Are there any advantages to lifting heavy weights over light weights for muscle gain? Let’s look at what the research says.
According to conventional wisdom, high reps and light weights build muscle endurance but contribute little to muscle mass gains. Heavier weights in the low to moderate rep range, on the other hand, have long been recognized as the most effective way to maximize muscle growth.
And, as bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman put it:
Indeed, many of you are probably familiar with simplified charts such as these:
Demonstrating that moderate to heavy loads result in increased hypertrophy and strength Lighter loads increase muscular endurance while contributing less to hypertrophy.
As a result, it may appear that lifting heavy weights provides more benefits in terms of hypertrophy. But, to see if this is a valid point of view, let’s look at the research on the subject and see which approach is more effective in terms of muscle growth.
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The Science of Light Weights vs. Heavy Weights
So, to begin, let’s go over the research, which is, to be honest, pretty straightforward.
Stuart Philips and his colleagues conducted a large portion of the initial research on this topic. In their 2012 study, they recruited 18 male subjects to train their legs three times a week on a leg extension machine for ten weeks.
They were divided into three groups:
• Group 1 did three sets of 30-40 reps at 30% of their 1RM.
• Group 2 did one set at 80% of their 1RM for 10-12 reps.
• Group 3 did three sets of 10-12 reps at 80 percent of their 1RM.
As a result,
The growth of the quadriceps muscle in groups 1 and 3 was nearly identical, as shown in this graph. When volume was accounted for, both the light weight and heavy weight groups gained equivalent muscle mass.
This was a novel discovery at the time. However, it drew a lot of criticism, particularly because it used untrained beginners as subjects.
Because untrained individuals will respond to almost any stimulus and still grow, this could be the underlying cause of the findings in this study.
Additional Research with Trained Individuals
As a result, Philips and his colleagues conducted a similar study in 2016. This time, however, 49 men with an average of 4 years of lifting experience were used. They followed the same protocol as the previous study, but this time they used a whole-body resistance training program.
What were the outcomes?
The results once again demonstrated that load did not dictate hypertrophy, implying that both light and heavy weights elicited equal amounts of muscle growth.
Furthermore, both protocols resulted in similar increases in type I and type II fiber growth, which is typically thought to be load dependent. However, it should be noted that it is still unclear whether specific fiber type growth is load dependent – studies in this area have been contradictory.
Following this study, several studies and a large meta-analysis were conducted on the subject, all of which concluded the same result: “light weights and heavy weights lead to similar muscle growth when volume is equated for and sets are taken close to failure.”
Is the case closed?
Based on this, it may appear that lifting light weights is equally as beneficial as lifting heavy weights, and that there are no inherent benefits to lifting heavy weights.
However, there are a few things to think about.
- When it comes to strength, a meta-analysis of eight relevant studies comparing heavy versus light weights revealed that heavy weights tend to be better in terms of strength gains. Which, in the long run, I believe will result in better hypertrophy than lighter weights.
- Keep in mind that in these studies, pushing to near failure was used regardless of the weight used. Because of the increased metabolic stress, training to failure in a higher rep range is much more uncomfortable than training to failure with lower reps and heavier weights. In fact, some of the subjects who followed the light weight protocols ended up vomiting after high rep sets.
So, in the long run, sticking to light weights and high reps isn’t really a viable option given that training to failure with higher reps is generally unenjoyable, especially on compound movements.
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Putting These Findings to Use in Your Workout
So, let’s look at how you can incorporate this into your workout to maximize muscle growth.
Mechanical tension and metabolic stress are two of the primary mechanisms of muscle growth. During your workout, these two mechanisms are in a constant tug of war, with more of one generally implying less of the other.
Lifting heavier weights creates more mechanical tension.
Lifting lighter weights for more reps can result in increased metabolic stress.
This is most likely why, when equated for volume, lighter weights and heavier weights result in equivalent muscle growth. Because they each target different mechanisms while producing the same result of muscle growth.
To maximize muscle growth, it may be beneficial to target both muscle growth mechanisms in your workout.
Because heavy loads are better for strength gains, mechanical tension, and are easier to push to failure, increasing strength on your heavy compound movements should be the foundation of your long-term training.
The Advantages of “Chasing the Pump”
Furthermore, according to hypertrophy expert and researcher Brad Schoenfeld, “exercise centered on achieving a “pump” via higher rep sets with low weights and short rest also provides a potent hypertrophic stimulus that is synergistic to heavy compound lifting.”
As a result, after you’ve completed your heavier sets on compound movements, you should consider performing higher reps with lower weights in your accessory movements. As a result, you will be able to take advantage of the various pathways involved in muscle hypertrophy.
Drop sets, reverse pyramid training, or including a couple sets of 25-40 reps to near failure near the end of your workout are some ways to accomplish this.
So, let’s take a look at an example of how you could use this in your chest workout for mass. Assume you’re doing the following chest workout:
The first two compound movements should be done with heavy weight in a moderate rep range, with an emphasis on getting stronger.
This workout will go over the mechanical tension mechanism of muscle growth.
Then, to address the metabolic stress mechanism of muscle growth in this workout, incorporate a few drop sets into your final set of flat dumbbell press.
You can also use a higher rep range with a lighter weight and work to near failure on the accessory movements.
Keep in mind that there are numerous ways to incorporate both muscle growth mechanisms, but this is just a simple example for you to follow.
To summarize, take advantage of the benefits of lifting heavy weights by performing compound lifts with low to moderate rep ranges. Concentrate on becoming stronger with these movements. To increase metabolic stress, incorporate drop sets, reverse pyramid sets, and higher rep sets on accessory movements with light weights.
Clearly, more research is required to determine whether targeting the metabolic stress mechanism of muscle growth as well as mechanical tension is superior to using only heavy weights in the “hypertrophy” rep range. Until then, I believe a hybrid of the two methods is your best bet.