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Heavy Weights Vs Light Weights EXPLAINED!

Your Training Is Wrong!

Posted by Scott_Herman - October 28th, 2017

This article is going to go over the differences between light weights vs. heavy weights. The goal here is that by the end of this article, you’ll be able to apply these concepts to your workouts and your current goals, and to not be confused anymore. I get asked this question all the time in the comment sections of my videos, on my website – this question just generally pops up a lot.

First of all, we’re going to talk about light weights. I have four different categories that I place light weights in, where I would use ‘lighter weights’ in my workouts in order to achieve a specific goal.

Light Weights #1: Circuit Based Workouts

Usually when you’re doing a circuit based workout your goal is to burn as many calories as possible, work on muscle endurance, or both. Usually in those workouts your rep ranges are going to vary maybe as low as 12-15 reps, or even as high as 25-30 reps per exercise. When you’re doing reps that high, you can’t exactly be working with 40lb dumbbells trying to do a bicep curl, or an overhead shoulder press (unless you’re a freak of nature). Personally, if I’m doing a circuit based workout, I stick with 20lb, 15lb or 10lb dumbbells, depending on how many exercises I’m doing. For those of you who have seen some of my circuit training videos, you’ll know I never go that high in weight, but I still get a killer workout.

So, are you still building muscle and strength using light weights doing circuit based workouts that are focused on muscle endurance? Well, the answer is yes, but only to a point because you will plateau eventually. For most people, the goal of circuit based workouts is to maximize calories burned to maintain or lose body fat. When people tell me they built some muscle doing circuit based workouts with super high rep ranges, I have a typical reaction. If you’ve never been to the gym and placed any sort of stimulus on your body, then you are going to build some base muscle and strength in order for your body to be able to adapt to handle the workouts that you’re doing.

However, if you’re trying to build big biceps and you’re only staying in that 25-30 rep range, you’re probably not going to get much higher than using 20lb dumbbells, maybe 25lb dumbbells max. There aren’t too many people I know who can grab a 40lb dumbbell and hit if for 20 reps (with proper form). So what happens if you try to use light weights for a muscle building workout? What’s going to happen if you try to stay in that really high rep range is you’re going to plateau, and you’re not going to be able to utilize things like progressive overload because you’re going to fatigue out too quick. While some people might start off using light weights in muscle building workouts, they’re going to quickly plateau and have to rethink their game in order to progress and build more muscle and strength.

Light Weights #2: Build A Stronger Mind-Muscle Connection (MMC)

Let’s say you’re doing a biceps workout, but you just can’t feel your biceps working. There are certain exercises you can do where you need to use lighter weights, or you can do exercises and adjust the tempo to go a bit slower to feel those muscles activate a bit more. For example, I can stand up and do a dumbbell curl with a 40lb dumbbell, but if I wanted to really focus on flexing and squeezing my biceps, I might do an exercise like a concentration curl. This would keep my body in one position and force me to really focus on that flex and squeeze, so maybe I wouldn’t want to use a 40lb dumbbell. That’s because I want to focus on going slow on the way up, really contracting and flexing my bicep for a second or two at the top of the movement, then go really slow on the way down.

Utilizing a method like that is called changing the tempo. Usually when you try to change the tempo to focus on MMC, you use something like a 2-2-4. That means 2 seconds on the concentric phase, 2 seconds on the pause, and 4 seconds on the eccentric phase of the movement. In this case, you would still be utilizing a bodybuilding movement with light weight, but the goal has changed from maximizing how much muscle you’re trying to build with the exercise, to focusing more on the MMC, so you can get harder and stronger contractions when doing an entire workout.

Light Weights #3: Recovering From An Injury

If you get injured, obviously you’re not going to go right back into the gym and back to doing the same weights you were previously doing. You would try to do the same movements, maybe even the same rep ranges, but instead of going after the heaviest weights you could lift BEFORE your injury, you’d go lighter with the weights and focus on proper form to ease your way back into it.

Light Weights #4: Deload Week Training

Whether you’re doing a strength building or muscle building program, usually after 6-8 weeks you should have a deload week. This is a week where you go to the gym and do the same workouts, but you drastically reduce all the weights so that you’re simply going through the motions of the exercises. You’re still getting some kind of work done, but you’re allowing your body to recover that entire week. You’re allowing your Central Nervous System (CNS) to recover as well, so that after the deload week is over, you can start over again with the program and try to increase your weights.

Heavy Training!

When it comes to using heavy weights, that’s when you start getting more into the bodybuilding and the powerlifting/strength building type programs. For bodybuilding, you’re usually going to focus on doing sets of 8-10 repetitions (maybe 10-12 reps max). When it comes to powerlifting/strength building, your rep range is going to vary from about 1-7. But what’s the big difference, why do you use heavier weights in order to build muscle and strength?

For strength building, like I said in the beginning, if your body doesn’t HAVE to do something, it’s not going to do it. Your body is always going to find the easiest way to adapt to do something. This goes for more than just working out in the gym – this goes for anything in life – your body is always going to find the way to use the least amount of energy to perform a task or movement.

When it comes to a strength building workout, the only way you’re going to get stronger and increase your 1 rep max, is by lifting as heavy as you possibly can, as close to 1 rep as possible. This is why the rep range goes from about 1-7 reps. There are programs that I have released, like my Push/Pull/Legs program, where the first exercise you do is a big compound movement.

Let’s say it’s chest day and you’re trying to increase your bench, the first movement is going to be the barbell bench press which is obviously great for increasing your overall bench. You start your first set with 7 reps, do 7 reps on the second set, and then work down to 6 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps, and 3 reps for the remaining sets, testing your 1 rep max every 4 weeks on average. For those of you who have done the program, you’ll quickly start to see that your bench (or squat or deadlift, whichever compound you were working on) has gone up because you’ve worked with these rep ranges. This is all because your body is consistently lifting heavier weights in a smaller rep range, so it has to adapt to get stronger to be able to do it. It’s very simple, and not as complicated as it might sound.

Muscle Building!

When it comes to muscle building, the reason why you have to stay within those 8-10 or 10-12 rep ranges is because like I mentioned in the beginning, when you’re doing an endurance based workout, or using lighter weights for higher reps, you’re just not going to be able to get that muscle fiber breakdown that you need to build a bigger muscle. No matter what muscle you’re training, if you’re doing 25-30 reps then muscle fatigue is going to kick in way before you’re really able to maximize your power to lift as much weight as possible, in order to put a massive strain on your muscle for regrowth.

Remember also that you are always stronger in the eccentric portion of any movement that you’re doing. You’re actually about 40% stronger, so if you want to maximize things like progressive overload and heavy negatives, you’re not going to be able to do that if you’re trying to hit a really high rep range. The only way you’re going to be able to do that is by hitting a lower rep range.

For those of you who have tried my Cheat & Recover workouts, you know that if, for example, you were doing dumbbell bicep curls, you start with a bit of a cheat to get the weight up, then fight the negative all the way down. By doing this, you can go up to 40lb, 50lb or maybe even 60lb dumbbells, because you’re skipping the concentric and focusing on the negative for maximum overload on every single rep. But you would never be able to do that 30 times, it’s just not going to happen…if it does happen, it means you’re not lifting heavy enough!

Recap: How To Train For Your Goal

If your sole focus is to improve your muscular endurance, meaning your goal isn’t to get too much bigger, or to build massive amounts of strength (e.g. you just want to be a typically healthy person focusing on circuit workouts), then you would use light weights. When I say light weights, however, I mean weights that you can handle within the light weight range, which is 25-30 reps.

If you’re trying to build muscle or to build strength, you’re not necessarily going to grab the heaviest weights you can find, you’re going to find weights that you can handle for the rep ranges given. Remember, for strength building that means a 1-7 rep range, and for muscle building either 8-10 reps or 10-12 reps.

One final note – when it comes to muscle building workouts, and I’m not going to say this for strength, because in strength training you typically pyramid down your reps and always increase the weights as the reps go down. But for muscle building workouts, let’s say you’re doing 5 sets of 8-10 reps. Maybe on your first set you hit 10 reps no problem, take your 60 second rest period between sets, then go back for your second set, but only get 9 reps and can’t grind out the 10th rep. Then on your third set you hit 8 reps, and barely squeeze out a 9th rep with a massive struggle. By now you’re at your fourth set, and you might not even be able to get 8 reps with the same weight you were using for the first three sets.

What typically happens is this mental thing where you kill yourself because you think you’re doing something wrong just because you can’t handle the same weight on every single set, or because you can’t increase the weight on every single set. But think about it…what is the purpose of a muscle building workout? The purpose is to breakdown the muscles as much as possible, so that they can GROW. If you’re able to use the same weight on every single set, on every single exercise, for every single rep range, all that means is that you’re lifting lighter than you should be because you’re just trying to hit the same amount of reps every time.


If your goal is 8-10 reps and you’re using 40lb dumbbells for bicep curls, and you get stuck at 6 reps, I would much rather you either put the weight down and grab a lighter weight (for example 30lb or 35lb dumbbells). Or, you put it down and wait about 10-15 seconds then finish off your set. Or, the final option is if you know you almost died finishing all the reps on your last set, you then lower the weight a little bit to stay within your goal rep range for the remaining set/s.

For muscle building, it’s more about total VOLUME within your 8-10 or 10-12 rep range, rather than always increasing your weight on every single set. It’s different from strength building, it’s different from powerbuilding; muscle building is its own category. There are three different categories: endurance, muscle building and strength, so you have to lift different ways to achieve the respective goals for each category.

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