New to the gym? Almost any type of resistance training is likely to increase your strength and muscle size.
But it becomes more important to follow a program that fits your specific training goals as you advance.
There are many reasons why you might want to follow a program calling for low weight and high reps. But some exercises are better suited for a high-volume program than others.
Let’s look at six exercises that make a great addition to this type of program, with step by step instructions for each.
The following six exercises are considered among the best for low-weight, high-rep exercises.
Barbell bench press
The bench press primarily works your chest, arms, and shoulders. You can also use dumbbells instead of a barbell.
Bench press instructions:
- Lie on a flat bench with your hands on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your hips in contact with the bench through the movement.
- Lift the bar off the rack and lower it to your chest as your elbows bend to your sides.
- When your elbows are below the level of the bench, stop and push the weight back into the starting position.
Barbell back squat
The back squat works all of the following muscle groups:
Back squat instructions:
- Set up a squat rack with the bar slightly lower than shoulder-height.
- Stand in front of the bar so that it’s against the top of your back and hold it in a wider than shoulder-width grip. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your chest up through the movement.
- Unrack the bar by standing up with it and take a step back.
- With your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, sit back as if sitting into a chair. Keep your chest up and back straight.
- When your hips are below your knees, push your hips forward and return to a standing position.
The leg press primarily works your butt, hips, and quadriceps. Try to keep a slow and controlled movement throughout the exercise.
Leg press instructions:
- Sit with your back against the machine’s back pad and your feet on the resistance plate with your toes pointing forward.
- Adjust the seat so your knees are at 90 degrees. Hold the handles if available.
- Take a breath, brace your abs, and exhale as you push away the resistance plate. Keep your upper body still and your heels flat against the plate.
- Pause when your legs are straight but not locked out.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
Standing shoulder press
The standing shoulder press works your arms and shoulders. Try not to bend your knees — they should stay straight but not locked.
Standing shoulder press instructions:
- Put a barbell in a rack at about the height of your shoulders.
- Hold the bar in a shoulder-width grip with your palms facing upward.
- Unrack the bar and back up with it so that it’s sitting on the front of your shoulders.
- With your back straight, push the weight upward. Stop when your arms are straight.
- Slowly lower and repeat.
Seated cable row
The seated cable row works your upper back and arms. You can use a resistance band if you don’t have a cable machine.
Seated cable row instructions:
- Sit in front of a cable machine and set the cables to the lowest height.
- Hold the cable handles in front of you with your arms straight and pull your elbows back while keeping your chest up.
- Pause when the handles reach your stomach and reverse the movement back to the starting position. Try not to lean back while pulling.
Seated lat pulldowns
Seated lat pulldowns target your lats, which are the upper back and muscles under your arms.
Seated lat pulldown instructions:
- Sit in front of the machine with your core braced and spine straight.
- Reach up and grab the bar attached to the cable with both hands.
- Pull your shoulders down and back and lean back about 30 degrees.
- Exhale as you pull the bar down in a slow and controlled movement until the bar reaches your mid-chest.
- Pause for a moment and return to the starting position.
The maximum weight you can lift for one repetition (rep) in a particular exercise is often referred to as your one-rep max (1RM).
High-volume programs often call for more than 8 reps at more than 60 percent of your 1RM. High-intensity programs usually call for less than five reps at over 80 percent of your max.
Both high-volume and high-intensity programs have merits:
- High-volume programs are generally better suited for improving muscular endurance.
- High-intensity training is better for developing maximum strength.
People have had success building muscle size with both methods. Some
But there are several advantages of training with a high number of reps.
Improve muscle endurance
Your muscles are made up of three types of fibers:
- Slow-twitch fibers (type I). Low force production but high resistance to fatigue.
- Fast-twitch fibers (type IIA). Higher force production but fatigue quicker.
- Super-fast twitch (type IIB). Highest force production but fatigue the quickest.
Slow-twitch fibers have the smallest cross-sectional area and super-fast-twitch fibers have the largest.
Lifting a weight at a relatively low percentage of your 1RM requires relatively little force, so it primarily works your slow twitch fibers.
Endurance training can make these slow fibers even more effective by forming new blood vessels to supply the muscles with oxygen.
This increases the amount of myoglobin in your muscle cells for storing oxygen and increasing the number of mitochondria.
Improve muscle size
A 2016 study of 49 participants with at least 2 years of experience lifting examined the potential of a high-rep weightlifting program to a low rep program for building muscle, looking at two study groups:
- The high-rep group performed 3 sets of 20 to 25 reps between 30 to 50 percent of their max until failure.
- The low-rep group performed 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps at 75 to 90 percent of their max until failure.
At the end of the 12-week study, both groups had similar levels of muscular growth.
But other research suggests that training at a high intensity might be slightly more effective.
- The high-volume group performed 4 x 10 to 12 reps of various exercises.
- The high-intensity group performed 4 x 3 to 5 reps.
At the end of the study, the high-intensity group had developed higher levels of muscle strength and size.
Get stronger quicker
- Low-volume group: 1 set of 8 to 12 reps until failure
- Moderate-volume group: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps until failure
- High-volume group: 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps until failure
Very few differences were found in improvements in either strength or endurance between the groups, even though the low-volume group’s workout only lasted about 13 minutes.
But the higher volume group showed significantly higher levels of muscle size.
Reduce injury risk
Low-weight, high-reps programs have a lower injury risk from handling lighter weights. Programs that use a low percentage of your 1RM also minimize central nervous system stress.
They may also strengthen your connective tissue and prevent tendon injuries. This benefit is clear in competitive climbers who perform many reps with their bodyweight.
Variations of Olympic lifts aren’t generally suited for a high number of reps, such as:
- clean and jerk
These are very technical exercises that require a significant amount of precision to perform correctly. Avoid these exercises unless you’re being supervised by a qualified weightlifting coach or trainer.
Diet plays a critical role in determining the success of your program. Some ways you can maximize your results include:
- Eat dark, leafy greens. Dark green vegetables like kale or spinach are filled with essential minerals to help your body heal from your workouts.
- Get enough protein. Make sure you’re getting adequate protein and eating about 20 to 40 grams of protein post-workout.
- Focus on a balanced diet. Some supplements may help, but your first priority should be a well-rounded diet.
- Eat complex carbs. Complex carbs from sources like oats or whole grains give your body more sustainable energy than simple, sugary carbs.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can reduce athletic performance. If you’re sweating heavily or working out in hot conditions, you may want to add electrolytes to your water.
Living an overall healthy lifestyle can help you train harder by improving your body’s ability to recover. Some healthy habits include:
- Find a workout partner or somebody to keep you accountable.
- Set daily or weekly fitness goals for yourself.
- Avoid storing junk food at home to prevent temptation.
- Minimize your consumption of alcohol and use of tobacco.
- Aim to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night.
- Stay hydrated and drink enough water to keep your urine a light yellow color.
- Look for ways to minimize avoidable stress.
- Schedule time for relaxing activities that help you de-stress.
Exercising with low weight and many reps can help you build muscular endurance. Studies have found that these types of programs can also lead to a comparable amount of muscle gain as higher weight programs.
Pairing your program with a healthy diet and lifestyle habits will give you the best results.