Lighter weights with higher reps is among the best ways to build muscle — if not the absolute best way — especially if you’re north of 50 in age.
It’s becoming the consensus opinion among experts (lots of links below to studies and articles). And its pushing aside the old school belief that only heavier and heavier weights can build muscle.
I know its right from experience. I’ve been training for nearly 5 decades now. Up till my mid-50’s, I focused on pushing the heaviest weights I could possibly handle. Heavier meant progress. Failing to progressively add weight felt like failure. Lighter weights were for aerobics people, not real lifters.
Here’s me back in the day. I include this video as proof that I really was an adherent of the hardcore, old school way of training. Heavy. Alone in the basement. (I messed up the math at the time. It’s a total of 610 pounds x 2 reps.)
I found out the hard way that aging joints cannot recover from the extreme punishment that heavy weights can bring as quickly or as thoroughly as they did when we were younger. My shoulders ached and started making knuckle-cracking sounds when I moved.
Fast forward to today, in my early 60’s I have more muscle mass than I did at any other age. And no pain. It’s because I stopped lifting for my ego and started lifting smart.
I’ve been at the ‘new way’ now for about 6 years. It’s more fun training this way and it takes less time. You do feel soreness as a result, but not the pain of getting pounded by heavy weights.
That soreness is the legendary “Pump,” as blood rushes into the target muscles bringing healing nutrients and flushing out waste. The Pump is a great feeling. Soreness is good. Pain is bad.
In a nutshell the formula goes like this:
- 8 – 12 reps to failure in every set
- 30 – 40 seconds rest between sets
- High volume of work: 3 – 5 sets per exercise, 3 or more exercises per target muscle group
- Focus on one muscle group/area per workout
- Muscle exhaustion is the goal — feel the pump
- See the link at the bottom of this post for a sample 4 day routine
Big Distinction: Old School vs New Way
There’s still no end to the debate on this subject. And you’ll still find lots of arguments for the old school way. I’d argue for it myself just a few years ago.
Some of those arguments will be made by younger guys who imbibe on steroids. That’s a whole different ballgame. The juice helps them recover faster and no doubt packs on the mass. But it’s also extremely dangerous to your health and illegal.
We’re talking legal, natural methods on this site, and we lean toward what’s best for the older person.
Lighter Does Not Mean Light
At the same time, we’re not talking about aerobicizing here. When I say “lighter weights, higher reps” I don’t mean waving a tiny dumbbell around for 100 reps.
It does mean finding the right level of resistance to cause your muscle to fail between 8 – 12 reps. In this case, failure is a good thing. It means you can’t do another clean rep without cheating because you’re taking the target muscle to exhaustion. You take a brief rest and do it again. This is how we cause hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy is the process of causing microscopic damage to the targeted muscle fibers so that as they repair, and with proper rest and good nutrition, they grow just a bit larger each day.
Want More Proof?
Below are a sampling of studies and articles on this subject. They range from the academic to traditionally hardcore bodybuilding publications. All share in the conclusion that lighter weights & higher reps to failure is the best way to build muscle.
Remember: Lighter Weight does not mean Light Weight. It means a level of resistance that causes your muscles to fail in the 8 – 12 rep range (some say 12 – 15 reps, but it’s essentially the same idea).
The prestigious Clinic says that a single set of 12 repetitions with the proper weight can build muscle efficiently in most people and can be as effective as three sets of the same exercise. It recommends choosing a resistance level that causes failure to your muscles between 12-15 reps.
Going to failure is a common theme in each of these reports.
As reported by the New York Times:
“Dr. (Marcus) Bamman says, you should push your muscles until they are exhausted.”
In this study, lifters used enough resistance to cause failure in the 8-12 rep range. Failure, or muscle fatigue, was noted as the key driver for muscle growth.
5 Advantages to Lifting Light
“Studies show that decreasing the load on your lifts can lead to greater muscle gain…”
This article points out that not only does going lighter produce results, it provides a number of distance advantages vs. lifting heavy weights. Me and my aching shoulders could attest to that!
Flex tackles the age-old question of light vs. heavy and comes out squarely on the lighter side.
Flex says that the majority of your workouts should be in the 8–15 range for best results.
Excerpts from a 2010 study:
“These results suggest that low-load high volume resistance exercise is more effective in inducing acute muscle anabolism than high-load low volume or work matched resistance exercise modes…”
Again in this study, failure was recognized as the driver for muscular growth.
An article on McMaster University’s latest study in 2016:
Lighter weights are just as effective as heavier weights to gain muscle and build strength.
This is one of the latest studies (2016) on the subject. It points out that it is becoming apparent that lighter is better, contradicting decades of old-school messages that heavy weight was the only path to muscular growth.
So what are you waiting for?
If you’re not already working out, it’s time to get started. No excuses. You don’t need expensive gear or a gym membership to get going. And you don’t need to lift Herculean amounts of weight.
There are lots of “how to” articles on this site under the menu category “Workout Guides.” Check them out. This one shows a 4 day routine that can be done with with just about any equipment, including inexpensive resistance bands.
What are your thoughts on light vs. heavy?
Please share them in the Comments below. You can also drop me a line at Brian@BoomerMuscle.com. I’ll be glad to help if I can.
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