Sports Medicine

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 393–400 | Cite as

High- and Low-Load Resistance Training: Interpretation and Practical Application of Current Research Findings

Current Opinion


Our current state of knowledge regarding the load (lighter or heavier) lifted in resistance training programmes that will result in ‘optimal’ strength and hypertrophic adaptations is unclear. Despite this, position stands and recommendations are made based on, we propose, limited evidence to lift heavier weights. Here we discuss the state of evidence on the impact of load and how it, as a single variable, stimulates adaptations to take place and whether evidence for recommending heavier loads is available, well-defined, currently correctly interpreted or has been overlooked. Areas of discussion include electromyography amplitude, in vivo and in vitro methods of measuring hypertrophy, and motor schema and skill acquisition. The present piece clarifies to trainers and trainees the impact of these variables by discussing interpretation of synchronous and sequential motor unit recruitment and revisiting the size principle, poor agreement between whole-muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) and biopsy-determined changes in myofibril CSA, and neural adaptations around task specificity. Our opinion is that the practical implications of being able to self-select external load include reducing the need for specific facility memberships, motivating older persons or those who might be less confident using heavy loads, and allowing people to undertake home- or field-based resistance training intervention strategies that might ultimately improve exercise adherence.


  1. 1.
    Fisher J, Steele J, Smith D. Evidence-based resistance training recommendations for muscular hypertrophy. Med Sport. 2013;17(4):217–35.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Fisher J, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, et al. Evidence-based resistance training recommendations. Med Sport. 2011;15(3):147–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kraemer WJ, Adams K, Cafarelli E, et al. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002;34:364–80.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetoch TK, et al. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687–708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Schoenfeld B. Is there a minimum intensity threshold for resistance training-induced hypertrophic adaptations? Sports Med. 2013;43(12):1279–88.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, et al. Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(1):1–10.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Willardson JM, et al. Muscle activation during low- versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2014;114(12):2491–7.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Jenkins ND, Housh TJ, Bergstrom HC, et al. Muscle activation during three sets to failure at 80 vs. 30 % 1RM resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015;115(11):2335–47.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Looney DP, Kraemer WJ, Joseph MF, et al. Electromyographical and perceptual responses to different resistance intensities in a squat protocol: does performing sets to failure with light loads produce the same activity? J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(3):729–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Denny-Brown D, Pennybacker JB. Fibrillation and fasciculation in voluntary muscle. Brain. 1938;61(3):311–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Carpinelli R. The size principle and a critical analysis of the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2008;6:67–86.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Enoka RM, Duchateau J. Inappropriate interpretation of surface EMG signals and muscle fiber characteristics impedes progress on understanding the control of neuromuscular function. J Appl Physiol. 2015;119(12):1516–8.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Adam A, De Luca CJ. Recruitment order of motor units in human vastus lateralis muscle is maintained during fatiguing contractions. J Neurophysiol. 2003;90:2919–27.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Westad C, Westgaard RH, De Luca CJ. Motor unit recruitment and derecruitment induced by brief increase in contraction amplitude of the human trapezius muscle. J Physiol. 2003;552:645–56.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Petrofsky JS, Phillips CA. Discharge characteristics of motor units and the surface EMG during fatiguing isometric contractions at submaximal tensions. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1985;56:581–6.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Behm DG. Force maintenance with submaximal fatiguing contractions. Can J Appl Physiol. 2004;29(3):274–90.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Garland SJ, Gossen R. The muscular wisdom hypothesis in human muscle fatigue. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2002;30(1):45–9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Boe SG, Stashuk DW, Doherty TJ. Motor unit number estimation by decomposition-enhanced spike-triggered averaging: control data, test-retest reliability, and contractile level effects. Muscle Nerve. 2004;29:693–9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Hodson-Tole EF, Wakeling JM. Variations in motor unit recruitment patterns occur within and between muscles in the running rat (Rattus norvegicus). J Exp Biol. 2007;210:2333–45.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Steele J, Fisher J. Scientific rigour: a heavy or light load to carry? [letter]. Sports Med. 2014;44(1):141–2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Schoenfeld B. Author’s reply to Steele and Fisher: “Scientific rigour: a heavy or light load to carry?”: the importance of maintaining objectivity in drawing evidence-based conclusions [letter]. Sports Med. 2014;44:143–5.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DW, et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113(1):71–7.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    McCall GE, Byrnes WC, Dickinson A, et al. Muscle fiber hypertrophy, hyperplasia, and capillary density in college men after resistance training. J Appl Physiol. 1996;81(5):2004–12.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Campos GER, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, et al. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;88(1–2):50–60.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Schuenke MD, Herman JR, Gliders RM, et al. Early phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus traditional resistance-training regimens. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;2012(112):3585–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ogasawara R, Loenneke JP, Thiebaud RS, Abe T. Low-load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. Int J Clin Med. 2013;4:114–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Popov DV, Tsvirkun DV, Netreba AI, et al. Hormonal adaptation determines the increase in muscle mass and strength during low-intensity strength training without relaxation. Human Physiol. 2006;32(5):609–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Tanimoto M, Ishii N. Effects of low-intensity resistance exercise with slow movement and tonic force generation on muscular function in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2006;100:1150–7.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Tanimoto M, Sanada K, Yamamoto K, et al. 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. 2008;22:1926–38.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Van Roie E, Delecluse C, Coudyzer W, et al. Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics. Exp Geront. 2013;48:1351–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ogborn D, Schoenfeld BJ. The role of fiber types in muscle hypertrophy: implications for loading strategies. Strength Cond J. 2014;36(2):20–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Vinogradova OL, Popov DV, Netreba AI, et al. Optimization of training: new developments in safe strength training. Hum Physiol. 2013;39(5):511–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Netreba A, Popov D, Yam Bravyy, et al. Responses of knee extensor muscles to leg press training of various types in human. Russian J Physiol. 2013;99(3):406–16.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Hather BM, Adams GR, Tesch PE, et al. Skeletal muscle responses to lower limb suspension in humans. J Appl Physiol. 1992;72(4):1493–8.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Oates BR, Glover EI, West DW, et al. Low-volume resistance exercise attenuates the decline in strength and muscle mass associated with immobilization. Muscle Nerve. 2010;42(4):539–46.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Adams GR, Bamman MM. Characterization and regulation of mechanical loading-induced compensatory muscle hypertrophy. Compr Physiol. 2012;2(4):2829–71.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Verdijk LB, Gleeson BG, Jonkers RAM, et al. Skeletal muscle hypertrophy following resistance training is accompanied by a fiber-type specific increase in satellite cell content in elderly men. J Gerontol. 2009;64A(3):332–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Burd NA, Moore DR, Mitchell CJ, et al. Big claims for big weights but with little evidence. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013;113(1):267–8.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Schuenke MD, Herman J, Staron RS. Preponderance of evidence proves “big” weights optimize hypertrophic and strength adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013;113(1):269–71.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Wakahara T, Fukutani A, Kawakami Y, et al. Nonuniform muscle hypertrophy: its relation to muscle activation in training session. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013;45(11):2158–65.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Lexell J, Taylor CC. A morphometrical comparison of right and left whole human vastus lateralis muscle: how to reduce sampling errors in biopsy techniques. Clin Physiol. 1991;11(3):271–6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Lemon PWR, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, et al. Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. J Appl Physiol. 1992;73(2):767–75.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Jones DA, Rutherford OM. Human muscle strength training: the effects of three different regimes and the nature of resultant changes. J Physiol. 1987;391:1–11.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Carpinelli R, Otto RM, Winett RA. A critical analysis of the ACSM position stand on resistance training: insufficient evidence to support recommended training protocols. J Exerc Physiol. 2004;7:1–60.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Carpinelli R. Challenging the American College of Sports Medicine 2009 position stand on resistance training. Med Sport. 2009;13:131–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Jungblut S. The correct interpretation of the size principle and its practical application to resistance training. Med Sport. 2009;13(4):203–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Hickson RC, Hidaka K, Foster C. Skeletal muscle fibre-type, resistance training, and strength-related performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1994;26:593–8.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Mazzetti SA, Kraemer WJ, Volek JS, et al. The influence of direct supervision of resistance training on strength performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(6):1175–84.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, et al. Effects of low- versus high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(10):2954–63.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, et al. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(10):2909–18.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Behm DG, Sale DG. Velocity specificity of resistance training. Sports Med. 1993;15(6):347–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Drowatzky JN, Zuccato FC. Interrelationships between selected measures of static and dynamic balance. Res Q. 1967;38:509–10.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Mount J. Effect of practice of a throwing skill in one body position on performance of the skill in an alternate position. Percept Mot Skills. 1996;83:723–32.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Schmidt RA. Motor schema theory after 27 years: reflections and implications for a new theory. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2003;74(4):366–75.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Brown LE, Weir JP. ASEP procedures recommendation I: accurate assessment of muscular strength and power. J Exerc Physiol. 2001;4(3):1–21.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Soares-Caldeira LF, Ritt-Dias RM, Okuno NM, et al. Familiarization indexes in sessions of 1-RM tests in adult women. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(7):2039–45.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Cronin JB, Henderson ME. Maximal strength and power assessment in novice weight trainers. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;18(1):48–52.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Graves JE, Pollock ML, Carpenter DM, et al. Quantitative assessment of full range-of-motion isometric lumbar extension strength. Spine. 1990;15(4):289–94.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. 59.
    Welsch MA, Williams PA, Pollock ML, et al. Quantification of full-range-of-motion unilateral and bilateral knee flexion and extension torque ratios. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1998;79(8):971–8.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Marcora S. Perception of effort during exercise is independent of afferent feedback from the skeletal muscles, heart, and lungs. J Appl Physiol. 2009;106:2060–2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. 61.
    Steele J. Intensity; in-ten-si-ty; noun. 1. Often used ambiguously within resistance training. 2. Is it time to drop the term altogether? Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(22):1586–8.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Shimano T, Kraemer WJ, Spiering BA, et al. Relationship between the number of repetitions and selected percentages of one repetition maximum in free weight exercises in trained and untrained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2006;20:819–23.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. 63.
    Silva VL, Azevedo AP, Cordeiro JP, et al. Effects of exercise intensity on perceived exertion during multiple sets of bench press to volitional failure. J Trainol. 2014;3:41–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. 64.
    Borg GA. Psychophysical bases of perceived exertion. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1982;14:377–81.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. 65.
    Pritchett RC, Green JM, Wickwire PJ, et al. Acute and session RPE responses during resistance training: bouts to failure at 60% and 90% of 1RM. S Afr J Sports Med. 2009;21(1):23–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southampton Solent UniversitySouthamptonUK
  2. 2.Manchester Metropolitan UniversityCreweUK

Personalised recommendations