How To Build Muscle – Heavy Weights or High Reps?

This is one of the most debated topics among people that lift weights. Will you build muscle lifting heavy weights and doing a low rep count or will you build muscle lifting light weights with lots of reps?

Everyone has their own opinion and they are going to defend the one that works for them. However, both ways will build muscle. If done properly they can even build the same amount of muscle. You won’t get more toned one way and bigger another way like the Gym Bro wants you to think.

The problem most people run in to is they don’t put muscle on as quick as they expected, or when first starting out with weight training they get quick gains and then when it starts to slow down they get discouraged, and it will slow down. Experienced lifters will be lucky if they can put on half a pound of muscle per month.

If you are new to lifting check out The Best Fitness Tips for Beginners to see my list of things I wish I would have known when I started weight training. Below I will lay out 5 things you should do to get maximum muscle gains, this goes for anyone from beginners to the most experienced lifters. The only difference will be the amount of muscle you put on.

First there are 3 mechanisms for creating muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size) Progressive Overload, Metabolic Stress and Muscle Damage.

Progressive Overload

There are two methods to achieve progressive overload, with tension or with volume. What this means is you are either increasing the weight you use for each exercise week after week or you are completing more reps with the same weight week after week.

Get in the habit of writing down the amount of weight you use and how many repetitions you are able to complete before reaching failure. This will ensure you are always doing a little more each time you train.

Adding weight doesn’t need to be large amount of weight, if you are able to add 1 pound per side to a bar then that will accomplish what you are after. If your aim is adding reps then add one rep every training session until you are maxing out in the 15 repetition range and add a bit of weight and drop back down in reps, then begin the climb again.

Metabolic Stress

The next mechanism is metabolic stress, lifting moderate to light weights for higher repetitions, often associated with body building. This type of training is where you get the “pump” feeling in your muscles and continue to train through that pain and discomfort. This takes a lot of determination because most people will want to quit when it starts to hurt.

If you can train through the burn and keep going then you will benefit from this mechanism of hypertrophy. The idea is to maintain constant tension on the muscles by reversing directions just short of lockout or just before bottoming out.

When done properly the blood gets pumped into the muscles by the arteries, and then the steady muscular contractions will prevent the veins from letting blood escape, resulting in high levels of metabolic stress.



Eccentric Overloading

Higher levels of muscle activation. Strength is 20-60% greater, following eccentric action muscle force is increased, this is referred to as residual force enhancement. Although this remains unexplained it is associated with an increase in passive force originating from structural proteins. One of these proteins is Titin, whose force is increased in eccentric muscle action but not in passive muscle stretching. This leads to an increase in muscle fibres which is how it contributes to muscle growth.

Concentric cheat, slow controlled eccentric. Requires more recovery time, do not use for every exercise in a workout, save for last exercise.

The last two ways to build muscle are different training methods that will be especially effective for experienced lifters that have plateaued and aren’t seeing the same gains they were when they started out.

Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are a simple way to change your training style to realize new muscle gains.

Cluster sets are sets with built-in, short rest periods of 5-20 or so seconds, they can take different forms and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cluster set structure. The main benefit is being bale to push your self to do more reps. Higher intensities can create a limitation when aiming to hit higher reps. Cluster sets work to displace work over smaller sets, which can allow you to hit more reps.

They can also help you get over a plateau without sacrificing your form with cheat reps. If you hit a maximum number of reps with a certain weight and you are no longer able to progress, you can throw some cluster sets in to your training for a couple of weeks to help get over the plateau.

Blood Flow Restriction Training

Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR) is known by many different names; occlusion training, hypoxic training and KAATSU. No matter what the name you know it by, the concept is the same. BFR involves wrapping a device such as a pressure cuff or even knee wraps around the top portion of a limb to restrict blood flow out of the working muscle. When performed properly blood is able to enter the muscle via arterial flow; however, the veins are restricted so that blood is partially prevented from leaving the working muscle.

Blood flow restriction causes a buildup of metabolites, such as lactic acid, that have been shown to directly stimulate muscle growth. And the direct fatigue caused to the muscle forces the nervous system to recruit the largest fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have the greatest capacity to grow.

BFR involves the use of a specialized inflatable cuff, known as a KAATSU device, to restrict venous blood flow. The advantage to such devices is that you can precisely control the pressure and always replicate it on workouts. Since most people will not have access to these special devices the use of an elastic wrap to restrict blood flow will work for BFR.

When using an elastic wrap or wrist wrap to restrict blood flow don’t put it as tight as you can, you want it to be tight enough to restrict blood flow out of the muscle but not in to the muscle.

If you would like a few sample workouts using these methods let me know in the comments below. Or if you are looking for more information or would like to see a blog post dedicated to one of these techniques to help build muscle.

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