Bulking vs. Cutting: Are Higher or Lower Reps Better? | BarBend

Dr. Mike Israetel says science repeatedly shows that all repetition ranges tend to promote muscle growth.

Sports physiologist Dr.Mike Israetelis, exercise expert on the Renaissance Periodization YouTube channel, often discusses what the latest research suggests for resistance training. On December 12, 2023, Dr. Israetel spoke to an oft-publicized debate about whether lifting heavy weights for fewer reps while bulking up and lifting lighter weights for higher reps are accurate training methods or just a funny balance of words.

According to Dr. Israetel, the science points to it both training styles can build the corresponding muscle over time. See the full breakdown and Israel’s recommendations below:

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Editor’s note: Content on BarBend is informative in nature but should not be considered medical advice. When starting a new exercise program and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended to be used to diagnose, prevent and/or treat health problems. They are not a substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional.

Overturning traditional fill and cut approaches

Bodybuilders, strongmen, and other gym-goers may have heard through the fitness grapevine that heavy weights should be lifted in low rep ranges to increase muscle mass and lighter weights should be lifted with higher reps to reduce body fat. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Mike Israetel, it’s not that simple.

Heavy lifting refers to sets that reach failure in the 5-12 rep range. Lighter lifting refers to sets closer to 20 reps to failure. Both repetitions can lead to sufficient muscle stimulation if the lifter takes their set to near failure, meaning they don’t complete the repetition or their form deteriorates due to fatigue.

It has been shown in almost all studies that sets of 5-30 repetitions and even slightly outside these limits are not reliably distinguished from muscle growth.

TheJournal of Strength and Conditioning Researchsupports Dr. Israetel’s assessment. A 2015 study found that low- and high-load resistance training produced similar responses in muscle hypertrophy. However, higher loads produced more strength. (1)

This is good news for the regular gym goer as it suggests that building muscle allows for variety. The repetition interval can be adjusted per muscle group to optimize recovery time.

How muscles work

Common fitness myths like higher reps and lower weight sets helping with muscle detail are principles that society needs to leave behind. There is no science to support higher rep training with lighter weight to increase muscle detail, whatever that means.

It is also a common belief that a higher Repso burns more calories. Dr. Israetel says that while this may be true, the actual calorie difference is infinitesimal. Dietis how lifters can make the most of caloric changes. Forfat loss, the primary goal in the gym is to maintain as much muscle as possible in a caloric deficit.

While Dr. Israetel debunks the idea of ​​lifting heavy to bulk and lifting light to cut, these methods can be useful tools when properly implemented:

  • Using higher reps during bulks can lead to burnout, which lifters naturally want to avoid. Through this lens, lifting in a lower rep range with heavier weights could be more optimal for recovery purposes.
  • Lifting heavy during surgery may increase the risk of injury because the body expends less energy (i.e. fewer calories) exercising. With this lens, lifting lighter weights at higher repetition ranges may be safer and more efficient.

At the end of surgery, Dr. Israetel suggests training with higher repetitions to avoid unnecessary health risks and possibly continuing PR training with lower weights. The psychological benefit can lead to a successful surgery.

The selection of the repetition range should be based on the fatigue that the repetition range implies.

In short, choose the repetition range that provides the most stimulation and the least fatigue. This is determined by trial and error and varies by exercise and muscle group.

Sometimes between five and 20 repetitions there may be no noticeable difference in the stimulus. By testing different rep ranges to determine which ones stimulate target muscles without compromising the rest of the body, lifters can create more comprehensive training plans, whether cutting or bulking.

Dr. Israetel recommended increasing reps instead of weight at the end of surgery due to progressive overload. This helps secure the lifter when it is at its weakest.

Dr. Israetel wants people to avoid being dogmatic about the so-called science that has been passed over in the gym and stick to what the actual research suggests when bulking or cutting.


Schoenfeld, BJ, Peterson, MD, Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., and Sonmez, GT (2015). Effects of low- and high-load training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men.Journal of strength and fitness research,29(10), 29542963. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958

Featured image: @drmikeisraetel on Instagram

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