Light Weights or Heavy Weights…
Which Is Better?
One of the most preconceived myths that used to be heavily thrown around the lifting community was if you wanted to get big, you would lift heavier weights and if you wanted to get cut, you’d lift lighter. Oh if it was only that simple.
In my very first popular online series “Maximize Your Results” I talked about how if you were going to train for the best gains, you must do so with heavier weights (hitting momentary muscular failure in the 4-8 rep range). It didn’t matter if you wanted to get big or lean (or big AND lean), the training stayed the same. The difference between growing as much muscle as possible or shedding as much fat as possible was predicated on one’s diet and how much cardio they added into the mix. I still stand by this last part, BUT…..15 years and a whole lot of knowledge and experience later, I see that the statement of “you must lift heavier weights” requires some clarification and context.
Yes, back then I did think that heavy weights were better than lighter…for everyone. And I still think, for the most part, that holds true. The difference is that back then I believed that training with light weights (hitting momentary muscular failure in anything over 10 reps) was a complete waste of time…for everyone. I now know differently and, if you are truly going to “Maximize Your Results,” I think that it's important you understand the difference.
The 3 Mechanisms Behind Muscle Stimulation
If you are someone that has been following the iron game for any length of time, you have probably noticed that in the last few years there has been A LOT of attention paid towards the discussion of the 3 scientifically-proven mechanisms behind building muscle mass.
The first way, and the way that I had preached about for so many years (lifting heavy), is known as "mechanical tension" training. This type of training has been around for decades and has proven time and time again, both in the science lab and in the weight room, as the highest positive hypertrophy (aka - muscle building) model.
However, science has also shown us that we can build muscle via "muscle damage" (heavy, concentrated negative/eccentric overloading) and, the way that I had been previously so against, "metabolic stress" (aka – high rep/high volume training).
Over the last few years, I've personally tried different training phases of just using lighter weights, phases of just using heavier weight, phases of varying rep speeds, and phases where I’ve combined them. And I have come to the conclusion that they are all can be effective.
They are not all equally effective for everyone. I have noticed, in myself as well as in my many clients, varying degrees of muscle growth within each method. Which leaves us with the real question of...
Why would I see better gains when I stick to "heavier weights? And why would other people see better gains with "lighter weights?"
The answer is simple:
Much like our fingerprints are all different, each one of us is unique. We all have a different genetic predisposition that not only dictates how we are built, but also how we build.
There are many variables (such as age, gender, metabolism) that are major influences on how fast we can build muscle. BUT…the main influence is your muscle fiber type. And this is the ONE overriding factor that will determine whether you will see your best gains training with heavier weights or with lighter ones.
A Quick Look into My History in Order to Help Your Future
(if you want to skip this and get right to the answer, scroll down to "The Real Difference")
1990-1994: When I look into my past for the time when I REALLY started to notice strength and muscle gains in a measurable way, I have to go back to my days at Springfield College. After a torn hamstring sidelined me from playing football, I ended up spending a lot of time in the weight room. It was there that the captains of the powerlifting team had spotted me working out and, after seeing some potential in me, I was “recruited” to be part of their squad. These were two upper classmen that I had a tremendous amount of respect for, so I jumped at the chance to be part of their click. And it wasn’t long before the three of us formed a bond and started training side-by-side.
THIS was the first time where I could say that trained in a way that was “organized” as all of our training was put into periodized phases. It was mapped out. It had purpose. And the results were AMAZING! So much so that it became infectious. I swear that I seemed to spend every waking moment absorbing as much knowledge as I could. And back then, you had to work for that knowledge. There was no internet or smart phones. Information wasn’t just at your fingertips when you wanted it. I was a broke college kid that spent every dollar he had on books, magazines, seminars…you name it. If I was in the library, it wasn’t for school work…it was to study strength journals and read biographies of our weightlifting forefathers. Little did I know this was the beginning of what would become my life’s passion.
Sorry…I got off track for a bit. Let’s get back to the subject of this article.
Where was I? Oh yes! Springfield College , the powerlifting team, and my very first 2 mentors. Obviously, taking into account the nature of the sport we competed in, our training was HEAVY. And, man I tell you, I ate it up!!! Back then, I lived for heavy weights. Every week I seemed to get bigger and stronger. Can you see why this would become so infectious?
1994-1999: Fast forward to immediately after I was done with college. I’m now all alone…no more football…no more powerlifting team. Yet, I still had my passion for training and a strong desire for competition. Without a team to join, I needed something that I could do alone. Enter my years of bodybuilding. It was then that I started to absorb everything I could about the sport.
Well…to say this was a time of trial and error would be an understatement. When it comes to training, bodybuilding is all over the place. More so than powerlifting or Olympic lifting. Everywhere I looked, someone was doing something almost completely different. While on average, the “experts” recommended 8-10 reps for muscle growth, there was always someone making amazing gains with lighter weights and higher rep ranges. Some were doing great hitting body parts once a week, while others flourished on two to three times per week. Some did great with less than 10 working sets per bodypart, others were killing it with more than twenty!
The more I read, the more confused I got. The mid-to-late 90’s definitely became a time of experimental training for me. I was trying it all. But it wasn’t the same. The gains that I noticed during my powerlifting phase weren’t there.
And it wasn’t just that I lacked progress. There were times I actually seemed to regress. During those periods of using lighter weights and higher volume, I remember how I would gas out quicker during a workout, I showed signs of losing muscle density, and my strength was less than impressive. It was like my body was "rejecting" the lighter training. (Personal Confession: At the time, it was very frustrating. So much so that I remember being tempted to start using steroids. Now that I’m looking back on it, I’m glad I didn’t.)
Why was I experiencing this?
Was it because I was a drug free bodybuilder and all of these other guys were using steroids?
Was it because I’ve been training for a few years and I should just naturally accept that the gains I would make would be much slower?
Yes, those are both valid reasons. But there was more to it.
The year 2000: Then came my Holy Grail! Enter the era and rise of drug-free bodybuilding.
The new millennium saw a rise in drug-free bodybuilding. Actually, it really started happening in the mid-90’s after WWE President, Vince McMahon was under federal investigation for steroid distribution to his wrestlers. And because he, at the time, started his own bodybuilding federation (the WBF) plus being a VERY recognizable public figure, the national attention demanded the sport of bodybuilding to do something. But it was really in the late 90’s and early 2000’s where we saw the drug-free bodybuilders getting a lot of attention from magazines and supplement endorsements.
This not only gave me something to shoot for, it also led me to that one person that became my ULTIMATE bodybuilding mentor…Skip Lacour. At the time, Skip was basically the Godfather of drug-free bodybuilding. Everything he had or did was at the highest and most inspiring level possible…hi physique, his mindset, his training…everything. And I was in awe of it all! Skip resonated with me so much so that if Skip was doing it, I was going to do it, too. The way he trained…his nutrition…the supplements he took…ALL OF IT.
THIS was now my new era of the greatest gains.
So what changed?
Skip trained using Max-OT concepts (a training program designed by AST Sports Science president, Paul Delia). This called for mostly compound exercises, lower volume of work, and training with weights that had you reaching failure in the 4-6 rep range. HELLO MUSCLE and STRENGTH GAINS! I was reborn!!! And after trying all of those other methods (and failing miserably), I was sold. As far as I was concerned, Max-OT was the ONLY way to train if you wanted to gain muscle naturally.
But was it?
During the next 10 years, I made my mark on the drug-free bodybuilding circuit. I traveled all over the country competing in multiple organizations, getting a lot of press and attention, and ultimately getting some supplement and clothing endorsements. This was my time!
But as much attention as I was getting, I never won the big shows that I wanted. The AAU Mr. America and Mr. Universe were gone. I never made it to the top of the Team Universe. And quite frequently, I was coming in 2nd and 3rd place way more than I was taking home a first place trophy.
I was getting beat by some very good physiques. Not necessarily bigger, but ones that were leaner, more X-framed, and aesthetic. Again, being around such great physiques, I wanted to learn. How were they building their physiques? What made them better?
Ends up that the vast majority of these who were beating me all seemed to train in that moderate to lighter rep range. What?!?!? How were they getting such great gains with a style of training that made me actually worse? No way. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind, these guys must be either beating the drug tests or just genetic freaks.
Truth is, these guys were just better. Their muscle fiber make-up was made for bodybuilding. A nice balance of leaness, small joints, full muscle bellies, strength, and muscular endurance. It’s this muscle fiber make-up that makes the best bodybuilder…and it’s this muscle fiber make-up that responds best to that moderate rep range style of training. As I look back, although it was BY FAR my greatest period of training and gains, I do see that it was also a time when my own personal experience tainted my ability to learn.
The REAL Difference?
What it really comes down to is that we are all built differently and made up of different cells types. And each of these cells is responsible for what we are built to do…
•Some people are more fast-twitch muscle fiber dominant, some are more slow twitch. •Some are more white fiber dominant; some are more red fiber dominant. •Some of us are built for strength, some are built for speed, and some are built for endurance. •Some people are more of an endomorph genotype (naturally heavy) •Some people are more ectomorph genotype (naturally thin) •Some people are more mesomorph genotype (naturally muscular)
In August, when the 2016 Summer Olympics start, I want you to watch the Track and Field events. Check out how the 100 and 200 meter sprinters are built…lean and muscular. Look at how the long distance runners are built…slender and lengthy. Look at how the shot putter and discus throwers are built…strong and blocky. These are real life examples of being built for their sport and their training would match to maximize that. Truth be told, you could never make a world class marathoner out of someone who was born with a muscle fiber makeup to set world records in the shot put…and vice versa
When I look back at the very guys that beat me and how they were built, I can recall them being naturally lean with smaller joints and longer muscle bellies…more ecto-mesomorph. I, like Skip Lacour and so many of the other bodybuilders that flourished using Max-OT, are built thicker…more meso-endomorph. We all maximized our physiques by training for our personal muscle type.
Over the past few years, since first writing that “Maximize Your Results” series, I've embraced "lighter weights" more because I know the different mechanisms behind stimulating muscle AND I know what muscle fiber type training means. When you’re training for maximum muscle, you should work WITH your genetics…not against them
So to answer the question -- Light or Heavy Weights? Which is Better?
My answer is…It DEPENDS on your muscle fiber type
Although, for complete growth and function development, I think it is smart to incorporate all of the different styles of training that will stimulate the 3 mechanisms of muscle growth (mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage)…I highly recommend that you put the VAST majority of your training eggs into the basket that is made for your personal muscle fibers.
Right now, I want you to think about this…
Do you know if you are working WITH or against your genetics?
Do you even know what your predominant muscle fiber type is?
Do you know how to train to maximize each specific fiber type?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you’ll know if you should be spending more of your time using lighter weights or heavier weights. And you’d even be able to take any workout program and tweak it to fit your genetic prototype.
Oh…and if you don’t know? Stay tuned. In my next post, I’m going to go over
•each muscle fiber type, •how you can test yourself to discover what type you are, and •what the training for each muscle fiber type should consist of in order to truly maximize the results.
Till next time…Train hard! Train Smart! And Get the Results You’re Looking For!
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