Low Load Resistance Training For Strength And Bulk

June 30, 2020 | Tips and Training

Dev Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Medical Director, Apeiron Life

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University


Eitan Gelber, MA, ATC, CSCS, CMT

Director of Training, Apeiron Life


June 30, 2020


Key Points:

  • Resistance training using lighter weights and a high number of repetitions is an effective way to increase strength and increase muscle size
  • This can be a great way to increase strength for adolescents, or any adults 50+
  • The key factor lifting with lighter weights is to feel muscle fatigue at about 25 reps

It’s commonly believed that the best way to build strength and increase muscle size is to use heavier weights and a small number of repetitions, with multiple sets. While we believe that’s an effective strategy for active and healthy young adults, it can pose some problems for adolescents and adults age 50+.

Research shows that contrary to the popular belief, resistance training with lower loads and higher repetitions is also an effective way to gain strength and muscle bulk, but with the advantage that it can be very joint-friendly.

For adolescents with open growth plates and active older adults perhaps with arthritis, the lower load training is an attractive option.

Key With Lighter Weights: About 25 Reps To Muscle Fatigue

Lighter weights can build muscle just as effectively, as long you lift until the point of fatigue.

We point this out because many people don’t like lifting heavy weights. You may find them unpleasant (like if you have joint issues), or you may feel nervous about getting injured. All of this can discourage you from sticking with your strength training program in the long run.

  • Research shows that lighter weights can build muscle strength and sizeas effectively as heavier weights.
  • The key is to complete enough reps for your muscles to get fatigued, as many as 25. Muscle gains are driven by the total work volume you complete: reps times weight.
  • Your final lift should feel like an eight on a scale of one to 10. You should feel some discomfort, but not pain.
  • This type of lifting can work with body weight (no equipment) lifts, TRX straps, resistance bands, and free weights. We love the versatility.

This Is One Method- But Not The Only Way To Get Strong

We are still believers that the traditional method of using heavier weights with fewer repetitions and multiple sets is likely a slightly better way of building muscle size compared to the lighter weight method we describe above. Check out this article for an interesting perspective on total load, strength, and hypertrophy.

If you’re focused on building size then you may want to consider a traditional lifting regimen. And in between these two broadly described methods are a whole bunch of alternatives. Here’s an outstanding reference defining various progression models for strength using more traditional hypertrophy programs.

The effort you put in, regardless of the specific method, is the one factor that matters the most.

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