How light weights can build muscle better than lifting heavy

Why dropping the weight you're lifting might help you get stronger in the long term

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When you think of getting stronger or toning up, most people think of Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping gigantic, heavy dumbbells in the gym. However, you don't have to lift big heavy weights in order to really see an increase in fitness, strength and muscle tone. 

This is especially good news for those who are currently in a second lockdown situation, and only have a certain size of our best adjustable dumbbells or light weight to choose from.

For experienced lifters, heavy weights are still essential for getting stronger. However, if you are just starting on your muscle-building journey, there's plenty you can get done by sticking with lighter weights.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at 49 lifters who used lighter and heavy weights to encourage strength and muscle growth. Both groups "trained to failure", until they physically couldn't complete the exercise. While the lighter weights obviously took a lot longer to get to this point, it was found similar results could be achieved with both light and heavy weights.

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In fact, even if you don't train to failure, you can gain benefits from light weights. If you lift something heavy, you often struggle to maintain control, lowering your weights very quickly once you reach the apex of the lift. 

Not so if you try using less weight. You're able to lower your dumbbell or barbell under control, which contributes to the muscle-building process. The process of lowering your weight is known as the "eccentric phase" of a muscle-building movement, and the slower and more controlled you're able to make it, the more strength you'll build. It's as important as the actual lifting phase, according to the journal Frontier Physiology (opens in new tab).

Bicep curl

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It's also much safer for beginners to use a weight they know they can lift and lower easily: heavier weights lifted without good form lend themselves to a greater risk of injury.

If you're training with weights, try taking things down a notch to reap the rewards.

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Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.