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Is It Better to Lift Heavy Weights or Light Weights?

The Final Say in the Light Weights vs. Heavy Weights Debate

We are pumped to share one of our fave stories from Shape here on FitSugar.

You've always heard that when it comes to building muscle mass, heavy weights are preferred over lighter weights. But a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology has found that isn't always the case. In fact, you can build just as much muscle by lifting lighter weights. If you do it right...

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The key is working the muscle to total failure or exhaustion, says Michele S. Olson, professor of exercise science at the Human Performance Laboratory of Auburn University Montgomery and the star of the workout DVD Perfect Legs, Glutes and Abs.

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"Failure, in this sense, is a success," Olson says. "If you work your muscles, on each set, until you cannot execute another repetition with appropriate form, the heaviness of the weight becomes less important."


Find out exactly what a "light" weight is after the break!

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While the research is new, the concept of working to total failure — regardless of how much weight you're lifting — is not, she says. The American College of Sports Medicine has been recommending this strategy since the 80s and has been advising that people lift a weight that will cause exhaustion within 12 to 15 repetitions.

While lifting lighter weights can be less intimidating, more convenient (you don't need a spotter) and a better option for those who are older, strength training with lighter weights does mean that it takes more reps and more time to get to that sweet spot of total exhaustion. So people who are in a hurry? Heavy is still probably best.

Additionally, most women probably need to reconsider what they consider "light," Olson says. In the study, woman lifted at minimum 30 percent of their max. For the average 145-pound woman, a maximal squat is about 130 to 135 pounds. Therefore, lifting a "light" amount in this study would equate to doing about 25 to 30 reps holding 15- to 20-pound dumbbells.

"Most women consider a dumbbell of about 10 pounds to be heavy," she says. "So, very, very often, women are not lifting what would approximate the lightest weight level (30 percent of max) that was employed in this research study."

Again, the key to building muscle mass is going to exhaustion, no matter how heavy the weight you're lifting is.

"And that going to failure/muscle exhaustion means that you cannot execute another repetition with good form because your muscle is toast," Olson says. "Both are very important components to keep in mind whether using heavy, medium or light weights — man or woman."

How heavy or light of weights do you lift? Do you truly go to muscle fatigue? Will you change anything about your strength-training workouts? Tell us about it in the comments below!

To get the latest health, fitness, beauty, and fashion news follow @Shape_Magazine on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Eric-Kenyon-RKC Eric-Kenyon-RKC 5 years
Trolls: that is what we call those who intrude on internet forums with insulting and ignorant comments anonymously. The cowardly troll hides behind snarky usernames taking no responsibility for her disruptive behavior. No troll has ever offered useful information or even a relevant question. I never engage with such creatures. \u00a0 Intelligent and proactive readers interested in my views have already satisified themselves by googling my name, going to my website, reading about my background and that of my teachers. Perhaps they have followed links to the websites of my mentors, and learned their backgrounds, and who taught them. They could read testimonials about my coaching written by nationally ranked and professional athletes. A person with a keen interest in how I train people could call me on my cell, send me a private e-mail, or even visit me at my house, or one of the facilities where I train athletes, as all that info is easily available to the public. I stand behind the words I write, physically and completely.\u00a0
butseriously1 butseriously1 5 years
Man, Eric, why all the hate? This is a great article. It focuses on the importance of working to failure with whatever weight you choose to work with. \u00a0 Failure being the key. I don't know why you choose to lead your clients in the direction of subar results, but god bless you for being able to keep them. \u00a0 Failure is your friend. The only thing being "debunked" is your knowledge. "Classically the subject gets hurt, sick or burned out in week seven." Yes. 6 weeks of results & then it all comes tumbling down in week 7, eh? I'd like to see your data on that experiment, smarty. \u00a0 Failure. Just say yes. @Eric Kenyon RKC\u00a0
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