To Build More Muscle, Pump Lighter Iron

Lots of people use free weights and weight machines as part of staying fit and trying to build muscle, but a new study finds that contrary to popular belief, it’s not really the heaviness of the weights that build the most muscle. Rather, you can build more muscle mass by using something much lighter but just keep lifting until you reach fatigue and can’t lift it anymore.

This is good news for would-be exercisers who get discouraged and when they try to do more weight than they can handle and end up injuring themselves, not to mention great for the elderly or those who otherwise have decreased skeletal muscle mass.

Going to the gym is a great way to cut down long-term health care costs, and now you don’t have to do so much grunting and straining while you’re there.

Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men [Plosone via Physorg]


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  1. photoguy622 says:

    One thing that I learned, that works well for me, is that when you hit your fatigue at a certain weight, grab a lower weight and finish the set. I used to just stop before my sets were done. This one change, while simple, has made a big difference.

    • Dead Wrestlers Society says:

      yeah, those are called drop sets, as in dropping the weight down as you progress. They are typically easier to do with things like leg extensions, bicep curls or anything using a weight rack on a nautilus type machine.

      As anyone in fitness will tell you, diet is also important. When I increased my protein intake, my lifts got noticeably better. I usually work in a low rep range 3-5 reps and allow 1-2 minutes between sets but use a weight that’s fairly exhausting to move.

      • photoguy622 says:

        Oh man, definitely for the biceps. I’m weak there! Working on it though. :P

        • denros says:

          bicep 21’s. don’t overdo it though, they can KILL the next day, but turn your guns into WMD.

        • Dead Wrestlers Society says:

          yeah there are about a million bicep routines. Drop sets are a good idea for those doing basic curls. You’ll definitely get a burn on those. When you work up to it, try doing 21s for your arms. Insane.

          • photoguy622 says:

            Thanks for the info! I’ll give it a shot.

          • hewhoroams says:

            Thanks, I had never heard of 21’s before, just looked it up and might give it a shot

          • Beeker26 says:

            I have to do reverse curls to get any kind of growth in my biceps. Hurts like all hell but it’s totally worth it.

            • denros says:

              Haven’t done those in forever, used to do those more for forearms. Switched to close grip pullups. Either way it’s always a good idea to switch up the routine from time to time.

    • ChoralScholar says:

      Keep dropping the weight until you can’t even drive home.

      30 lbs, 20 lbs, 10 lbs, 5 lbs, 2.5 lbs, arms only, temporary paralysis…..

  2. Anonymously says:

    Hasn’t there been conflicting information about the weight and quantity of reps for years and years now? Why should I believe this study this time?

    • trey says:

      cause it is from the same guys that say Pluto is no longer a planet… or is it?

    • Gladeye says:

      Because I say so, whimp!

    • allgoodpeople says:

      This idea has actually been floating around the bodybuilding community for years. Schwarzenegger specifically mentions in several of his books that in his teen years he began as a power lifter doing high weights/low reps, but found it wore too much on his joints. He switched to higher reps/lower weight and transitioned to bodybuilding.

  3. KeithIrwin says:

    The question is whether you’re lifting because you want to be strong or because you want to look good. If you’re just doing it to look good, then yes, you want lots of reps at a light weight. This increases the amount of muscles and makes them bulkier looking. If you want to be strong, you want fewer reps at a heavier weight. This builds muscle strength more quickly although it doesn’t give you the big muscles look as quickly. This is why the Mr. Universe guys don’t look like the World’s Strongest Man contest guys and vice versa.

    • Dead Wrestlers Society says:

      this. I get so tired of people saying “You work out?” grrr. When they see me with my shirt off it’s a different story though. Maybe I’ll just get a t-shirt with my bench/squat/deadlift maxes and wear it all the time.

    • mjconsumer says:

      Complete urban legend. There’s no medical definition between ‘amount of muscles’ and ‘muscle strength’. They are the same thing. You are only killing your joints by lifting heavy.

      • KeithIrwin says:

        Umm, no. There is a very distinct medical difference, I just didn’t bother to break out the fancy terminology.

        There are two types of muscular hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. The long-slow reps tend to cause sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This causes an increase in sarcoplasm, which is the fluid inside the muscle cell. An increase in the fluid does not cause the muscle cell to increase its pulling power just its bulk. Muscles pulling power only increases during myofibrillar hypertrophy which causes an increase in the actin and myosin proteins, which is what does the real work.

        So, in short, muscle size reflects the volume of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells, rather than the pulling power, which is primarily determined by the quantities of actin and myosin.

    • KeithIrwin says:

      What I hadn’t done at the time I wrote that post was to read the actual article. I read the summary of it, which wasn’t very informative. The actual article doesn’t say that you get bigger muscles from doing a larger number of reps for a longer time, it says that you get stronger muscles from doing that. That isn’t the conventional wisdom, but, in fact, is its opposite. Their conclusion is that doing a large number of reps at a smaller weight (30% of the maximum that they can lift with a single repetition) results in more muscle protein gain (and hence more muscle strength).

      The study, however, only measures results after a single session, and only up to 24 hours later. One would expect that muscular strength increase would not peak until around the time that muscle soreness ends, which is usually 24-72 hours later. I’m curious what the results would be if they studied both a longer time frame after the initial workout and the result from using this as a longer-term workout strategy rather than a single session.

  4. chefboyardee says:

    Tony Horton (p90x) says the opposite. Higher weight, lower reps for mass. 8-10 reps to build mass, 12-15 to trim down, but always to completion (you should feel the burn at 6 for the first case, 12 for the second).

    I admit don’t know anything about the science behind lifting, but he seems pretty on point for a 50+ year old.

    I do agree with photoguy that you should try to finish out your set with a lower weight if you fatigue before you hit your number. Finishing > not finishing.

    • denros says:

      Nothing against the program, as it works for plenty of people, but P90X is *not* a muscle-building program. It has that affect on (mostly) untrained people and beginners and it will build some muscle, but overall it’s more for fat loss and endurance training.

      • chefboyardee says:

        Oh, I never said it was a muscle building program, I’m just repeating what he said. According to him, if you’re doing the program and you want to gain more muscle than the program would normally give you, you increase weight and lower reps.

        That doesn’t mean you’ll get the maximum amount of muscles you’d get doing a different workout for the same amount of time, but when you compare “I want bigger muscles” to “I want to tone up” he says the way to do the former is with a higher weight and lower reps.

        But, like I said, I have no idea. My idea of a workout is taking my GSD running for an hour.

    • Conformist138 says:

      I totally listen to everyone on infomercials, too. How would you like to become a millionaire while being environmentally sound? I have a book for you.

  5. Robofish says:

    There is a weights class be les mills that sort of follows this mantra called Body Pump ( that’s what she said ) they encourage you to use lower weights since you are doing 5 minute long squat / bicep / tricep / shoulder / ab routines. Quite a work out.

    • A.Mercer says:

      I loved Body Pump. I had great results with that. I kept it up for a year and a half and then moved to a city that has plenty of health clubs but none of them have that program. The city I was in was a tenth the size of where I live now and it had 3 clubs that had that program. Even better was that they had a 5:30 am class twice a week. I did that and then got ready for work and I was good to go.

  6. AbsoluteIrrelevance says:

    Let’s run the same experiment for women, please.

  7. GuidedByLemons says:

    Optimal rep patterns for bodybuilding vs. strength training have been known for decades. This isn’t new info to bodybuilders and strength athletes at all, though perhaps there haven’t been rigorous scientific studies on it before.

    Simplifying things a bit: To build the most strength, lift extremely heavy for a small number of reps. To build the most muscle mass, lift as heavy as you can for a large number of reps.

    Note that muscle mass and strength are different (if related). Bigger muscles does not always mean stronger.

    • mjconsumer says:

      I dare you to find a medical definition between between ‘muscle mass’ and ‘muscle strength’. The amount of retarded broscience in the comments that completely disregards the clinical study this artcie is about is hilarious.

      • KeithIrwin says:

        You’re very sure of yourself for someone who has no idea what he’s talking about. See my response to your response to my comment above for the medical discussion.

      • GuidedByLemons says:

        You seriously don’t know what you’re talking about. Muscle mass and strength are highly correlated but not identical parameters. See Keithlrwin’s comment re: sacoplasmic hypertrophy. Strength (as measured by the practical ability to move a given amount of weight) is also influenced by enervation and coordination.

  8. NarcolepticGirl says:

    is this a health blog?

    maybe…. well, I guess some consumers lift weights…

    There should be band/TV show news on here, too. Since consumers watch and purchase television.
    And perhaps electronics schematics posts – since some consumerists build/repair electronics

    • denros says:

      There’s lots of misinfo out there, open any fitness magazine (or even “Men’s” mag. like maxim, etc., er, not that i read those…) and you’re hit in the face with all kinds of “wonder-supplements” and “build 30 lbs of muscle in 2 weeks!!!!1” ads and articles.

      • NarcolepticGirl says:

        but this about a medical study: “”Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men”

        and the post doesn’t mention anything about posting because of scam advertisements

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      I guess this advocates not need a gym for weight lifting, since you can buy smaller weights yourself for cheap, while buying the giant push-up systems are expensive and apprently not needed until later on.

      • NarcolepticGirl says:

        except, the post says:

        “Going to the gym is a great way to cut down long-term health care costs, and now you don’t have to do so much grunting and straining while you’re there.”

    • pop top says:

      You say that about a lot of the articles… Why are you reading them?

  9. dolemite says:

    One thing people that lift don’t realize about lifting only heavy weight is your joints have a limited number of uses in them. Ever seen a guy that was huge in his 20s, but now he’s 40? His knees, elbows are taped, he’s wearing wrist wraps, belt, special boots, limping around…yeah joints are destroyed. I’m only 35 but I really wish I had been smarter when lifting growing up. No one tells you that working out until you max out every day is slowly grinding your joints to dust.

    • Dwimmerlaik says:

      I don’t know about joints having a limited amount of life to them, but I can definitely attest to not using proper form and working out to max every day. I destroyed my knees lifting entirely too much weight when doing leg press and allowing my knees to lock. I was young (high school) and stupid and didn’t know better. Believe me, after 5 knee surgeries on the same knee, I’ve certainly learned my lesson.

  10. denros says:

    Another *very* important factor that people miss out (mostly because of ego, but partly because what others think they “SHOULD” be lifting) would be to pay close attention to form. OBSESS over it, and if you think you might be doing something wrong, you probably are. Also: GO SLOW. you’ll invoke more muscle fiber with these two concepts that many plans completely gloss over.

    I don’t normally plug websites but this one is so straightforward and free of B.S., which is practically unheard of in the world of strength training / bodybuilding:

    • hotdogsunrise says:

      Hooray! A post about form!

      If you are doing something wrong in terms of exercise, then repeat it over and over, you will get injured. Then you cannot work out. The end.

    • mjconsumer says:

      Speed isn’t as important as range of motion.

      • denros says:

        I really find the two go hand in hand. If I force myself to go slower, I definitely don’t do cheat reps. But you’re right, and at the end of the day it’s all about better reps than heavier weight.

    • photoguy622 says:

      Agreed. You should be careful with your motions and take a couple of seconds up and then a couple of seconds back down with attention paid to keeping your movements controlled.

      I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen at the gym flailing around on the machine trying to lift massive amounts! Who cares how much you can lift? Just do what’s a good workout for you and ignore the numbers. One rep at a time, one weight at a time, one day at a time…

  11. Nick says:

    If ever there were a subject where everyone’s an expert, it’s the gym. Fortunately, I am at the point where I need a change from heavier weights so I look forward to seeing the results. Thanks.

  12. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    My understanding has always been that using larger weights pushed your muscles into being capable of lifting higher weights, but without a good foundation of multiple reps with lower reps you can’t really build up muscle.

    Think of it it this way: You need a foundation to build a house. You can’t build a third story until the 2nd story is fully completed. Similarly, the best way to build muscles is to make them fully capable of lifting at weight A before trying to conquer weight B.

  13. kursk says:

    Jeez. I’ll point to Arthur Jones himself and point out that for muscle size and definition, low reps high load to exhaustion works. For fitness, go with lower load and high reps. The reason that pro bodybuilders look different from strongman competitors who look different from Olympic lifters is because of the ratio of load/reps.

    • Traveshamockery says:

      Pro body builders primarily look different because they engage in ultra high protein, ultra low carb diets to minimize body fat.

  14. jeff_the_snake says:

    i lift 15 – 20 tons over the course of my 10 hr workday. the individual cases weigh anywhere from 1 pound to 60. after three years of this i’ve gotten really strong but i look like a stick figure.

    • Noah says:

      You are probably an ectomorph, like me. People have told me you just have to eat like a madman to put on muscle.

      • nutbastard says:

        ectomorph here too. my arms are half the size of my sturdier buddies, but we’re dead even at arm wrestling. a lot of it is how trained your muscle is. lifting and hauling dont translate to climbing or throwing.

  15. Dwimmerlaik says:

    An interesting article on resistance training that goes contrary to some currently popular beliefs. Personally, I’ve found that using moderate weight (50-70% of 1RM) and performing 3 sets of 8 repetitions with the sets spaced approximately 45 seconds apart and a frequency of 3x/week has yielded the best results both in terms of muscle growth and weight loss. I typically increase 5 lbs. on one set every 2 weeks (i.e. increase 5 lbs on the 1st set, then 5 lbs on the 2nd, then 5 lbs on the 3rd) so that every 6 weeks I’m increasing 5 lbs. for all sets. That seems to keep things progressive and prevents me from hitting the wall.

  16. octowussy says:

    “not to mention great for the elderly or those who otherwise have decreased skeletal muscle mass.”

    Yet the title of the actual study/article is: “Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men”

    • mjconsumer says:

      You mean an unprofessional writer made a wrong assumption about a medical study, followed by a bunch of broscience comments making wrong statements about ‘muscle mass vs muscle strength’? How shocking.

    • AuntieMaim says:

      This is an implication drawn by the researchers themselves: “our data would suggest that a high volume low-load resistance exercise paradigm may serve as an excellent training paradigm to attenuate age-related sarcopenia, and other frailty and wasting conditions by maintaining and/or inducing skeletal mass while at the same time minimizing the potential for both orthopaedic and soft tissue injury in these susceptible populations.”

      • AuntieMaim says:

        Important to note that the researchers take care to specify that this hasn’t been explicitly tested yet, but that it is reasonable to suppose given their and others’ findings.

  17. Warble says:

    That’s a nice Steve Carrell photobomb you got there.

  18. AuntieMaim says:

    Benefits from lower weights could contribute to the greatest exercise savings of all: ditching the gym membership and making your own workout at home!

  19. AI says:

    Well, I guess I’m going to be really buff, because I lift the lightest weights, 0 lbs, 24 hours a day.

  20. JMILLER says:

    I have found when I do 12 ounce curls the more I do the better I feel. I then hit a wall after about 12 reps, and feel horrible.

  21. Arcaeris says:

    An interesting study, but with a sample size of only 15 dudes I would expect better than a p of 0.058 if they want to be really conclusive about the results.

  22. ill informed says:

    i thought this was common knowledge for weight lifters. less weight, more reps for lean muscle. more weight, less reps to get jacked. mike mentzer discovered that decades ago.

  23. u1itn0w2day says:

    FORM , FORM , FORM & NO MOMENTUM,absolutely no momentum-let the muscles do the work.

    Mike Mentzer, the late great body builder from the 1980’s used a ‘ high intensity principle ‘ which means basically after you are warmed up all you need is a few intense sets. I think he had degrees in bio mechanics and/or physics and was a serious contender in many a contest. He was all about efficiency.

    Each workout and routine should have purpose-what do you want? size, strength, endurance or power. You can achieve muscle mass increases but you will never look like a professional body builder without steroids or what ever and that includes a diet and dehydrating yourself before contest.

    The basics-form and no momentum.

  24. energynotsaved says:

    I’m hot. I look good. I’m older than God. Your worst nightmare.

  25. Memtex784 says:

    Great, I’ll be exercising my beer drinking arm.

  26. Krusty783 says:

    This is not news; this has been common knowledge in the exercise community for several years. Bodybuilders do sets of 10-12 reps while people who want to get strong/powerful do sets of 2-4 reps.

    If sets of very heavy weight made you big, the 5’1″ 160ish-lbs olympic powerlifters that power clean 400 lbs would be so wide they wouldn’t be able to move.

  27. AgostoBehemoth says:

    Interesting post here on the consumerist – us older muscle heads hang out over at Lots of tried & true, as well as new stuff.

  28. nygenxer says:

    Old news: pumping lighter weights with more reps builds what is called “air muscles.”

  29. f3rg says:

    Worthless study…

    There are 3 body types: mesomorphs, endomorphs and ectomorphs. They all respond differently to heavy or light weights, and number of reps. Learn your body type and lift the amount of weight and number or reps that works best for it.