You Don’t Need to Lift Heavy, Just Heavier

by Robert Santana PhD, RD, CSCS | Jan 06, 2023

It seems like every other day the newest expert of the week decides to hop on his favorite social media platform and criticize my commitment to barbell training. 

A few peer-reviewed sources here, an expert opinion or two there, and I’ve been “debunked” before I can get halfway through my breakfast. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?  

Well, not totally. Fortunately, this is exactly what the “delete” and “block user” functions are for. 

Nonetheless, there is an enormous market for these so-called “guru wars” on the internet.

Specifically, one of the most popular topics that tends to be the center of such bickering is whether lifting heavy or performing a higher volume of work with relatively lighter weights is more effective for building muscle mass. 

In other words, if someone wants to get as muscular as possible, should they be doing a high-intensity, low-volume program or a moderate-intensity, higher-volume program? 

Unsurprisingly, this question has dominated weight rooms and muscle-building forums for decades. 

Although the cultural and conversational inertia of this debate might be a hell of a thing to overcome, I’d like to offer my own expert opinion on the matter. 

But be warned. Just like the first inch of a deadlift, this will be slow and miserable until we establish some upward motion. 

How Do Muscles Actually Grow? 

Hypertrophy, otherwise known as muscle growth, is the product of a series of physiological mechanisms that result in the enlargement of individual muscle fibers. 

Unfortunately, the exact details of those mechanisms are not fully understood and soar well beyond the scope of this article. 

However, we know for sure that the stimulus that elicits hypertrophy should be of primary interest to those lifting and those coaching lifters who want to grow larger muscles. That stimulus is probably best described as mechanical loading of the muscles, or external resistance in the form of loaded objects or what we call “lifting weights.” 

These loaded objects can be as simple as household items or items routinely lifted as part of a laborious job. In the gym, these objects come in the form of barbells, dumbbells, plates, machines, cables, atlas stones, yokes, and sandbags, among many other options. 

The key feature is that they can all, to varying degrees, become heavier over time. 

You can load more plates onto a barbell. You can graduate from the 25-pound dumbbells to the 30-pound dumbbells. You can move the pin from 50 pounds to 60 pounds on a host of resistance machines. And you can always opt for the heavier stone or sandbag. 

Understanding the Difference Between Heavy and Heavier 

The main issue with the “to get strong or not to get strong” question is the definition of strength. 

If we are defining strength as a one-repetition maximum (1RM), then there are certainly ways of growing muscle without increasing your 1RM. And this actually becomes truer as training experience increases. 

For the purposes of this article, we will consider strength as the ability to produce force against external resistance. You can increase your ability to produce force against an external resistance 20 times in a row or for a single, all-out repetition. More importantly, you can increase the force produced 20 times in a row and for a single all-out attempt with carefully planned training. 

Professional research and anecdotes from experienced lifting coaches and experienced lifters agree that both strength and hypertrophy require progressively heavier weights to be lifted. 

This can be done efficiently or inefficiently, but the results of most successfully completed training programs, both in research labs and in gyms, are that something heavier than baseline was lifted after several months of adding repetitions, sets, load, etc. 

This could be a heavier single, set of five, set of 10, or even a set of 25 since we know that there is data supporting the prescription of 30% of 1RM for increasing lean mass. 

However, 30% of your 1RM is no longer 30% of your 1RM when you add a pound to your tempo set of 25 during your second, third, and fourth weeks of training. In fact, it becomes more than 30% of 1RM the moment the load is increased. 

So no, you may not need to lift “heavy” by some arbitrary understanding of the term, but to grow but you do need to lift heavier.  

Implications for Lifting Heavier Over Time 

Anyone who has been around the bodybuilding block once or twice likely understands that the two most common forms of progression tend to be adding weight and adding repetitions. 

As a strength coach, I default to adding weight because it tends to progress more efficiently than adding repetitions or additional sets. 

And, for what it’s worth, adding additional sets also has its tradeoffs in terms of time limitations and the conversion to an endurance stimulus beyond a certain point. After all, overall training volume has been shown to be one of the primary drivers of muscle hypertrophy.

Moreover, years ago it became quite clear to me that while there are smaller, yet muscular, humans that are strong, I have yet to see a large, muscular human that is weak unless he is untrained and muscular, which would then change very quickly with a small amount of time in the weight room. 

That being said, I will concede that a pure strength training program will result in greater increases in 1RM than a strength-endurance program (i.e. higher repetitions/lower volume) without any measurable differences in lean mass change between the two training styles. So, if it’s of greater importance to you to become strong (versus becoming maximally muscular), you would obviously benefit most from a pure strength training program. 

These 1RM differences are explained by the greater neuromuscular adaptations that result from high-intensity training. The similarities in lean mass gain are primarily explained by the fact, yes, I will say it again, that they lifted heavier weights from baseline to the completion of the program. 

It is easy to conclude that a pure strength stimulus is unnecessary for someone purely interested in growth/appearance/aesthetics. 

However, why on earth would a more efficient central nervous system ever be a bad thing for someone interested in muscle growth? 

Experience has taught me that after peaking and completing an honest 1RM followed by a reset to a lighter 10-repetition program, baseline 10RMs are often heavier with far less difficulty than the previous training cycle.

If the lifter trains more technically demanding movements, such as squats and deadlifts, he can now complete his sets of 10 with a larger percentage of quality repetitions (e.g. repetitions executed with safe and correct technique). The lifter is now stronger, more muscular, and set up to make additional progress in subsequent training programs. 

There are, however, some reasons why progressing load is not a common practice. 

Until recently, it was not feasible to add load on many non-barbell exercises. Anyone who has tried to train a dumbbell bench press or dumbbell biceps curl has learned very quickly that a set of 10 with a pair of dumbbells turns into a set of 5 with a pair of dumbbells that are just five pounds. heavier. 

The result is a combined 10-pound. increase on an exercise that, while still compound in nature, does not use a very large number of muscles to move the weight. 

Furthermore, the problem is magnified on any single joint exercise such as a biceps curl. For decades there wasn’t a feasible way to add load to these movements. 

Olympic weightlifters have long been known to add small microplates to the barbell to attempt a heavier clean and jerk or snatch because anyone who has participated in Olympic weightlifting knows that the difference between a successful clean and jerk and a failed clean and jerk can be as small as 1-2 kg.

There are a few obstacles here. Since such small microplates are often not available in most weight rooms, it can become difficult to pursue progressive overload conservatively. Because of this, lifters are left to choose between progressing repetitions or progressing the number of sets completed. 

Bodybuilders also increase the difficulty of the current load by reducing the tempo or shortening the rest period. Whether this is equivalent to adding load is a topic for another discussion and something that is nearly impossible to prove scientifically. 

What is known, however, is that there are options such as spotting systems that can hold the dumbbells at lockout height on the dumbbell bench press, fractional change plates as light as 0.5 pounds that can clamp onto dumbbells and kettlebells, and traditional fractional plates for barbells that can also be hung on the pin for an exercise machine and weigh as little as 0.25 pounds. 

These items are available at affordable prices through various equipment manufacturers and online marketplaces and will allow for efficient progressive overload on virtually any lifting exercise.

As the old saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat, or, for those of you who dislike the reference to feline taxidermy, there is more than one way to bake a cake. 

If you still enjoy adding repetitions, adding sets, shortening rest periods, and altering tempo, you are welcome to continue doing so. If you don’t like doing those things or feel unsafe training at higher intensities, then you can continue training at lower intensities for a greater number of repetitions. 

The point of this article is to make it clear that there are multiple methods to gaining muscle mass, but, at some point, all of them will get you stronger. If you would like help navigating through all these options, you can sign up for our RP 1:1 coaching.