A while back, there was a post here in which Sensei Hutch described his preferred weight workouts with higher reps. Today's post describes my preferred lifting workouts with lower reps (and heavier weights).
Neither approach is "right." Different people with different objectives need different approaches. And there are many more variables to a program than simply changing the number of reps. These are only generalizations based on personal preferences.
(I know many people are not interested in lifting heavy weights. But keep in mind that "heavy" is relative. For example, powerlifters would not consider the weights I use "heavy." But I don't hold that against them.)
First, we have to decide what "low reps" are. Generally, it means no more than five reps in a set and often fewer. At the low end, a set of one rep is called a "single," two reps a "double," and three reps a "triple." (Four or five reps are never called "quads" or "quints.")
Low reps are generally considered best for building strength without size. For example, a boxer may want to get stronger without adding weight because that can mean moving up a weight class. Speed athletes can slow down with too much added size. And some of us just like getting stronger without necessarily getting bigger.
One nice feature of low-rep training is that it usually goes quickly. Since you lift heavier weights, you do less volume (total number of reps) so not only is each set shorter, there are fewer sets to do. Some people (like Sensei Hutch) enjoy spending a lot of time in the gym. I prefer to keep my lifting workouts shorter--usually 30-45 minutes. That includes longer rest periods between sets, too.
Some people (like me) prefer shorter, higher-intensity work. For example, I'd much rather sprint than run longer distances. Wapping is like that too: flip a mental switch and you're instantly hitting close to maximum effort. Low-rep training is certainly not easy, but it's hard in a fun way. Or maybe a "fun" way.
One potential negative of low-rep training, especially on older lifters, is the heavy stress on joints. Not that higher-rep training is stress-free, of course. It's just different. When lifting heavy, it's very important to avoid going to failure. This is one of the great things about the "Easy Strength" program I wrote about previously. Avoiding max-effort lifts is built into the program (for those who can follow directions). I recently used a "Janda Singles" program (also referenced in the Easy Strength book) doing deadlift singles daily at only 70% of a maximum weight (one-rep max or 1RM). In these programs, you get volume by lifting often rather than lifting long. That means more frequent trips to the gym (unless you have ready access to weights at home or work), but they're short trips.
One key element of low-rep training is the choice of exercise. This type of work is best suited to compound exercises that use lots of muscles: deadlifts and squats are great examples. Bench press and overhead press work, too. It's not a great fit for single-joint exercises like biceps curls or triceps extensions. But those kinds of exercises are typically used to build size or "tone" rather than pure strength.
While I prefer using low reps, I don't do it exclusively: that would limit progress and increase the chance for injury. Training program design continues to be as much art as science because people are different and not always in quantifiable ways. Low-rep heavy lifting continues to be part of my training plan because I enjoy it and it delivers the results I'm looking for. And that's what matters most.
Be seeing you.