Benefits and Dangers of High Weight, Low Rep Training for Gaining Mass
Last time, we discussed how high-rep training is probably the fastest route towards gaining mass, but that it is also an entirely single-purposed method.
Great for beginners, sure, and used even at the highest levels of bodybuilding, high-rep/high-volume training is good for gaining size and very little else—you won’t get much stronger.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re looking to get both big and strong, you have a more difficult road ahead of you, but with a greater goal at the end. In this case, we’d be talking about training with heavier loads and lower volume.
Strength increases are the result of training with heavy weight, which by default will place a pretty stringent limit on the amount of reps you can perform on a given set.
Strength-oriented training relies on performing sets using anywhere from 1-5 reps, with the average being 3.
Heavy training is not only optimal for strength gains, but it can also be used to accrue a serious amount of muscle. Training with high weight recruits what are known as type IIb muscle fibers, which are the densest fibers and have the most potential for muscle growth. By lifting heavy, we activate these bad boys faster than I turn on sorority girls, which can potentially lead to gaining mass. Heavy lifting that is, not sorority girls.
As you might imagine, it becomes necessary to change things around in a given workout to meet our goals. As we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to increase size without strength, and the reverse is true here: you can get a lot stronger without getting bigger.
Once more, we need to look at things from the perspective of overall volume. In order to allow for the necessary weight, we need to keep the reps per set pretty low. If you followed the same set prescription from the high rep workout of Part 1, the upper limit for sets would be 3 or 4 per exercise. With heavy training, this would leave you at about 9-15 total reps; your strength would increase, but for most people, this is just not enough volume to stimulate growth.
So, to bump up the volume to a level that will be optimal for growth, we increase the number of sets. However, because of the heavier weight and the toll such training takes on the body, it is better to aim for just about half the total volume of the previous type of training we discussed. Or, simply put, around 60-75 reps.
Once again, here is an example using chest:
Low Incline Bench Press 10×4 (40 reps)
Weighted Dip 8×3 (24 reps)
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 2×5 (10 reps)
So we’re topping out at only 75 reps, but the heavy weight makes each set pretty draining, and stimulates a lot of muscle.
Training in this way is, in the long run, generally more effective than high-rep training. Not only will you be stimulating type IIb fibers growth, but the constant exposure to heavier weights will lead to much greater strength increases; which, in turn, will allow you to continue to push out more reps with heavier weight should you ever decide to return to high rep training.
The main drawbacks here are the effects on your body. Firstly, it must be mentioned that constant use of heavy loads puts you at much greater risk of injury, particularly if you’re training any sort of pressing movement in this way.
When you use heavier weight (as in lower reps), the stress on your joints and connective tissue is greater by far. For this reason, it becomes more important to employ proper warm up techniques and practices nearly every workout, especially as you reach the upper levels of strength work. This is often time consuming and boring, as it sometimes involves multiple warm-up sets with just the bar, but it is of paramount importance.
In fact, Bench Press Tzar Dave Tate stressed the importance of warm-up sets saying, “Don’t leave the weight and jump up until you’re absolutely ready to. There’ve been times at Westside where we used the bar for eight sets. These are world-record holders who aren’t ready to go to 95 pounds.”
And if there is anyone worth listening to with regard to benching, it is, as he is known in the industry, Dave Fuckin’ Tate.
Secondly, another consequence of heavier training is how very draining it is. Not only during the workout itself (necessitating longer rest periods and thereby slower paced workouts), but also after. Training with weight so heavy you can only perform it 3-4 consecutive reps is phenomenally taxing on your body, and so there needs to be more time between training sessions to allow for adequate recovery.
This brings us to our discussion of frequency, or how often you train. As alluded to above, the time between your training sessions is based on how taxing those training sessions are. Both high volume training (Option One) and high load training (above) are draining in different ways, and will necessitate different recovery times.
Generally speaking, when you’re training with lighter weights and higher daily volume, you can generally perform a given workout every 4-5 days—meaning that if you trained chest Monday, you can perform that workout again on Thursday or Friday.
Contrast this with heavier training; this is slightly more taxing, and so I recommend one training session per muscle pairing per week. As an example, if you train chest on Monday, you wouldn’t train it again until the following Monday. Because of the less frequent—albeit more intense stimulation—while you certainly stand to gain a significant amount of muscle, it may be a bit longer in coming.
While they are both exceptionally effective, the options discussed above are intended for use as part of split routines, where you train only a few body parts at once. Therefore, you’re only hitting those muscles once per week, two at most.
As the old saying goes, however, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and split routines are not the only workouts available to you. In fact, they may not be the most effective for you—some people respond better to higher frequency. For these people, there are other options; there are training methods that allow you to train the same muscle groups three or even four times per week.
Again, as previously mentioned, it is pretty hard to ascertain your own fiber make up, and so the obvious, if sometimes cumbersome approach is trial and error: switch the structure of your programming every few weeks and figure out what you respond best to.
In the mean time, check out the next installment here.