Age old debate this one. Should we be performing sets of low weight with high reps or high weight with low reps when eating in a caloric deficit (CD)?
Firstly, we need to clarify that the context of this debate. This is more referring to people trying to decrease their body-fat percentage while maintaining/increasing Lean Body Mass rather than overall bodyweight. We could also discuss this in regards to overall bodyweight, but that can be another article.
Caloric Deficit is the definition used when you are consuming less calories than your body is consuming throughout the day
Cool, now that we have addressed the context of the article, lets delve into it. So the argument here is this, when we are in a CD should our training protocols change to use only light weights with high reps or keep using heavier weights with lower reps?
Unfortunately there is not a lot of literature on this particular topic. So all the information from me today is mostly anecdotal and my understanding of the processes involved. This being said, my stance on high vs low reps is…. Its dependant to the individual.
Everyone will always react different to being in a caloric deficit, other variables like length of being in a deficit, how severe the deficit is being big ones. But there is other things like injury concerns, recovery concerns, mental discipline and mindset when training.
Because of all these reasons there is no one size fits all solution here.
Personally I am gravitate more to the stance of keeping the weights heavier to an extent. My reasoning behind this stance is this.
When we are in a caloric surplus (CS) and trying to increase lean body mass (LBM), we aim to move more and heavier weights, each set we would generally try to be lifting around 70%+ of our 1RM. And we know that this works for building LBM (1).
So here is where my thinking comes through, when we are in a CD and our aim is to retain as much LBM as possible, why would we stop training like we are in CS? To me this just doesn’t make sense, if we train with heavier weights and lower reps in a CS AND it works, why would we not try and do the same in a CD?
The more common go-to method when in a CD seems to be to radically switch the training protocols to complete opposite. The approach here is to drop the weight back down to as low as 50% 1RM and push the rep scheme from 8-12 (generic hypertrophy range) up to 15+ reps.
Now yes, this has been shown that it can still cause muscle hypertrophy to occur, but it seems to be far from optimal and this starts to move in the territory of muscular endurance rather than muscular hypertrophy.
One of the bigger variables here is energy availability (EA) when in a CA. EA is what we mean by your energy available to you when training. Depending on person to person EA will be different. Some people will still find themselves having higher EA compared to others even when in a similar situation (length and severity of CD). If EA is quite low then yes, it will be quite harder to keep training with higher loads (70%+ 1RM).
At the time of writing this up, a meta-analysis was discovered by Schoenfeld Et al. “Strength and Hypertrophy adaptations between low and high loads” (2). This showed that there were similar hypertrophic responses when compared low loads (<60% 1RM) to high loads (>60% 1RM). This does change my stance slightly on the whole topic. However, it was noted in this Meta study that the majority of studies were based upon untrained individuals and no mention of caloric intake was observed, with some of the data showing higher loads were required in trained individuals.
Another variable in here was the intensity of training, with the training intensity in the vast majority of studies being training to momentary muscular failure.
With this newer information, the take home message is it’s still a very unclear thing when it comes back to the question on “Should I be performing high or low reps in a Caloric Deficit?”. The big variable here which will change it up is the Caloric Deficit. Just how much impact does this have on a hypertrophic response? We do know that in most cases, in order to increase LBM our bodies are required to be in a CS (4). However under some circumstances muscular hypertrophy has been observed to be maintained/increased (3)
It is always going to be an individual thing. Personally I feel I respond better to higher loads where as a fellow trainer I work with feels she responds better to lower loads.
I will leave you with this but, if you do decided to train with lower loads then you should be pushing yourself closer to momentary muscular failure than with higher loads.
Article written by Timothy Steward
· UFQ Strength & Conditioning Coach
· UFQ Sports Nutritionist
Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Peterson, Mark D.; Ogborn, Dan; Contreras, Bret; Sonmez, Gul T. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: October 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 10 - p 2954-2963 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958 https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/10000/Effects_of_Low__vs__High_Load_Resistance_Training.36.aspx
Schoenfeld, Brad J.1; Grgic, Jozo2; Ogborn, Dan3; Krieger, James W.4 Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2017 - Volume 31 - Issue 12 - p 3508-3523 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200 https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2017/12000/Strength_and_Hypertrophy_Adaptations_Between_Low_.31.aspx
Donnelly JE, Sharp T, Houmard J, Carlson MG, Hill JO, Whatley JE, Israel RG. Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993 Oct;58(4):561-5. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/58.4.561. PMID: 8379514. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8379514/
Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019;6:131. Published 2019 Aug 20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00131https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6710320/