep workouts, this is when you have accepted that you really need to increase the weights to get your body to adapt and thus to grow bigger and better with a main focus on strength. Got that?

The nuts and bolts behind this is low reps make your nervous system run more efficiently, which takes your body into new territory with heavier weights than normal. In this scenario, each movement that you make requires more intensity and involves more motor units and muscle fibers to get involved. Another benefit is that your body is better equipped at not engaging muscle groups that aren’t needed in the process. Say goodbye to those pesky, unnecessary muscles.

The end result? You’ll get ripped but not bulky. However, your strength will be phenomenal. You can think of having the strength and physique of a powerlifter as opposed to a bodybuilder, where you won’t have as much definition and not be as large in body shape but you’ll have the upper hand with the strength. Maybe you’ll want to challenge your bodybuilder friend to an arm wrestling contest.

Whats the Deal with High Reps?

high reps low weights

Dying for that bodybuilder physique? Well, high reps are in your future, friend. How are high reps defined, you might be asking? Usually, it’s 8-12 reps per set but some people may consider as low as 6 as a high rep workout. The main goal with high reps is, you guessed it — putting on massive bulk with bodybuilder type muscles. Do you want to learn a new fancy term? Here it is: myofibrillar hypertrophy. According to theskinnyguysaviour.com, this is the enlargement of the very muscle fibers that you are trying to grow. This is the main principle behind metabolic growth. This is how you are able to do fewer sets and still get larger muscles. In combination with slowing the tempo of your workout, these increased reps prolong the amount of time your muscles are spent under tension: this is a “must “for muscle enlargement.

Of course, you’ll get stronger with high reps, but it’s minimal and will take a backseat to growing larger muscles. There’s a downside though. Bummer! If you only focus on high reps, your body becomes adapted and the amount of intensity you can expend will become limited. You may think doing more reps will get you bigger quicker, which it will, but eventually, your body will tap out and it’ll be time to move onto something else. What should you move on to? Well, read on.

Is There a Perfect Combination?

We all know the sayings about doing things in moderation is best and how compromise is always so much better— these adages hold very much true in the world of weightlifting and getting into your ideal shape. What do we mean by this? In the case of getting into ideal shape, you should be able to marry neural and metabolic principles to get the best of both worlds.What exactly should you do? Well, friend, you have to dedicate the time and sweat into both low reps and high reps to get maximum results. High reps not only build the muscles you desire but also protects you from the stress of performing low reps. Since low reps help build efficiency, once you go back to a high rep program, you’ll be able to able to lift even heavier weights than before. Yes, you will be both bigger and stronger. Pat yourself on the back for all of your hard work.

Do you want to see what this regime would look like? Okay, here’s what you would do: for low reps, you would do between 4 and 8 reps per set. On the high rep side, you would do about 8-12 reps per set. Of course, this isn’t set in stone, so you can vary it up to your liking. On some extra adventurous days, you might want to try up to 20 reps for a high rep workout and 1-5 reps for the low rep side. It goes without saying that if you’re doing super low reps, get those weights up. That’s right – don’t be lazy with increasing your weights.  When you use both types of reps, you are training your body to adapt to what you want it to do. Your body is constantly growing and improving and isn’t plateauing like if you’re only sticking to one tired workout. Once your body is properly challenged, it learns how to adapt and push itself to new limits.

Some people may be wondering if they should do high reps and low reps on the same day or if they should vary it up. Following this practice of doing different rep ranges on different days can work just fine if you’re a beginner lifter or if you’re just trying to get acclimated to this whole high reps vs. low reps thing. As you get deeper into training, it doesn’t work the same way and you can confuse your body with all of the switching. This means that you need to dedicate time to each range. A good rule of thumb is to spend about 4-6 weeks on one type of rep before going to the other.

What About that Autoregulation Thing?


You know how sometimes your mind and even heart are telling you that it’s time to work out, but your body is screaming out “no?” And what about the other times where your body feels fine and you’re ready to go, but once you pick up the first weight you discover that you’re full of weak sauce? There’s an answer for both of these questions. Let’s introduce a new word into your vocabulary: autoregulation.

Simply, autoregulation means that you need to adjust your training to suit your body on that particular day. Yes, you need to listen to your body, but if you’re still trying to get results, you need to test and train your body as well. This is how successful weightlifters get to where they need to be. This is when alternating intensity comes into play, so you don’t overexert or underwhelm your body.

As you are alternating your rep ranges, you are also alternating the intensity. For example, one week you might do low reps at 70% and then you might follow up at 80% the next week and so forth. Once it’s time to go on to high reps, you could follow the same principle of varying intensity. Basically, with that first week, you are setting your baseline to see how much you can handle and how much you can increase the following week.

It will take some trial and error before you can pinpoint an exact intensity level, so don’t get frustrated if you can’t figure it out right off the bat. Remember that this program not only helps you get maximum results but also allows your body to get a bit of a breather on the less intense weeks. Since your body is working so hard for you with producing optimal results, your body deserves a bit of break.

Okay, Whats the Final Word?

Whoo, we covered quite a bit of material, but hopefully, you have all of the pertinent information you need to get your body in the tip-top shape that you know that it can be in.

Let’s sum everything up, so you can have a nice, tidy reference to go to.

  • Understand the neural metabolic continuum so you know which state your muscles are in to decide which program you should be prescribing to.
  • Don’t just stick to one type of program – alternate between high reps and low reps to cause your body to adapt and produce.
  • Don’t let your body become stuck – not only should you alternate rep ranges but intensity levels as well.
  • Don’t get frustrated – it takes time to figure out all of the ins and outs of proper training.

Above all, don’t think of training as high reps versus low reps but instead the perfect combination of the two to suit your particular needs. At the end of the day, no matter what your fitness goals are, you can accomplish them with the right training and work ethic. Now, get out there and train—- and don’t forget all of our wonderful tips!

Suzan & Steve

Suzan & Steve

We are Suzan and Steve - partners in crime and in life. We have been together for 13 years and share one crazy passion – fitness. Now we feel like our knowledge, driven by constant eagerness to learn and improve, should be shared with other likeminded people like yourself. Knowledge is power only when shared with others. So please read our articles, as they come from our personal experience, and take something from them.

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