It’s a fairly common question that I get asked quite frequently–“Should I lift more weight with less repetitions or use a lighter weight with more repetitions? The debate has been around as long as “paper or plastic?” While the answer lies somewhere in between, it’s not just a simple answer.
When you’ve been following a particular workout routine for any length of time, it’s bound to happen–you hit the dreaded fitness plateau where your body adapts to your routine and you no longer make progress. How frustrating…but just know that it’s perfectly normal and happens to pretty much everyone. So how do you bust through this plateau? By changing things up! This means either lifting heavier weights, doing more reps, or a combination of both (called a double progression).
Making a case for heavier weights
When you add more weight to your lifting routine you generally lift on the lower end of reps (as few as 1-5 reps for some people). While this might not sound like much, by doing so you actually increase your overall maximum strength and greatly improve your ability to lift heavier weights. Much of that increased strength is because you’re improving your efficiency at a given exercise. It’s kinda along the lines of how your bank account grows when you limit unnecessary spending–and the more you practice restraint with a budget, the easier it is to save.
Even though lifting heavy weights feels great, it’s fairly easy to get drawn into chasing the numbers and running into a wall. Eventually you reach a point where you just can’t add another pound–and if you push it, you could compromise your form and increase your risk of injury. If you get to that point (where you’ve increased the weight but your form is starting to break down), then it’s best to lower the weight and increase the number of reps you’re performing. Which brings me to…
Making a case for more reps
Now let’s be clear–if you are lifting lighter weights but performing more reps you are still getting stronger, but in a different way. Now you are developing muscular endurance, which is your ability to exert a certain amount of effort before you fatigue. Performing more reps is also a challenging workout at a high-intensity level, which burns major calories and has a greater afterburn effect.
Now when you hit a plateau, adding more reps instead of heavier weights will allow you to focus on proper technique and form while still leaving room for additional changes to your program, if needed. The benefit of maintaining tip-top form is that you end up really working the muscle as intended and not relying on a bunch of compensatory patterns, such as letting your quads do all the work when your glutes are so weak. Now one drawback may be that it may make your workouts slightly longer (since you’ll be spending more time doing reps).
So why not just do both?
Confusion on the topic of lifting heavier weights vs performing more reps still lingers on in the gym because weightlifting and its effects on our bodies are often misunderstood. You need a combination of muscle damage (the “hurts so good” soreness after a great workout), mechanical tension (the sheer strain of lifting something heavy), and metabolic stress (that “burn” you feel from your muscle really working). Both methods require proper form because without good technique it really doesn’t matter how much weight you lift or how many reps you’ll do–you could be risking injury.
If your goal is just get more fit and generally stronger, than you can choose either. But for long-term progress and to keep things interesting, you can incorporate both lifting heavier weight and doing less reps and using less weight and doing higher reps. Then you can switch up the sets and reps on different days or weeks (known as periodization). So if you’ve been doing 5 sets of 5 squats and you can’t add another pound or do 1 extra rep, then lower the weight and go to 5 sets of 8, or add weight but go to 3 sets of 5. Visualize your sets and reps as a wavelength that is constantly going up and down.
It’s all very possible that this is more psychological than anything else. If you keep doing the same rep range every single time you lift, it can get boring. So by doing something different helps you to maintain motivation which, in turn, will keep your efforts high.
The bottom line
Basically there is no wrong decision. If you lift heavier weight, add more reps, or do both appropriately with good technique and keep your effort high, you’re inching your body toward continually improved fitness and strength. With that being said, when you add weight or make changes, do so in small increments. Your goal is to squeeze big results from little changes. It also helps to include a proper warm-up and cool-down. As long as you work hard and exert maximal effort, then as long as you’re doing more of something over time you will get stronger.
Do you or someone you know have questions on what to do for your particular individualized exercise program? Call my office at once at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now!