Muscle Building – Low Weights

There is a widely held belief that only by lifting heavier weights will resistance training result in muscle building and greater strength. However, some recent research indicates that similar gains in muscle and strength can be achieved by lifting lighter weights.

A recent study carried out by Morton et al 2016 assessed the effectiveness of lifting lighter weights compared to heavy weights in 49 resistance-trained men. One group lifted up to 50% of their one repetition max (ORM) for 20 – 25 repetitions while the second group lifted up to 90% of their ORM (8-12 repetitions).  Researches measured a range of parameters related to strength and muscle mass, as well as hormones. They found that both groups had increases in strength, muscle fibre size and muscle mass. The only significant difference between the groups was the change in bench press (HR, 9 ± 1, vs. LR, 14 ± 1 kg, P = 0.012). They also found that there was no correlation between anabolic hormone levels post-exercise and gains in muscle mass or strength. The authors concluded that the load of the weight does not determine muscle mass gains, when resistance exercises are done to volitional failure. Apart from the bench press, strength gains were also not significantly different.

Cameron et al 2012 also had similar conclusions in non-trained men. One group was assigned to lifting low-weight/high-repetition (30% of ORM) and the other group to high-weight/low-repetition (80% of ORM) training for a period of 10 weeks. Authors concluded that muscle volume gains were similar in both groups lifting lower and higher weights to volitional failure.

These studies suggest that in trained and non-trained males, lifting lighter weights for more repetitions can result in significant muscle mass and strength gains. However, the key message from these studies is that the exercise needs to be done to volitional failure. It’s the fact that the person couldn’t do another proper repetition that produced the results, not the weight they were lifting.

These findings have relevance for athletes, adolescents, the elderly, conditions causing muscle loss (sarcopenia), those with joint issues and those just wanting to stay fit and healthy. One of the main benefits I see in low-weight resistance training is the reduced load placed on joints. A lighter load will also reduce the risk of incorrect technique, particularly in non-trained people, further reducing the risk of soft-tissue injuries. The shoulder is particularly vulnerable to injury with 36% of resistance training injuries occurring at the shoulder complex. Therefore,  low weight exercises may be particularly beneficial where the shoulder has considerable involvement.

It might be comforting for non-trained people to know that they don’t have to lift 80-90% of their ORM to get a significant benefit from resistance training. This may result in a greater number of people taking up resistance training which is a good thing given its health benefits. Resistance training is important for maintaining muscle strength and power, which is a predictor of  balance, occurrence of falls and mortality in the elderly. The elderly could do harm by attempting to lift heavy weights. Therefore, low-weight resistance training could be a better option for this population group.

More studies are needed to assess the potential benefits of low-weight resistance training in population groups other than just young men.

Low-weight resistance training combined with the correct nutrition can result in significant muscle building and strength gains for all ages and fitness levels.

About the Author

Rick Hallion is a nutritionist and founder of Health Generation in Coffs Harbour. He is passionate about health and has a keen interest in sports nutrition. Rick understands that benefits of taking a holistic approach to athletes with individualised nutrition being central to someone achieving their health goals. We provide face to face and online consultations depending on clients preferences and location. Contact Rick for a FREE chat.

Muscle Building-Low Weights


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