Heavy or Light?

Story by Meredith Nelson / July 22, 2016

Heavy or Light – How Much Should I Lift?

Headlines from the July 20 issue of the New York Times “Well” section stated “in a study, participants’ muscles got bigger and stronger whether they lifted heavy or light weights — as long as they lifted until they were tired.”

For years, exercisers and gym-goers have adhered to the practice of lifting heavy weights with fewer repetitions to build muscle, or lifting lighter weights for more reps to tone.

Note:  This column is purely anecdotal, based on personal experience.  What you are about to read is NOT based on scientific research, but simply my own life history – which includes losing 30 pounds, working out daily, becoming a somewhat competitive athlete, and maintaining a healthy body  composition of fat to muscle.

In my 20+ years as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, I have heard many truths and many common misconceptions.  Probably more of the latter.  Here are a few of both:

Common misconception:  Lifting heavy weights makes you “bulky.”

Fact:  Have you seen me?  I’m not what most people consider “bulky.”

Another fact:  I lift heavy weights.  Sometimes the weight is so heavy that I cannot perform more than 8 – 10 repetitions.

Takeaway:  Lifting heavy weights does not make one “bulky.”

To make you think:  What makes people bulky when they lift heavy weights is the layers of fat on top of all that beautiful, strong muscle.  Too many people forget, don’t know, or choose to ignore that diet is 80% or more of being fit.  You can work harder than a workhorse to build muscle, but if you don’t do the aerobic fat-burning activity to lose the layers of fat on top of it, and neglect to monitor your caloric intake, that muscle remains covered by fat, giving the appearance of being bulky.


Common misconception:  Lifting light weights “tones” muscle.

Fact: One doesn’t “tone.”  “Toned” simply describes the appearance of lean, solid muscle as opposed to a “soft” appearance.  You can strengthen a muscle, but “toning” just doesn’t  happen.  “Toning” means you can see muscle definition – usually those who say “I want to have muscle tone and not bulk up” are in search of definition as opposed to large muscle mass.

Fact:  the average person will not put on huge amounts of muscle mass.  That happens with hours (HOURS) in the gym daily, mega-doses of protein (in real food form or supplements), and lifting really really really heavy weights.  We’re talking Olympic power lifts, people.  NOT what the average gym-goer will be doing.

Takeaway:  Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights.

To make you think:  Lifting heavy weights builds muscle.  You need muscle.  Lifting heavy weights burns fat.  You don’t need fat (not too much of it).

So – what about this “New York Times” column advocating lifting light weights?

Well, personal note:  after having back surgery in 2012, I was told not to lift more than five pounds for several weeks.  For those of you who know me, this was a death sentence.  But I chose to obey doctor’s orders AND keep my fitness intact.  So I lifted.  Light weights.  Over.  And over.  And over.  I took 2-3 pound dumbbells and pushed them up over my head hundreds of times.  I did countertop pushups (as opposed to full-fledged push-ups on the floor) for minutes at a time.  I did bicep curls with small weights so many times I lost count.  I set my stopwatch for five minutes and did body weights squats.

And I got SORE!

My point?  Doing light weights for lots of reps made a difference.  It challenged me.  My body is so used to lifting heavy weights (and that’s not bad . . . it’s just what I do) that lifting heavy weights made tiny microtears in my muscle, just like lifting heavier weights.

The takeaway: Do something that challenges you.  Whether that’s lifting heavier than you thought possible, for just a few repetitions, or lifting light weights, for more reps than you can count.  (BUT you have to do it until you fatigue and cannot perform one more repetition with good form.)  I promise you, the difference will get your attention.

Downside of lifting heavy weights:  There comes a point where form is sacrificed.  You don’t want to go there (think “I’m injured!”).  Stay within your limits of good technique.

Downside of lifting light weights to fatigue: It takes a long time. If you’re retired, with lots of time on your hands, or simply looking for ways to stay in the gym longer, lifting light weights for 20-30 reps is for you!

Another note:  There is a perhaps scientific difference that occurs at the cellular and/or hormonal level when lifting heavy vs light weights.  I don’t know exactly what that may be – perhaps testosterone increases, capillaries grow, and mitochondria are formed.  All I know is that, for the average person interested in improving  their fitness, the body adapts to stress.  For stress to occur, we have to undergo external demands.  Your body knows a stressor in any and all forms – whether it’s a big load for a short time or a small load for a long period…. Your body will react.  In a good way.  So get out there and challenge your body in one way or another!

After all, if it challenges you, it will change you.

So to answer the question “Heavy or Light” – the answer is YES!

To read the entire NYT article, go to http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/07/20/lifting-lighter-weights-can-be-just-as-effective-as-heavy-ones/?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad


Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, in Mt. Pleasant.  Certified through AFAA in Group Fitness, ACE as a Personal Trainer and Medical Exercise Specialist, and TPI as a golf fitness professional, Meredith has been bringing fitness to the East Cooper area for over twenty years.  Since 2000, PrimeTime Fitness has catered to the mature exerciser and offers personal and small group training, indoor cycling, yoga, golf fitness training, monthly gym membership, and more.  Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 843-883-0101, or Meredith@primetimefit.net.