We have always been told that we need to lift heavy to grow and since in the fitness world most things become reality once they have been repeated often enough, this went unquestioned for a long time. Now, while it is true that an increase in strength is desirable, the question remains how does this apply to your training?

I found a study where 20 healthy male athletes where divided in two groups:

Here is the gist:

Twenty well-trained subjects (minimum of one year resistance training experience working out at least 3 days per week) were recruited to participate in the study. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups:

a hypertrophy group (HT) that performed a bodybuilding-style routine or
a strength group (ST) that performed a powerlifting-style routine
The HT protocol was a split routine where each muscle was worked once per week, with three exercises per session, performing three sets of 10 reps, and resting for 90 seconds. The ST protocol was a total body routine where each muscle was worked three times per week, with one exercise per session, performing seven sets of three reps. The volume load (sets x reps x load) was equated so each group essentially lifted about the same amount of total weight per week. Training was carried out over eight weeks. All sets were performed to the point of momentary concentric muscular failure.

After ten weeks, strength and mass was increased in both groups, with the ST group having gained more strength.
Case closed? Heavy weights all the time? Not so fast.

The ST group trained on average 70 minutes and was mentally-fried by the end of the study, as well as dealing with sore joints, whereas the HT group only trained 17 minutes and felt it could have done more work . So, it stands to reason that with a few added sets the HT group would have had greater hypertrophy without encountering the negatives that the ST group had to deal with.

Muscles recover very fast (think 48 hours), but once the central nervous system is overloaded it can take weeks to recover. Heavy lifting create a fight or flight scenario where extreme stresses can be imposed on your nervous system and recovery ability.
So, while getting stronger should be on your mind when training, it is important not to train always for strength. Pick one or two exercises per four-week cycle where you really try to improve and then train more along traditional bodybuilding style. This way you are getting the best of both worlds

Train heavy but smart!

NYC personal trainer Maik Wiedenbach