Light Weight Or Heavy Weight - Which Is Better To Build Muscle?

heavy dumbbells

There are some schools of thought that would say that using heavy weight for all of your movements is the only way to go. I'm sure most of you have read somewhere that you have to go heavy on all of your exercises in order to build the maximum amount of muscle.

This is the basis of High Intensity Training (H.I.T).The basic concept of high intensity training is to use maximum poundages for an all out effort for most of your exercises.

This is a hard core view of weight training and one that is practised by a lot of weight trainers.

However, there are other schools of thought that say you should use moderate weights in conjunction with a higher repetition count in order to stimulate muscle growth. The main basis for this type of training is to pump as much blood to the muscle as possible and “go for the burn”.

Which one is right?

Each training method has it's own place in the weight training world and in my opinion, neither one is right or wrong. I'm a big proponent of using heavy weights but on the other hand, I'm also a big proponent of using light weights.

You see, the bottom line comes down to intensity. Intensity is the real key to muscle growth and one that most aspiring weight trainers have a hard time understanding.

If you can gradually increase the intensity of your exercises you will insure that you are on the right track to muscle growth. So, how do you increase the intensity of your exercises. Well, let's take a look at body building's definition of exercise intensity.

Intensity, as defined in the body building circles, is to put forth a “100% momentary effort” (Mike Mentzer - Arthur Jones). Basically, weight training intensity is a term in which increasing effort must be placed on the muscle in order to stimulate more and more muscle growth. Simply put, you have to make your exercises harder so your muscles can work harder.

Now, how do you make your weight training exercises more difficult? Well, there are a few ways to increase the difficulty of your exercises. One way is to add more weight for added resistance. This added resistance increases the overall intensity of the exercise.

Another way is to shorten the amount of rest time between sets. This way, you don't allow your body to fully recover. This adds more intensity to the exercise making it more difficult to complete. Of course, you won't be able to handle the weights you are used to but this will add to the overall intensity of the exercise.

Now, there are other various techniques you can use to increase the overall weight training intensity, all of which have one purpose in mind, to make the exercise harder to do. By making the exercises more difficult, you force your body to work harder which adds more and more intensity. The result? More muscle growth. You basically force your body to adapt to the new demands that weight training places on it by making it stronger and stronger, each time you add more and more intensity.

This is where the question about training with heavy and light weights come into play. Actually, the question should be “Which adds more intensity, light or heavy weights?”.

There is no question that heavy weights will add a lot of intensity to your exercises. I have no problem with using heavy weight as a means to increase intensity - For certain exercises. I do, however, have a problem with using heavy weights on each and every exercise. I firmly believe that heavy weights should be used on certain movements that allow you to use maximum poundages.

These exercises are the compound movements such as the squat, dead lift, bench press, shoulder press, barbell bent rows, and other similar exercises. I believe that by using heavy poundages on these exercises you will greatly add to the overall intensity to your training. The reason is that these exercises involve more than one muscle group and it takes a lot of energy to actually do these exercises.

By adding heavy weight to compound exercises, the movement becomes so much more difficult to do. As the exercise becomes harder to do, more and more intensity is needed to complete the exercise. The only problem with this type of training is that it is very, very hard to do and only a very select few will take these exercises to the limit.

Here's an example. The next time you're at the gym, take a look around and chances are, you won't see a single soul doing heavy dead lifts or squats. You might see people lined up at the cable cross over machine, but not the squat rack.

For most, this type of training is simply too taxing on the body. However, the rewards at the end of the day is well worth the extra effort. This is one of the most effective ways for increasing your overall intensity levels.

For building muscle, light to moderate weights certainly have there place but not in the same way heavy weights do.

I feel light to moderate weights are there to “burn” the muscle. I’m sure most of you have heard the expression, “Go for the burn”, well this is what is meant.

Light to moderate weights, in my opinion, are there to help flush the muscle with blood and pump the muscle up.

It’s been my experience that heavy weight and low repetitions doesn’t always pump the muscle up.

There are certain schools of thought that say you don’t need the pump to build muscle. This school of thought says that all you need to do is lift heavy weight. Well, I’m not a true believer in this train of thought - Well not anymore anyways.

To me, the pump is that one indicator that tells you if my training and diet is where it should be. I don’t know about you, but if I go to the gym and my training is flat and I can’t get a pump, there is something terribly wrong my diet and adjustments need to be made immediately.

Now, you can get a slight pump with heavy weights but I feel it’s not the same kind of feeling as compared to light to moderate weights with a higher rep count. With heavy weights, you can get a slight pump to your muscle regardless of what your diet is like.

The same can’t be said for light to moderate weights in the higher rep zone. If you can’t feel your muscles pump up after four “burning” sets of an exercise, something is off and it needs to be corrected.

I know, some of you will disagree but the pump is “where it’s at” in the weight room. Just like heavy weights are indicative to higher intensity levels, the burn can also be a very strong indicator to higher intensity levels.

I’ve tried both techniques and have had a certain degree of success with each technique.

My only problem with using heavy weights, exclusively, on all of my movements was the strain it put on my body. My joints were constantly under attack and for the most part, sore all the time. Injuries were also a little more prevalent since my body couldn’t handle the increased workloads, day in and day out.

Now, I’ve also tried using light to moderate weights and using techniques that would allow me to pump my muscles up. With these workouts, I exclusively used light weights with no heavy work loads. I found that my body didn’t respond the same way it did when I was using heavy weights. I simply couldn’t get into doing light weight and high reps for my compound movements, such as the barbell shoulder press.

Using heavy weights for core compound movements is taxing on the whole body. Using light weights for individual muscle groups is taxing for that particular muscle group. This is the main difference between using heavy and light weights with respect to exercise intensity levels.

Ok, it sounds like I can’t make up my mind here, but this is where you can use both strategies to ensure you get the optimal amount of intensity that you need to grow.

I’ve had the most success with a combination of both, light and heavy weights. For best results, I’ve found that compound exercises such as the bench press, squats, shoulder press, dead lifts, and barbell bent rows (to name a few), should be performed with heavy weights in the 6 to 8 repetitions zone. With these exercises, I will take my last set to muscular failure.

Compound exercises should be performed first and foremost in your routine. No questions about it.

After I use the max poundages for these exercises, I will go to my next exercise which I will use moderate weights for about 8 to 10 repetitions. I will use just enough weight that I can barely complete the repetitions by myself without going to complete failure.

On my last exercise, I will use only light weights and will go for the “burn”. I will either do a high rep count of 12 to 15 or a super set between two exercises that will allow me to pump the maximum amount of blood into the muscle.

I basically approach my training in terms of “stages”. That is, each exercise I use in my routine is a stage that allows me to use both, heavy and light weights. For example:

Stage 1: Pure compound movements with heavy weights - 6 to 8 repetitions going to complete failure on my last set. Example: Bench press

Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions
Set one: 8 repetitions
Set two: 7 repetitions
Set three: 7 repetitions
Set four: 6 repetitions going to complete muscular failure (spotter needed for this set)

I progressively add more and more weight up to my last set.

Stage 2: Compound movements, usually with dumbbells using moderate weights - 8 to 10 repetitions. Approach near failure but never actually going to failure. Example: Incline barbell press.

Set one: 10 repetitions
Set two: 10 repetitions
Set three: 8 repetitions
Set four: 8 repetitions - Barely able to complete the last repetition.

I progressively add more and more weight up to my last set.

Stage 3: Isolation movements. Using light to moderate weight. 10 to 15 repetitions. The aim here is to flush the muscle with maximum amounts of blood. Really go for the burn and pump the muscle up. Example: Pec deck 21's

4 sets of 21

The weight is kept constant throughout the exercise. If you don’t know what pec deck 21's are, find out here.

Using the above set up has allowed me to use just enough weight to hit those deep muscle fibres to stimulate strength and growth while pumping the muscle up with blood. This combination feels really good to me and has allowed me to “feel” each and every workout.

My body is also not as sore and beat up as it once was when I was strictly using heavy weights for all of my movements.

Just remember, the more intensity you add to your weight training, the more demands you place on your body. With more demands, comes increased nutrient intake and rest times. There is a direct correlation between intensity levels, diet, and rest times. If exercise intensity increases, your nutritional intake must also increase to fuel and repair your body. This is very important. You have to take more time to rest as your intensity levels increase.

If your intensity levels increase and you don’t proportionally increase your nutritional intake and rest times, two things can happen. First, you will over train. Secondly, you will get injured. So, just make sure you get enough to eat, and get plenty of rest.

Inner Body Awareness And Intensity Levels

This is very important to all beginners. Most newcomers to weight training cannot attain a high degree of intensity because they haven’t developed their “inner body” awareness yet.

Inner body awareness comes with experience and it’s this experience that will allow you to expand your intensity levels. Inner body awareness comes from knowing what your body can and cannot do. Once you start to get a feel for the weight and start to understand how your body reacts to weight training, you can start to gradually increase your intensity levels.

Now, these are my personal views about training with heavy and light weights. Most seasoned weight trainers have their own way of training, some go extremely heavy while others go extremely light. What it boils down to is your “inner body awareness”.

Over the course of time, you will come to understand your bodies abilities and it’s limitations. Once you start to develop your inner body awareness with weight training, you can gauge which types of activities you wish to use to attain certain degrees of intensity levels.

All the best and good luck,


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