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Reps vs Load: Which is the Key to Building Muscle?

Exploring the age-old question with a look at the story of Milo and progressive overload in muscle training

Milo of Croton was a renowned wrestler who lived in the 6th century BC. He was a six-time Olympic champion and a seven-time Pythian Games champion, making him one of the most successful athletes of his time. Milo's strength was legendary.

According to one story, Milo began his training as a wrestler when he was just a boy. He used to carry a calf on his shoulders every day, and as the calf grew bigger, so did his strength. By the time he was a man, he could lift a full-grown bull.

This is the story that sparked the concept of progressive overload.

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your strength training routine.

What’s more effective: more reps or more load?

According to a study done by Brad Schoenfeld and friends: Progressive overload without progressing load?

The researchers predicted that increasing the weight lifted would lead to maximum strength, while increasing the number of repetitions would result in better muscular endurance.

The study lasted for 8 weeks and began by recruiting 43 participants (27 men and 16 women) who had at least 1 year of training experience. Prior to the study, all participants were tested and measured to establish baseline comparisons.

The participants were divided into two groups: the load group and the rep group. The load group increased the weight while keeping the number of repetitions constant, while the rep group increased the number of repetitions while keeping the weight constant.

The subjects trained 2x per week for 8 weeks.

After 8 weeks here’s what they found…

The outcome of reps training was similar to load training.

Here's what they said about the study:

“Progressing load and repetitions throughout an 8-week training cycle produced similar increases in muscle size in most muscles and regions of the lower body. This suggests that both are likely sufficient for maximizing hypertrophy, at least in the short to medium term. However, we found modestly favorable aggregate muscle thickness measures favoring rectus femoris growth in REPS… Load progressions were slightly more effective for maximal strength and equally effective for muscular endurance performance.”

How can you use this in your own training?

If you've hit a plateau in your weightlifting progress, or if you're dealing with an injury or weak joints, there are other ways to build muscle. This approach may also be useful if you're an older lifter who has given up on lifting heavy weights, or if you work out at home and have run out of weights to add to your barbell.

Both progressions of reps or load appear to be good strategies for enhancing muscular hypertrophy. Which provides trainers and trainees with another promising approach to programming resistance training.


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