It may be a matter of personal preference that you like to lift low weights for many repetitions, or you may prefer to try and increase your maximum weight for a small number of repetitions. These styles may fit different moods or sentiments – your competitive nature may simply be triggered more by going further, or training for longer, for instance, or by lifting higher weights. Preference for these styles should take into account their different results, though. As with everything we want you to take away from this site, it’s important to make your training personal, but you must personalise it for the right reasons.
Different methods of training
When pushing yourself in strength training, there are three ways you can reach maximum muscular tension, to improve your strength, as noted in Zatsiorsky’s excellent Science and Practice of Strength Training:
- Lifting a maximum load (the maximal effort method)
- Lifting a sub-maximal load to failure (the repeated effort method)
- Lifting a sub-maximal load with the highest attainable speed (the dynamic effort method)
These methods may also be done in part, not reaching failure or not reaching the maximal effort. The dynamic method, using quick repeated actions, does not directly help increase strength (it is useful only for increasing the rate of force and explosive strength), making it best to focus on the first two techniques when we consider strength training. So what are the different physiological results of these different methods?
Maximal Effort – Increasing Weights
Increasing the weight you lift is the best method for improving your intramuscular and intermuscular coordination, as your central nervous system only adapts to loads placed on it. As well as building muscle strength, increasing the weight you lift therefore essentially leaves a much better impression on your motor coordination in the long run. In short, muscle memory encouraged by increased loads is more effective, allowing you to move more correctly. Strength training that does not interact with your CNS in this way, because you are not lifting a high enough weight, will not bring about the same lasting improvements.
Lifting high weights has a few limitations – firstly there is a risk of injury for beginners, so you must ensure you use proper techniques. Further, without proper technique these benefits may not target the muscles you intend to. Aiming at lifting your maximum weight also limits the number of reps you can do, which can lead to less muscle hypertrophy (growth of your muscles). There’s also a psychological limitation here – it takes a certain type of motivation to push yourself to lift your maximum.
Repeated Effort Methods – Increasing Reps
Doing an exercise with many reps, whether pushed to failure or not, is a good way to induce muscle hypertrophy . You have to push yourself just as hard in low-rep exercises as the maximal effort method, however, as giving up too soon is likely to diminish the work you are doing. If you are capable of reaching 12 reps and you only do 10, for example, the muscles won’t activate at their highest level of use; without reaching your limit, you won’t improve. Without reaching failure, you can train your less than optimum muscle use, but it will only bring about limited improvement.
Still, the advantages of doing many reps, instead of reaching the maximum weight, are than it has a better influence on muscle metabolism and inducing muscle hypertrophy. It also reduces the risk of injury. However, as the muscles become tired in the final lifts, when the important work is executed, the training is less effective than lifting maximal weights. The large amount of work done with increased reps is therefore useful for general health and fitness, but not necessarily for specifically improving strength (and when it comes to improving your body mechanics, as is the focus of the work we do here, strength is important).
The ideal for strength training, therefor, is striking a balance between the two – as maximal weight targets higher threshold muscle development and increased reps targets lower threshold muscle development and active hypertrophy. For the best strength training, a mixture of both methods is necessary.