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Muscle Growth: High Load vs Low Load Training

muscle growth layne norton

The debate surrounding the most effective training method for muscle growth, specifically between high load (heavy weight, lower reps) and low load (lighter weight, higher reps) training, remains a heated topic in the fitness and bodybuilding community. This article dives deeper into these training methodologies, exploring their impacts on muscle hypertrophy.

Understanding Muscle Hypertrophy

Muscle hypertrophy, the increase in muscle size, stands as a central goal in resistance training. It's primarily driven by two key mechanisms: mechanical tension and metabolic stress.

  • Mechanical Tension: This involves lifting heavy weights and is characterized by the strain or 'stretch' experienced by muscles during such activity. This ‘strain’ or ‘stretch’ leads to micro-tears in muscle fibers, which, when repaired, contribute to muscle growth[1]. The heavier the weight, the greater the mechanical tension, leading to potentially more significant muscle adaptation in terms of size and strength.
  • Metabolic Stress: Experienced during high-repetition, lower-weight training, this is often perceived as a burning sensation in the muscles, resulting from the accumulation of metabolites, such as lactate and hydrogen ions[2][3]. This buildup of metabolites creates a unique stress in muscle cells, triggering the body to adapt to it by strengthening and enlarging the muscle fibers.

Mechanical tension and metabolic stress independently contribute to muscle hypertrophy, each through its specific physiological pathway. Mechanical tension, resulting from lifting heavy weights, promotes muscle growth primarily through the repair and strengthening of micro-tears in muscle fibers[4]. In contrast, metabolic stress, induced by high-repetition, lower-weight training, triggers muscle growth by adapting to the build-up of metabolites and the increased anaerobic energy demands[3].

To sum it up, there two mechanisms that lead to muscle growth:

  1. Mechanical tension
  2. Metabolic stress

Now that you understand these two mechanisms behind muscle hypertrophy, let’s dive a little bit deeper into both types of training to see how you can best maximize your muscle growth!

High Load Training

High load training focuses on lifting heavy weights and placing considerable strain on the muscles[1]. This strain is not just a physical sensation but a biological trigger for muscle hypertrophy. By lifting weights that are challenging, yet manageable, you can create an optimal environment for muscle growth. The effectiveness of high load training lies in its ability to create mechanical tension, leading to micro-tears in muscle fibers. When these micro-tears are repaired by the body, the process results in muscle growth and increased strength.

High load training >> micro tears in the muscle >> muscle growth and strength!

Traditional exercises used in high load training include squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and overhead presses. For example, performing these exercises with weights that are 70-85% of your 1 rep max typically requires a lower number of repetitions, usually in the range of 6-12 reps per set, focusing on maximizing the load lifted.

In a study published by Schoenfeld et al[1]., the authors found that high load resistance training was more effective in increasing muscle strength compared to low load training. However, both high and low load training were equally effective in increasing muscle size, suggesting that heavier weights are not always necessary for hypertrophy. Another study by Jozo Grgic[5] conducted a meta-analysis, concluding that both high and low load training can lead to similar hypertrophy. Thus, while high load training is effective for increasing muscle strength, both high and low load training can be equally effective in promoting muscle size, offering flexibility in training approaches for muscle development, which leads us to our next topic: low load training.

Low Load Training

Low load training, which typically involves lifting lighter weights for more repetitions, primarily works by creating metabolic stress in the muscles. This can be enhanced with specialized techniques like Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training and Electrical Muscle Stimulation, making it a versatile approach, especially for those of you, who may not be able to perform high-intensity workouts.

  1. Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR): This method involves using bands to partially restrict blood flow to the muscles during exercise. The restriction increases the buildup of metabolites (like lactate) in the muscles, which intensifies metabolic stress. This leads to muscle growth even at lower intensities of exercise. Research, such as this study by Patterson et al[6]., published in the “Frontiers in Physiology”, has shown that BFR training can be very effective at stimulating muscle hypertrophy at much lower weights than traditional methods. Which means that you can lift very light weights and get similar muscle growth results as if you were lifting heavy weights.
  1. Electrical Muscle Stimulation: This technique involves using electrical currents to stimulate muscle contractions, similar to what happens during regular exercise. When used alongside low load training, it can increase muscle activation, potentially enhancing muscle growth at lower exercise intensities. A study by Hammert et al[7] demonstrated that incorporating electrical muscle stimulation in training can lead to significant improvements in muscle size.

Both BFR training and electrical muscle stimulation provide alternative ways to stimulate muscle growth. They are particularly useful for those of individuals, who may have limitations that prevent them from engaging in high-load, high-intensity workouts. These techniques expand the options for effective muscle training, making it accessible to a broader range of people.

Practical Applications in Training Regimes

The choice between high load and low load training should consider individual goals, physical capabilities, and preferences. High load training might be more suitable for those seeking improvements in both muscle size and strength. On other hand, low load training, especially when combined with BFR or electrical stimulation, could be preferable for those focusing on muscle size or those with limitations that prevent them from lifting heavy weights.

Conclusion

  • Both Methods Work: Whether you lift heavy or light weights, both can help your muscles grow.
  • High Load Training: Great for increasing muscle size and strength. Think heavy weights and fewer reps.
  • Low Load Training: Also effective for muscle size. Lighter weights but more reps, and can be boosted with BFR or electrical stimulation.
  • Your Choice Matters: Pick the method that fits your goals and what you're comfortable with.
  • Nutrition and Recovery: Proper nutrition and recovery are essential components of any training program. Make sure you consume enough protein on a daily basis to maximize muscle growth.

 

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References

1. Schoenfeld, B. J.; Grgic, J.; Ogborn, D.; Krieger, J. W. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J. Strength Cond. Res., 2017, 31 (12), 3508. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200.

2. Schoenfeld, B. J. Potential Mechanisms for a Role of Metabolic Stress in Hypertrophic Adaptations to Resistance Training. Sports Med., 2013, 43 (3), 179–194. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0017-1.

3. de Freitas, M. C.; Gerosa-Neto, J.; Zanchi, N. E.; Lira, F. S.; Rossi, F. E. Role of Metabolic Stress for Enhancing Muscle Adaptations: Practical Applications. World J. Methodol., 2017, 7 (2), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.5662/wjm.v7.i2.46.

4. Wilson, C. J.; Pearcy, M. J.; Epari, D. R. Mechanical Tension as a Driver of Connective Tissue Growth in Vitro. Med. Hypotheses, 2014, 83 (1), 111–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2014.03.031.

5. Grgic, J. The Effects of Low-Load Vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis. J. Hum. Kinet., 2020, 74, 51–58. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2020-0013.

6. Patterson, S. D.; Hughes, L.; Warmington, S.; Burr, J.; Scott, B. R.; Owens, J.; Abe, T.; Nielsen, J. L.; Libardi, C. A.; Laurentino, G.; et al. Blood Flow Restriction Exercise: Considerations of Methodology, Application, and Safety. Front. Physiol., 2019, 10.

7. Hammert, W. B.; Moreno, E. N.; Vasenina, E.; Buckner, S. L. Muscular Adaptations Between Very Low Load Resistance Training With Pulsed Direct Current Stimulation (Neubie) and Traditional High Load Training. J. Musculoskelet. Neuronal Interact., 2023, 23 (4), 377–385.

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