A common question that new goers to the gym often have is about the light and heavy weights.
Their first day at the gym and they are already confused. They see some people using really heavy weights, while others using light weights, and at the same time, everyone is jacked.
The question arises naturally – can light weights just as heavy weights also be used to build muscle?
Well, yes and no. Light weights can be used to build endurance across all muscles, and sometimes can overload muscles like calves and forearms. But, typically you need to stick with the heavier weight to grow muscle.
In this piece, we will be looking at the idea of building muscles with light weights in greater detail, and try to understand how muscles build in the first place.
What Exactly Builds The Muscle?
In this first section, we will begin by understanding how our muscles grow. It is important to understand how our muscles increase in size.
Our muscles are made up of muscle fibers. These are tiny structures. Think of thin threads which are highly elastic and which can repair themselves upon damage.
When we do regular household work, our muscles draw energy from the blood glucose. The heart pumps this blood to the fibers, the cells burn the oxygen and release energy to do work.
During a workout session, when the ‘work’ we do is more than the normal amount of work we do on a daily basis, something a bit different happens.
The muscles draw energy from the blood glucose, and try to keep up as much as possible. But, as one continues with the exercise with sheer willpower, their muscles slowly start seeing damages. Do not think of this negatively.
The damage caused during a workout is actually in the form of micro damages. Micro damages wear and tear the muscle fibers out. During your resting and relaxing period, the body’s repair mechanism kicks in and starts building up all the damage.
This is where the magic happens. In the process of repair, the body also ensures that the muscles are up to the challenge the next time.
Therefore, instead of just carrying out a simple repair, the cells of the body also make the fibers thicker and stronger than before. This is how cycles of workout and rest help build muscle.
The explanation is quite simplified but sets us on the right path to understanding building muscles with light weights.
Types of Muscle Fibers
The next thing we should understand is that there are two types of muscle fibers. If you are going to be involved in the bodybuilding industry it is best to know about them. The two types are simply called Type 1 and Type 2. Let us look at each type in a bit more detail.
Type 1 Muscle Fibers
Type 1 muscle fibers are also known as slow-twitch fibers. This is because they contract relatively slower in comparison to Type 2 fibers.
Type 1 fibers are highly rich in mitochondria-containing cells which help them churn out a lot of energy from blood glucose really fast.
They are dependent upon aerobic respiration for their energy needs. These are the muscles that rely on ATP for their energy needs.
Type 2 Muscle Fibers
Type 2 muscle fibers are also known as fast-twitch fibers.
This is because they contract faster than Type 1 muscle fibers. These muscles are based on anaerobic respiration for production of energy.
For simplicity, anaerobic respiration is where cells can break down sugars to make energy without any oxygen. Additionally, type 2 fibers are further divided into two groups, 2a, and 2b. While type 2a is fully anaerobic, type 2b functions on a combination of both aerobic and anaerobic respiration.
Having an idea about the different types of muscle fibers is important.
We must note that Type 1 muscle fibers are naturally built to do work for long periods of time. These are the fibers that provide endurance to our muscles. On the other hand, Type 2 muscles provide sudden bursts of energy and emergency output.
Building Muscle: High Weight, Low Reps
This is considered the ‘traditional’ method of building muscle. You start with a relatively easy weight, work your muscles up, and then move to a slightly higher weight. All of the previous science we discussed above comes into play.
You need to slowly translate from lighter weights to heavier and heavier weights because without that, there won’t be any overload on the muscles.
Also, note that picking a heavier weight triggers Type 2 muscle fibers. As we remember, Type 2 muscle fibers rely on a combination of aerobic and anaerobic respiration.
This means when you are working with heavier weights, you are training your muscles to grow bigger and perform better in terms of sudden bursts of energy.
We already know the downfall of this type of training – Type 2 muscles do not have much endurance so they get exhausted easily.
Building Muscle: Light weight, High Reps
We finally got to our point of the discussion. Lifting light weights with a higher number of repetitions is okay, but you must understand the underlying point.
Working with light weights does not trigger Type 2 muscle fibers. Instead, it triggers Type 1 muscle fibers. Basically, you aren’t gaining “nothing” by lifting light weights – you are still gaining a lot of endurance.
Some exercises that go well with this type of training include:
Understand that working Type 1 muscle fibers does not bring the same level of powerful strength and beefed up look that training Type 2 muscle fibers brings.
To conclude, we can say that it is okay to do lightweight lifts with a high number of reps every now and then to overload the muscle, but it is not a clear substitute for high weight, low rep training. But, it can work very well for some muscles like calves, forearms, and side laterals.
The former is good for building higher endurance and strengthening the muscle fibers, the latter is best for powerful bursts of energy and a well-built look.
The confusion between the two training styles is quite common, but now that we understand the underlying scientific differences, it should be clearer.