The Light vs. Heavy Weight Strength Debate…

A recent study in the published in the Journal of Applied Physiology raised the idea that lifting light loads (30% of 1RM) to failure can be just as beneficial to strength development as lifting heavy loads to failure. At AthleteFIT we have seen very similar results over the last decade with our younger or less advanced population, as inexperienced lifters in our program will put on strength at similar rates whether we go heavy or light over the first few months. The key, as Michele S. Olson, professor of exercise science at the Human Performance Laboratory of Auburn University Montgomery put it in a recent interview is knowing what “light” weight really means.

Most people think 5 -10 lb dumbbells are light, and for a young 80-100 lb athlete learning to lift, this may be true, but for most of us this might only be 5-10 % of our 1RM (maybe even lower). This is far from the 30% of 1RM sited in this study. The other point that may be lost is that an athlete needs to take the set all the way to failure. Simply doing 3 sets of 10 with 10 lb dumbbells will rarely take an athlete to failure, and the benefit of using light weights to gain strength is lost.

In our program we need to bring up another key point in this debate. Form! In the beginning of a program, we want the athletes to move with full mobility and stability (form) through a full range of motion using only body weight as resistance. When they can do this, we ask them to move with more rhythm and speed (making the exercise more dynamic and athletic in nature) while still using only body weight as resistance. This enhances the “skill” of the movement and teaches the body how to move athletically. Once they are moving athletically, we add resistance in the form of light dumbbells (sometimes as light as 5-10 lb) for sets of 12. If they can do this, we have them increase in weight. This process continues until they are hitting a point of failure (failing due to muscular fatigue, not failure due to form) between 8-12 reps. This load is identified as their training resistance for the first few months of the program. In a recent post we broke down the jump motion and looked at different types of loading patterns at 30% of 1RM. Click HERE to read more about this…

There is really no need to increase the load with this type of athlete (new to the program), because we will continue to see increases in strength at this “safe” resistance as the body acclimates to the demands of the movement (becomes stronger). This progression has proven to be safe and effective for us over the last decade.

How much weight should I be lifting?

This is the key point to this post. Identifying your ideal training load for a particular exercise depends on the following criteria:

  1. Can I move with proper alignment through a full range of motion
  2. Am I moving with an ideal rhythm and tempo for the entire set
  3. Am I hitting a point of muscular failure (fatigue not pain) between 6-12 reps

If all of the above are true, you should be gaining strength through the early stages of your training program.

Should I ever lift heavy?

Pretty soon your body will adapt to this the demands of training and a whole new set of questions will arise. What is the goal of my training? Am I training for speed, size, fitness, power, skill, etc? Do I play a sport that requires me to move an external resistance (American Football, Weightlifting, Powerlifting, etc.) or do I only need to be able to control my own body weight (basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.). If I play a sport that requires me to move an external resistance, 10-20 lb dumbbells are probably not going to do the job, and therefore, I may need to add additional weight to the bar. Or if I am a fast player in a sport that requires me to sprint and change direction at high speeds, I may need to prepare my body to handle the forces acting on my body as I attempt to change direction at full speed.

The answer is this… In the beginning stages of athletic development, the load should be kept light. Let the athlete learn how to use their body. Let them put on strength in a progressive manner so they build athleticism and coordination through this process. But once they start to reach plateaus in speed and power, it might be time to increase the load from both a performance as well as a protective perspective.



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