Big Gains with Light Weights

Big Gains with Light Weights

Many feel home workouts are pointless without heavy weights. And like most myths, that belief stems from a misunderstood bit of truth.

Muscle fibers come in two main varieties, Type I and Type II.

Type II muscle fibers do indeed grow best under heavy loads that are hard to replicate at home.

But don't give up and melt into the couch, mourning your Type II muscle fibers and all the gains you had planned together. Type I is calling and it's for you.

Type I muscle fibers grow best in response to high-rep, light-weight work -- the kind that can be done just about anywhere, using just about anything, including body weight.

We’re talking about humbling sets of 20 to 30 reps, done to burning, pumped-out failure (which has other benefits too, btw).

And here’s the silver lining: you have a 50/50 ratio of Type I to Type II muscle fibers.

That means that while your Type II muscle fibers may be on quarantine, you still have just as many no-gym-needed, Type I fibers ready to grow. 💪💪

Build muscle at home with light weight or improvised weights

Your Type I fibers don’t care if you’re grinding out push ups, curling a water jug, pressing 50 pound bags of rice (the most under-rated survival tool ever, holla at your local Asian market today!), or doing lateral raises with gallons of milk.   

All your Type I fibers care about is that you’re burning them out to high-rep failure.

Need proof? So did Dr. Stuart Phillips, professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University.

He and co-author Robert Morton recruited 49 athletes to study the effect of light weight training on muscle size.

They used athletes that had been lifting weights for at least four years and visited the gym three to five times a week consistently in the lead up – so these weren’t newbs who could grow just by looking at a weight. These were real people who really lift.

The group was split into two.

The “light-but-to-failure” group lifted weights of up to 50% of their 1RM (1 Rep Max) in sets of 20-25 reps.

The “heavy-weight” group lifted 90% of 1RM for sets of 8-12 reps.

The results after 12 weeks?

Both groups had near identical gains in muscle mass and muscle fiber size. 🙌 🙌

High reps to failure with light or body weight builds muscle. Type I (also called type 1) muscle fibers grow best with light weight.

If most of your gym workouts involved sets of 5 to 10 reps, you may have been neglecting the gains-potential of your Type I fibers. 

Now’s the perfect time to give those under-trained muscle fibers the attention they need. 

Bonus: Type I muscle fiber use correlates better with fat loss, so revving them up will help keep you fit while we’re locked down.

As you pick from the millions of home workouts out there, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Do at least one exercise for each body part; don't just do push ups and sit ups and call it a day.
  • Make sure shoulders, chest, back, arms, abs, and yes, even legs get hit.
  • Do a minimum of 3 sets of each exercise.
  • Do enough reps (often 20, 30 or more) that your muscles "burn" and you reach technical failure -- the point where you can't do another rep without breaking good form.
  • Keep rest time short, just 30 to 60 seconds between sets. 
  • DON'T get hurt. You do not want to go to the ER right now. Be careful of what's around you, and think through what could go wrong with any improvised or rickety things you decide to use.

“So why not train light all the time”? 🤔

Some athletes do, just as many lifters train heavy all the time.

Gymnasts train almost exclusively with body weight, using incredibly high volume and training frequency, and they’re crazy jacked.

Ever wondered how gymnasts get so jacked without weights?

The main snag with using only the “light weight to failure” method is strength.

Max strength will gradually begin to drop. There’s no way around that. If you want to be strong AF, there’s just plain no substitute for using weights that are heavy AF. That’s why long-term training should involve a blend of heavy weight and high-rep, lighter weight tactics.

But for building muscle, improving fitness and staying lean, intense home workouts really can get it done. And remember, this stay at home stuff will end. We’ll be back to lifting whatever we please in no time.

In the study mentioned previously, light-weight-using athletes kept gaining muscle at the same rate as heavy, gym-style lifters for nearly 3 months. We're not going to be cooped up anywhere near that long.  

Even if you've been slacking and lost some gains, don't give up. Muscle memory is real. You'll be able to get back to where you were in a fraction of the time it took to get there the first go-around.

That process will work even faster if you've been staying active. So keep moving, get creative and grind out the best improvised workouts you can.

Most workouts with weights focus on training type II muscle fibers. You have just as many Type I fibers and they are ready to grow. Here's how to train them at home with light weights and high reps.

Continuing to train with whatever means is available will maintain and build muscle, improve health, boost immune function, and reduce body fat.

Lighter-than-normal workouts also provide an opportunity to heal nagging injuries that couldn’t heal while lifting heavy.

Last but certainly not least – it’s hard to over-state the mental benefits of training through a crisis. It’s literally a lifesaver.

Physical training provides opportunities for discipline, consistency, control, and accomplishment that are vital for keeping your mind right during uncertain times. 

Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got. You’ll be glad you did.

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