Light Weight Baby - can training light build muscle mass the same as training heavy?
Load is load at the end of the day. But can you achieve the same muscle mass as someone who is bench pressing 480 pounds if you are benching 100?
Think what bodybuilding is based on. Isolation and time under tension. Not withstanding the amazing anabolic benefits multi joint full body exercises like the squat and deadlift has, isolation and time under tension are still the most important parts of your workout.
Once the mind is connected to the muscle amazing things can happen. For this to happen you need to work the muscle to the extreme, work it as fully as you can, and make sure the muscle is doing the most of the work and not the surrounding muscles.
This is where exercise selection and execution comes into place. How many of the guys you see doing that 480 pound bench press are arching their backs, using short rep ranges, wearing 3-ply powerlifting suits, and driving their shoulders back into the bench?
How many of these guys can explode from the bottom, lower for 5 secs, hold for 2 on the chest and explode back up. How many could do that for 15 reps, take 60 secs rest and do that for 2-4 sets. That's when you will witness the weight and sets dropping down, and the pectoral majors doing most of the work. They will be on fire.
That's how you build muscle with lighter weight. Focus on the muscle not the numbers. The numbers will go up over time, but that is not the end goal. The end goal is muscle. This type of training is amazing for building muscle over 40.
If you want strength focus on the numbers and lift with your entire body. On the bench press that means extremely arching your back. It means going on your tip toes.
It means driving up with the legs, the shoulders, the next. It means lifting with every muscle in your body. It means working on partial log presses for weeks to build up your bench press lift. See our post here on the difference between strength training and bodybuilding.
Pre-exhausting your muscles with supplementary exercises before your main exercise is another way to build muscle and not strength.
Ask The Experts
So what do the experts say about building muscle and weight loads?
A 12 week study conducted by McMaster University involved EXPERIENCED bodybuilders through a program that involved one group lifting heavier so they could accomplish 8-12 reps each set- they typically were lifting 70-90% of their 1 rep max.
The other groups sets went up to 20-25 reps as they were lifting only 30-50% of their max lifts. Both groups followed the exact same exercise selections. Both lifted to failure.
Both groups put on 2.4 pounds of muscle at the end of the program. That is the exact same result. Two roads to get to the same destination.
The researchers took it one stage further and peered inside the muscles using skeletal biopsies, and dualenergy X-ray absorptiometry scans before and after training sessions. They were analyzing systemic hormone concentrations changes brought on by the different rep ranges and weight loads.
Originally as put out by a majority of broscience type individuals in the bodybuilding arena, it was thought that lifting heavy recruits more of the muscle fibers responsible for growth - the type II muscle fibers. The research proved this wrong.
As your muscles fatigue when you work out, once the body has used up it's recruitment of type I fibers, it then goes on to recruit type II muscle fibers. This is what is responsible for muscle mass. The study showed that fatigue is the driver for recruiting the type II fibers and not lifting heavy as previously thought.
Look at the mass monsters of todays bodybuilding world, Roelly Winklaar for example. Known for his huge, vascular size there are plenty of videos of him training with much lighter weight than he can move, and performing 20-25 reps+ in his sets.
Lee Priest was the same back in the 90's. A lot stronger than most guys of his era but still able to perform 100 reps on the leg press. Forget that it is 5 plates a side, this is nothing for Lee Priest.
There is a flp side to lifting light all the time, if you want to increase strength light weights are not as effective. But the key here is all the time. You would not do the same workout 3 times per week each week of the year.
Your body would stagnate and so would your mind. Mind -Muscle = GROWTH.
Training periodization is key. If you train heavy all the time you will put seriously stress on your joints. You won't necessarily get big neither. The key ingredient is to incorporate some strength training into your workouts, but rather than do it in every session, have a complete cycle of strength training, which should last anywhere from 2-8 weeks.
Training periodization involves devising your workout sessions into cycles. To do that you need to look at the wider picture, not of the day you are training or the week, more like for the next 12 months. You then split those training cycles into periods.
Periodization helps you bypass over-training and work on specifically elements with the end goal leading to bigger muscle growth, and fat burning- whatever you are trying to achieve. Splitting your training cycles up with various loading phases has been shown to be post physically and psychologically important for bodybuilding.
See more info in our post here that includes strength training as a systematic phased cycle that has hypertrophy benefits when combined into your bodybuilding yearly plan.
How Is It Done
Reps have to go higher. You need to reach failure or close to it at around rep 20-25. If you are not used to this type of training it may take a couple of weeks to get into the swing of it. If you are not getting anywhere near rep 25 don't haul the weight up. Going strict works the muscle. Rushing works your ego and makes your workouts more like 'work'.
If you can also control the negative (concentric) and lower the weight more slowly than you raise it you are certainly going to build muscle in the fastest time possible, all things being equal with your diet and recuperation.
Train Light Guilt Free
There is a lot of ego associated with lifting weight. We all know the stereotype of the 300 pound monster who is curling 150 pound dumbbells. Put that guy in a strength competition and he will probably come nowhere.
Training lighter has more bonuses than just giving your joints a rest. If you get injured, say you tweak your lower back, you can still go to the gym and work your arms, or pecs if you train light and strict. Try going heavy with a back injury, and then attempting to claw your way out of bed in the morning.
Let the muscles do the work, not your entire body. Even when doing squats you can pre-exhaust the quads with the extension machine, and some light leg press and hack machine squats. Go slower on the squats during the descent, hold for a second at parallel then drive up. Squeeze at the top- now do that for 20-30 reps with light weight and tell me your thighs aren't on fire.
By pre-exhausting the quads they are already fatigued once it gets to the squat rack. Now the have to work really hard to stabilize the weight, and with the holds at the bottom and slower descent, they have to work even harder. Working the muscles brings hypertrophy, and not just heavy weights.
Two paths to the same end goal.
More Light Weight Methods To Demolish Your Muscles
Bodybuilders have been training this way for decades without even hearing of the McMaster research case study. Namely drop sets.
On the leg press if you can rep out at 600 lb for a single, start with 150 lb, for the purpose of going light. Do 30 reps and after that set take off 30-40 lb- or better have a partner on standby to switch plates off. Without any rest, rep out another 30 (or as close as you can get).
Take off another 20-40 lbs and go again. If you have a heavy leg press machine, eventually you will go down all the way to just the machine or maybe a 20k plate. You may eventually even fail with no weight on the machine. Now try climbing out of the machine after your heart rate normalizes. Make sure you are topped up on BCAA's for training like this. High Intensity Training in a nutshell.
Now tell me light weight is no good.
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