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Lifting Weights: Go Light or Go Heavy?

June 9, 2011 - Dalia Jakubauskas
Conventional wisdom among gym rats is that lifting heavy weight is the only way to gain muscle mass. This is true only to a point. While it is true that the weight lifted must be heavy enough to fatigue the muscle, whether a few or a lot of repetitions will suffice is debatable, according to a recent study. Lifting ridiculously heavy weights isn’t the only way to pump up muscles, say researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Similar results can be achieved by lifting lighter weights with higher repertions, according to the 2010 study. Gaining muscle mass can be as simple as lifting light weights until fatigue sets in, according to Stuart Phillips, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster. The study, which relied on measuring cellular markers like proteins rather than measuring actually muscle growth, recruited 15 healthy men with an average of 21. Using weights that amounted to a percentage of their maximum lift, the participants were asked to lift light and heavy weights with varying repetitions. Heavy weights were set at 90% of their maximum lift while light weights were set at 30%. The study’s researchers noted that weights set to 80% to 90% of the subject’s best lift required five to 10 repetitions before fatigue set in. At 30%, it took 24 repetitions before muscles experienced similar fatigue. The researchers then measured fatigue at the cellular level by examining muscle biopsies done four hours and 24 hours after the subject’s workouts. What they found was that similar amounts of proteins used to build muscles were produced whether the volunteers lifted at 90% of their maximums until they fatigued or whether they lifted at 30% of their max. While more research needs to be done to replicate their findings, the researchers noted that this means that similar muscle mass can be built using either light or heavier weight. This is good news for those exercisers that have no desire to look like the incredible hulk but who want to gain and retain some muscle mass. It is also a positive development for those with compromised or weakened skeletal systems like the elderly or cancer patients. I am of the school of thought that the more variety you can give your body, the better it will respond. Periodizing workouts using both light and heavy weights is a great way to challenge your body. Athletes have been using this method for years to get stronger and get over workout plateaus. For example, if you have been lifting light weights for high repetitions for months at a shot and find your progress stagnating, try lifting heavier weights with lower repetitions for a couple of weeks. Then go back to the lighter weights for a month or so before lifting heavy again. The opposite holds true for those that lift heavy and periodizre for several weeks by lifting light. Most certainly, one size does not fit all, which seems to be the opposite thinking among some in the fitness industry. Nothing makes me nuttier than watching a muscle-bound, twenty-something trainer take a sixty-something client and put he or she through a weight training session better suited to a NFL linebacker. Few of us, let alone the average sixty-year-old, needs to be bench-pressing 300 pounds. Lifting that kind of weight only leads to joint pain, muscle tears and orthopedic injury. And, you have to ask yourself, what would the purpose of lifting this kind of weight be? Do you plan on heaving a Volkswagen off your chest anytime soon? Or, do you just want to build a little healthy muscle? These thoughts often cross my mind when I watch gentlemen of a certain age try to lift, with awful form, 100 pound dumbbells for a couple of too-painful-to-watch repetitions. Afterwards they usually teeter to a shaky standing position and shuffle to the next station to tear their bodies down some more. It’s all I can do to keep from screaming at them, “Just stop the madness!” A sure-fire way to tell you shouldn’t be lifting that gargantuan weight is your form. If you cannot isolate the muscle you are trying to work and maintain a neutral spine with decent posture, then lighter weight is the way to go. Take the simple bicep curl, for example. (If I had a quarter for every time I spotted the following scene I’d be rich.) In order to execute what he thinks is a bicep curl, a man is trying to heave huge dumbbells in each hand toward his chest using every muscle but his biceps. He is rocking on his heels throwing the weights upward so that his back overarches into a bow, stressing his lower back and using his shoulders to lift the weight instead of the bicep. If he were to concentrate on standing straight and keeping his elbows at his sides as he lifts, he’d find that he could only lift about half the weight because in this position he is isolating the bicep and using the muscle instead of momentum to lift the weight. So, for retaining and gaining muscle, it doesn’t matter if you go heavy or light with weightlifting. Either way, weight training remains a key component of any fitness regimen.


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