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Good news for all of you feeling intimidated about lifting those heavy barbells at the gym. New research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that lighter weights can have the same muscle building effect provided you do more reps. From Science Daily:
For the study, a series of experiments were conducted on healthy, young male volunteers to measure how their leg muscles reacted to different forms of resistance training over a period of 10 weeks.
The researchers first determined the maximum weight each subject could lift one time in a knee extension. Each subject was assigned to a different training program for each leg. In all, three different programs were used in combinations that required the volunteers to complete sets of as many repetitions as possible with their assigned loads -- typically eight to 12 times per set at the heaviest weights and 25-30 times at the lowest weights.
After 10 weeks of training, three times per week, the heavy and light groups that lifted three sets saw significant gains in muscle volume -- as measured by MRI -- with no difference among the groups. Still, the group that used heavier weights for three sets developed a bit more strength. The group that trained for a single set showed approximately half the increase in muscle size seen in both the heavy and light groups.
The findings suggests that lifting small weights (even as low as 30% of your maximum) can have have nearly the same benefit as heavy loads as long as it's done in three sets of 25-30 reps.