Building muscle mass isn’t an easy process in the slightest. It requires excessive amounts of nutrients and a proper training stimulus to make it happen.
This brings up a question many people seem to have on what builds muscle the best. Which stimulus is better for muscle growth? Heavy weights or light weights?
Luckily, this may not be an either/or scenario. In life, usually, the correct answer lies in the middle. Which is exactly what I’m going to go over today.
Here we go!
Mechanical Tension Vs Metabolic Stress
Muscle is built in the body through two different processes: mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
Mechanical tension is the stimulus your body goes through when lifting heavy weights. Through the use of increased force, we can grow our muscles by doing lower reps (5-10) through a full range of motion.
Metabolic stress is triggered by metabolites accumulating from continued stress in the form of higher reps. Usually, anything between 20 seconds to 2 minutes falls into this category. From a rep range perspective, sets of 10-30 reps would trigger metabolic stress very well.
Both of these processes in the body lead to muscle gain over time. But which one is better? And is there any way to truly measure them against one another?
Not really. There are a ton of studies done all the time on building muscle mass. Some say higher volume is better, others say a higher intensity is.
As always, they’re both correct and they both aren’t. The greatest driver for hypertrophy in the body isn’t heavier weights or lighter weights, it’s how many effective reps you’re doing over the course of a week.
If you’re training with higher reps but none of your sets approach 0-1 rep in the tank, how effective are those reps at stimulating muscle growth?
Not very at all honestly.
But this is good news! It means instead of focusing on doing a ton of sets per week (10-20+) or using a super heavy intensity (1-4 reps per set), we can operate in the middle ground where most gains can be made.
This means, doing between 5-10 sets per muscle group per week. Also, make sure to do each set 1 rep away or to failure on each set.
Try this out on your own and see what kind of progress you make. I’ve been using this with my clients and they’ve all built much more muscle very quickly.
Intensity AND volume are key. Don’t go super heavy all the time (<5 reps) or super light (>20 reps). Operate in the middle ground (5-20 reps) with the most intensity possible. That’s where you’ll find the best possible results without spending hours in the gym each day doing tons of junk volume.
Reps In Reserve
If you’re confused about what hard training is, this video of Dr. Ben Pollack should clear that up for you. This is a heavy set of Trap Bar Deadlift, 550 lbs for 10 reps while being 10 days out from his first bodybuilding show. If you aren’t giving a similar effort in your workouts, odds are you’re spinning your wheels.
Reps in reserve are a hot topic right now and something most people know as RPE or rate of perceived exertion. Basically, each set has a rating attributed to it to determine how hard the set is.
Most people in the training world use straight sets and reps. 3 sets of 10, 5 sets of 5, 10 sets of 3, etc. And while these may be great for building strength, building muscle has different mechanisms in the body that need to be addressed.
By utilizing reps in reserve, we can ensure each set is maximally stimulating to each muscle group we’re working. In my experience, anything less than 2 reps away from failure is too hard for most people to gauge. I tell them 2 reps away from failure and it’s more like 10 reps away from failure.
As soon as we did away with that system of higher volume and lower intensity my clients saw a huge increase in muscle growth! On top of that, it was much easier for them and me to gauge how hard each set is.
Now I tell them to work 1 away from failure on all compound movements. This makes it incredibly easy to determine just how difficult each set is. What this also does is increase muscular stimulus. The biggest people in the world have one thing in common, they all train very hard.
I’ve seen professional bodybuilders train with heavy weights, light weights and everything in between. The major thing they all do is push very close to failure. Even implementing forced reps and slow negatives to increase muscle stimulus works wonders.
Instead of doing a million sets, up your intensity and see what happens. I guarantee you’ll notice a big difference in overall muscular growth.
If you have any questions on this topic, definitely let me know in the comments below!
Heavy Weight Vs Light Weight
As I’ve told you all before, the debate isn’t really about heavy weights or light weights. Just like it isn’t about low reps or high reps. It’s about what is the most effective at building muscle.
All of them are, as long as you’re pushing the intensity. This is the #1 most important factor you need to pay attention to for maximal muscular development. If you’re just doing sets of 10 and all of your sets are super easy, why would your body want to grow from that?
You need a combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress to build a well-rounded physique. The best way I’ve found to implement these is pretty simple!
Barbell movements take up the majority of your 5-10 rep ranges. Things like barbell Rows, squats, deadlifts, benching, and overhead pressing. These movements allow you to use the most weight and generate the most amount of mechanical tension. This is when heavy weights come into play to build muscle.
I would never recommend going to failure on these. Instead, these are where you go 1-2 reps away from failure each set. This will give you greatest stimulus without substantially increasing the risk of injury.
Isolation, dumbbell, machines, and some bodyweight movements make up the 10-20 rep range. The goal of metabolic stress is to get a big pump and use higher reps to produce muscular growth. These movements are much less demanding than barbell movements. Because of this, I recommend all of your sets using them be 1 rep away or to failure.
Isolation movements such as bicep curls and pushdowns especially. It’s very easy to maintain your form on these and they’re very hard to get injured from. You can almost exclusively go to failure on these without experiencing any negative side effects.
By using these two types of muscle building mechanisms in the body, you can achieve better overall results then doing one type of training exclusively.
Doing light “pump” sets all the time with no regard for weight on the bar isn’t a good long term strategy. Likewise, doing heavier sets forever will build your fast-twitch muscle fibers up a great deal. This will leave the slower twitch fibers much more likely to be underdeveloped.
Myth: You Have To Lift Heavy To Build More Muscle
As I’ve gone over earlier, building muscle has nothing to do with how heavy or light the weight is. It all comes down to how effective each set is at stimulating muscle growth. If you’re doing super heavy sets for sets of 5 or lighter sets of 20, the growth you’ll experience from each will be similar.
The main difference is your intent with each set. You need to perform each set until you’re around failure. This means pushing hard week after week and maintaining good form. If you’re pushing harder each week but your form is deteriorating, you’re going to get injured. On top of that, you’ll have a hard time working your muscles directly if you’re using a ton of momentum to do more weight.
The heaviest you should be going for optimal muscle growth is 5 reps, the lightest should be around 30 reps. Anything heavier or lighter than this will be difficult to build muscle around. I recommend not going too heavy that your form doesn’t start breaking down.
Plus, there are some exercises where going heavier (5-10 reps) doesn’t make much sense. Likewise, there are also exercises where going lighter (10-20 reps) doesn’t make sense either!
I went over this above, but what it boils down to is this:
- Heavier reps should be done with big, barbell movements. These exercises; Squat, Bench, Deadlift, Overhead Press, and Barbell Rows should be done mostly in the 5-10 rep range. This includes there close barbell variations such as Front Squats, Incline Bench, Romanian Deadlifts, Behind The Neck Press, and T-Bar Rows. You can go higher reps on the Squats, Bench, Overhead Press, and Barbell Row + their variations. I wouldn’t recommend it for Deadlifts, however. Deadlifts are primarily a power movement and require a ton of static strength to maintain a neutral spine. Because of this, higher reps (10-20 reps) should never be done on the Deadlift or any of its variations. This is an example where lifting heavier makes sense. You can also do heavier weighted bodyweight exercises such as Pullups, Pushups, Dips, and Split Squats/Lunges.
- Lighter reps should almost always be done exclusively with dumbbell, cable, and isolation exercises. Examples of these include Cable Crossovers, Tricep Pushdowns, Dumbbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Overhead Press, and others. Because of how unstable dumbbells can be, almost all Dumbbell Pressing should be done for higher rep sets of 10-20 reps. This is where it makes the most sense without getting injured. Other movements such as isolation exercises don’t have a lot of help from other muscle groups like compound movements do. This forces us to do higher reps on these single-joint exercises. If you’re doing super heavy pushdowns, your form is going to break down and you’re going to be putting a ton of excess stress on your elbows.
Bottom line: make sure you’re using the correct rep range for the exercise you’re doing. Pick exercises that build the most muscle for you and your structure. Not all exercises are created equal so pay attention to how your physique develops.
Also, if your strength isn’t improving in the 5-20 rep range you’re going to have a hard time building muscle mass. Stay the course and keep working!
For those trying to take their muscle-building gains to the next level, work in the 5-20 rep range. Do between 5-10 sets per body part per week. And make sure you’re doing each set 0, 1, or 2 reps away from failure at the most.
This will give you all of the benefits of heavy weights and lighter weights with less of the drawbacks.
And remember, higher volume isn’t necessarily better than lower volume. But higher intensity is much better than lower intensity!
If you’re training and none of your sets feel hard by the last couple of reps, odds are you’re spinning your wheels and wasting your time.
Your body needs a reason to build muscle mass. Simply moving around and working up a sweat isn’t enough. If it was, all cyclists and long-distance runners would be incredibly muscular.
Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a fantastic week!
Until next time,