Do You Need to Lift Heavy to Make Gains?

This article is hard for me to write because not so long ago I was completely guilty of the crime I’m about to discuss. The crime in question is lifting incredibly heavy loads that are far too much to handle…

For an example, I went through a phase of doing bench presses with a gym buddy where we would use pyramid sets to get a great workout. That means starting on a light weight, building up gradually to a heavier one, then decreasing the amount of weight again all in a single set. Normally you do this by starting on a light weight to warm up and to get your muscles working, progressing to a weight that’s much too heavy and failing, then reducing the load gradually in order to do more repetitions than you otherwise could.

Only the way my friend and I did it, we would start on a weight that was too heavy for us. We’d manage 1 or 2 reps with heavy spotting and then increase the weight. All the while we would laugh manically and fear for our lives…

Those were good times, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always enjoyed working out because it can be action packed and because I loved challenges. And meanwhile my gym buddy and I forged a bond this way similar to the kind of bond forged in the trenches.

But actually, this kind of training is completely dumb. I know that now, and I’m here to tell you to stop lifting so heavy.

Why People Lift Heavy

Firstly, let’s look at why people lift heavy in the first place. For us, as I said, it came down entirely to the desire to push ourselves and challenge ourselves. There was a certain appeal and a certain rush that came from putting ourselves at risk like that and we both thought it was funny. One of us would suggest it, the other would laugh, and on we would go. Once we did a workout that lasted 12 hours…

For other people there are other motivations. Some people for instance simply believe that they have to lift incredibly heavily to build big muscle. Professional bodybuilders lift huge amounts after all, and anything less surely constitutes not putting in enough effort? In a moment we’ll see that that’s just not true.

Then there’s the small matter of ego. A lot of people lift incredibly heavy weights in the gym because it makes them feel good and makes them look good when other people glance over. But if that’s what’s motivating you then you need to reassess your priorities: are you really so hung up on what other people think that you would ruin your workouts to impress them?

Why Lighter Is Better

So if you aren’t lifting heavy weights, the alternative is to lift lighter ones. This doesn’t mean that your workouts should become less intense or less useful though, it means that you need to make them intense in other ways – for instance by using higher numbers of repetitions.

And actually, by using lower weights with higher repetitions, you will find that your muscles grow much more quickly than they otherwise would. That’s because you’ll be increasing the ‘time under tension’ for your muscles, which refers to the amount of time they spend contracting to try and lift the weight. The more time you spend under tension, the more your muscle fibres will tear and the more your muscles will ultimately grow.

If you look more closely at professional bodybuilders you’ll find that this is actually what they are doing: using weights that they are able to lift for rep ranges of around 8-15 or even higher. Sure, they’re using very heavy weights by our standards, but for them these are actually the ‘light’ end of the spectrum.


At the same time as increasing the rep range, you should also decrease your tempo or ‘cadence’. Most bodybuilders use a cadence of 3-0-3. That means that it takes three seconds to lift the weight, they don’t pause at all, and then they gradually lower it for the count of three. If you compare this to how most new gym-goers train you’ll see that they use much faster and more explosive movements where their muscles are actually only working for a fraction of a second.

It’s the powerlifters who lift incredibly heavy weights for rep ranges of around 2-4, and they tend to do this in explosive and rapid movements. This develops the muscles in an entirely different way. If you want to build big muscles that are versatile and high endurance, then you need to slow down and lighten up. Don’t work hard, work smart.

This will also then mean that while you’ll have triggered the same growth in your muscles, they will be less exhausted and damaged over the coming days. In other words they’ll recover faster, which means you can then train them more regularly. Use this kind of workout and you can train your muscles twice a week rather than focussing on each group for a day – which is again how professional bodybuilders workout – and you’ll effectively double your growth. Seriously.

Dangers of High Weights

On a closing note, it’s also worth bearing in mind that lifting weights that are incredibly heavy is also somewhat dangerous for you and can easily result in an accident or an injury. Look at anyone who preaches lifting incredibly heavy weights who isn’t a powerlifter or athletic weightlifter, and you’ll find that they probably have a knee complaint, a shoulder complaint and a back complaint. I should know – I’ve had all three.

And that’s assuming that their training has gone well. Because there’s also the very real risk when you lift weights this heavy that you’ll drop them on yourself or tear a muscle. Sylvester Stallone was once in a bench press competition with Franco Columbu and he ended up actually tearing his pec completely in half (you can see it in pictures before he got his tattoos).

So stop being an egotist, start lifting lighter, and you’ll find that you actually get bigger and stronger much more quickly with fewer injuries to show for it.

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