Are you worried about losing your gains while stuck lifting light weights at home for the indefinite future? Don’t worry about losing gains – you can still make gains! Lots of research has been done showing you can still make both strength and hypertrophy gains using light weights, key: as long as you train to failure.
^^ Be sure to at least read about the S curve of muscle growth section – this is what matters most!
Stuck at home using light weights
The majority of us, myself included, are stuck trying to work out at home during this world-wide coronavirus crisis.
I’m seeing so many of you on social media lifting milk jugs, cats, even babies(!) getting your home workouts in and I love it!
We’re all used to occasionally taking a rest week or two by replacing workouts with light weights. The goal of lifting light weights in this case is to maintain muscle activation to minimize muscle loss but limit muscle stress.
In the case of coronavirus, social isolation and gym closures are going to be lasting much more than just a week or two.
We’re okay with the tiny amount of muscle and strength loss after a week or two for rest and recovery but with longer and longer social restrictions, the loss can become significant.
So how can we actually gain strength and muscle tissue while lifting light loads in social isolation?
The answer is lifting the load, no matter how light, close to failure.
Can I still gain muscle/strength using light weights?
These four studies compared elements of muscle growth between light weights and heavy weights in the same exercises.
Note: There were notable differences in outcomes between strength gains and size gains, interestingly, which is worth paying attention to as you read through, depending on your personal fitness goals.
Paper #1: Nobrega, 2018
A 2018 study by Nobrega, et al., the participants did leg extensions to failure at either high weight (80% of their 1RM) or low weight (30% of their 1RM).
After 12 weeks, both groups gained equally in muscle strength and size.
Paper #2: Burd, 2010
This study compared three groups in leg extension:
- One group lifted high weight (90% 1RM) to failure
- One group lifted low weight (30% 1RM) to failure
- One group lifted low weight (30% 1RM) at similar reps to high weight group. This group stopped significantly short of failure.
Both the high weight and low weight groups that trained to failure showed elevated levels of several of the different muscle-building biomarkers in their blood measured at 4 hours after the workout.
Interestingly, some of those same hypertrophic biomarkers were STILL elevated at 24 hours for the low load to failure group only. None of the biomarkers were elevated at any time for the group that didn’t train to failure.
The results would suggest that perhaps lifting low weights to failure could possibly cause even larger amounts of muscle growth than lifting high loads to failure!
Paper #3: Schoenfeld, 2017
This was a meta-analysis which means it looked at combined data from many studies.
They looked at studies where all sets were done to failure and compared subjects lifting < 60% of their 1RM (low weight) to subjects lifting > 60% of their 1RM (high weight).
Both lifting high weight to failure and lifting low weight to failure showed about an equal increase in muscle size.
Interestingly, despite the increase in size both ways, only the high weight group showed a statistically significant increase in strength.
Paper #4: Lasevicius, 2019
This study compared both high load (80% 1RM) to low load (30% 1RM) going to failure and stopping short of failure. The group that stopped short of failure did fewer reps per set but more sets to equalize volume.
They measured quads muscle size (by MRI) and strength (by 1RM) before and after 8 weeks of leg extensions this way.
High load both ways (failure and non-failure) gained both muscle size and strength.
Low load gained muscle size only when trained to failure.
Low load both ways did not gain muscle strength.
All of these studies used men as subjects.
While there are definitely differences in muscle growth signaling between men and women, women signal muscle growth similarly to men in the setting of muscle stress and breakdown.
We can’t say for sure that this would show the same results for women but in my professional opinion, it likely would be similar.
The three studies (other than the meta-analysis) all focused on knee extensions exclusively.
The leg extension is commonly used in studies for two reasons: 1. quads are easiest to measure differences in size, and 2. it’s easy to control as it is one muscle group in a restricted range of motion.
Even though we don’t have scientific studies measuring these kinds of interventions in other muscle groups, it makes sense that it would apply to almost all other skeletal muscle groups in the body.
Strength vs Size
Interestingly, training with a low weight to failure caused an increase in muscle size but not always an increase in muscle strength.
The one that did show an increase in strength was a longer training period (12 weeks compared to 8 weeks).
Muscle strength often lags behind muscle growth. It is likely that training with a low load will similarly lead to an increase in muscle strength but this lags slightly behind muscle growth.
Luckily, if you are lifting weights for body-building, trying to make different parts of your body larger or smaller because you like the way it looks (as most of are), then lifting lower weights to failure will still get you there.
Unfortunately, if you are lifting weights for building strength, it is unclear if lifting lighter weights to failure will give you the strength you are looking for.
If you’re working out at home and trying to gain muscle/strength, check out this post on 9 Tips to Make the Most of Your Home Workout.
What does failure really mean?
All four studies looked at lifting weights to “failure”. Some studies defined it as true failure where the subject attempted to move weight but no movement occurred. Other studies defined failure as when the subject “felt” they could not do another rep.
Sometimes, especially early on in lifting, you feel like you can’t do another rep but with enough encouragement, either from a lifting partner or yourself, you indeed find the strength to do one or two more.
“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.”Arnold Schwarzenegger
*S curve of muscle growth*
Many have described an S curve of muscle growth where once you get to about 5 reps left before failure, you haven’t caused much muscle growth.
Giving one more rep (training with 4 reps in reserve vs 5 reps in reserve), will lead to a significant amount of muscle growth.
Similarly between leaving 3 reps in reserve vs 4 reps in reserve.
Once you get to leaving one rep in reserve vs none (last before ten failure), you don’t really gain that much more.
This is corroborated by the Nobrega, 2018 study where subjects trained to failure or 1-2 reps shy and gained similar results.
Many suggest that the exhaustion inflicted by giving that final rep (and preventing other work later on in your workout) outweighs the relatively small benefit in strength.
I think this thought process of training up until about 1-2 reps are left in each set makes sense concept-wise, is supported by the scientific research, and I have felt personally works well for me.
If you’re looking to build size and strength in your glutes, see why you should stop doing glute activation warm ups here and read what actually works to build strength and size in you glutes in this post.
Ultimately, in this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime period of world-wide social distancing and gym closures, we don’t really have much choice how much weight is available to lift for various exercises.
We can get creative putting heavy things in towels or invest large amounts of money in assembling a home gym. (Why are barbells and weight plates so expensive?!)
But depending on your lifting goals, body building vs powerlifting, you can likely get away with lifting lighter weights for several months and surprisingly still gain both strength and muscle.
Dr. Elle, MD
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