Each week, three trainers from Stylist Strong, Stylist’s fitness brand that runs strength training classes focused on incorporating weights into fitness, answer some of the most asked questions from women who want to get into lifting. This time, they’re ending the confusion around what counts as strength and what counts as resistance training.
- A well-rounded strength-training program provides the following benefits:
- What if I’m recovering from a cardiac event or stroke?
- Lifting heavy weights vs. light weights: Why one isn’t better than the other
- It all comes down to reps
- The benefits of lifting light weights
- What are the benefits of working out with heavier weights?
- How do you know when you should lift heavier?
What is the difference between strength and resistance training?
CAROLINE BRAGG, MASTER TRAINER AT STYLIST STRONG
“Resistance training could be mean using body weight, or a resistance band or anything where you’re pushing or pulling against something.Essentially, you’re resisting against something, and this could be body weight, a resistance band, a dumbbell. Strength training, on the other hand, is more about building strength and the time under tension – which means lower reps at (usually) a higher weight. It’s not actually that much different, but it’s about what your goals are.”
EMMA OBAYUVANA, TRAINER AT STYLIST STRONG
“Resistance training generally means that you’re building your muscles through using resistance, which can come from your own body weight, from free weights (like dumbbells), or from using machines. Whichever you choose, you’re using resistance to increase the strength of your muscles – and, while you’ll able to gain strength, it won’t be your main goal. And in that sense it ties into strength training. Strength training is where you are lifting heavy at low reps specifically training to get stronger. Whereas resistance training is where you’re going into a gym or a class and you’ll use free weights, machines or your own body to introduce resistance in your workout. You’ll able to gain strength, but it’s not your main goal. ”
Strength and resistance training exercise is one of the four types of exercise along with endurance, balance and flexibility. Ideally, all four types of exercise would be included in a healthy workout routine and AHA provides easy to follow guidelines for endurance and strength-training in its Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults.
They don’t all need to be done every day, but variety helps keep the body fit and healthy, and makes exercise interesting. You can do a variety of exercises to keep the body fit and healthy and to keep your physical activity routine exciting.
The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice per week.
Strengthening your muscles gives you the ability to perform everyday activities and helps protect your body from injury. Stronger muscles also lead to a boost in your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even when your body is at rest.
Don’t worry — we’re not talking about professional bodybuilding. Simple, weight- bearing exercises that use free weights, machines or your body’s own resistance are the focus. You can do these workouts separate from your cardio activity or add resistance on to an existing workout. Choose the time and type of activity that works for you.
A well-rounded strength-training program provides the following benefits:
- Increased strength of bones, muscles and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments);
- Lower risk of injury;
- Increased muscle mass, which makes it easier for your body to burn calories and thus maintain a healthy weight;
- Better quality of life.
You may wish to consult with a certified fitness professional to learn safe technique before beginning a strength-training program. One set of eight to 12 repetitions, working the muscles to the point of fatigue, is usually sufficient for each muscle group.
Aim to exercise each muscle group at least two times per week, with a minimum of two days of rest between workouts.
Training more frequently or adding more sets may lead to slightly greater gains, but the minimal added benefit may not be worth the extra time and effort — not to mention the added risk of injury.
What if I’m recovering from a cardiac event or stroke?
Some people are afraid to exercise after a heart attack. But regular physical activity can help reduce your chances of having another heart attack.
The AHA published a statement in 2014 that doctors should prescribe exercise to stroke patients since there is strong evidence that physical activity and exercise after stroke can improve cardiovascular fitness, walking ability and upper arm strength.
If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, talk with your doctor before starting any exercise to be sure you’re following a safe, effective physical activity program.
Resistance training is a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance.
Resistance training is any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of increases in strength, power, hypertrophy, and/or endurance. The external resistance can be dumbbells, exercise tubing, your own body weight, bricks, bottles of water, or any other object that causes the muscles to contract.
Maintenance programs are recommended for long term health benefits. Resistance training is being part of a healthy lifestyle rather than as a specific therapeutic intervention.
Currently there is no clear evidence that any particular form of resistance training is most effective for managing musculoskeletal condition.
Therefore, the key is to tailor your prescription the individuals needs of the patient in front of you based on assessment:
Resistance training is based on the principle that muscles of the body will work to overcome a resistance force when they are required to do so. When you do resistance training repeatedly and consistently, your muscles become stronger.
Examples of Resistance Training:
There are many ways you can strengthen your muscles, whether at home or the gym.
Different types of resistance training include:
- Free weights – classic strength training tools such as dumbbells or barbells
- Weight machines – devices that have adjustable seats with handles attached either to weights or hydraulics
- Medicine balls – weighted balls
- Resistance bands – like giant rubber bands – these provide resistance when stretched. They are portable and can be adapted to most workouts. The bands provide continuous resistance throughout a movement
- Your own body weight – can be used for squats, push-ups and chin-ups. Using your own body weight is convenient, especially when travelling or at work.
How much should we do?
- Two non-concecutive days/weekly
- One set of 8-12 reps for healthy adults
- 8-10 major exercises targeting major muscle groups
- novice 2-3 days/ week,
- intermediate 3 days/week;
- advanced 4-6 days/week
Specific characteristics resistance training might target include:
Conventional gym wisdom has long offered a basic rule of thumb for novice and intermediate weightlifters: If you want to increase muscle size, lift relatively light weights for a lot of reps. If you want to get strong, lift heavy weights for just a few reps.
Simple, right? But a new study of relatively experienced weightlifters is challenging that old gym law.
The new findings: Lifting relatively light weights (about 50% of your one-rep max) for about 20–25 reps is just as efficient at building both strength and muscle size as lifting heavier weights (up to 90% of one-rep max) for eight to 12 reps, according to the study, the latest in a series done at McMaster University in Ontario.
“Fatigue is the great equalizer here,” Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at McMaster and the senior author of the study, wrote about the research. “Lift to the point of exhaustion and it doesn’t matter whether the weights are heavy or light.”
Phillips and his colleagues asked 49 men, each about 23-years-old, to do a 12-week program of total-body resistance training. The lifters were split into two groups: a high-rep group, which lifted at 30–50% of their one-rep max for 20–25 reps a set, and a low-rep group, which lifted at 75–90% of their one-rep max for 8–12 reps a set. Both groups lifted to failure, and did four exercises: inclined leg press, barbell bench press, machine-guided knee extension, and machine-guided shoulder press.
At the end of 12 weeks, the authors tested the participants’ muscle mass and found that both groups had made essentially equal gains in strength and size—except for in the bench press, which was higher among the low-rep group.
Why the equal gains? Total work volume—that is, reps times weight—is a good way to force muscle growth.
“As long as you’re doing enough volume, you’ll positively adapt to the training,” says Sean Collins, C.S.C.S., a USA Powerlifting-certified trainer and powerlifting coach at Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn. “Volume acts as a driver that overloads the body to make an adaptation, also known as supercompensation.”
That’s good news, especially for guys who are hesitant to hit the heavy weights but still want to make gains.
“Studies like this are a wake-up call to trainers and lifters who thought you exclusively had to lift heavy—at least 75% of your max, or about 10 reps and below—to get big,” says Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S., Men’s Fitness training director. “It’s also encouraging for older, beat-up guys with joint issues and injuries. They sometimes think they can’t train hard anymore, but if they just go lighter and do more reps, they can build muscle too.”
Bottom line: “It’s the effort you put in that matters most,” Hyson says. “Lifting heavier builds more strength, but lifting to failure with any weight can build bigger, more aesthetic muscles.”
As with all single studies, it’s important not to take this one as law. We know the participants had been lifting for at least two years before the study, but we don’t know exactly what kinds of workout programs they were pursuing before taking part in the experiment.
So does this mean for the average gym-going guy? Here are five important takeaways that you should remember:
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You don’t always have to lift to failure.
“Going to failure might be a major determiner of muscle growth, but it’s dangerous,” Hyson says. “That means going to the point of exhaustion, and that’s when form breaks down. It doesn’t matter if you’re lifting light weights—if you rep out to where you start shaking, straining, or breaking form to get the last couple reps, you risk hurting yourself.”
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But it’s okay to get close.
So you don’t want to kill yourself, but you still want to make gains. The compromise? “Take your sets to within about two reps shy of failure,” Hyson says. “This might prevent you from achieving the absolute best gains from that workout, but in the long run it’s much safer and lets you build steady progress over time.”
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Elite lifters still need to lift heavy.
Yes, young guys and beginning lifters can make gains with lightweight, high-rep work. But if you’re an experienced weightlifter with years of focused programming under your belt, “increasing loads—with increasing volume, intensity, and weakness correction through accessory exercises—is really the only way to build strength,” Collins says.
“When getting to a point where people want to focus on strength gains, they’d have to almost certainly use heavier weight. However, hypertrophy elicited through higher reps and lower weight will build new muscle; the more cross-sectional muscle fiber you have, the more you can neurologically recruit, thereby making you stronger.”
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Gains come from creativity, not just volume.
“Muscle growth can be accomplished in a multitude of ways and weights,” Collins says. “Sure, a general everyday gym athlete—like the participants in this study—will see progress by increasing either intensity of the lift or increasing the volume of the lift.” But you can also make gains by simply programming new exercises or modalities: “Varying your movement and tempo can make higher-rep, lighter-weight sets feel very difficult.”
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Switch up your training in cycles.
Don’t just assume that you have to constantly do high-volume work. In fact, doing that exclusively can lead to burnout or injury.
Another tactic? “Try a periodized approach,” Collins says. “Start with a few weeks of high-volume workouts with lower weight and higher reps, which will definitely lead to muscular hypertrophy, strengthen your joints, and prepare your mind and your body for higher-intensity work. Then, when you’re ready, start doing higher-intensity workouts with more weight, which will elicit a higher one-rep max than before. Working with a strength coach can ensure your training is organized in such a way where you’ll continue to grow strength and size.
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I once went to an indoor cycling class with a guy friend who took one look at the 2-pound dumbbells under his seat and rolled his eyes at the light weights, swapping them out for 5-pounders. When it came time for the arms section—a high-rep cycling intermission full of exercises like shoulder presses, triceps extensions, and lots of pulsing—he grabbed those 5-pound weights and punched right along to the first song. My arms hurt just to think about doing that for five minutes straight. Spoiler: He couldn’t even make it through half the moves with those weights. By the time we reached the end of the arms section, he was really hurting, and his arms spent a lot more time at his sides than in the air.
Lifting light weights for many reps is deceptively hard. While many people (my friend included) think heavier is always better for resistance training, that’s not necessarily true. And if you only ever focus on lifting one way—light-weight-high-rep or heavy-weight-low-rep—you’re doing yourself a real disservice. The truth is that both heavy and light weights have their place—it depends on your goals.
Light weights are good for building muscular endurance.
When you train using higher reps, you use aerobic energy more than when training with lower reps, Hannah Davis, of Body by Hannah in Cleveland, Tennessee, tells SELF. “Using higher reps is really good if you train for any kind of endurance sport,” she says.
Distance running, cross-country skiing, obstacle races, rowing, and triathlon are all examples of endurance sports. Whether it’s a hike in a nearby park or up Mount Kilamanjaro, at no point will your legs have to carry anything close to their maximum load. You’re really just training to get your body weight (and maybe a backpack) uphill, Nick Tumminello, CPT, author of Building Muscle and Performance, tells SELF.
What does high reps mean? In general it’s a weight you can lift for 15 reps or more, Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, tells SELF. But if you can knock out 30 reps and aren’t tired at all, it’s just too light, Davis says. “You still need to train the muscle to some sort of fatigue, or failure, and maybe not completely where you can’t get the last rep up, but you should feel pretty close to that,” Davis says.
Heavy weights are good for developing strength and targeting specific muscles.
If you need power—for a bench press personal record, CrossFit, or to squat your body weight—you need to train with heavier weights. Similarly, if you want to work on one specific part of your body, for instance, your butt, lifting heavier weights can get you the results you’re looking for. Depending on your goal, you should choose a heavier load on exercises that target the body part you want to strengthen or sculpt.
Lifting for pure strength is best partnered with heavy weights. “If you’re trying for strength, or your max force output, the heavier the weight, the more strength gains you’ll have, along with size gains,” Tuminello says. It’s also super time efficient. You simply don’t need to do as many reps when you’re lifting heavier weights.
Really, any form of strength training can be beneficial—the key is to challenge yourself.
You can gain muscle and change the shape of your body by lifting heavier weights for fewer reps, or lighter weights for more reps, Tumminello explains. “Both are equal when it comes to gaining muscle,” he says. The key is challenging your body with progressive overload.
Lifting heavy weights vs. light weights: Why one isn’t better than the other
Choosing a weight to workout with isn’t always black or white.
When it comes to working out , there’s a lot of information out there about if you should lift heavy weights or not — and it can get pretty confusing, fast. Some people opt for heavy weights when they want to achieve more visible muscles or “bulk” up, and some people are afraid to lift heavy weights for that exact reason.
Unfortunately, many women still believe the myth that lifting heavy weights will give them bulky muscles, so they choose light or no weights and go to classes that promise “long, lean muscles” instead.
But is any of this information even true? (Spoiler alert: not really). Choosing the right weight for you to lift is all about how you’re working out, not the number on the dumbbells.
Read more: Don’t skip these warmup exercises before your next workout
It all comes down to reps
People lift weights with the goal of making their muscles stronger (and, for some, to get those bulky biceps or lean-looking arms). For those looking to develop large muscles, they will likely opt for a heavier weight, while people who want to get lean will stick to something smaller.
The truth is, there’s no correct strategy — both are valid choices. Lifting heavy dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells will certainly make you stronger. But lighter weights can help you get stronger too — it just may take you a bit longer.
It all comes down to one important factor: muscle fatigue. This means that the goal of your workouts should be to work your muscles to the point of fatigue (i.e., when you can no longer do another rep) no matter how much weight you are using. So whether you are doing five dumbbell curls with a 20-pound weight, or 20 reps with a 5-pound weight, as long as you are getting to the point of muscle fatigue, you’ll get stronger.
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And science backs this up. A 2010 study found that a group of men who lifted heavy weights to the point of “failure” or muscle fatigue gained the same amount of muscle and improved their strength as much as the other group that lifted lighter weights for more reps. This study in 2016 found those same results.
Some workouts that you might do that use light weights include a barre class, yoga sculpt, Pilates, or “sculpting” classes. Or a light-weight workout may look like doing bicep curls with a lighter weight (like say 8-10 pounds) until you can’t lift any more with good form. On the other end of the spectrum is doing squats with an Olympic barbell, which will fatigue your muscles after only a few reps.
The benefits of lifting light weights
Using lighter weights can help you build muscle — it just may take longer to get results.
What are some reasons you may choose to lift light weights over heavy? If you’re new to working out or starting a new fitness program, light weights may be a good choice. “Someone may choose to train with less resistance when they are learning the form on new exercises. Then once they get the form down and feel comfortable, they can increase the resistance,” says fitness trainer Heather Marr. Other things you can consider are that light weights are a good option for reducing the risk of injury — you’re just less likely to hurt yourself using a 5-pound weight over say, a 50-pound weight.
You can also bring light weights into other types of workouts to add more resistance and keep your heart rate up. For example, in some of my dance cardio classes we do dance routines while also holding a 2- or 3-pound weight, which adds resistance (my arms are always burning by the end) and makes the cardio workout harder. By the time I finish the song my arms feel like they can’t hold the 3 pounds weights — let alone anything heavier.
That said, lifting heavy has its own set of benefits, and can definitely increase the challenge if that’s what you’re looking for in your workout routine.
What are the benefits of working out with heavier weights?
If you’re looking to gain muscle, and increase your strength in the most efficient way possible, then lifting heavy weights is a good option for you. Gaining strength all comes down to fatiguing your muscles, and heavy weights will get you there faster. It just takes longer to get tired when you’re curling a 5-pound weight versus a 25-pound dumbbell. “Heavy compound exercises offer the most bang for your buck. You are able to use the heaviest load possible and work more muscles in less time making them efficient and also advantageous for weight loss,” Marr said.
And if you’re looking for more cardio in your routine, you can do that with heavy weights if you’re strategic about your weight-training workouts. “You can even perform the exercises circuit style in a row and get the added benefit of conditioning work all in one,” Marr said.
How do you know when you should lift heavier?
It’s a smart idea to start lifting heavier weights slowly and at your own pace.
So say you’ve been working out for a while and the 5-pound weights don’t really feel like they’re doing anything. What should you do? Go heavier, of course; just make sure you move at your own pace.
According to Marr, you should work your way up slowly over time and always try to challenge yourself. “No matter what rep range you’re lifting in for your working sets, the last rep to two should be a serious challenge and struggle. If it is not, then you know you need to increase the resistance,” Marr said.
All science and trainer advice aside — the most important thing about your fitness and workout routine is that you’re doing something consistently. And chances are that’s the workout that is the most fun and engaging for you, no matter what kinds of weights you use.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.