Light Weight Does It, too.

Mature woman in a gym exercising by lifting a barbell

You don’t need to lift a heavy weight to gain muscles. You can use a light weight; you just need to exhaust the muscle to make it strong.

Among gym-going men, it is almost a status symbol to be able to lift the heaviest weights. Yes, it is impressive, and yes, it builds muscles, but there is more than one way to build muscles.

First of all, we need to define what “muscle building” is. Do you want the size? Strength? Or definition? Everyone needs some sort of resistance training. If your purpose is to lift the heaviest weight as you can like a weight lifter, you still need to lift a heavy weight, say 90% of the maximum weight you can lift. However, it is not necessary to do so, if you would just like to develop the size or have more defined muscles. 


Several studies out from McMaster University show that similar results can be achieved by lifting a lighter weight, but doing more repetitions. The key is that you need to pump the weight until you cannot lift it so that you reach total muscle failure. In fact, the lower weight high rep workout seems to sustain the muscle building response for days, longer than the state induced by the heavy weight lifting. This means that you can develop your muscles more with less weight!

This is good for everyone. For men, since you don’t need to lift a heavy weight, you can reduce the chances of injuring yourself. For women, you can keep using the light weights you have and still can gain muscles. Even the older generation can start weight training safely (and the weight training has huge benefits for older people). 


Telling this of course won’t change many men’s lifting habit. As I said, it is a status symbol to be able to lift heavy weight. So I suggest that you use heavy weights with low repetitions for one session and on another day use lighter weights with high repetitions. This will, not only increase the size and strength of your muscles, it will also help you to make well defined muscles. 


For women, keep using the light weights you are using, but try to achieve the total failure of muscles. I found that many women give up far before they reach that stage. One reason is that women have a lower pain tolerance than men (even though they can endure childbirth) and at the first sign of pain, they tend to stop the workout. This is why group classes help women more than men as group motivation helps women to push more. If you feel like you are in that category, you may want to try something like the following exercise. 


  1. Hold dumbbells with wish you do lunges comfortably for 10 times, and do the lunges 12 times.
  2. Drop the weight and keep doing the lunges 5 more times or until you cannot do anymore.

  3. Without taking a break, immediately start squats until you cannot do anymore.

  4. After 30 seconds of a break, do full push-ups until you cannot do anymore.

  5. Immediately, change it to knee push-ups and do it until you fail.
  6. After 30 seconds of a break, start doing reverse crunches for your abs until you fail.

That is it! It gives you full body workout in 5 minutes!

A couple of side notes.

First, many women still worry about gaining muscles as they think that makes them big. It won’t happen. Weight training makes your body look leaner rather than bulkier. Women don’t have hormones to bulk up as men do. So don’t worry and do resistance training. It is good for your body, especially bone density. 


Second, if you can really reach the total muscle fatigue stage, you need to do only one set of exercises for each muscle group as I designed the one above. However, it is rather hard to do it for most of us, especially for beginners. If that is the case, try a three set method. All sets must be done till you feel that you cannot do anymore, which is actually not true, but you feel like it is so. The first set is for warm up, the second set for the real workout, and the third for total burn out. Don’t take a rest for more than one minute, preferably 30 seconds. It will be enough. 


By the way, don’t take your phone to your workout. I see many people spending time texting or checking messages between workouts and taking a really long break. You are wasting your time and workout results.


Sources
Exercise training improves hemodynamic recovery to isometric exercise in obese men with type 2 diabetes, but not in obese women. Metabolism, 2012
Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2012

Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men. PLoS ONE, 2010





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