“Lightweight, baby!” We’ve all seen the videos of those guys lifting massive weights — anything but light dumbbells… It makes sense that a heavier weight would not only burn more calories but also build more muscle fibers.
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Lift Heavy or Lighter Weight?
Resistance training-mediated hypertrophy can be done via the triggering of muscle protein strands — namely myosin and actin — and the resistance profile of the motion could play an enormous role in muscle protein synthesis.
What? Too Scientific?
Right… First, let’s establish some terms.
- Lifting weights: A broad term used to describe pretty much every single training method that requires you to work against resistance. So technically, this includes bodyweight training, calisthenics, etc.
- Building muscle: To increase muscle mass, the body needs to undergo mechanical tension in the gym, body needs to have a decent amount of protein and food, and you need to rest/sleep enough to allow for growth.
- Heavyweights: What’s heavy to you might be light to someone else. Thus, heavier weights should be relative to you. Heavyweights classify as >75% of your one rep max. These are usually done with lower reps.
- Lightweights: Similar to heavy weights, lighter weights are relative. These classify as <75% of your one rep max. These are usually done with a higher rep range..
- Training to failure: A term used to describe training to a point where you can no longer do a single rep. Complete and utter failure, or 0 RIR (reps in reserve) — not to be confused with #RM ([number] rep max) — 1RM is one rep max, etc.)
Now that we understand the basics of lifting and building muscle, we can look at these factors in three different aspects: strength, hypertrophy, and fat loss. Would lifting lighter weights be beneficial for any of these? Or should you always lift heavier weights?
But before we do that, let’s talk about how to actually build ripped muscle with light weights.
How to Build Muscle with Light Weights
So, you’ve skipped the personal trainer, and you wanna build the body of your dreams, but you prefer using light weights.
It’s all good. Wwe can certainly build muscle with those, and here’s the 101 on how to do it!
Step 1 – You Have to Train Close to Failure
As I’ll explain below, you need to train within 3 – 4 reps of failure to stimulate the muscle enough to grow, especially if your goal is building a ripped upper body.
Step 2 – Use the Correct Amount of Volume
Because you’re lifting light weights, you might have the ability to do more volume, more reps, and more overall lifting. Building muscle requires stress on the muscles, so you need to provide them with time under tension and mechanical tension.
Step 3 – Practice Progressive Overload
In order for the muscles to keep growing, you need to give them more of a reason to adapt. More reps, more sets, more weight, and (perhaps) slower reps. Using more weight might not be what you want to do, so you better get used to doing a ton of volume…
Step 4 – You Need to Eat Like It’s Your Job (i.e., Bulking)
There’s no debating that muscle growth and bulking are incredibly calorically intensive and will require you to eat 150 – 250 calories above your maintenance, which you can calculate for yourself here. Once weight gain stops, simply increase your calories again by 150 – 250
Step 5 – Eat the Correct Foods
While eating more is crucial, you also need to eat the correct foods. Eat at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight to ensure you grow muscle tissue. Eating more might be marginally better, but the margin is so small that it might not be worth the extra cash.
Step 6 – You Need to Rest Enough
If the muscle doesn’t recover enough, you won’t get the full range of muscle growth. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night and plenty of rest between lifting sessions.
Lifting heavy weights might be a personal choice, but everything else remains the same for both parties. You need to train all the muscle groups and make sure you supply the body with the tools it needs in order to grow.
Yes, muscles need to be punished in the gym. But once you step out of there, those babies need to be wined and dined to make them grow.
Light vs Heavy: Strength
Strength training is typically done with one goal in mind: to get stronger and to compete in competitions such as powerlifting and strongman. What’s important to remember is that both your 1RM and 10RM matter and are classified as strength… Someone benching 500 lbs for 20 reps is dirty strong.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Lifting lighter weights is okay for strength, but heavier weights are massively better. It really isn’t even a competition. Nobody goes from doing 20 reps on 50 lbs to doing one rep of 400 in a week.
Why? Well, there’s more to lifting big ‘ol weights than just muscle tissue. Primarily, the nervous system. The nervous system also has to adapt to bigger loads, and you don’t get that with smaller loads.
A study conducted in 2015 by the prolific exercise scientist Brad J. Schoenfeld and other researchers found that higher loads are massively better for strength gains “… however, HL (high load) training is superior for maximizing strength adaptations.”
Does that mean strength athletes never do low loads? No. It just means they’ll always prefer lifting heavier weights because that’s their job. They use lighter weights to perfect proper form or train particular muscle groups.
Such as biceps curls. You wouldn’t 1RM them, but a 10RM set would help build biceps that won’t tear during a 1RM deadlift.
Can You Build Strength with Light Weights?
Heavy weights will always be better for building strength, but can you build any strength with lighter weights?
Well, it depends.
If you’re a person who has never done lifting at all, then lighter weight training will lead to strength gains — it’s inevitable. There’s also no denying that calisthenics athletes are strong, yet they rarely use any weights.
It all comes down to circumstance. All exercises will build some strength due to the load (even just a little) and time under tension.
Similar gains to heavy weights? Not even close.
One more thing to note is that at some point, your body will adapt to using light weights. At that point, you either need to start lifting heavy weights or increase the number of reps completed.
The same can be said of those who prefer the heavier lifting experience.
Light vs Heavy: Fat Loss
Fat loss is rarely dictated by your training and even less by the load you choose. Fat loss is determined by your diet and energy balance — calories in and calories out.
When it comes to lifting, there are only a few things to keep in mind:
- Lighter weights will not “burn” more fat away.
- As you diet, your ability to lift heavy weights will decrease due to decreased leverage and energy levels. Fighting this decrease is the key to retaining muscle mass.
- There’s some research hypothesizing that higher reps might be better in a fat-loss phase. However, nothing has been peer-reviewed yet.
- Compound movements will become incredibly taxing the leaner you get, so try not to become emotionally attached to a particular lift.
- Your ability to recover will drop dramatically the leaner you get. Thus, using higher-volume workouts will become harder and harder.
Again, the most important thing is that you lift weights. Do that, diet accordingly, and rest enough, and you’ll be on your way to losing fat. You don’t even need a personal trainer.
Can You Get Lean with Light Weights?
Of course, you can!
Just as long as the weights aren’t this light…
Remember, when it comes to any physical goal, your diet plays a larger role than you think. Fat loss is mostly determined by your actual diet and energy balance. Eat too much, and you won’t lose fat, no matter how much weight you move in the gym.
Is lightweight the better load profile for a cut? Debatable.
There’s an adage that many praises, “What made the muscle big will keep the muscle around.” If you got big with more weight, why would you change your training style?
You might use relatively light weights as you get closer to your leanest because of safety and low energy, but you should ideally continue to lift big to keep your fast twitch muscle fibers big.
Then again, you have to listen to your own body. If your body doesn’t like lifting light, then don’t. If your body can literally not cope with heavy weight (joints, etc.), then don’t.
There aren’t any rules set in stone here. As long as you get close to failure when lifting, you’re good.
Light vs Heavy: Hypertrophy
Approaching this question is like watching a Marvel movie: you know the child within you will love it, but there are going to be so many people saying you’re wrong for liking it.
Just let me be, okay? My dad didn’t love me growing up!
Let’s settle this really quickly. Both light and heavy loads can lead to muscle growth.
Lifting weights will always result in the muscle mass needing to adapt, and neither load profile is necessarily “bad.”
Each has benefits and drawbacks:
- You run a far lower risk of getting injured.
- Lifting light might make for faster gym sessions due to less time warming up.
- There’s less wear and tear on your joints.
- By getting stronger due to heavier weight, you could lift more over time, which would lead to more hypertrophy (not acutely).
- Benefits those who classify as “dopamine lifters.”
- You build way more strength than those training with lighter weights.
- There’s an argument that your systemic hormones released could be more than those released by the lighter-weight group.
- You do run a far greater risk of injury and general wear and tear.
So, Which Should You Do?
Either. Just train to within 4 reps of failure.
We’ve known for a very long time that training to within 3 – 4 reps of failure with proper form is the single best way to grow. Lift lighter weights, and that 3 – 4 reps might be miles away.
Thus, if your fitness isn’t up to par, heavier weights might be better. Go with big loads, and you’ll reach failure quickly.
However, if your joints are old and crappy, then the high reps might be the better route to take. Choose to lift in a manner that your body can actually keep up with. Use enough volume, and get close to failure, and you’ll be making gains in no time.
Build Ripped Muscle with Light Weights Conclusion
From the mindless debates on Reddit to the back-and-forth on Instagram comments, the world is split in two between lifting light weights and lifting heavier ones.
The truth of the matter is that studies have been done on this matter, and they’ve proven that both can lead to muscle growth!
You might be thinking one might be better because you enjoy it more, and in that case… it might. If you enjoy doing a program, you’re more likely to do it with actual motivation.
Overall, both load schemes can get you to gain, it really comes down to this:
- Train too close to failure.
- Use the correct amount of volume.
- Practice progressive overload.
- Eat like it’s your job.
- Eat the correct foods.
- Rest enough.
If you follow all of these rules, you’ll gain muscle regardless of using light weights or heavy ones.