The debate of low vs. higher reps – the eternal struggle between powerlifter and bodybuilder – has led to some fantastic research being published recently. We’ve now got a much clearer picture of the debate, and it’s sparked some intriguing discussion about the mechanisms behind why much higher repetition work seems to produce comparable hypertrophy outcomes.
However, one aspect that hasn’t necessarily been studied is the effect that the periodization model has on the outcomes of higher rep and lower rep training programmes.
This is the low-down on what we’re going to explore over the course of this article:
- A brief primer on periodization theory, so we’re all on the same page.
- A quick summary of the literature with regards to
- Low-rep vs high-rep training for strength and hypertrophy
- DUP vs LP (that’s Daily Undulating Periodization and Linear Periodization, by the way) for strength and hypertrophy.
- A comparison of, and commentary on two recent studies – one by Alex Klemp and colleagues (including SBS Academy lecturer, Assistant Professor and Chicken Tender Sub Sandwich lover Dr Mike Zourdos), and the other by Gerald Mangine et al (unfortunately, I am not aware of his opinion on Chicken Tender Sub Sandwiches, but I won’t hold that against him). These studies both compared low-repetition and moderate-repetition training on measures of strength and hypertrophy, but one used a DUP model, whereas the other used a basic LP model.
A Brief Primer on Periodization
Periodization simply refers to the way in which your training is organized. Generally, this involves manipulating training volume, intensity, frequency, overload and specificity to maximize performance at certain times.
Periodization is a great concept – put simply, your progress is likely to stagnate very quickly unless you have some form of plan for progressive overload.
Periodization ensures that you can do this at a something approaching an “optimal” rate.
The main differences when it comes to periodization revolve around how frequently the variables are altered – on a “per-mesocycle basis” (every 3-6 weeks – referred to as linear periodization), every microcycle/week, or every session (referred to as non-linear periodization).
The Current Consensus Of The Literature
I’ll keep this section relatively brief – all the references are at the end of the article, if you want to do some further reading with regards to the background.
DUP vs LP
The literature reveals that:
- Periodized programmes have been shown to be superior to non-periodized programmes for strength and power outcomes.
- There’s not a huge amount of literature investigating the effect of periodization vs non-periodization on hypertrophy.
- Non-linear periodization (where training volume and intensity are manipulated on a daily or weekly basis) beats linear periodization for strength gains.
Lower vs Higher Rep Training
- Lower-rep and higher-rep training seem to be equally effective at inducing muscle hypertrophy when total volume has been equated on an absolute (sets x reps x weight) or relative (sets x reps x %1RM) basis.
- Untrained individuals will pretty much respond well to any training they do – periodized or not.
- Prior to these studies, it wasn’t 100% clear on what the hormonal effects of higher-rep and lower-rep training were.
So – onto the meat of this article: the studies.
Both studies compared the effects of low-rep and high rep training programmes – so the study subjects were split into two groups, one of which completed a programme consisting of higher rep sets, while the other performed lower-rep sets.
The table below highlights the key features of the study methodologies. The training programmes from both studies are detailed after this table.
Cliff-notes from the table:
- Mangine et al had approximately double the number of study subjects.
- The subjects were all previously trained, young males.
- Both studies attempted to control for nutrient timing by providing some form of peri-workout nutrients (BCAAs and whey in one study, chocolate milk in the other). Klemp et al used doses of BCAA and whey which have some research basis behind them, whereas Mangine et al provided no justification for their inclusion of chocolate milk (and it’s worth noting the rather low protein content of the milk provided).
- Both studies had 8 weeks of training. Mangine et al had a 2 week “baseline” training period to control for any novel stimulus effect, before the 8 weeks of training. Klemp et al built a 1-week introductory microcycle and 1-week taper into the 8 week training intervention. Mangine et al didn’t include any sort of taper.
- Klemp et al matched both absolute and relative total volume, whereas Mangine et al made no attempt to match volume.
- Both studies tested squat and bench 1RM. Klemp et al paid more attention to autoregulation (using a bar speed measuring device, and RPE gauges), and made note that all weights used were calibrated to USAPL standards. Klemp et al also tested muscular endurance via an AMRAP set at 60% 1RM on the pre- and post-intervention testing dates.
- Both studies took anthropometric and morphological measurements – Klemp et al kept theirs fairly simple, with ultrasound measurements of the chest and quads and two-site skinfold calipers to estimate body fat %. Mangine et al went a little more in-depth, using DEXA to estimate body composition and calculate lean limb mass (which they used as a measurement of hypertrophy). They also took ultrasound measurements of the dominant thigh, arm and chest of participants.
- Mangine et al also took quad EMG readings during the squat testing to assess improvements in muscular efficiency. They also took blood samples at 4 points around the training sessions to assess the levels of various blood markers and hormones (including testosterone and cortisol). Klemp et al didn’t take any blood samples or EMG readings.
|Methodological Feature||Klemp et al||Mangine et al|
|Study Subjects||16 males||33 males|
|Subject Age||23±3 years||24±3 years|
|Previous training experience||Minimum 2 years, minimum squat/bench frequency of 1x/week for ~6 months prior, minimum 1.25xBW squat/1xBW bench||5.7±2.2 years training experience. 82% of subjects habitually trained using lower or higher rep ranges than used in the study|
|Dietary intervention||BCAA containing 3.5g leucine 30 mins pre-training, 30g whey immediately post-training||235 ml chocolate milk (170 kcal, 2.5g fat, 29g CHO, 9g PRO) or Lactaid® (150 kcal, 2.5g fat, 24g CHO, 8g PRO) for lactose intolerant subjects was given post-training|
|Length of training programme||8 weeks – 1 week introductory microcycle, 6 weeks training, 1 week taper
|10 weeks – 2 weeks base cycle (identical for both groups), 8 weeks training intervention|
|Volume Matching||Absolute and Relative||No matching|
|1RM testing||Squat and Bench – Standard 1RM testing procedure. Bar speed & RPE both measured, USAPL standards for exercises, Eleiko calibrated bars + plates, Wilks score calculated||Squat and Bench – 5-10 reps @ 40-60% 1RM, 2-3 reps @ 60-80% 1RM, 3-5 singles to determine 1RM. Bench performed with a pause (concentric performed on vocal command), vocal command given when proper squat depth achieved (no pause)|
|Other variables measured||Muscle thickness of chest and quads using ultrasonography, body fat % via two-site skinfold caliper measurement, muscle endurance (AMRAP at 60% of max on each testing day, 10 mins post 1RM test)||Body composition/limb lean mass (DEXA), Muscle thickness of dominant thigh, arm and chest (ultrasonography), EMG readings for vastus lateralis and rectus femoris, blood samples taken at baseline, immediately post-, 30 minutes post- and 60 minutes post-exercise to determine serum hematocrit, hemoglobin, lactate, testosterone, cortisol, IGF-1, growth hormone and insulin|
The training programme for the Mangine et al study is outlined in the picture below, taken directly from the study manuscript. All of the subjects completed the “preparatory phase” before being put into either the “volume” or “intensity” group. Each group trained 4 days per week, performing the specified sets, reps and %1RM for their intervention protocol on the exercises outlined in the picture.
Observations that we can draw from this:
- Squats, bench, deadlifts and incline bench were all performed twice per week.
- Accessory work for the lower body (either leg press or lunges), back musculature, chest, shoulders, triceps, and biceps was performed to hit each muscle group twice per week.
- Total sets per week per muscle group (assuming deadlifts are a predominantly lower body exercise)
- Lower body – 24 sets
- Back/biceps – 24 sets
- Chest/shoulders/triceps – 48 sets
As you can see, each group did approximately twice as much volume on bench press specific muscle groups as they did on squat-specific muscle groups. It’s also worth noting that the 48 sets is excluding any chest and tricep work from the dumbbell pullovers, which I have counted as predominantly back work.
- Rest periods were not equated between groups – this makes little sense given the recent work done by Schoenfeld et al indicating that decreasing rest periods can have a negative impact on both strength and hypertrophy. The authors noted that the “Volume” groups took roughly 70 minutes to complete their sessions, compared to ~90 minutes for the “Intensity” subjects.
Progressive overload was implemented by increasing the load on a specific exercise if the prescribed reps were completed on two consecutive workouts. The authors were rather vague when describing the progression system, as well as total volume – they reported the “average training volumes” for squat and bench press without specifying whether these were per session or per week, and didn’t report the training volume for any of the other movements.
To compare, the training programme performed by the Klemp et al subjects is given in the next picture (in the format sets x reps @ %1RM). The reps, sets and 1RM were used for both squat and bench.
We can immediately observe that the structure is a lot simpler – there’s no accessory work, just a lot of squats and a lot of bench press. Total weekly sets per movement come to:
- Low rep group –
- Squat – 27 sets
- Bench – 27 sets
- High rep group –
- Squat – 13 sets
- Bench – 13 sets
However, the authors were sure to match volume, with both groups shifting a total volume load of approximately 1,200,000kg over the 8 weeks. It’s also worth noting that the volume was split equally between the squat and bench for each group, in contrast to the Mangine et al study.
The rest periods were also controlled for, with both groups resting for 5-7 minutes between sets. This was justified using a previous piece of research done by Dr Zourdos and colleagues.
The progression scheme used by Klemp et al was detailed very thoroughly in the manuscript:
“For weeks 1, 2, and 8 a specified percentage of 1RM was given, thus the load was pre-determined; thereafter, training load progression was made on a weekly basis; contingent upon participants’ completion of the previous week’s prescribed sets and repetitions. Specifically, if all loads for the back squat during week-2 were successfully completed (i.e., no missed repetitions) then 5kg was added for 213 week-3, 2.5kg was added for weeks 4 and 5, if all sets were completed during the previous week, week-6 added 1.25kg for success of the previous week, and week-7, added 1kg if no repetitions were missed during the previous week. Thus, a total of 12.25kg would be added from week-2 to week-7 if all sets were successful. For the bench press the following week-to-week progressions were made if all previous week’s sets were successfully as prescribed: week-2 to -3=+2.5kg, week-3 to -4=+2.5kg, week-4 to -5=+2.5kg, week-5 to -6=+1.5kg, and week-6 to -7=+1kg. Thus, if all training was successfully completed as prescribed, +10kg was added to the bench press.
However, if participants did not complete the prescribed sets and repetitions training load for that day was adjusted accordingly with each missed repetition yielding a 2.5kg reduction in the load for the subsequent sets. For example; during an 8-repetition set if a participant missed repetition 7, a 10kg reduction for the subsequent sets.
Additionally, weekly progression was also altered in the event of missed repetitions, and was based on the percentage of completed repetitions for that training session. To clarify, if a participant completed 99-90% of their prescribed repetitions, then the weekly training load progression for that specific day was increased at 50% of the normal progression for the following week. Completion of 89-80% resulted in no load progression the following week, while 79-70% repetition completion reduced the training load by 50% of the normal progression.”
So we have a set, autoregulated progression scheme with flexibility to adjust training load for the next week too. This is similar to the APRE progression system that I’ve written about for Shreducation previously.
I made the following table to sum up the performance improvements experienced by subjects in both studies.
|Klemp et al||Mangine et al|
|Pre- 1RM squat||145.06||139||142.6||142.6|
|Post- 1RM squat||159.81||154.44||160||168|
|Pre- 1RM bench||117.63||123||106.7||106.7|
|Post- 1RM bench||128.19||134.94||112||121.7|
|Pre AMRAP @ 60% squat||19||22||N/A||N/A|
|Post AMRAP @ 60% squat||21||23||N/A||N/A|
|Pre AMRAP @ 60% bench||19||21||N/A||N/A|
|Post AMRAP @ 60% bench||19||20||N/A||N/A|
At first glance, it’d seem like the intensity group in the Mangine et al study improved far more than either DUP group in the Klemp et al study. However, those values are potentially somewhat misleading – I had to take them from a graph in the manuscript (estimating a couple of them), which gave the initial 1RM values as “covariate adjusted pre-test means”.
***Warning – statistics incoming. If you don’t want to know, then skip ahead to the “Performance Conclusions” section***
What “covariate adjustment” means is that the values are adjusted to allow for differences in the study subjects that you couldn’t control for. For example, if you’re comparing the outcomes of two training programmes on muscle and strength, but you don’t control for age, training experience, muscle wasting conditions and other variables that could affect the outcome when you select your subjects, then this could affect the outcome if your randomization process means that group 1 is filled with all the young, healthy, untrained individuals and group 2 is filled with highly trained individuals or those who are going to respond much less to any training programme.
At this point, you can use prior data that you’ve collected about your subjects to “adjust” the other data to help control for this, via some statistical tools that are frankly too boring to include in this article.
This is why the means for both Mangine groups pre-test are exactly the same; they’ve been adjusted to account for differences in the groups. The actual bench press means before the training programme were 104.5kg and 108.8kg. The actual squat means weren’t reported in the study as far as I can see, which was a little strange.
However, I would personally question whether this level of adjustment was necessary; given that the study subjects all seemed relatively similar. Certainly, there were no glaringly obvious differences between the Mangine subjects and the Klemp subjects, but the authors on the latter paper saw no reason to use that level of statistical adjustment.
Also – it just makes it really annoying for me when I’m trying to compare studies. This isn’t necessarily due to the covariate adjustment per se, more the way that the authors chose to display their data.
Therefore, any conclusions we draw from the Mangine study are going to be far less “concrete” than from the Klemp study.
Performance Conclusions –
I think we can reasonably draw the following inferences from comparing the performance of the subjects in each study, taking into account what we already know from the current literature:
- Consistently performing approximately twice as much bench volume as the “intensity” group, whilst also including a huge amount of relatively fatiguing bench accessory work, having 1-minute rest periods and not tapering before a 1RM test… doesn’t lead to significant 1RM improvements. I’m thinking this is due to excessive fatigue on the parts of the subjects in the Mangine “volume” group.
- Conversely to that, benching relatively heavy for 8 weeks with heavy accessory work seemed to work wonders for these subjects’ bench press, and there were no statistically significant differences in squat performance between either group – to me, this adds weight to the notion that there’s some form of “sweet spot” with volume, especially when we compare the results to the Klemp et al study.
- A well-designed taper is an important component of maximal performance – given the skill component of maximal strength, I would have expected (as did the authors) that the DUPLR group from the Klemp study would have done better in 1RM testing than the DUPHR group. However, equating volume and putting in a taper seems to have negated that effect… or, my expectations are wrong. Either way, a taper is important!
- All groups (from what I can tell) experienced fairly significant gains in strength in quite a short period of time, despite being what most people would consider “trained” individuals (as opposed to what researchers commonly term “trained” individuals, who really aren’t trained at all). This may well be in part due to something as simple as better programming with an increased training frequency from that which they habitually do. This was noted by Klemp et al, who suggest that the lower rep ranges may produce greater strength gains in more elite-level lifters who are accustomed to that frequency of training.
- There may not be a huge difference in outcomes between training a movement two or 3 times per week in already trained subjects.
- Performing maximal reps at 60% 1RM may be limited by factors other than strength, or things that can be improved by frequent submaximal training at 60-85% 1RM over 8 weeks – for example, training closer to failure at a 15-20RM load may induce greater muscular endurance adaptations.
- Provided you can keep total volume in check, you may be able to significantly improve maximal bench and squat performance whilst also including other exercise variations, providing you keep the intensity relatively specific (90% 1RM)
- DUP is a valid, effective, reliable way of improving performance in the squat and bench press. LP is potentially less reliable in that regard.
- Klemp et al suggest that: “training adaptations are primarily volume-dependent, however, we recommend when using a DUP (programming-type) design that a high repetition undulation pattern is used early in the macrocycle with a low repetition undulation pattern employed in the latter stages of the macrocycle for individuals seeking hypertrophy and strength adaptations.”
Due to the way that Mangine et al reported the changes in measurements relating to hypertrophy, it’s very difficult to really compare the two studies. From what I can make out of the various values given in the manuscript, and the tables (which don’t necessarily give the same data):
- Lean arm mass increased in both groups, with a more reliable effect in the “Intensity” group (again, a possible nod to our volume “sweet spot” hypothesis). Given that 75% of the total number of sets was dedicated to upper body work, this is unsurprising to me.
- Lean leg mass didn’t significantly increase in either group, which was reflected in the muscle thickness measurements of the two lower limb muscles that they analysed. However, the cross-sectional area of the vastus lateralis increased significantly, which is a little eyebrow-raising.
- The chest and triceps grew significantly in all subjects, with greater chest growth seen in the “intensity” group. Again, this is hardly surprising given the amount of chest and tricep specific volume that the subjects were doing.
Thankfully, the data in Klemp et al is presented in a much more easily understood fashion – such that I can include it in here without needing to write a chapter from a statistics textbook for you to understand it:
Here, LDQ, LQM and AQ stand for Lateral Distal Quadriceps, Lateral Medial Quadriceps and Anterior Quatriceps – essentially, 3 points around the “meaty” bit of the quad.
Whilst the hypertrophy gains are somewhat less spectacular than the strength gains, all but one measurement reached statistical significance, with no significant difference between groups. Both groups added approximately half a centimetre to their chest and quads. This isn’t too far off what Schoenfeld et al found when comparing a 3x/week frequency to a 1x/week frequency – in that study, the subjects training 3x/week added ~3-4mm to each muscle measured.
Bearing in mind all of the above, it’s reasonable to conclude the following regarding hypertrophy:
- Performing just the squat and bench press at a high frequency is a valid way of inducing hypertrophy in the chest and quads in a relatively short space of time.
- Frequencies of 2x/week may be less-than-optimal for increasing lower body hypertrophy over the course of 10 weeks, especially if only 25% of the total weekly sets are apportioned to working the lower body. If you are looking to bring up your legs in a relatively short space of time, it may be worth including a greater frequency of lower-body work, and a greater allocation of workload to your lower body.
- Volume seems to be the primary driver of hypertrophy; however there may be diminishing returns with large amounts of volume, especially if you induce lots of metabolic stress by keeping rest periods short.
- Experienced trainees can cause significant growth at relatively low volumes of training – 13 sets of squats, and 13 sets of bench per week ONLY – utilizing a DUP configuration with autoregulated progression.
In this video, our head researcher Chad (who was one of the authors of the Klemp et al paper) talks through the study and its results:
I realize that I’ve thrown a LOT of data, and a lot of bullet points your way. I hate to leave you without any form of practical programme design recommendations (after all, that’s one of the main reasons we read training research).
Bear in mind that these are in no way “rules” – these are simply what I think it’s reasonable to recommend based on the body of evidence, my own (fairly limited) experiences and the experiences of my peers and those I look up to.
- The relationship between volume and strength and hypertrophy is likely to be very individual, and will have some level of diminishing returns beyond a certain level of volume. I personally love Greg Nuckols’ take on this, that can be found at 54:04 in the video below.From this – experiment with phases of lower volume and higher volume to see which provides you with greater progress. Just ensure that you have a standard measure for hypertrophy progress (circumference measurements, weight gain, etc) and that you taper properly before testing strength measures. Also be patient; you’re not going to nail your ideal training volumes within the space of a few training blocks.
- On balance, lower rep ranges and higher intensities are likely to produce greater strength gains. However, a period of higher intensity is likely to necessitate lower training volumes, which may reduce your rate of hypertrophy gains. Alternating between blocks of lower intensity and higher intensity will likely provide you with the best balance of hypertrophy gains and progressive strength gains. Your priorities are going to dictate how long these “blocks” of training are going to last relative to each other.
- Including some level of within-microcycle or mesocycle intensity variation (daily or weekly undulation) is probably going to be beneficial on a number of levels – both outcome-related and also relative to the mental “freshness” of the athlete.
The Two Main Papers:
Gerald T. Mangine, Jay R. Hoffman, Adam M. Gonzalez, Jeremy R. Townsend, Adam J. Wells, Adam R. Jajtner, Kyle S. Beyer, Carleigh H. Boone Amelia A. Miramonti, Ran Wang, Michael B. LaMonica, David H. Fukuda, Nicholas A. Ratamess & Jeffrey R. Stout (2015); The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiol Rep, 3 (8), 2015, e12472, doi: 10.14814/phy2.12472
Alex Klemp, Chad Dolan, Justin M. Quiles, Rocky Blanco, Robert F. Zoeller, B. Sue Graves, Michael C. Zourdos (2015); Volume-Equated High and Low Repetition Daily Undulating Programming Strategies Produce Similar Hypertrophy and Strength Adaptations. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism [pre-print copy]
Periodization vs Non-Periodization
Rhea, M.R. and Alderman, B.L. (2004). A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport. 75(4): I413-22.
Willoughby, D.S. (1993). The effects of mesocycle-length weight training programs involving periodization and partially equated volumes on upper and lower body strength. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 7(1): I2-8.
O’Bryant, H.S.B., R; Stone, M.H. (1988). Cycle ergometer performance and maximum leg and hip strength adaptations to two different methods of weight training. Journal of Applied Sciences Research 2(2): I27-30.
DUP vs LP
Rhea, M.R., Ball, S.D., Phillips, W.T., and Burkett, L.N. (2002). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 16(2): I250-5.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Ratamess, N.A., Peterson, M.D., Contreras, B., and Tiryaki-Sonmez, G. (2015). Influence of resistance training frequency on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 29(7): I1821-1829.
Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. (2015). Longer inter-set rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Nov 20 [Epub ahead of print]