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How to lift light and still get stronger, according to fitness pros

Mercey Livingston

Mercey LivingstonFebruary 26, 2019

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Photo: Getty Images/Stígur Már Karlsson Heimsmyndir

No matter what workout or fitness class I’m into at the moment, when it comes time for strength training, I tend to reach for light weights rather than heavy ones. Despite the fact that a single Pure Barre sesh can leave my arms on fire after roughly 10 bajillion up-and-downs with two-pound weights, it’s unclear to me whether or not the lighter-for-longer method is a good way to build muscle compared with fewer reps of heavy weights.

“There’s some recent research that suggests you can build muscle just as well with light weights as with heavy weights,” says Alex Hutchinson, PhD and author of What Comes First, Cardio or Weights?. “The key is lifting to failure in each set, or least very close to failure—the point at which you can’t lift the weight one more time. You don’t necessarily have to choose a really heavy weight to do that, which some people find intimidating. You can get pretty much the same effect by choosing a relatively light weight and lifting it more times.”

That’s not to say that lifting heavy doesn’t have its own set of benefits (and more on that later…), the point is that no matter what weight you’re working with, you have to make sure you’re challenging yourself and not just curling a two-pound dumbbell aimlessly or without any effort. If you’re curious about how to train with light weights and get stronger, keep reading for some intel from the experts.

How to decide whether to reach for heavy or light weights

So, how exactly do you make sure you’re challenging your muscles enough in your workout to build strength? “The method behind training with lighter weights is to do higher reps with the lighter weights to reach the point of muscle fatigue, as you would with heavier weights after fewer reps.” says Katelyn DiGiorgio, certified trainer and VP of training and technique at Pure Barre.

In short, it all comes down to muscle endurance versus muscle strength. “Using lighter weights produces a different type of strength than lifting heavier weights,” says Katia Pryce, founder of DanceBody, a dance-based fitness studio. “While training with lighter weights won’t prepare you necessarily to lift a heavy object over your head on a moment’s notice, training with lighter weights can still keep your body strong.”

If you’re concerned about the risk of injury when it comes to heavy weightlifting, for instance, using lighter weights may be your safest choice. “Light weights allow you to perform movements through your full range of motion. Plus, the risk of injury is much lower when training with light weights,” says Pryce. Plus, you get more cardio bang for your buck. “Higher reps with lighter weights can also lead to an elevated heart rate for longer sustained periods,” explains DiGiorgio. “This can be a great benefit for those looking to improve cardiovascular health, while strength training simultaneously.”

So, why lift heavy? According to Kevin Mejia, trainer at the Dogpound Gym, you don’t technically have to lift heavy, but it’s a good idea for a few reasons. “You don’t have to lift heavy, but I do strongly encourage the people I work with to lift heavy once or twice a week,” Mejia explains. “Heavy weights mean progressive overload which leads to power and strength. Your body is forced to recruit large muscles fibers and at a high rate, which leads to muscle breakdown and adaptation. With adaptation later comes progression.”

That…and it takes less time. The amount of time that it will take your muscles to fatigue with two-pound weights as opposed to 15-pound weights could get you a head start on your Netflix binge. So, whether you’re a die-hard barre fan who *tries* to mix it up with some heavy weights now and then (like me) or you’re a Crossfit devotee–there’s no “one way” to get strong.

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