Lighter Weights As Effective As Heavy Weights for Strength Gains

An interesting paper, just published yesterday, found that load — the amount of weight — does not determine the degree of strength and muscle mass gains in weightlifting. “Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men”.(1)

Abstract

We reported, using a unilateral resistance training (RT) model, that training with high or low loads (mass per repetition) resulted in similar muscle hypertrophy and strength improvements in RT-naïve subjects. Here we aimed to determine whether the same was true in men with previous RT experience using a whole-body RT program and whether post-exercise systemic hormone concentrations were related to changes in hypertrophy and strength. Forty-nine resistance-trained men (mean ± SEM, 23 ± 1 y) performed 12 wk of whole-body RT. Subjects were randomly allocated into a higher-repetition (HR) group who lifted loads of ~30-50% of their maximal strength (1RM) for 20-25 repetitions/set (n=24) or a lower-repetition (LR) group (~75-90% 1RM, 8-12 repetitions/set, n=25), with all sets being performed to volitional failure. Skeletal muscle biopsies, strength testing, DXA scans, and acute changes in systemic hormone concentrations were examined pre- and post-training. In response to RT, 1RM strength increased for all exercises in both groups (p < 0.01), with only the change in bench press being significantly different between groups (HR: 9 ± 1 vs. LR: 14 ±1 kg, p = 0.012). Fat- and bone-free (lean) body mass, type I and type II muscle fibre cross sectional area increased following training (p < 0.01) with no significant differences between groups. No significant correlations between the acute post-exercise rise in any purported anabolic hormone and the change in strength or hypertrophy were found. In congruence with our previous work, acute post-exercise systemic hormonal rises are not related to or in any way indicative of RT-mediated gains in muscle mass or strength. Our data show that in resistance-trained individuals load, when exercises are performed to volitional failure, does not dictate hypertrophy or, for the most part, strength gains.

In a previous study, it was found that low-load, high volume weight training actually stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load, low volume work.(2)

Another study found that resistance load (weight) does not determine hypertrophy (muscle growth) in young men.(3)

Both of the previous studies relied on weightlifting newbies. This is often the case with such studies, since the pool of men who lift weights is much smaller, and it’s more difficult to recruit them not just because of small numbers, but because many of them don’t want to change their routines. Weightlifting novices also gain muscle and strength quickly, so scientists that study them can see results over the relatively short span of a project; weightlifting veterans slug it out for every pound of muscle gained.

The present study used men who were already resistance trained.

The key here is that all the lifts were done to failure, i.e. each set was performed until the subject could not do one more repetition of the move.

The previous study (reference no. 2) even suggested that low-load, high volume was even better for muscle anabolism; this however, referred to biochemical alterations in response to an acute bout of exercise, which doesn’t necessarily translate into gains over time.

Implications for your workout

Most of us who lift weights do so for bodybuilding: increased muscular size and strength. Powerlifters and Olympic-style always want to lift heavier weights.

We just want to look better, get in better shape, and gain strength and health.

It looks like we don’t always need to be pushing for the higher weight on each lift. Adding reps to the same lift and weight may be equally as or even more effective than more weight.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m relatively weak in the squat; I can squat 175 pounds for six or seven reps. But I could squat 155 pounds for 20 reps.

A 20-rep squat set is a killer. Maybe the fact that my legs feel like rubber after a 20-rep set indicates that that’s what I need to be doing.

The temptation to reach for ever greater weight is always there. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, a way to measure progress, besides the gym show-off factor.

Ever greater weight also means a greater chance of injury. Lifting heavy weights always requires you to be completely on top of your game. Lighter weights with more reps can be done any time.

Heavy weights also put more stress on tendons and joints.

I don’t know that I’ll be completely revamping my workout routine in light of this, but I will be paying attention and going for more reps.

You often hear that big lifts like the squat and the deadlift are helpful because they result in greater rises in growth hormone and testosterone, and thus cause greater growth overall. Yet this is not the case, and the present study confirms this” “acute post-exercise systemic hormonal rises are not related to or in any way indicative of RT-mediated gains in muscle mass or strength”.

PS: I wrote a book on strength training, Muscle Up, check it out. And check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men

 

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40 comments
JP says May 13, 2016

I have been doing “drop sets” where I use a weight with which I can do 6-10 reps with good form; then I drop 10-15lbs and do another 6-10; then drop 10-15lbs and do 6-10; etc. etc. What I have not been doing is go to failure with each weight. Sounds like I ought to do that!

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    P. D. Mangan says May 14, 2016

    JP, drop sets are great, I use them a lot, but as you say, you should go to failure each set.

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joel says May 13, 2016

would be nice if they would describe the exact RT program used in this study(exercises, exercise nr, sets, reps, rest between sets/exercises)

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    P. D. Mangan says May 14, 2016

    We probably won’t get to see that until the full paper comes out from behind the paywall, which with this journal is in one year.

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Simon says May 13, 2016

Very interesting, certainly flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

I use an abbreviated workout programme – all compound lifts, very heavy, low-medium reps. The main reason being I like to spend as little time in the gym as possible. For this reason alone, I probably won’t go swapping it out for something which is liable to take twice as long.

However, the point raised about the increased likelihood of injury is a good one. I’ve been carrying a niggling lower back injury for years now after pushing myself too far on deadlift. There may definitely be benefit in swapping out heavy/fewer reps for lighter/to failure on those parts of your body which are more injury prone.

Also, it occurs there may be another benefit to the lighter/to failure method – more calories burned?

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    P. D. Mangan says May 14, 2016

    Hi Simon, one reason that ligher weights to failure can be even more effective is because the subjects end up doing more work. 100 lbs for 20 reps = 2000; 150 lbs for 10 reps is 1500. So yes more calories burned, but more importantly my speculation is that you would get better cardiovascular fitness with the high rep scheme.

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      BC says July 4, 2017

      I have “lifted” using mainly bodyweight exercises (squats, push-ups, pull-ups) to failure for the past few years, and in my experience not only is it more total work, but it uses (stimulates) more muscle fibers to failure, the “pump” is better, and the developed muscle has a fuller and IMO more aesthetic shape.

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        jason says July 5, 2017

        I am 44 – started doing massive volumes of push ups and dips about 4 years ago. Every other day pretty consistently. No weight training at all. Managed to get up to 100 dips in a row, and 200 push ups in a row. Never thought that could be possible, but I slowly got to this level over time. That said, about 5 months ago, after noticing that I was stalling with just the body weight exercises, I started weight training, a mix of heavy low rep, and light high volume depending on the day. Only did upper body, every other day. While I did gain very noticeable muscle size with the dips and pushups, I must say that I’ve gained more mass and strength (I think) in the 5 months of weight training, than in the 4 years of body weight training. To be fair, I still am doing dips to finish every weight training session, although not at the same volume because I’m tired from the weight lifting. It’s more for a pump. Maybe my experience is atypical, but based on this, I would have to say that weight training is definitely more effective if building size is your goal.

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          P. D. Mangan says July 5, 2017

          Hi Jason – man, incredible volume on the dips and pushups. Respect. One thing I’ll note about bodyweight exercise is that it’s easy to use momentum, so it seems possible that bodyweight doesn’t directly translate to weight training, in which it’s a bit harder to use momentum. Also, seems to me (i.e. a guess) that weights may target specific muscles better.

          I do dips myself, and there’s no way I could do 100. Or 200 pushups.

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          Thomas Burnette says July 5, 2017

          If I had to guess, that many reps may have been putting you in a calorie deficit and sabotaging your gains. (Once you got past your noob gains)

          Reply
    Allan Folz says May 15, 2016

    Those are largely my thoughts as well. Flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but at the same time, it’s well-established for absolute ultimate results exercise the muscle to failure. Given that, and being honest with oneself, it’s easier on the body to go to failure by doing more reps with less weight.

    On the other hand, more weight is faster (which with a family, job, etc. is important) and is more satisfying.

    So, I think the goal should be finding the optimal trade-off between weight and reps, with a preference toward reps for reasons of reduced injury and that it is easier to actually exercise to failure.

    For myself, with the caveat that I’ve been back in the gym for all of 2.5 months, most days I aim for sets of 16-20 reps. Once a month or so, I’ve upped the weight to where I can do 4-6 reps to see how my strength has increased. I have no desire to do add so much weight I can only squeeze out one rep. I’m not a kid anymore and that is a great way to hurt oneself.

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Matt says May 14, 2016

Flies in the face of conventional wisdom. 12-20 reps for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, 6-12 for myofibillar and less than 6 for pure tone (contractile strength) is one modality I had been following. Then there’s the progressive overload as the primary determinant to hypertrophy. And then HIgh intensity training, suggesting the quality of contraction is the most important aspect. Does it just boil down to intensity ?

Also , the weight times reps for total load isn’t equivalent when somebody is doing a 2 second rep verses a 5 second rep. Thoughts?

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    P. D. Mangan says May 14, 2016

    Matt, I think you’re right about slow vs fast reps. Time under tension matters. But I believe your first statement, about sarcoplasmic vs myofibrillar vs pure tone is, unless I’m mistaken, unscientific. If you had a reference showing that was really true I’d consider it, but it doesn’t sound to me like it’s realistic.

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Jay says May 14, 2016

PD what are your thoughts on superslow from Body By Science (10sec eccentric and 10sec cocentric)? Would you agree that slow motion reduces chances of injury?

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    P. D. Mangan says May 15, 2016

    Hi Jay, I like the Body by Science system, and think those slow reps are excellent. I use slow moves myself, although they aren’t that slow, and I do think they decrease chance of injury. The one problem I had with Body by Science is that I didn’t feel that I was working hard enough with only one set to failure for each move. I think the BOS system could be great for the average person who wants to get in great shape, but I think anyone aspiring to bodybuilding needs to work harder than the system prescribes.

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    MikeT says May 23, 2016

    This outcome is exactly what you would expect if the BBS science is correct, which I have no reason to doubt. It is very effective, but i lift a little quicker. I have been doing it on and off for several years now, it is mentally hard to do it consistently, so I do it when I am completely rested and highly motivated.

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Alan says May 15, 2016

Hi Dennis, what is meant by failure, eg for the squat, just slight loss of form or having to drop the bar ? Dropping the bat seems very extreme! Would appreciate your thoughts. Also does failure fry the neuromuscular system resulting in much longer recovery?

Fantastic blog, invaluable for guys in the second half of their lives. Thank you.

Alan

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    P. D. Mangan says May 15, 2016

    Hi Alan, actually you’ve raised a very good point: some exercises make it difficult or impossible to go to failure, such as the squat. In that move, as many reps with good form will be the closest you can get to failure. Bench press the same – you don’t want to end up with the bar sitting on your chest. To get around this, what I typically do for legs is my set(s) of squats first, then a drop set using leg press, in which I go to failure with each weight, take off a plate, do it again, repeat about 5 times. For chest I use a chest press machine.

    Failure doesn’t fry the neuromuscular system. If you look at the study I cited, the heavy lifters were going to failure too. Going to failure on each set/lift should be the default choice for all of your lifting. There might be some exceptions, as in the case of squat and bench where it’s difficult to go to true voluntary failure.

    Also, re dropping the bar in the squat, yes, that’s extreme! A friend showed me a video of his daughther doing squats, heavy ones too, and she dropped the bar at the end. Just tossed it backward. I told my friend that no one does that. I think she learned it at Crossfit.

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      DF says May 19, 2016

      Dumping weight behind you on a back squat is taken from Olympic Weightlifting and Crossfit has merely adopted it. Its a safe way of bailing on a weight when done correctly but you will often see lifters (a term I use to describe Olympic weightlifters only) even dumping weight on heavy singles or doubles once they’ve stood up with the weight. However, in order to do so safely the squat must be executed in a high bar position, which is the standard for most lifters since the torso is more upright. Powerlifters tend to use a low bar back squat which has the torso pitch forward more (along with a wider stance). Bumper plates are a requirement though.

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says May 19, 2016

        I’ve never seen Olympic lifters do squats. It’s not in the Olympics, right?

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          DF says May 19, 2016

          In training, lifters back squat, front squat, and overhead squat regularly. In competition a clean and jerk usually requires a front squat (getting under the bar and out of the hole in the rack) so much so that a 1 RM clean usually translates to 85% to 90% of your front squat. The snatch has a similar requirement. Its very difficult to lift maximal loads without squatting under the weight.

          Reply
      alan says May 21, 2016

      Hi Dennis, I’m going to give this a go for a couple of months and report back. I managed 7800kg work load @ 35% 1rm for a normal barbell workout, approx 2x the workload I normally achieve. 3 sets of each exercise to failure. Alan

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says May 21, 2016

        Great, Alan, I’ll be interested to hear the results.

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LeeLee says May 15, 2016

This is interesting. Anecdotal, but I had this whole thing where I was getting upset about my thighs getting bulkier from doing squats, so I stopped adding more weight and just starting focusing on doing my squats really well with more reps thinking that would solve the issue, but my thighs still got bigger lol. I guess this is why.

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Benjamin Richardson says May 15, 2016

Great that you wrote about this, thank you, very interesting indeed. It prompts me to consider adding in a 20-25 rep micro-cycle into my macro-cycles. Currently 15 reps is my maximum for any sets performed.

The older I get (I am 39) the more interested I am in anything that allows me to train effectively and *safely* and all other things being equal less weight is safer than more, so this has significant appeal.

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ConantheContrarian says May 16, 2016

Mangan, I love this site. I recommended it to three people this weekend, all men over 40. Now to the issue: weightlifting. I practice a specific martial art, Systema (a Russian martial art), of which the major practitioners and teachers tend to avoid bulking up but emphasize strengthening ligaments and tendons. One teacher emphasizes a variety of exercises from kettle-bell lifts to push-ups and other calisthenics (with a Systema bent) with the intent of strengthening the strike and strengthening the body against strikes. The effect of all this for me has caused me to become more cut with a very moderate bulking up. I just thought that I would pass this on to you and your readers.

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    P. D. Mangan says May 16, 2016

    Thanks, Conan, both for your appreciation and the insight on Systema.

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George Ironthumb says May 16, 2016

Nice! Similar to the Time under tension studies where they compared low resistance and high resistance
yeah the keyword is failure and tension:
http://aboutlifting.com/the-science-behind-time-under-tension-and-muscle-failure-for-muscular-hypertrophy/

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Nathan says May 18, 2016

You were more on the right track w Mentzer program; I.e. lower volume, less frequency, but big compound movts to failure

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Joshua Mayes says May 19, 2016

This study, while interesting, is contradicted by a whole lot of real-world experience, at least as far as strength gains are concerned. The tag line is contradicted by the author’s own findings (significantly higher bench gains in “low” rep group). And there were no traditional strength training programs tested (e.g., 5-3-1, Texas Method, Westside), so it’s wrong to draw a conclusion that 20 reps to failure would be as effective as one of those programs.

The strongest guys in the world all do lots of heavy singles, doubles and triples, and don’t do very much light work to failure. So while it’s true that you can get bigger and have a better physique by doing light weights to failure, if your goal is to get strong (i.e., > 300-400-500 on the big three), you need to lift heavy at least some of the time.

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DMC says May 19, 2016

I like your guys enthusiasm but for real strength gains I’m going with rockclimbing. Fred Beckey is 90 something and I just saw him picking up a new pair of shoes at the gym the other day. All this lifting weights is for attracting dudes cause chicks dig risk takers.

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DF says May 19, 2016

The study is interesting because it does go against conventional wisdom and my own personal experience. Squatting 30% to 50% of a 1 Rep Max [RM] to failure seems more like metabolic conditioning and every squat program I’ve come across in Olympic weightlifting cycles between 70% to 100% of 1 RM. Failure typically occurs at lower rep schemes of 90%+ of 1 RM but there are so many different protocols. Among the tougher ones are the pause squats under load (holding the squat at the bottom position for several seconds) or eccentric squats under load on a count, I mean the sky’s the limit.

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Weekend Link Love – Edition 401 | Mark's Daily Apple says May 22, 2016

[…] Light weights work. […]

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paul says May 22, 2016

8-12 reps is not considered low, 1-5 reps probably. The danger of higher reps is you may get sloppy towards the end. 20 rep squats actually seems like a good idea, if you lift from the floor not from a rack that has the weight up already. Something about loading heavy barbell across the shoulders doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

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Weekend Link Love – Edition 401 | Health ,Beauty and Lifestyle says May 22, 2016

[…] Light weights work. […]

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Angela says May 22, 2016

Was there, by chance, a similar study done with women? I’m assuming it translates to women, but one thing I’ve learned is that women can be sooooo different from men when it comes to this type of thing. I may still adopt this method anyway 🙂

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Jim says May 25, 2016

What are your thoughts on starting an 8 year old boy in weight lifting? I had always heard starting too young is bad as your body is still growing.

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Weekend Link Love – Edition 401 says May 26, 2016

[…] Light weights work. […]

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JB says June 23, 2016

Even powerlifting programs tend to utilize sub-maximal weights for 98% of the lifting involved. You’ll often workout with 65%-95% of your one-rep max. Lots of PL programs are emphasizing lighter weight/higher volume accessory work as increasingly important.

You can use volume itself as progressive overload (i.e. constantly measuring how many reps you can do with a given weight). Just don’t think that you can continually do high rep/low weight with the same volume AND the same weight and get very far. One of the two has to increase. Good programs make sure one or the other increases. For older lifters I imagine focusing on volume as a progression mechanism is safer overall.

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