Lower Weights Build Bigger Muscles?

A recent study published in PLoS One has caught the attention of many dedicated gym goers.  The claims in the press release are quite surprising, as they go against decades of “common knowledge”.  The study makes the claim that, “building muscle doesn’t require lifting heavy weights“.  This waves in the face of normal thinking that they only way to increase muscle mass is to lift heavy weights, traditionally with low repetitions. 

While the study focuses more on “stimulating muscle protein synthesis” and “inducing acute muscle anabolism”, rather than on measuring the size of muscles, the results are still dramatic.  Further, they come from a well-respected group (Stuart Phillips at McMaster University).

The study looked at their different workout routines:

  1. Those who lift at 90% of their max until failure;
  2. Those who lift at 30% of their max for as many reps as those in the 90% group;
  3. Those who lift at 30% of their max until failure.

Most would assume those in the first group realized the best progress, but the researchers injected tracers and took muscle biopsies four and 24 hours after each workout.  By doing so, they were able to accurately see what was going on inside the muscle on a cellular level.  The findings showed that protein synthesis (the building blocks of muscle) were about equal in the first and third routine.  In some instances however, protein synthesis was better in the third group.  The conclusion was, as long as you are lifting until failure, you are going to notice gains without having to use heavy weights.

Ultimately, one study does not prove anything.  More testing and research will have to be done in order to make any definite claims.  As we all know, the health and fitness field is filled with equally impressive experts constantly contradicting themselves.  The purpose of this blog is to give you the best, most up to date information available; not try to paint you a black and white picture of what is right and wrong. 

Personally, I broke away from my heavy lifting, lower rep routine after hearing about this new study and have never been so sore in my life.  I’ve been doing 3-4 sets of 12-18 reps and can tell my muscles are being shocked into growth.  Ideally, I’ll stick with this routine for another 3-4 weeks then change it up to something else.  Ultimately, I think this is the best way to add muscle mass.


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