With the popularity of CrossFit and hard-core HIIT workouts, it may seem like maxing out with heavy barbells is critical to getting stronger. But, if you’re not into heavy lifting, it’s not necessarily a problem.
Turns out that doing high reps with light weights is as beneficial as doing fewer reps with heavy weights, according to a study from McMaster University in Canada. Researchers found that both types of strength training resulted in similar amounts of muscle growth.
“Lifting lighter weights can be just as beneficial as lifting heavy, depending on how you use them,” says Michael Septh, a New York City-based Aaptiv trainer who specializes in functional movement.
“Light weights are just another tool that you should have in your training arsenal.”
Read on for his tips on how to make your light-weight workout both effective and efficient. Keep in mind light weights are whatever weights are light to you. That could mean 3 lbs., 15 lbs., or even more.
Focus on form.
A lot of the time, proper lifting form isn’t a priority for people lifting lighter weights. Why? Simple: It doesn’t have to be.
“You can get away with not focusing on the quality of your movements. You don’t notice it because the load is light,” says Septh. But, that’s not a good thing.
“People just do the movement for the sake of doing the movement, and as a result, efficiency and quality often lack. When you’re lifting heavy, you have to focus on form.”
Although proper form may be lacking, it’s still critical to see results and avoid injury. To get a good burn and lift safely, maintain form in all weighted movements.
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Breathe from your belly.
Focusing on your breath isn’t just for yoga. “People don’t focus enough on breathing when they lift,” says Septh. “The first reaction is often to hold your breath, which prevents you from generating energy.”
His advice: Take deep, controlled breaths and think about puffing out your belly, not your chest. You’ll get a deeper breath—which should help you eke out a few more reps.
Do the right moves.
A squat-to-overhead press is a great strength exercise to do—but compound movements (which activate multiple joints) are better done with heavier loads.
For lighter weights, stick to “accessory moves,” suggests Septh: lunges, step-ups, lateral shoulder raises, biceps curls, and triceps extensions. These exercises strengthen your smaller, stabilizing muscles, which will help you look more toned and improve your balance.
Try something different.
“You need to challenge yourself differently, as often as possible. To create change, you have to change your program,” says Septh.
But, that change doesn’t always need to be adding weight or adding moves to your arsenal. If things get too complicated too quickly, you could wind up getting hurt, warns Septh. Instead, he says, mix things up by “putting different stress factors and adding variables to the movements you already know.”
Or, continue using dumbbells, but add a balance challenge by standing on a Bosu ball or on one foot.
Lift until you’re (really) tired.
According to the McMaster University study, the key to getting toned with light weights is lifting to fatigue. That doesn’t mean lifting the weight until you feel tired or it starts to get tough—it means going until you could do maybe one more—but that’s it!
“Stop when you have one or two reps left in you,” advises Septh. “I don’t like to say to go [to] the point where there’s nothing left because you could wind up hurting yourself, but working to fatigue should definitely feel challenging.”
Know when to stop.
When you hit fatigue, yes, it’s time to put down the weights. Sometimes you need to back off, even when you feel like there are a few extra reps left in you.
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If you notice your body compensating—say, if you’re swinging your torso to finish some biceps curls—you shouldn’t go any further.
“It’s important to have a mental connection to the area you’re targeting with any particular move,” says Septh. “If you feel another area of the bodywork, you’ve probably already passed that threshold. Use your own body as a cue.”