The Ultimate Showdown- Heavy vs. Light Weight

You most likely heard people in the past tell you that they want to get toned so they are going to lift lighter weights. You should smack some sense into them! Lifting light weights will NOT get you nearly as toned as lifting heavy weights.  You hear people say, “I just want to tone up. I’ll lift light!” This is completely and utterly wrong.

There is no such thing as a toned or un-toned muscle. Muscle is muscle. It can be big or small but not “toned”. People who lack definition have a layer of fat covering their muscular structure and/or not enough muscle in general. The fastest way to get that shredded look is to have as much muscle as possible while being as lean as possible.

Therefore, to achieve that “toned” look you so desperately aspire, you need to do just that: build muscle and lose fat. If all your routine consists of is lifting light weights for numerous reps, you really aren’t doing yourself justice. While some exercise is better than none, not all exercises are equal in terms of developing the results you want. You really need to shock and stress the muscle enough for it to grow. Proper stimulation of the muscles through damage of the muscle fibers is required for it to grow once nutrients are flowed into that point of damage. Heavy lifting activates more muscle fibers because of the increased strain added throughout the muscular skeletal structure and central nervous system. The more muscle fibers that are activated, the more muscle fibers will be damaged in the process, whereupon reparation of those fibers through proper nutrition will result in increased growth. Even if you say to yourself, “I don’t want much muscle mass and I certainly don’t want to look bulky,” muscle burns fat 4X more efficiently than the fat you have on your body. So, you inherently want to be all muscle because your body will be a furnace in which it will be very efficient at burning up fat stores. The more muscle you have, the more fat you will burn. So even if you don’t want big muscles, your number one target should be to build muscle if your goal is to burn fat and look “toned”. You think a super jacked athlete like Adrian Peterson got as jacked as he did by doing 15 lb. curls? No, the guy performs sets and sets of 315 lb. + squats for reps the day after his Sunday game.

Furthermore, if you want to be shredded, you’ve got to do everything in your power to speed up your metabolism both inside and outside of the gym. While activities like long distance steady running and light weightlifting burn calories while doing the activity, the calories stopped getting burned upon completion of the activity. However, heavy lifting and interval cardio, whereupon the intensity levels change for an extended period of time, result in an increased metabolism long after the workout is over. That means you will be burning calories even when you are not exercising. So, in essence, you can burn fat while watching TV on the couch so long as your activity is one that inherently requires a wide variance and differentiation in intensities. In other words, your working sets have to be gut-wrenching compared to your resting activity.

The only way to increase intensity in the gym is to fight through gut-wrenching heavy sets on a consistent basis. These heavier sets promote strength and size, but at the same time significantly increase your metabolism. Lifting heavy weights stimulates two powerful hormones, known as testosterone and growth hormone. These hormones are attributed to building muscle and losing fat. Therefore, these hormones make losing fat and building muscle much quicker and easier even outside of the gym. Performing light weights for very high reps doesn’t nearly ramp up your metabolism quite like heavy lifting does.

Don’t misinterpret this, however, to mean you should never perform light weight lifting. Light weights for high reps have its benefits. This is not a suggestion to eliminate it altogether. However, it should not be the basis of your workout, but rather something to use as a supplement. Light weights are important to be used when warming up, cooling down, burn-out sets, drop sets, etc. Light weight lifting for a high amount of reps helps build muscular endurance and is a great way to stimulate blood flow throughout the body, which is necessarily needed for healthy circulation and transporting nutrients to muscles, joints, and ligaments. In addition, doing high-rep training (like drop-sets or doing a random set of 50 reps) can break away from a repetitive workout routine and thus, can shock the muscles into new growth when your body’s response has acclimated to a repetitive workout.


However, the basis of your workout should always be working with heavy weights. Light weight workouts are great to supplement heavy lifting (key word supplement: meaning to incorporate into a routine here and there), however, you should consistently lift to your maximum potential each and every time you step foot in the gym. So in terms of lifting heavy, you should focus on performing 6-12 reps for 80% of your routine, whereupon the other 20% you can go over or under that number. Don’t misinterpret this to mean there should be very little variety between workouts. Most definitely, it is on the contrary. Variety in a workout routine is necessary to really shock the muscles into new growth. You never want to get the muscles adapted to training a particular way, whether through the amount of reps you do, weight you lift, or the way you train in terms of the exercises you perform and the order of your exercises. Variety is always key, so in order to switch up your routine, you want to switch up exercises and incorporate different methods like drop sets, strip sets, rest-pause sets, etc. Additionally, to incorporate variety, use very little rest in between sets where you’re really looking to feel a pump and use more rest between sets when you are going for power and strength. Furthermore, switch up your routine often so that you incorporate muscle groups together on certain days. For instance, if you usually just perform one muscle group a day like Chest on Mondays, Back on Tuesdays, etc., take a week where you do chest and quads together, back and hamstrings together, and shoulders and arms together. Also, switch it up sometimes so that you perform certain muscle groups twice a week. Little tweaks like the ones aforementioned help in a big way.

Furthermore, you should always keep your intensity high, so the pace at which you are lifting should be at a very high level in which you rest minimally in between sets. Even when you are lifting heavy, in order to keep your metabolism high, you should rest for no more than a minute between sets, preferably, even less than that. Obviously there are exceptions due to different fitness levels and goals, but generally speaking, on average, you should keep to that. You want to keep your heart rate up and you are also building muscle because your muscles are constantly stimulated every minute.

However, here is the biggest part in which you must pay attention. The biggest problem that people fail to realize, in which they can’t comprehend for the life of them, is what is considered heavy. Heavy is not a weight you cannot handle, it is a weight you can handle. Heavy is still a weight that you can handle, whereupon your ligaments and joints aren’t suffering. This is repeated twice because no matter how many times people are told to keep it light, they go always go too heavy and present their bodies with tremendous risk in terms of injury. Heavy lifting does not incorporate momentum into the movements! You are doing strict form at all times, however, you are doing a weight where you reach failure upon a designated number of reps and whereupon, you struggle to get that weight up. When the word struggle is used, it is not to mean that you should jerk the weight or break your posture to get it up. Form should always be strict and heavy lifting is a term that means you shouldn’t choose a weight that you can do for 20 reps and perform it for only 10. It means picking a weight you can do for exactly 10 and not 11, and getting it up for 10. Furthermore, always perform a full range of motion. People often look at going heavy as putting as much weight as possible on the squat rack, getting under it, and going down less than halfway. This will do nothing for your muscle building efforts and will only aid in getting you to the hospital.

Let’s take a look at some examples as to what constitutes proper weight training using strict form:

  • When doing squats, keep your back straight with all of your weight on the back of your heels and go all the way down until the top of your thighs are parallel. Pause for a second here and explode up in one smooth motion while looking straight forward and keeping your back straight.
  • When doing bench press, bring the weight all the way down slowly until it reaches just before your chest wall, pause for a second at the bottom and explode up in an arch-like motion backward with control. You are never bouncing the weight off your chest, always keeping your back arched but on the bench at all times, and never performing the movement too fast.
  • When doing a bent over row, arch your back (never round it) and keep it straight, while keeping a slight bend in your knees and keeping your elbows as close to your body as possible.
  • When performing a barbell curl, never swing your back to get the weight up. Always keep your elbows in and bring it up in a smooth motion.

So understand that you need to activate as many muscle fibers as possible by lifting heavy weights, but never to the point where those weights take you out of form or place you in harm’s way. You need to understand that failing to do proper form can produce a range of health problems, especially with ligaments, joints, muscles, bones, cartilage, disks, and posture. Letting your ego get the best of you is hardly a way to treat your body. Remember, you only have one place to live. If you constantly sacrifice form when training, you most likely will see the negative effects from it some day and then you’ll look back upon your mistakes and wish you hadn’t done them. Hindsight is 20/20, but here is your forewarning.

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