Can you build muscle with light weights just as easily as with heavy?
Short answer: Yes!
Back when I was training for sports and my DKNY club clothes, lifting heavy weights and lifting weights to failure were common methods I would use to help achieve sports performance, maximum strength building and body composition goals. I was smart enough to know there were certain exercises it wasn’t worth the risk to intentionally go to failure on even though many times I did when I failed to hit a rep or fatigued mid-rep. These were mostly the big muscle, multi-joint, compound movements like cleans, snatches, back squat, front squat, dead lifts, lunges, overhead presses and bench presses.
Other times I would intentionally go to failure, especially on pull up progressions, push ups, inverted rows, 1-leg squats, biceps, triceps, carries, delts, abs, forearms and calves. More of your body weight and single joint exercises. These seem less risky to me to get hurt on because the loads are much lighter, so the risk is low and the reward is still high, where as, intentionally lifting to failure on the big barbell loaded exercises seemed like a high reward and high risk that wasn’t worth it.
I have lifted to failure on those exercises both intentionally and unintentionally, however as I grew wiser, I stopped lifting to failure with large load, barbell exercises. Stopping when I could only do 1 or 2 more, left something extra for the next day, and helped me recover quicker.
When I started Change Your Body Boot Camps ~ 12 years ago, I wanted to create a do anywhere program where busy adults, ages 30-60 years old, could come and work on their health, body composition and performance goals, using minimal equipment that they found at home or could get, could find at a gym and at a hotel if they traveled. I wanted to eliminate the excuses, so if you had a simple home gym that replicated what you could find at a hotel, you’d be able to get a workout in, whether you were traveling or stuck inside because of weather, illness and deadlines for example.
I knew it was possible because I spent the previous 8 years training this demographic and with the exception of the outliers, we mostly used dumbbells and lighter weights. When I would try to train my clients in the beginning like athletes with college, pro or olympic programs, they would get stronger and gain weight. Often times we’d have to spend a lot of time on the recovery end (sore) because they’d be real beat up from training. Then my programming evolved to include more preventive exercises and corrective exercises and later foam rolling as staples to compliment my, from day 1, inclusion of dynamic flexibility (first), core training (before strength) and stretching (at the end).
The more I listened to my clients and learned that even though they may have wanted to look like me and/or perform like me, they weren’t 25 or 22 or 30, they were older and had much more responsibilities and family demands that needed to be considered.
I remembered every time I did a high intensity (heavy weights, fewer reps) peaking phase with Dumbbells, I would get very cut and lose size (my clothes would be baggier on me). This was a light bulb moment and led me to find ways to challenge my clients using Dumbbells. People who wanted to lose weight, were now less likely to gain weight and size.
Then when I was training for a triathlon that I wanted to win (I didn’t), I thought that if I dropped weight, but kept my strength high, I’d be lighter and faster, allowing me to train harder, longer and recover easier. I cut 14 pounds and 14min off of my sprint time, which is considerable on both accounts. My main inspiration for the training I would do came from thinking about sports and what we did in sports to get athletes or myself in shape. Coaches would use timed sets. Drills would be set to time, so I started timing my sets and doing as many reps as I could in 30 seconds for example. This led to some exercise modification, which also led to some exercises being lifted to failure. Another light bulb went off.
Back to boot camp. Ultimate Boot Camp was very popular at the time I started my business. They had multiple outdoor locations and were extremely popular, so I studied them online, in person and talked with their past customers. They did so many things well, so I had to find the things they were missing. One thing that I noticed was the lack of weight training. They didn’t have clients bring weights.
Who wants to bring weights to workouts I initially thought?
Since I worked at a gym, I only needed my program and a bar / shake / sports drink to train with because they provided everything, but, … then I remembered that I brought a basketball bag with my basketball sneakers, a hand towel, a sports drink, water and a basketball to my games. I brought my baseball bag, with glove, cleats, balls, batting gloves, sunflower seeds, a bar, a sports drink, water, high socks and a uniform to practices and games. I brought head gear, mouth piece, wrist wraps, gloves, shin guards, a towel and water / sports drink to Krav Maga. Hockey players bring their hockey gear. Yogis bring their own mats even though studios provide them.
But then why do people go to boot camps when gyms have equipment?
And why do people play sports if they have to provide their own equipment?
Because they like to!
I realized it wasn’t a big deal after all. They could farmers carry their equipment to and from their workouts, which would make them more bad a**. They wouldn’t have to wait or share. They could just train and do. If they invested in gear, they’d have more accountability to use it. They could train inside at home if it snowed or rained or was too windy or too hot and they could train outside if it was an ideal day. They could easily find the same equipment at a hotel they stayed at when traveling.
So I made CYBBC into a do anywhere workout, using minimal equipment you bring, program.
This is great and all, but how much weight should people bring?
I knew people were only going to bring so much weight. I figured guys would be open to bringing 15-30lbs and women 8-15lbs. per hand, so I had to figure out how to get results using lighter weights.
How to Get Results Using Lighter Weights
- Timed Sets
- Lifting to Failure
- Multi-Joint Compound Movements
- Skill Progressions
- Paired sets, compound sets, super sets, ups with downs and vice versa and motion with no motion
We could address all 3 main goals of health, body transformation and performance using lighter weights.
Health (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, joint / muscle pain)
- easier to get started
- scheduled self-care
- easier to recover
- build lean muscle
- gain more energy
- welcoming, non-intimidating community
- easier to be consistent
- supports weight loss efforts
- decreased injury risk because of lighter weights
Body Transformation (weight loss, maintenance and gain: fat loss & muscle building, decreased body fat %, decreased inches in some places and increased inches in others).
- people care how they look
- strength training helps build muscle
- makes you look better
- feel stronger
- have more more energy
- allowing you to do more
- lifting with weights would help preserve muscle
- lifting weights regular would help to promote it
- lifting weights in timed sets / to failure would help to make muscles grow
- lifting to failure would help enhance muscle definition
Performance Goals (play with their kids, participate in athletic and physical activities recover from sports, run faster, play better, and participate more often)
- compound, multi-joint movements trains the active patterns of sports and life and even lighter loads would stimulate the CNS, muscles and energy systems to adapt and get better.
- light weights lifted fast (timed sets or to failure) conditions the body for physical activity
- when you do high skill movements you naturally have to lighten the load compared to less skilled movements. You don’t see a lot of barbell, back loaded 1-leg squats on the internet. It’s too skillful of an exercise, but you could use light dumbbells and do a front raise while 1-leg squatting that works as a counter balance while strengthening your legs, building muscle, making you more athletic and making your shoulders look even better.
- you can still get stronger using light weights if you add them to body weight exercises. look at gymnasts. 90-95% of their strength training is from body weight exercises. Add a little bit of light weights to their routine and they could get a little bit stronger, while keeping their body mass relatively the same (+/-).
- you can build muscle and become more durable to both take impact, give impact, reduce injury risk and to recover from both participation and potential injury, much quicker
As you can see there are a lot of reasons for using lighter weights, even though you can get much stronger, and build muscle using heavier weight, that’s why I was so fascinated by this article.
Subjects used loads that were 30% of their 1 rep max for the light loads and did ~34 reps to failure, whereas the high load groups used 80% of their 1 rep max and did ~12 reps to failure. Both groups did 3 sets.
Nerd Alert – Volume
Leg Extension: 30% of 1 Rep Max vs. 80% of 1 Rep Max
Let’s say you can lift 100 pounds for 1 rep on the leg extension machine. 30% = 30 lbs. and 80% = 80 lbs.
Total Volume Lifted: 30 lbs x 34 reps x 3 sets = 3,060 lbs.
Total Volume Lifted: 80 lbs x 12 reps x 3 sets = 2,880 lbs.
Difference: 3,060 – 2,880 = 180 lbs
You can get stronger with low loads and build muscle if you lift to failure with low loads.
You can get 2x stronger and build more muscle using high loads vs. low loads (see abstract) with fewer reps.
I was fascinated for obvious reasons because we use light weights (loads) in our program so this helps confirm that you can build muscle with lighter weights if you lift to failure (high level of effort) and you can get stronger if there’s enough volume. We address both in CYBBC by aiming for max reps in timed sets for the high level of effort part (failure) to build muscle and we do multiple sets or rounds for the volume part to get stronger.
Take Home Message
Most people don’t want to lift heavy weights, get bigger and/or get super strong. These people want to be strong for them, healthy and lean, while being able to participate and do well in physical activities they enjoy, so having research show they can build muscle by lifting to failure with light weights just as easily as lifting with heavy weights is refreshing. And if someone wants to lift heavy weights, they can.
Using the same program my clients use,
p.s. when you’re ready to stop doing all the thinking on your own and get more support, accountability and possibly better programming, here are 3 ways I may be able to help:
- Group Personal Training: get an awesome team of people you’d like to be friends with; a caring coach who gets you and knows you; a butt kicking program that keeps you getting better; and a high energy place to get filled up; all in a dynamic group setting and all very personalized.
- Private Training: can’t train at 6am, 9am or 6:30pm; don’t want to train in a group; prefer private training; prefer having someone come to you to save time and gain convenience or simply prefer to just show up and not think; have needs that are better addressed 1-on-1, then this is for you.
- Program Design: does our schedule not work for you. are you self-motivated. do you want a custom plan and the support of check ins and follow ups so you don’t feel so alone and you have some accountability? then this is for you.
When you’re ready, fill out my contact form and let me know which option your interested in and how I can help you.