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A Better Way to Weight Train: Try Light Weights

Date: December 1, 2016      Publication: Bottom Line Health      Source:  Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, Lehman College      Print:

You don’t have to heave those heavy weights anymore…

To get the biggest bang from your exercise regimen, strength training is a must. It not only builds muscle and bone but also helps manage your weight and control chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

But not everyone relishes the idea of heaving heavy weights. And the practice can be risky for people with arthritis, osteoporosis and other conditions.

Good news: Researchers have now discovered that people who repeatedly lift light weights get nearly the same benefits as those who do heavy-weight workouts.

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Why this matters: Whether you’re using hand weights or exercise machines, the lighter-weight approach can make strength training safer and more enjoyable.

Men and women who lift light weights instead of heavy ones are also less likely to experience joint, tendon or ligament injury. Plus, the workouts are easier for older adults…those with arthritis or other health problems…and those who are new to weight lifting.

THE NEW THINKING

According to traditional thinking, you need to lift heavy weights to build your muscles. In practice, this meant identifying your one-repetition maximum—the heaviest weight that you could lift just one time. Then you’d design a workout that required lifting 65% or more of that weight eight to 12 times.

This approach is still favored by many elite athletes because lifting at the edge of your ability targets fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones that grow quickly and create an admirable physique. But studies now show that slow-twitch fibers, the ones that are stimulated to a greater extent by light lifting, can also develop and grow.

Important finding: In a recent meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine, people who lifted lighter weights for six weeks achieved the same muscle growth—although not quite as much strength—as those who lifted heavy weights.

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Heavy lifting is still the preferred approach for people who need to develop their strength to the utmost—top athletes, construction workers, movers, etc. But those who simply want to look better and improve their functional capacity—the ability to carry groceries, work in the yard, play recreational sports, etc.—will do just as well with lighter loads. Bonus: Building muscle mass also helps control blood sugar.

LESS WEIGHT, MORE REPS

Muscle growth occurs only when muscles are exhausted—when you simply can’t move the weight one more time. So to get comparable benefits to a traditional heavy-weight workout requiring eight to 12 repetitions, you’ll need to do 20 to 25 reps with lighter weights. Your weight workouts will take a little longer, but your muscles will be just as tired when you’re done.

A LIGHT-WEIGHT PLAN

Lighter-weight workouts are easier on the joints than those done with heavy weights, and the results are still relatively fast—you’ll likely notice an increase in strength/muscle size within a few weeks. To start…

Choose your weights wisely. Instead of calculating percentages—a heavy-weight lifter, as described earlier, may aim to lift at least 65% of his/her one-repetition maximum—keep it simple. Forget the percentages, and let repetitions guide your starting weights. For example, do each exercise 20 to 25 times. If you can’t complete that many, you’re starting too heavy. Conversely, if you can easily do 20 to 25 reps, the weight’s too light.*

Important: You’re not doing yourself any good if you can easily lift a weight 25 times. You need to strain. On a one-to-10 scale of effort, the last few reps should rate nine-and-a-half or 10.

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Do multiple sets. You’ll progress more quickly when you do three sets of each exercise—for example, bicep curls. Complete 20 to 25 repetitions…rest for two minutes…do them again…rest…and repeat one more time. If you don’t have the time—or the desire—to do three sets, opt for a single-set approach. You’ll still notice increases in strength and muscle size, but your gains won’t be as great as with a multi-set approach.

Work out at least twice a week. You want to work each muscle group—arms, legs, chest, midsection, etc.—at least twice a week. Three or four times weekly will give even faster results. Important: Don’t work the same muscles two days in a row. Growth occurs during the recovery phase…and injuries are more likely when you stress already-tired muscles.

If you work out every day: Alternate muscle groups—for example, do leg and back exercises on Monday…arm and chest exercises on Tuesday…then more leg and back work on Wednesday, etc.

EXERCISES FOR REAL LIFE

The strength-training exercises below will give you more confidence and power when doing your daily activities—follow the advice above for choosing your weights, repetitions, exercise frequency, etc.…

Bicep curls. Exercising this upper–arm muscle will make carrying groceries a bit easier. What to do: Hold a hand weight in each hand. While keeping your elbows near your sides and your shoulders back, curl the weight toward your shoulder, then lower it back down.

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One-arm triceps extensions. This exercise will strengthen your triceps (muscles on the backs of the upper arms), which help balance the biceps—and give your arms a toned appearance. It will help when moving furniture or shoveling snow. What to do: While sitting, hold a hand weight over your head, with your arm straight up and your elbow close to your head. Bend your elbow and lower the weight just behind your neck, then raise it back up. Repeat with the other arm.

Lunges. This versatile exercise targets the buttocks and thighs, along with the arms, making climbing stairs easier. What to do: With a weight in each hand, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Take a long step forward with your right foot. As your foot lands, bend the knee until the thigh is nearly parallel to the floor. Pull your right leg back to the starting position, then lunge with the left foot.

*Hand weights are available in neoprene, iron and vinyl at many retail stores and online. I recommend holding various weights in a store to choose the one that feels best.

Source: Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and an assistant professor in exercise science at Lehman College in New York City, where he directs the Human Performance Lab. Dr. Schoenfeld is also the assistant editor in chief of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Strength and Conditioning Journal, and the author of Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy.