Low Reps vs. High Reps for Strengthening Tendons

What is the secret to maintaining youth and resilience? Easy. It’s movement.

If you move everyday, you will maintain and even improve your fitness. What happens when you put a limb in a cast for 3 months? That body-part gets weak – the muscles atrophy, it’s ability to feel and sense the environment is reduced, and it just feels “different.”

Moral of the story – keep active, and you’ll be already. This also goes for your joints, too. Your joints are part of the musculoskeletal system, and bear load and undergo stress the same way your muscles and bones do during exercise.

This still begs the question though:

What is the Best Way to Strengthen Tendons?

We can group exercise into two categories: low-impact and high-impact.

Low-impact exercise is low in intensity. An individual repetition puts the body under little stress. Walking, swimming, biking, rowing, yoga, light weight-lifting, and calisthenics can be considered low-impact. Because these forms of exercise are usually performed for time or for high repetitions, we will nickname this category “high-rep training.”

High-impact exercise is high in intensity. An individual repetition puts the body under much higher stress. Strength training, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics can be considered high-impact. Because these forms of exercise are usually performed NOT for repetitions or time, we will nickname this category “low-rep training.”

First, let’s consider one important fact – any form of exercise, low-rep or high-rep, can damage joints.

With high-impact/low-rep training, bad things can happen in an instant. This guy in the video below ruptures his bicep tendon during a deadlift. (WARNING: GRAPHIC!)

Fun stuff, right? Well, with low-impact/high-rep training, things can go bad, too (just more slowly). In a studied titled Effect of Repetition Rate on the Formation of Microtears in Tendon in an In Vivo Cyclical Loading Model, tendons were repetitively contracted with and without load. The ones under load (with 15% of peak force) were either contracted 10 repetitions per hour, or 60 per hour. The loaded tendon used at 60 repetitions per hour had significantly more microtears than the lower-rep or unloaded tendon.

So, in reality, anything can snap your shit up. That doesn’t mean we’ll stop moving, running, or lifting weights. You’ve got to break yourself down to build yourself up. You just can’t break yourself down too much.

Back to the question of the hour, however. What form of exercise will build up our joints most effectively?

We shall examine the role that lactate (AKA lactic acid) plays in collagen synthesis.

You know that “pump” you get when you do a bunch of bicep curls? It’s that feeling of “brah, I’m getting mad swole right now!!!” That “swole” feeling is when your body produces a butt-load of lactic acid in your muscles during anaerobic respiration. Well, this feeling of being Arnold Schwarzenegger may play a role in strengthening joints – namely tendons.

Lactic Acid

Here are some interesting studies: in one study, lactate increased the number of fibroblast cells, and in another studied, lactate stimulated the synthesis of hyaluronan in fibroblasts. Fibroblasts are cells that help synthesize new collagen, and hyaluronan is an important glycosaminoglycan (or, building block) in collagen.

What’s also interesting is that tendons receive their blood supply from their attached muscles.

So, depending on how the body metabolizes lactic acid, could it be possible that the attached tendons can receive varying amounts of lactic acid during bouts of bodybuilding-style exercise? Could it be that bodybuilding-style exercise (essentially, lifting weights with moderate-intensity and moderate-volume) is that best approach to strengthening tendons?

Honestly, who knows, but it seems like a plausible hypothesis. As for the other components of our joints (ligaments and cartilage), they don’t share their blood-supply with muscles, so the hypothesis won’t apply to them.

So, in closing, bodybuilding-style training, with repetitions and impact neither too high nor too low, may be the best approach stimulating the growth of tendons.

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