When it comes to strength training (and seeing gains, in general), more is often considered, well, more. The more you train, the more weight you lift, and the more committed you are, the more muscle and strength you build.
One breakthrough study, though, might just turn the whole dang thing on its head. In fact, it suggests you don’t have to lift heavier weights in order to make gains, after all.
The study, called “The Effect of Low-Load Resistance Training on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy in Trained Men: A Critically Appraised Topic,” was published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation in July. The research, which is a review of 10 other studies, analyzed muscle growth in two groups of exercisers: those who lifted “light” weights (30 to 50 percent of their one-rep-maximum, or 1RM) and those who lifted “heavy” weights (or 70 to 100 percent of their 1RM).
And what the research found? What really mattered most when it came to gains was “working until failure,” not how much weight the exercisers actually used to get there.
These findings, which challenge the tried-and-true “more is more” approach to lifting, might be music to the ears of anyone who wants to reap the benefits of strength training but isn’t entirely comfortable picking up the dumbbells on the bottom rack just yet.
So what does this research really mean for the world of resistance training—and for your workouts? Here, fitness experts break down what you should know about the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of light load resistance training.
What Went Down in the Study?
Basically, this research suggests that exercisers can make similar gains in muscle mass by lifting lighter as you would lifting heavier weights. That’s pretty huge considering many active people might shy away from strength training because of the belief that they have to lift heavy in order to reap the benefits.
These findings are also good news for those who simply don’t have access to barbells and heavy-duty dumbbells—or who can’t work with heavy weights because of various physical limitations.
One thing to keep in mind here, though: “The studies that were included in the research article featured young, well-trained men with no physical limitations,” explains Jacque Crockford, C.P.T., a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This is the norm in exercise science—and a whole separate can of worms that could be an article in itself—but since young, healthy men aren’t the only people who strength train, they probably shouldn’t be the only focus of related research, no?
Still, this research is significant—and, if anything, “opens a door for other research that should be done around this topic,” Crockford says. “There is a multitude of benefits associated with light-load resistance training.”
The Benefits Of “Light” Weight Training
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to make the most of those lighter weights, consider this your green light.
“Light resistance training can lead to improved muscular endurance, improved bone density, a reduced risk of injury, and improved stability,” Crockford explains. “When you’re walking all day, playing with kids, or just generally on your feet, you’re working your muscles. Weight training with light loads can help you do these things with more comfort and control—and with less pain.” It’s also a valuable tool if you’re training for a non-strength-centric athletic event (say, a half-marathon or a triathlon), she adds.
What exactly is considered “light” resistance training, though? “Lifting less than 60 percent of your 1RM for two to three sets of 12 or more reps,” says Crockford. Since you’re lifting lighter weights, you’ll want to minimize rest between sets to less than 30 seconds.
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While heavier resistance training is famous for increasing muscle mass, it can also increase your risk for injury, especially if your form isn’t down-pact, she notes. This makes lighter training a great alternative—or at least a great place to start.
Should You Incorporate Light Resistance Training Into Your Routine?
If you’re brand-new to strength training, starting with light loads is a must—even if you want to go heavy at some point. “Without muscular endurance, your core muscles can’t work the way they need to for you to do heavy squats and deadlifts,” Crockford says. Working with lighter weights first can help you build the foundation you’ll need to lift heavier later.
Just remember: According to this research, the most important factor is that you work your muscles to exhaustion, adds NASM- and ACE-certified trainer Holly Roser, C.P.T. This means that the last few reps of your sets should feel challenging (though not impossible), which means you’ll have to do more reps with lighter weights than you would with heavier ones to hit that threshold.
Regardless of how heavy you lift, shoot for a minimum of two or three strength sessions per week to establish a solid baseline that ensures you’ll reap all the benefits these workouts have to offer. When in doubt, Crockford recommends chatting with a personal trainer, who can help you find the right approach for you—and progress your workouts safely.