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PUMP IT UP: Science shows the best way to build muscle

How does lifting light weights for lots of repetitions compare to more traditional models of resistance training? We talk to Dr Nigel Harris, Senior Lecturer in Exercise Science, about the benefits of lifting weights and how high repetition training could be the key to a stronger you.

How did you get into exercise science?

I was a personal trainer and group fitness instructor – back when dinosaurs were still around! Then I got a job at the Auckland University of Technology and started teaching and doing research. For a long time I specialized in the science of high performance, and that morphed into what has always been my passion – which is, how do you exercise for health benefits?

Let’s start at the beginning, why do we need to do weight training at all?

Lots of reasons! It’s recommended by public health authorities and it’s widely acknowledged that resistance training is part of a healthy activity plan.

At the very least you need to lift weights in order to maintain muscle mass and strength. Loss of muscle mass is normally associated with older age. However, as our lifestyles become increasingly sedentary, we are beginning to see this decline begin at a much earlier age.

Muscle mass is important not just functionally but also metabolically. Your muscle mass affects your ability to dispose of the glucose in your food which in turn helps us to avoid health problems such as Type 2 diabetes. Muscle is also associated with providing the joint support and strength to conduct day-to-day activities, and arguably it’s one of the best things to make you look good!

What’s been the traditional approach to weight training?

Traditionally weight training has been perceived as being for men aged 18-30 who want to gain muscle mass and get bigger. There’s been a perception that you have to lift really heavy weights to get results, and that lifting weights will only improve physical performance – such as power or explosiveness. This has now morphed into a focus on lifting weights to improve functional strength – aiding everyday activities and health maintenance rather than just focusing on developing massive biceps.

In terms of sets and reps, what has been the traditional approach?

The conventional approach has been heavy weights for fewer repetitions. If you wanted to get really strong you would lift heavy weights for 5-7 repetitions with lots of rest in between, and if you wanted to get big you’re lifting in the vicinity of 10 reps, with a short rest in between – and repeating this over and over again to the point of failure.
The traditional view of training with high repetitions is that this approach will just give you muscular firmness – what people refer to as muscle tone – without getting big.

What is the school of thought today?

What’s recently emerged is that the parameters around the repetition range for the results you want are nowhere near as strict as we previously thought. It’s not an exclusive result that if you lift heavy you get big and strong without the muscle tone and if you lift light you don’t get the strength – just the tone.

Your results will also be affected by your genetic makeup and natural predisposition to gain muscle mass. Some people have the genetic make-up that will enable them to put muscle on with any sort of load. Other people won’t build muscle mass so easily and these people are less likely to gain lots of muscle with high rep training. Weight training is a complex recipe; it’s not just the repetitions but it’s the amount you do, the frequency, how much rest you have in between sets and it’s also affected by your nutrition and genes.

I’ve heard women say they avoid weight training because they don’t want to “bulk up”. Is this a legitimate concern with high rep training?

It is more difficult for women to gain muscle mass in general and this is definitely the case with high rep training. If females are doing a lot of high rep training and eating a lot of protein they might respond to the program with some muscle growth – but most won’t. They tend not to respond to high rep training with as much muscle mass as a male would.

What are the recent developments in strength training science?

A lot more attention is being paid to how close to failure you are getting by the end of your reps. New information indicates it isn’t just the number of reps that matters – rather getting to the point that you can’t continue to lift the load is important to potential muscle gain.

So is there any point in doing high rep training if you’re not reaching failure?

Yes absolutely. Even if you’re not reaching failure, there are a huge amount of metabolic benefits. Exerting your muscles with some kind of strenuous contraction teaches your muscles how to handle the calories we’re putting in – which helps with glucose disposal. And as we know, diabetes is a growing global problem, and there are a lot of people who are probably pre-diabetic and unaware of it. The other benefit of course is that you’ll also increase your strength.

What’s your view on the shift to high rep training?

I think it’s good as it is encouraging people to start lifting weights who might not have done so before. There is a stigma around lifting weights for some people as they worry that they might turn into the Incredible Hulk as soon as they enter the weights room. It’s particularly good for encouraging females to step away from just doing cardio and trying a form of resistance training that they feel comfortable with. A big part of this is to get comfortable with lifting something that isn’t really heavy, so they can handle lifting those lighter weights with good technique. In some ways weight training is totally counter-intuitive – we spend our lives trying to avoid discomfort. So high rep training can help us get over this discomfort by helping us get the results while enjoying the training.

What happens when the line between resistance and cardio is blurred?

It’s been traditionally thought that cardio is when you’re on the treadmill or bike or doing aerobics, and resistance training is lifting weights – and never the twain should meet. So you weight train for your muscles, and do cardio for your heart. But anyone who’s done a hard set of 10-15 squats knows that it’s good for your heart and fitness as well. If you structure your program in a way that you’re not having a huge rest in between – particularly if you’re moving from one muscle group to another – that’s highly cardiovascular. So if you don’t like traditional cardiovascular plodding or heavy weight training – you can double dip by combining the two!

Is a HIIT resistance workout such as LES MILLS GRIT Strength classed as resistance training?

Yes absolutely. Research has shown that you can get really good strength and cardiovascular results out of a resistance training model if it is structured in the right way. So a model such as this or circuit training is a great double up and provides both muscular and cardiovascular results at the same time.

Do you have any insights into where the future of resistance training is headed?

There’s a lot of interest today in the individual response to exercise and how to create programming for individuals based on genetic makeup. This is primarily due to the fact that there are responders and non-responders to exercise and there are people who respond to differently to different types of training. In the future it may be easier to identify how you respond to training and your exercise program could then be customized to suit your particular genetic and physiological makeup. The encouraging side of this is that no matter what genetic set of cards you’ve been dealt, you can alter the way that your genes express themselves with the type of training you do.

There’s also a focus on the minimum effective dose – and you can see that’s what’s happened with HIIT. There’s been a departure from thinking that it’s all about high volume towards these very potent doses of high intensity. People are looking for the fastest way to get fit and look good – without spending hours in the gym. This is occurring with resistance training as well – how many sets do I need to do, how often do I need to train? That recipe is still being uncovered.

The final word?

The number one thing that you can do for your health is weight training. It’s a matter of finding something that you can and will do on a regular basis. And if that’s high rep training – that’s a fantastic solution.

Dr Nigel Harris is a senior lecturer in Exercise Science at Auckland University of Technology. His research activities are centered on the assessment and improvement of metabolic health through exercise, with an emphasis on resistance training and high intensity intermittent exercise.

This article originally published here and is reproduced with permission.