Do you lift heavy or smaller weights with high repetitions? It all depends on your goal

    So you want to lift weights but aren’t sure where to start. You scroll through your Instagram feed looking for guidance – but all you see are fitness influencers promoting the idea that you either lift yourself up or don’t care.

    This is a little scary and frustrating, isn’t it? But as with most things about exercise and health, it really isn’t that simple.

    I’m an exercise scientist (and former Commonwealth Weightlifting Medalist and National Olympic Weightlifting Champion) who researches resistance training, also known as weightlifting. Research suggests that lifting smaller weights and doing more repetitions (or, in gym parlance, “reps”) can play a role—but it all depends on your goals.

    In short: If your goal is to build serious strength and bone density, lifting weights is an effective way to do it. But if you can’t lift weights or that’s not your thing, please don’t think lifting lighter weights is a complete waste of time.

    If you can’t lift heavy weights or that isn’t your thing, please don’t think lifting lighter weights is a waste of time.
    Photography by RODNAE Productions/Pexels, CC BY

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    Wait: What do we mean by “heavy” or “light”?

    What is heavy for one person may be a piece of cake for another.

    In resistance training, the load or “heavy” of the weight is often expressed as a percentage of the “maximum one repetition” (often shortened to “1RM”).

    A maximum of one repetition is the heaviest load you can lift successfully Once.

    About 80% of maximum repetitions are often defined as “high intensity” or heavy lifting.

    About 40% or less of the frequency limit is often defined as ‘low intensity’.

    In other words, raising 80% of your maximum one repetition will allow you to do about eight repetitions.

    The more reps, the less accurate the relationship.

    But some estimates predict that you can do about 20 repetitions at 60% of your maximum repetition once (of course, it varies by person).

    It is worth remembering not everyone Can Lifting weights, perhaps due to age, injury, or just because you’re new to the gym. And maybe while you’re unable to lift weights now, that doesn’t mean this will always be the case.

    But the key thing is this: If you’re going to be working out at a lower intensity, say 40% of your max.

    A woman prepares to squat with a heavy weight bar.
    What is heavy for one person may be a piece of cake for another.
    Photo by Sushil Ghimire on Unsplash, CC BY

    Weightlifting benefits

    Lifting loads ranging from 40% to 80% of maximum one repetition has been shown to lead to improvements in muscle mass (hypertrophy). However, research also shows that lifting with higher loads is necessary to achieve maximum improvements in muscular strength.

    High-intensity exercise is perhaps the most effective type of exercise for maintaining and improving bone health. Research has shown that the best approach to bone health is a combination of high-intensity resistance and impact training.

    If you choose to lift lighter weights, you will need to do more repetitions to get the same benefits in terms of muscle growth than if you were lifting heavier weights.
    stock struggle

    lighter lift? Here’s what you need to know

    Research has shown that participation in both high-intensity and low-intensity BodyPump™ classes may offset the age-related decrease in bone mineral density in the lumbar spine.

    If you choose to lift lighter weights, you will need to do more repetitions to get the same benefits that lifting heavier weights would produce.

    Research also shows if you lift light weight, muscle failure is likely required to stimulate muscle growth. In other words, you will likely need to lift to exhaustion.

    Lifting weights may bring you the same benefit without having to go to exhaustion.

    What about burning energy?

    On average, a 1-hour low-intensity/high-repetition resistance training session would burn around 300 calories. A heavy session with longer rest periods equals nearly as many calories as a higher repetition session with less rest.

    A person carrying a small hand weight.
    It should be noted that training at a low load is difficult.
    Photo by Kelly Sekema on Unsplash, CC BY

    There may also be gender differences in the way older men and older women respond to resistance training. For example, older men may benefit from higher-intensity programs, while older women may actually benefit from higher-volume (more repetition) programs.

    It should be noted that training at a low load is difficult. It’s really uncomfortable to do low/high repetition training to, or near failure (remember: “train to failure” means getting to a point where you can’t do more lifts). It requires a significant degree of motivation and willingness to tolerate discomfort.

    Doing low-load exercises without serious effort is not likely to result in significant improvements in muscle growth and strength. So if you choose this approach, make sure you are ready to put in the effort.

    The advantages of light weights include being portable, which means you can work out in a fun environment like the beach, the park, or while on vacation. It doesn’t cost much and is easy to store. For many, they are also not scary.

    For some, these benefits will make it easier to stick to a regular exercise routine. For others, these benefits may not outweigh some of the benefits listed above for traditional heavyweight training.

    A woman lifts a small hand weight in a classroom
    If an influencer or your gym buddy says her way is the only way, be sure to question her.
    Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash, CC BY

    It depends on your goal

    cues from the story? It doesn’t matter what you do and how you do it. But, maybe not as much as you think.

    If an influencer or a fellow gym goer says their way is the only way, ask them with a healthy skepticism.

    They aren’t you, they don’t have your specific goals or limits, and there is likely more than one way to achieve the outcome you want.

    Read more: 75 Hard: What you need to know before taking on this viral fitness challenge

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