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LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS VS. LIGHT WEIGHTS

THE BASICS

  • What may be heavy for one may be light for another. The terms are relative.
  • The same person may use differing resistance for differing movements
  • It is more sensible to speak of resistance weight in terms of reps capable of being performed
  • Generally, when 12 or more reps are done, it is time to increase resistance. There are exceptions.
  • Capacity to perform 12 reps usually corresponds to 50 % of one rep capacity
  • 6-8 reps performed generally relates to 75 % of one rep capacity, which is considered heavy resistance. My maximum bench press was 300 pounds and I would do reps with 225 – 250 pounds, usually graduating slowly to the maximum.

Both heavy resistance and light resistance are valuable. This is not an attempt to recommend one over the other; rather, an intention to discuss the qualities of both.

Heavy forms of resistance are better for building strength and power. This means using a weight that allows 4-6 reps. Heavier weights might also increase the likelihood of injury.

Lighter weights build endurance, which is vital to many sports. Also, lighter weights reduce the chances of injury. By all means, begin with lighter weights. This is the only way to develop correct form.

Working with heavy weights might be likened to preparing for a sprint or dash, while light weights may be thought of as warming up for a distance run. (This is only an analogy and not a suggestion for runners).

Muscles grow when they are compelled to do extra work. Gains are usually quite noticeable in the beginning couple of months. This is because muscles are adapting to unaccustomed workloads. Progress then levels off and more weight or different routines are needed for continued growth.

The story of Milo of Croton helps to illustrate the principle of muscle and strength growth by added resistance. Milo was a heralded Olympic wrestler in the mid 500s B.C. He was an Olympic wrestling champion 6 times. Greek mythology tells us that Milo began to carry a calf on his shoulders as a young boy. He carried the calf up a hill and continued doing so as the calf grew into a bull. Milo became stronger as the calf matured. Yet the growth of the calf was slow enough that Milo’s strength growth accommodated the added resistance.

FAST – TWITCH AND SLOW – TWITCH MUSCLE FIBERS

The human body has both fast – twitch and slow – twitch skeletal muscle fibers, generally in equal amounts. Both types activate force and motion. The differences relate precisely to our choices of weighted resistance.

Fast – twitch fibers become fatigued sooner. They have less myoglobin, the protein that binds oxygen. They are pale in color, pinkish white. They are used for short bursts of energy – heavier weight movements and sprints. They consume oxygen instantly.

Slow – twitch fibers produce energy for longer periods of time. They are bright red in color. They resist fatigue and produce moderate power for longer periods of time. Slow – twitch muscle fibers are recruited for marathon runs or a greater number of reps (at lesser resistance).

Because of genetic differences and the way we train, it is possible to become fast – twitch or slow – twitch dominant. This can become evident in our capabilities and preferences.

For training with weighted resistance, it is important to note that both fibers are activated for different purposes. Also, one type may “come to the rescue” of the other when energy wanes. Most people have an abundance of both.

ENHANCING SETS AND REPS

Advanced bodybuilders are constantly seeking ways and means to get more value from their workouts. Here are a few methods:

  • Working to failure – instead of counting reps, we finish the set only when we are unable to continue because of exhaustion
  • Drop sets – at the point of exhaustion, we move to a lighter weight and continue with no rest
  • Negatives, or eccentric sets – this was a cornerstone of Nautilus machines and philosophy. The lowering of a weight was emphasized and considered at least as important as the raising. Apart from Nautilus, a bench press rep might be performed with the assistance of a “spotter” so that the weight to raise would be more than normal, maybe 120 % of capacity. Then the weight would be lowered without assistance. This technique was suggested at the latter part of a workout because it depleted so much energy. We can use this in our home workouts by raising a dumbbell with two hands and then lowering it with one hand.
  • “Super sets” – this is the technique of pairing two sets without rest. We may do a set for biceps and then immediately continue with a set for triceps.
  • High rep, light weight sets – this is the use of a lighter weight for 20- 30 reps. The resistance would be around 60% of the weight used for 10 – 12 reps. The idea is to engage the slow – twitch muscle fibers as an alternative to constant use of the fast – twitch.
  • Stretching at the end with weight – an example would be to hold a dumbbell downward after completing a set of curls. This is intended to add more muscle fibers. It is important to be very careful not to overdo this, since there may be risk of tendon injury.
  • Isometrics – this is strength training by static holds. The joints and muscle lengths do not change. See my article of July 9, 2019, “How Effective Is Isometric Exercise?”. Planks are isometric and are great for core training. Isometric holds may be done alone or in conjunction with isotonic movements (wherein joints and muscles are moved). Bullworker produces a line of products that are adaptable to both isometric and isotonic movements.

Some of the above techniques are not for beginners; rather, they are for experienced trainers who are seeking advanced methods to engage their muscle fibers. Please realize that moderate weights and methods are sufficiently effective for reaching most of our goals.

CHANGING RESISTANCE AT HOME

If we wish to experiment with both heavy and light weights, it is imperative to be able to use equipment that provides these alternatives. My niche (workouts at home) emphasizes equipment that does not take up a large space, yet gives us an opportunity to become as strong and fit as we wish. This is generally equipment that may be closeted or otherwise moved after use.

Here are examples:

CONCLUSIONS

Please understand the differing benefits of light and heavy weights or other forms of resistance. It is important to be able to change from light to heavy and back as efficiently as we can.

We can do this with resistance cords by changing the cords that attach to the handles. 5 different levels of resistance are included in the set shown (from Amazon).

Changing weights of light dumbbells is simply a matter of selecting your choice of 3 pairs of dumbbells from the stand (from Amazon).

We can adjust the weight of heavier adjustable dumbbells by changing the plates on the two small bars, up to 52.5 pounds per dumbbell, (also from Amazon).

Bullworker products use weight provided by springs within the cylinders. There are 3 levels of resistance, easily changed. The cables may be spread, as shown above, or the handles may be compressed. (From the Bullworker company).

The traditional, time – honored method of using weights is to begin light to establish correct form. Then progress is made as we overload our muscles with weight increases. More weight is needed as performing 10 -12 reps becomes too easy. Be prepared to see very pleasing results more quickly than you may have foreseen. The drudgery of weight training is justified by a more attractive, healthier body.

Please leave any comments or questions in the “Comments” box below. Or e-mail me, richard@myworkoutathome.com.

Be well!

Richard

18 Comments

  1. Hello Richard, I’m glad I read this post. I can see that you have done justice to explaining what the heavy weights and what the light weight is all about. I wouldn’t have known all about it if not for you. I see that they both have their own advantage and disadvantages. At the gym, we are always told to start of with light weight and you have pointed here that it is like starting off a warm up. That’s nice to learn. Thank you for adding those methods you have too. I’ll try to make them a part of my work out routine. Thanks.

    • Hi John! I appreciate your input. Yes, begin with light weights and work up to heavier as the weight begins to get too easy. Also, for some heavy movements, like bench presses, I have even begun with less than half of my capacity just to warm up before going further…Richard

  2. I agree with you that it takes more thab the ordinary to push us out if our comfort zone when it comes to muscle building and that has been the major reason why lifting geavt weights give better results because it compresses our body to do what it UE not prepared to do and with that answers are gotten quickly. Though sometimes the light weight cones in handy when I’m just having an exercise routine for balancing but I always prefer the heavy eight lifting

  3. Hello Richard, thanks for sharing this wonderful post. The ability to change weight is one thing most people look want to do but just can’t. Personally for me I have bee built up with lifting heavy weight and when I try to go for the light weights, it always feels like a waste of time and I know the benefits of light weights but my system just doesn’t go with it quite a lot of times. I’ll learn to start switching now. Best regards.

    • Dane, I understand your point about training”heavy” and recruiting fast – twitch muscle fibers. As for me, my poundages depend on the type of set and even on how I feel (or my energy level).. Thanks for your comments…Richard

  4. Thank you for the post and the clarification about heavy weight and lightweight, I can’t agree less that the terms are relative as this category differs based on individuals but I think lightweight is such a good stage to start with as or tends to get better in terms of endurance. I’m really surprised at the story of the Greek Milo you talked about. It takes great determination to pull that great feat.

    • Thanks, Charles! Please be aware that stories about Milo are from Greek mythology. I believe he lived and was famous in his time, but I’m not too sure about carrying a grown bull up a mountain.,,,Richard

  5. Thank you Richard for this well-detailed writeup. For anyone just starting to carry weight, there is a procedure to follow. It is imperative that we start with lightweight so our bodies can slowly adjust as we increase our resistance levels. Personally, I don’t see why a beginner should go for heavyweight when they have not trained their body to properly resist these weight. It can just lead to harming one’s self. There is a process to everything and we should stick to the process if we wish to get the best results.

  6. Great article about lifting heavy weights vs. light weights.  At the age of 45 I have started lifting weights.  I have begun this journey to get a stronger body, stay in shape and so I can keep doing the activities I love like hiking, running, golf, skiing and kayaking.  I enjoy weight lifting but like all things it takes patience and practice to get better and it is a little intimidating to go to the gym when you don’t know that much about what you are doing.  Your article was a font of information about lifting weight efficiently and to get good results. Your article was informative and entertaining and I am so happy I found it. I am also going to read more articles on your site because you seem very knowledgeable and passionate about physical fitness.  Thank you so much for the information.

    • Thank you and I am happy that you find my site and articles useful. I welcome your comments on other posts of mine. I am also impressed by your level of activity and YOUR passion for fitness….Richard

  7. Great and insightful article, Richard. I’m more into cardio and HIIT type of training but I started recently combining that with strength training.

    My current routine is having high reps sessions (8 to 12 reps) for one week and low reps with heavier weights (4 to 6) in the week after, to stimulate different muscle tissues.

    Do you reckon that one week is a good time frame to alternate the reps and intensity of training? 

    also any tips when you hit a plateau in weight lifting? I face that often and get stuck at certain weight.

    Thanks for your advice on this and for a great article 

    Cheers

    • Adel, I like your plan of alternating weight week to week. I did an article specifically on overcoming plateaus on September 1. Please check it out and let me know what you think…Richard

  8. Thanks so much for explaining the difference between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers and how best to work with each. I understand the general differences but for me, further investigation is warranted.

    I found your site while searching for isometric exercises that may assist in both core strengthening and general toning of muscles groups. After having 5 children, I would like to tone, tighten and strengthen my body while building endurance however I do not wish to ‘bulk up’ my muscles like a body builder may want to. Which of these work-outs might you suggest in my case? Thank you for your input and advice!

    • Shan, I would suggest light weight / high reps, based on your needs. I would also recommend the Bullworker Steel Bow, which is made for isometrics. The light spring may be the only resistance you need. Bullworker also offers free membership in a global Facebook group, where questions are asked and answers and opinions are given. Many women use Bullworker.

  9. Hi Richard,

    I find your site inspirational – …..”especially directed to seniors, ….. George Bernard Shaw said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing”. 

    The way you create an understanding of the different processes and paths to fitness is great. Sharing ideas of how to look at different priorities for different needs, relating to different healthy goals will create a very strong and confident following for you. 

    I like that it is encouraging not demanding. I like that your options to purchase supporting materials is presented as  -following the best available options and it doesn’t make the sale of those products your priority. 

    I believe that you have shared your personal path in life on your page and  that makes you a trustworthy source based on personal experience – which makes your recommendations even more constructive – Well done – and good luck – Sandy 🙂

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