Strength Training: Heavy or Light Weights?

A friend initially questioned my recommendation that he lift weights “to fatigue,” meaning to the point where he couldn’t do another repetition of an exercise using proper form. Once he confirmed the accuracy of the recommendation, he said that it shouldn’t matter whether he lifts heavy weights for a few repetitions or lighter weights for many more.

It turns out that not only is he correct but that lifting lighter weights more times generates more immediate muscle growth. This is based upon a research study at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, the home of considerable research in exercise physiology.

The key to the kingdom of strength training remains working to fatigue. As Richard A. Winett, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech who has published studies in exercise science said, “The stimulus from resistance training for muscle growth comes from the effort at the end of a set, where the last repetition in good form can be performed.”

Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass as we age. Beginning at about age 30 we lose about eight percent of our muscle per decade. This loss can be reduced, but not eliminated, by doing strength training to fatigue. Those of us in are sixties and seventies are unlikely to generate new muscle growth, but we can increase the size of the muscle cells we have.

Muscle strength is a significant factor in maintaining our ability to remain independent. Those with strong muscles have a better balance and coordination and, as a result, have fewer falls. Stronger muscles use fewer fibers for the same task and are therefore easier to control.

Another friend mentioned that he has implemented strength training to fatigue but thinks he needs to see his doctor.  I questioned why and he said that he’s tired after working to fatigue and even needs to take an afternoon nap. I assured him that this was fine; all of us are tired after doing a hard workout. We need to give our muscles time to recover. We should do serious strength training at least twice but no more than three times a week.

As with any exercise, we should begin with light weights and work up to lifting to fatigue over a period of weeks in order to avoid injuring muscles or joints.

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4 Responses to Strength Training: Heavy or Light Weights?

  1. Leslie says:

    The proper recovery food after a strenuous workout can make a difference in fatigue levels and feeling better at the next workout. In a future blog post, Harry, why don’t you share some information on that? People seem to know more about preparing nutritionally for a strenuous workout than they do about the importance of recovery.

  2. Harry says:

    Excellent point, Leslie, I’ll do this. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Neale Sweet says:


    Had a real-life experience in low weight/ high rep strength training this weekend here in Maine. We had record snow fall from the blizzard, and our plow guy’s truck broke down. Every other plow guy within miles was otherwise engaged, so there was no choice but to hand shovel all that snow out of the driveway. Many hours of shoveling over two days produced the equivalent hundreds, if not thousands, of reps. I feel great, especially now that the snow is gone. And yes, this kind of high rep/ low weight workout does work.

  4. Fannie Deprofio says:

    Exercise can help prevent excess weight gain or help maintain weight loss. When you engage in physical activity, you burn calories. The more intense the activity, the more calories you burn. You don’t need to set aside large chunks of time for exercise to reap weight-loss benefits. If you can’t do an actual workout, get more active throughout the day in simple ways.”.`..

    Enjoy your day

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