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


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.

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Fig. 1

Adapted from Schoenfeld et al. [6], with permission


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Correspondence to James Fisher.

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James Fisher, James Steele and Dave Smith declare that they have no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this article.

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Fisher, J., Steele, J. & Smith, D. High- and Low-Load Resistance Training: Interpretation and Practical Application of Current Research Findings. Sports Med 47, 393–400 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0602-1

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  • Resistance Training
  • Isometric Maximal Voluntary Contraction
  • Bench Press
  • Motor Unit Recruitment
  • Size Principle