It’s an age old question that encourages a world of debate when answering.
The truth of the matter is, there’s no real right answer.
Consider a few things that can influence this.
How Do You Build Muscle?
If we’re talking about building muscle and not truly focusing in on our lifting performances, then we’re talking hypertrophy in its purest form. We can’t increase the amount of specific muscle fibers that we possess, but we can increase the size of our existing fibers.
In the past, many believed that this was a black and white thing; namely, training for higher rep ranges would increase sarcoplasmic hypertrophy for a voluminous, full “pump” to muscle tissue, whereas training heavier for lower rep ranges would increase myofibrilar hypertrophy for a dense appearance and slightly less surface area in comparison.
More research findings suggested a conflict with that line of thinking, supporting the idea that the kind of hypertrophy wasn’t specific to choice of rep range. This brings me to my next point.
Genetics Play a Major Role
Before I jump ahead with anything else, the long and short of building muscle is this: You can’t choose your parents. If you got the luck of the draw, chances are you can look at weights and see change happen in your muscles.
We’ve already established that both high volume and heavy lifting methods will indeed contribute to the development of muscle, and it’s going to take trial and error on an individual level to determine what works best for you as a lifter. You may even realize that different rep ranges per exercise can be just what you need to see even developmental gains across the board.
Moreover, being male or female can create a sound basis for argument also. A woman with lower levels of testosterone when compared to a man may require much more volume in a workout program to induce hypertrophy to an appreciable level.
Training Age vs. Calendar Age
This all weighs in much more than one may think.
A 21 year old lifter new to training with very few responsibilities is going to respond differently to weight training than a 40 year old lifter with 15 years of training experience, a family, and a demanding job.
In the case of the younger guy, he’ll probably have a spike in muscle development due to an anatomical adaptation to lifting weights and a new phenomenon that is progressive overload. He’ll be releasing hormones left, right, and center, and building muscle at a noticeably fast rate.
As he develops his skills through strength training using lower rep ranges, he’ll be achieving a two-fold benefit of improving his lifting technique and strength while building muscle. And he’ll be in a much better state to do it.
IN the case of the 40 year old, he’s probably got a nervous system that’s a bit more taxed due to poorer recovery, more stress in life, and less time to train. He’s got 19 years worth of added “mileage” on his joints compared to the 21 year old, and his testosterone levels are naturally going to be lower due to his age.
Moreover, having a training age of 15 years creates one distinction in that he’s definitely honed in on his skills of lifting and mastering movement patterns. That probably means that going the high volume route with lighter loads will elicit the better results for training, while salvaging his joints and CNS from having to endure extreme loading week in and week out.
None of this means that either person in my example can’t zero in on the opposite training method for a phase or two. It just means they should be aware of their needs and limitations depending on their place in their training journey. It matters.
Anthropometry: Take Advatage of Your Build
If you’ve got leverages that make lifting weights a breeze, you’re probably going to have no issue building muscle or lifting heavy weights. Unfortunately, we all don’t have long torsos, average length arms, shorter legs and low centers of gravity which is the basic combination required to be naturally gifted at most lifts in the gym.
In the case of people with long extremities, tall bodies, and so on, it’s useful to recognize that lifting heavy loads on the regular can have the side effect of collateral damage on the joints and connective tissue (think of issues like shearing forces) than it would on a lifter more skeletally suited for the movements in question.
It would be in the taller lifter’s best interests to know when to scale back on the heavy compound loading in favor of some higher volume work, possibly with isolation equipment, dumbbells, or machines.
As a tall lifer myself, I’ve found single joint isolation exercises to be a great help to put on muscle since my long levers have to move the load over a greater distance, using a larger lever arm to do it. Chasing a burn with open chain movements like leg extensions can be very effective, and it often doesn’t take much weight to stimulate the muscles in a very big way.
One More Thing
Studies suggest that heavy weight training (especially via spinal loading) can release testosterone and growth hormone from the spinal column.
Studies also suggest that high lactate training using methods that really push for extended sets (like the one below) can achieve a similar release in testosterone.
Just some food for thought.
High Volume or Heavy Weight?
Like I said at the beginning – when it comes to making a definitive answer between high weight or high reps for muscle development, there’s no right answer for all people.
Instead of fitting the person to the training structure, we have to start fitting the training structure to the person. Focusing on what works for you as a lifter through trial and error is the best way to learn your body and see what you respond best to.
As you can see, there are benefits and disadvantages to both methods of training, depending on who you are, what your shape is, what your experience is, and the state of your current lifestyle.
Make an educated decision after you’ve tried both methods for yourself, and enjoy the gains.