It’s common for both men and women to voice concerns over how much weight they lift. What’s uncommon are their reasons. Unsurprisingly, women are concerned about lifting too heavy—potentially risking injury and, developing manly muscles. On the other hand men, are concerned that they are not lifting heavy enough. The result of which would be—in their mind—under developed muscles and a deflated ego.

While there is no known cure for a man’s ego issues (I speak from experience), injury from “heavy” lifting is easily prevented with proper technique, and unless you’re a woman injecting herself with steroids or testosterone it’s virtually impossible to become overly muscular.

However my intention for this article is not to defend heavy lifting. No, my intention is to put your mind at ease by showing you how...

Lifting heavy is NOT necessary for exceptional muscle development.

The evidence for heavy lifting to maximize strength gains is abundant and undeniable. But muscular gains—that result in you in looking totally buff and sexy—are achievablein the absence of heavy long as you follow two simple rules which we’ll cover shortly.

It’s always been assumed that training with heavy weights was must for building muscle. And why not assume such? Casual observation indicates that those who are muscular are typically strong, and those that are strong are typically muscular.

Science has put this notion to the test and the results have been nothing short of compelling.

In several studies designed to investigate muscle hypertrophy and strength gains subjects were assigned to groups that performed either, low-rep sets (3-5) with heavy loads, medium-rep sets (6-12) with moderate loads, or high-rep sets (15-35) with light loads. Muscle hypertrophy was assessed through either muscle biopsy, MRI, or ultrasound, and muscle strength was evaluated via a 1 Rep Max (1RM) test for specified exercises (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

The results of these studies indicated that regardless of load, there was no difference in muscle thickness or cross-sectional area.

The only differences found were in maximal strength. All groups improved strength but only the heavy load/low-rep subjects improved their 1RM by statistically significant standards. That said, the light and moderate load/higher rep groups did experience greater improvement in muscular endurance.

This is great news, especially for those who can’t train heavy due to injuries or other limitations, as well as those that struggle to maintain form or focus when weights are increased beyond a certain point. This should also help put the ego of some guys at ease...though I doubt it will.

To elicit muscular gains lifting moderate to light loads there are certain rules to be followed. Failing to follow them, means leaving muscular gains on the table.

Rule #1 – Train with High Intensity

You would be deluding yourself if you believed lifting effortlessly light weight will give you the muscle development you desire. Though I did just spent the first three-quarters of this article saying how you don’t need heavy weight to build muscle. I didn’t say it would be, effortless.

In fact in the absence of heavy loads, intensity of effort is the key factor in stimulating muscular gains. And the intensity must be high.

What this means from an application standpoint is that moderate-to-high rep sets (6-12 and 15-35) be carried out to or near muscular failure. In other words, terminating the set only when you physically cannot perform another repetition despite your best attempt.

Rule #2 – Turn up the Volume

In some of the studies I eluded to earlier the way in which it was determine that light/moderate load training could be as effective as heavy load training was by equating the volume load of each workout. Stay with me on this one.

Volume is the total of reps and sets performed in a workout. Volume Load would simply be adding into the equation, the amount of weight used for each of those reps and sets.

If you were to lift 100 lbs. five times then the volume load would be 500 lbs. If you were to lift 50 lbs. ten times the volume load would also be 500 lbs. Researches sought to ensure that the volume load was the same for each group. Basically taking two different approaches (heavy vs. light/moderate) to arrive at the same load totals each workout.

If you’re to utilize moderate to light weight then a higher number (volume) of reps or longer time under tension—to failure—is required.

While there are performance factors such as rep tempo, form, load, and neuromuscular activation influence the quality and effectiveness of each set, research suggests a minimum of 40 repetitions total be performed for each muscle group in a workout (7).

This recommendation however is load specific which brings us to our final rule.

Rule #3 – Load Accordingly

Although it’s been shown that light weights can produce muscular gains in size and strength if intensity of effort and volume are high. The best results are seen using loads where muscular failure can be reached in 8-15 reps or 30 to 60 seconds time under tension.

Taking this into account along with the recommendation of a 40 rep total minimum per muscle group, we can approximate 3-5 sets per muscle group per workout as being an ideal volume.

So there you have it!

Lifting light(er) is not detrimental to your results and lifting heavy does not hold any significant advantages over it for muscle development.


1. Leger et al. Akt signalling through GSK-3beta, mTOR and Foxo1 is involved in human skeletal muscle hypertrophy and atrophy. J Physiol. 576: 923-933, 2006

2. Mitchell et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-meditated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Phisiol., 2012

3. Ogasawara et al. Low load bench press training to fatigue results in muscle hypertrophy similar to high-load bench press training. Int J Clin Med. 4: 114-121, 2013

4. Popov et al. Horomonal adaptation determines the increase in muscle mass and strength during low-intensity strength training without relaxation. Fiziol Cheloveka. 32: 121-127, 2006

5. Schoenfeld et al. Effects of low- versus high-load resistance trainin on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 29: 2954-2963, 2015

6. Weiss et al. Gross measures of exercise-induce muscular hypertrophy. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 30: 143-148, 2000.

7. Wernbom et al. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med. 37: 225-264, 2007