A study from McMaster concludes that when it comes to weight training whether you use heavy or light weights, lifting them as many times as you can builds strength and muscle. The details of how you go about it are less important than simply making a habit of it, researchers have determined.
After studying the most popular variables among resistance training programs — how much you lift, how often, and how many times — kinesiologists at McMaster University have found all forms of resistance training are beneficial, including body-weight exercises such as planks, lunges and push-ups.
“There are a dizzying number of factors and combinations to consider when creating a weightlifting program to maximize strength and muscle growth,” says kinesiology professor Stuart Phillips, who conducted the work with graduate students Bradley Currier and Jonathan Mcleod.
“This is an age-old debate among athletes and strength and conditioning coaches: What combination leads to the best gains?”
For the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers reviewed 192 randomized, controlled studies with a total sample size of more than 5,000 people, evenly split between women and men, making it the single largest project of its kind.
The work is the culmination of years of planning, collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data revolving around three key resistance-training variables: higher versus lower loads; single versus multiple sets; and training frequency — whether one, two or three (or more) sessions per week.
Most fitness experts have come to believe that using the heaviest weights — which can only be lifted three to five times — works best for building strength, while using weights that can be lifted eight to 10 times works best for building muscle size.
Based on their original research, McMaster researchers have spent the last decade or more pushing back against the idea that heavier weights are the only option.
Phillips and his team have published several papers showing significant gains are possible when lifting lighter weights toward the point of exhaustion. That can mean 20 to 30 repetitions, sometimes more.
In this comprehensive review of research from across their field, the researchers found that to maximize muscle strength, lifting heavier weights is most effective, while to maximize muscle size, one should do each exercise several times and the weight lifted is less important.
“Our analysis shows that every resistance training prescription resulted in strength and muscle mass gains,” says Currier.
“Complex prescriptions are sufficient but unnecessary to gain strength and muscle. Simple programs are extremely effective, and the most important result is that people can benefit from any weightlifting program.”
“Seek guidance if you are unsure where to begin and how to progress, but it doesn’t need to be complicated.”
Researchers say the analysis is good news for anyone, regardless of age, interested in gaining strength and maintaining more muscle, which are important to preventing injury, maximizing mobility and optimizing metabolism.
“The biggest variable to master is compliance,” said Mcleod, “Once you’ve got that down, then you can worry about all of the other subtle nuances, but our analysis clearly shows that many ostensibly important variables just are