Anyone who lifts weight almost assuredly has encountered THE question. How much can you…(insert compound exercise here)? Whether it’s the bench press, squat or deadlift everyone wants to know how much weight you can throw onto the bar.
Quite frankly, I don’t really care.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love lifting heavy weight as much as the next guy, and my ego can definitely get in the way of lifting intelligently.
But, simply stated, I am not a power lifter. Lifting maximal weight each and every time I go to the gym is not my goal. I am not looking to achieve a PR each time I workout. Nor am I looking to compete with the guy on the bench next to me.
My goal is muscle hypertrophy and an aesthetic physique. Or stated in simpler terms, I want bigger muscles and to look good in a tank top.
Now adding weight to the bar is no doubt one way to go about achieving this goal. However, more weight can come with some additional problems such as compromised form, achy joints, and just plain boredom of doing the same thing over and over again.
Instead, choose to drop the weight and your ego. Give your joints a break and start lifting lighter to get bigger. Not only will you be able to dial in your form, but this will also allow you to really feel the muscle you are trying to work and get a pump like you’ve never had before. You will still be able to transform your physique without constantly smashing up your joints and risking injury from moving maximal weight all the time.
In fact, a recent study backs up this claim (Morton, R.W., et al. 2016).
The participants in the study were required to have at least 2 years of resistance training experience. The study included a total of 49 resistance-trained men, which were divided into two groups. Both groups were put through an identical full-body 12-week resistance-training program. The only difference between the two groups was the number of repetitions performed for each set. One group performed sets with heavier weight of 8-12 repetitions and the other group performed sets with lighter weight of 20-25 repetitions. Each group picked a weight to where they reached volitional failure within their prescribed rep range.
Another important item to note is that there was no significant difference between the dietary intake of each subject and/or group.
Both the low repetition and high repetition protocols were EQUALLY effective in increasing muscle size. This size increase occurred in both the type I (endurance) and type II (power and speed) muscle fibers. In addition, strength gains were increased for each group with no significant difference between the two groups. The only exception to this was the bench press, which did increase more in the low repetition group.
What is the take home message?
Unless you are a power lifter you don’t need to worry about constantly adding weight to any given exercise. You can achieve both size AND strength gains by lifting heavy or lifting lighter (30 – 90% of your 1 Rep Max as shown by the study) as long as the load is adequate and taken to failure.
The key words are adequate AND failure.
Another item to note is that achieving muscle hypertrophy (size) has been shown to occur when a set lasts anywhere from 30 to 70 seconds. While this was not noted in the study one can assume from the rep ranges that both the higher rep and lower rep groups sets lasted somewhere in this range. The point being, picking a weight you can curl 50 times, while achieving failure, would not also be adequate to stimulate hypertrophy.
There is a time and a place to lift heavy and lift lighter. A proper training program should take this into account. I love lifting heavy weight from time to time, but as long as I am making progress I don’t really care about how much I can bench, squat or deadlift. As long as I am satisfied with how I look and feel it really makes no difference at all. While it definitely feels good to be able to lift more from one week to the next, just remember it isn’t necessary to achieve your goals.
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