We’ve all seen the classic images of bodybuilding icons in the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu working with insanely heavy loaded barbells at Muscle Beach. We’ve heard the legend about Ben Johnson squatting 600 lbs for doubles before smashing a world record in the Olympics. We all marvel at the fact that Klokov has repeatedly taken 400+ lbs from the ground to overhead in one single motion in several competition settings. We could go on and on with this, but the main point is, strength is measured by the amount of weight you can move. So it would make sense, that to get strong, one must constantly push the limits of absolute strength. Only by lifting heavy, will you be able to lift heavier. Right? Well, Im here to discuss why this may not always be the case.
We could go into a deep rabbit hole about a vast variety of training programs and argue about which one is best. The truth is, most of these actually do have some value to it, when applied to the right person, in the right circumstance. So let’s take a look at scenarios where lifting lighter weights will actually yield more absolute strength than going heavy.
1. Coming Back from Injury
This is an obvious case of the body not being able to handle heavy loads, if any at all. It’s not only that there’s damaged tissue, we also need to consider that even the new tissue is not generated with the same capabilities as the previous one. That new tissue needs to be trained all over again to get to the same level as before. Regardless of the extent or location of the injury, rehab begins with unweighted or very light weighted movements at high repetitions to rebuild the musculature.
2. Technique/ Movement Mechanics
This applies to newbies as well as people experienced in resistance training. There’s many cases where we’ve developed bad habits that eventually result in training plateaus. Basically, we are no longer able to improve in a lift because it stops being a strength issue, and becomes a movement issue. For the inexperienced lifter, it’s all the same. A lot of people can walk into the gym for the first time in the life, grab a barbell and snatch it. Heck, a lot of people can probably do that with 80-100 lbs. However, that’s pretty much all they’ll ever be able to lift unless they learn how to do it properly. Adding weight to the barbell is one way in which we add intensity. In order to learn proper technique, we need high exposure. Hence, high volume with low intensity will allow us to accumulate enough reps to get good at a certain movement. This doesn’t only apply to high skill lifts like the Snatch and C&J, it applies to all lifts. Take for example someone with a quad dominant squat. This guy shoots his knees forward, feet are close together at hips width, torso remains perpendicular to the ground, crazy dorsiflexion in the bottom. He’s blessed with good mobility and can probably get away with squatting 300-400 lbs. Eventually, he’ll get frustrated because the squat stops improving. The reason is that he’s gotten all he can get from the muscles he’s using to perform the movement. He needs to learn how to engage the posterior chain to squat. So he watches a few YouTube videos, performs 10 air squats in his warmup, but then realizes that when squatting “right” he’s only good for 80% of what he can hit when squatting “wrong”. He needs to train at light weights, with proper movement, to not only match his previous numbers, but be able to eventually surpass them. Like my colleague Michael Bann once said to me: “we need to make him weak, to make him strong”.
3. Training Age
We can all agree that to lift heavy weights, you don’t only need to train the muscles, you also need to train the nervous system. Inexperienced lifters, or those with young training age, have not yet developed their nervous system to the point of even knowing what “heavy” really means to them. I see it all the time in the gym, where newer clients have a Bench Press 1RM of 90 lbs, and their 20 RM is 80 lbs. How in the world can they perform 20 times as much work with 10 lbs under their maximum effort? So should we train these people in sets of 5 reps at 85 lbs, or sets of 15-20 reps at 75 lbs? Those sets of 5 will elicit a meaningless dose response for that avatar. The key for them is muscle endurance, and in this case, it will be the number one contributor to absolute strength gains.
4. Muscle Endurance
Since we’re already at it, we need to consider that even experienced lifters, need exposure to higher reps at lighter weights. If you’ve been to any functional fitness competitions you must have seen the huge, bulky athletes that can Power Clean 350 lbs, COMPLETELY shut down in a workout that that requires a high number of reps at a mere 135 lbs. In other words, this guy can put up a BIG effort one time, but cannot repetitively put together a lot of smaller efforts. Again, to acquire this ability, a high accumulation of reps at light weights is required in training.
5. Structure/ Base
Every successful athlete started from the very beginning, in the most simple ways of the sport or discipline. Before learning to walk, we must learn how to crawl. Lifting weights is no different. In order to be able to handle heavy loads (safely anyways), we need to gain ample experience in those movements. Through the use of tempo, we control the speed at which movements are performed. High tempo training makes those movements a lot more difficult by increasing the amount of time under tension. We need to consider this when putting weight on the barbell, as it will usually mean lighter loads. They’re going to FEEL heavy at that particular tempo, but in reality, lighter weights are used relative to that persons true capabilities. However, it’s crucial that we go through these phases in training to ensure that we can control the movement throughout the entire range motion and strengthen tendons. It’s what will allow us to train at heavier weights down the line, minimizing injuries. Not to mention, that there’s plenty of scientific evidence on the benefits of eccentric loading for strength and hypertrophy gains.
6. Speed Work
If you’re into lifting heavy, you know about Westside Barbell. Louie Simmons’ Conjugate System has produced 100’s of world records. There’s a lot of extremely strong men and women who train under that system. What makes Westside so successful is the implementation of fast, explosive lifting into the strength program. They believe that to be strong, you need to be fast. In a nutshell, this training program combines heavy lifts with light, dynamic lifts on alternating days. Heavy days mean 1-5 RM’s in various combinations of the main lifts, while dynamic days mean anywhere from 20-40 total reps of the lifts, usually in sets of 2-3 reps. The dynamic lifts are performed at 40-60% 1RM’s, again, 2-3 reps at a time. The key here is that even though there’s 50% on the bar, you’re supposed to exert 100% effort in every rep. This teaches the body (and the nervous system) how to push weight FAST. Recruitment of muscle fibers is quite different from heavy, slow efforts. In other words, you train parts of the muscle that you cant train when going heavy. The result is 3 of the top 5 and 4 of the top 10 powerlifting totals in the world. I’d venture to say, that nobody knows how to get people stronger than the folks at Westside. And even they go light, often.
7. Impact on Nervous System
Another important thing to consider is the effect that lifting has on the nervous system. Recovery from heavy efforts is longer for some than it is for others. This can be due to the neuromuscular efficiency of that individual, as well as other factors, particularly nutrition and lifestyle. It is well known that we get stronger while we rest, not while we actually workout. If you can recover quickly, and come back for another productive session, and you can do that over and over again, you’ll see better results than someone who gets drained from a heavy effort in one workout, and can’t really recover before the next workout. The sweet spot will vary between individuals, but often times, we’ll see better results from lighter loads, higher volume training.
As you can see there’s plenty of cases where light weights will help you get stronger. However, there’s no one right prescription that will fit everyone. Going through the proper assessments protocols and goal setting will play a huge role in how to play with heavy and light loading within your particular training design. A good coach will be able to see these traits and lay down the program that is best suited for that particular person. And there’s plenty of situations where the best option will be going light.