Muscle activation during low- versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men



It has been hypothesized that lifting light loads to muscular failure will activate the full spectrum of MUs and thus bring about muscular adaptations similar to high-load training. The purpose of this study was to investigate EMG activity during low- versus high-load training during performance of a multi-joint exercise by well-trained subjects.


Employing a within-subject design, 10 young, resistance-trained men performed sets of the leg press at different intensities of load: a high-load (HL) set at 75 % of 1-RM and a low-load (LL) set at 30 % of 1-RM. The order of performance of the exercises was counterbalanced between participants, so that half of the subjects performed LL first and the other half performed HL first, separated by 15 min rest. Surface electromyography (EMG) was used to assess mean and peak muscle activation of the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, and biceps femoris.


Significant main effects for trials and muscles were found (p < 0.01). Significantly greater peak EMG activity was found during the HL set (M = 177.3, SD = 89.53) compared to the LL set (M = 137.73, SD = 95.35). Significantly greater mean EMG activity was found during the HL set (M = 63.7, SD = 37.23) compared to the LL set (M = 41.63, SD = 28.03).


Results indicate that training with a load of 30 % 1-RM to momentary muscular failure does not maximally activate the full motor unit pool of the quadriceps femoris and hamstrings during performance of multi-joint lower body exercise.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2



Muscle protein synthesis


Repetition maximum


Motor unit




Rectus femoris


Vastus lateralis


Vastus medialis


Biceps femoris


Maximal voluntary isometric contraction


  1. Adams G, Bamman MM (2012) Characterization and regulation of mechanical loading-induced compensatory muscle hypertrophy. Compr Physiol 2(4):2829–2870

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Akima H, Saito A (2013) Activation of quadriceps femoris including vastus intermedius during fatiguing dynamic knee extensions. Eur J Appl Physiol 113:2829–2840. doi:10.1007/s00421-013-2721-9

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. American College of Sports Medicine (2009) American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 41:687–708. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Baechle TR, Earle RW (eds) (2008) Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics, Champaign

    Google Scholar 

  5. Burd NA, Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Phillips SM (2012) Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 37:551–554. doi:10.1139/h2012-022

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Campos GER, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK et al (2002) Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol 88:50–60

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Cook SB, Murphy BG, Labarbera KE (2013) Neuromuscular function after a bout of low-load blood flow-restricted exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 45:67–74. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826c6fa8

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cormie P, McGuigan MR, Newton RU (2011) Developing maximal neuromuscular power: part 1–biological basis of maximal power production. Sports Med 41:17–38. doi:10.2165/11537690-000000000-00000

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Duchateau J, Semmler JG, Enoka RM (2006) Training adaptations in the behavior of human motor units. J Appl Physiol 101:1766–1775. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00543.2006

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Farina D, Holobar A, Merletti R, Enoka RM (2010) Decoding the neural drive to muscles from the surface electromyogram. Clin Neurophysiol 121:1616–1623. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2009.10.040

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hislop H, Montgomery J (2002) Daniels and Wortingham’s muscle testing: techniques of manual examination. WB Saunders, Philadelphia

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kosek DJ, Kim JS, Petrella JK, Cross JM, Bamman MM (2006) Efficacy of 3 days/wk resistance training on myofiber hypertrophy and myogenic mechanisms in young vs. older adults. J Appl Physiol 101:531–544. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01474.2005

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Leger B, Cartoni R, Praz M et al (2006) Akt signalling through GSK-3beta, mTOR and Foxo1 is involved in human skeletal muscle hypertrophy and atrophy. J Physiol 576:923–933. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2006.116715

    CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DD et al (2012) Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00307.2012

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ogasawara R, Loenneke JP, Thiebaud RS, Abe T (2013) Low-load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. Int J Clin Med 4:114–121

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Phillips SM, Tipton KD, Aarsland A, Wolf SE, Wolfe RR (1997) Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. Am J Physiol 273:E99–107

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Popov DV, Tsvirkun DV, Netreba AI et al (2006) Hormonal adaptation determines the increase in muscle mass and strength during low-intensity strength training without relaxation. Fiziol Cheloveka 32:121–127

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Sandri M (2008) Signaling in muscle atrophy and hypertrophy. Physiology (Bethesda) 23:160–170. doi:10.1152/physiol.00041.2007

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. SENIAM Project (2005) Recommendations for sensor locations on individual muscles.

  20. Spiering BA, Kraemer WJ, Anderson JM et al (2008) Resistance exercise biology: manipulation of resistance exercise programme variables determines the responses of cellular and molecular signalling pathways. Sports Med 38:527–540

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Tanimoto M, Ishii N (2006) Effects of low-intensity resistance exercise with slow movement and tonic force generation on muscular function in young men. J Appl Physiol 100:1150–1157. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00741.2005

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Tanimoto M, Sanada K, Yamamoto K et al (2008) Effects of whole-body low-intensity resistance training with slow movement and tonic force generation on muscular size and strength in young men. J Strength Cond Res 22:1926–1938. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318185f2b0

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomee R (2007) The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med 37:225–264

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Wilk KE, Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Andrews JR, Boyd ML (1996) A comparison of tibiofemoral joint forces and electromyographic activity during open and closed kinetic chain exercises. Am J Sports Med 24:518–527

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Willardson JM (2006) A brief review: factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets. J Strength Cond Res 20:978–984. doi:10.1519/R-17995.1

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Wright GA, Delong T, Gehlsen G (1999) Electromyographic activity of the hamstrings during performance of the leg curl, stiff-leg deadlift and back squat movements. J Strength Cond Res 13:168–174

    Google Scholar 

  27. Zou K, Meador BM, Johnson B et al (2011) The alpha(7)beta(1)-integrin increases muscle hypertrophy following multiple bouts of eccentric exercise. J Appl Physiol 111:1134–1141. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00081.2011

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Robert Harris and Gabriel Irizarry for their indispensible roles as research assistants in this study.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brad J. Schoenfeld.

Additional information

Communicated by William J. Kraemer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schoenfeld, B.J., Contreras, B., Willardson, J.M. et al. Muscle activation during low- versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men. Eur J Appl Physiol 114, 2491–2497 (2014).

Download citation


  • Muscle recruitment
  • Low-load resistance training
  • Light weights
  • Momentary muscular failure