We must always lift heavy to gain muscle -right?

Today’s newsletter is a collaboration between our  newest team member Kieran and myself.  As always, we are dealing with the question of gains.Everyone knows that heavy weights (think sets of less than 10 reps) are the best tool for gaining muscle mass. However, recent research has shown that this might be only part of the equation that will lead us to success.

Studies have found that lifting lighter weights can stimulate similar amounts of muscle growth, provided that those sets are taken close to the point of failure.Why is this?  The Size Principle dictates that during a bout of muscular activity (a set of squats, for example), muscle fibers are activated in order from smallest to largest, based on the demands the muscle is facing. In order to activate all of the available muscle fibers and maximize the growth process, the demands on the muscle must be very high.

That is why heavy weights are so effective for gaining muscle. They do a great job of activating the largest muscle fibers in our bodies without wasting any time. However, due to the Size Principle, a similar effect can be achieved by lifting lighter weights closer to failure. During a maximal set of 20 reps, the smaller muscle fibers are capable of moving the load for about the first 10-12 reps, but eventually they will become fatigued, and the body will be forced to activate the larger and stronger muscle fibers to continue lifting the weight. This is exactly what we want.

At this point, some of you might be asking why you should care. Everyone who lifts heavy frequently enough has gained plenty of muscle. These people probably figure that if their program works, why fix it?

Couple points: lifting heavy is tough on the joints and central nervous system, especially for us, older guys. We also do not get stronger infinitely, so progress comes to a halt.Additionally, what I’m telling you is that your program could be more effective if you added some lighter sets to your heavier sets. The problem with lifting heavy all the time is that this style of training is very demanding on all of the body systems. Anyone who has ever trained legs with intensity knows just what I mean. Only lifting heavy all the time is limiting your ability to do more work, more often, and you need more volume and more frequency to continue seeing gains in muscle and strength once you are past the newbie level.

How can we take advantage of this new information? We can devise a training strategy that utilizes both heavy and light weights to maximize growth. If you currently bench and squat heavy twice a week, I suggest adding a third session with low weight (think sets of 20-30 reps), and push close to failure on this day. The light weights will spare your joints and nervous system from excessive strain, while giving the muscles a great workout and stimulating growth.
Don’t be afraid to schedule your lift sessions within 24 hours of your heavier work. The lighter loads are not capable of causing much muscle damage, and therefore do not produce a lot of soreness or inflammation. Research shows that muscles grow faster the more often you train them, so don’t shy away from light days if you want to reach your full potential.  In case you forgot, here is my fabulous article on training frequency.

Happy gains!
Maik & Kieran