“Should I do more reps with less weight, or fewer reps with more weight?”
“Should I focus on building strength or conditioning?”
“What’s better for long-term health?”
These are common questions we get as coaches, and they’re good ones. And like many good questions, the answer is usually “it depends.”
In CrossFit we practice a very broad and balanced approach — “Jack of all trades, master of none.” For your lifting, you will mostly be working with more reps and less weight, because sound programming dictates that intensity is inversely proportional to volume, so you simply must spend more time and reps with lower % weights. For your gymnastics, you will do more pull-ups than muscle-ups, and more 2-legged squats than 1-legged squats, and in general more time and reps with basic exercises than advanced ones.
Further, most CrossFit workouts are biased towards the “mid range,” which means to optimize your work capacity — or “gains” — you are intentionally working with 30-70% loads and not more than that.
But you won’t remember your warm-up sets, or the 47th Wall Ball of a workout as much as your rep-maxes (1RMs, 3RMs, 5RMs, etc.). And because memory is subjective, what you remember is, in a way, what actually happened.
So there is something more basic to this question than what program or %/rep scheme best optimizes your physiology and adaptation.
It is the question of psychology and what makes successful people successful? In the gym of course, but in work and life too. And it may come as no surprise that since we often repeat the mantra “motivation comes from success,” that successful people are highly motivated. But why is that?
The surprising answer is that it comes down to joy. Successful people enjoy what they do more than the average person. That’s not the surprising part though. The surprising part is that because they enjoy what they do, they are able to endure the hardship and setbacks that come with the pursuit of a challenging goal. Where others start doubting whether it’s worth it to continue, or daydreaming about greener grass, a cold beverage and a warm beach, or getting lost in funny dog videos on IG while class is starting… well, the ones who found the joy are smiling and suiting up for the next round. For 10 years. For 20 years. And that’s where they really pull away, because those who were not finding joy in the process had thrown in the towel by then. They were looking for something to hang onto other than the process itself, and came up empty-handed.
Back to the original question of reps and weight. Simply: you should try out a variety of approaches, and skew towards what brings you the most joy. Then, do it in a way that is sustainable so that your joy will last a long time.
If you enjoy taking rep-maxes or working at 100% too often, you will find that your training lifespan will be short, and therefore you won’t have much of a long-term process to enjoy. Major buzz kill.
Conversely, if you always avoid intensity or heavy lifting, you will find that all your training blends together, progress stagnates, and there aren’t many memorable peaks to celebrate, so your joy and motivation to continue wanes. Why bother?
Over the long arc of time, with a joyful process you will accomplish wonders. Over the long arc of time, love wins.