Lift heavy weights fewer reps, rather than lighter weights many reps.
By Mark Rippetoe
February 4, 2015
Zhanna Ivanova (UKR) squatting 207.5kg Women’s 67.5kg class at the 2002 European Junior Powerlifting Championships (Köberich photo).
As we get older, many of us go to the doctor more than we should. We ask the doctor about things doctors don’t really know much about, like diet and exercise. Doctors – having had no institutional training in diet and exercise while at the same time feeling as though they must maintain their authority over all things physical – most usually provide advice about these things anyway. They advise you to eat less fat and go walking every once in a while.
If you ask about strength training – since you have heard that it was a good idea and you know that walking is not strength training – their advice will be to just lift lighter weights and do more reps. Lighter weights and higher reps, that’s the ticket, right? Same effect, less risk, lighter is safer and more reps make up for the lighter weight, right?
It could be that doctors tell older people to just lift lighter weights because they have a genuine interest in not hurting older people, and they perceive that heavier weight is more dangerous than lighter weight. If they didn’t tell this to everybody else too, I might believe this was their intent. Hell, if they didn’t tell this to everybody, I wouldn’t be writing about it.
You have never seen an article here that I have written about diet, because that is not my field of either expertise or experience. I know something about it, most likely more than your doctor, but I reserve my public opinions on things about which I am not qualified to opine. When your doctor tells you to just use lighter weights and higher reps, he is wrong. Like when I refrain from writing about brain surgery, he should refrain from giving this advice about exercise. Here’s why.
Strength, as I have said many times, is merely the production of force by your muscles. The more weight you lift, the more force you produce. Since you can’t lift as much weight 10 times as you can 5 times, 5 reps allows you to use a heavier weight than 10 reps. Therefore, 5 reps with a heavier weight than 10 reps makes you stronger.
And that’s really all you need to know, because it really is this simple. The more weight you can lift, the stronger you are, and the heavier the weight you use in your training, the stronger you will become. Even you. A heavy set of 10 is mathematically lighter than a heavy set of 5. And there you have it.
But more importantly, sets of 10 are not just inefficient for building strength – they are counterproductive in a couple of ways. First, fatigue is the result of more repetitions of a weight, even a lighter weight. You know this yourself from working with your body. Any task repeated many times produces fatigue, and the heavier the task the more rapidly fatigue sets in. Walking doesn’t count because walking isn’t hard. Shoveling snow is a better example, and it’s easy to get pretty tired pretty quick with a big shovel.
Here’s the critical point: fatigue produces sloppy movement, and sloppy movement produces injuries. A set of 10 gets sloppy at about rep number 8 or 9, unless you’re an experienced lifter, and even then it’s damned hard to hold good form on the last reps of a high-rep set. A set of 5 ends before you get fatigued – 5 reps is an interesting compromise between heavy weight and work volume. Unless you’re a heart/lung patient, 5 reps won’t elevate your breathing rate until after the set is over, but a set of 10 will have your respiration rate elevated before the end of the set.
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