How to Build Muscle without Heavy Weights

Large muscles and strength tend to go hand in hand, but it may surprise some readers to know that not all bodybuilders train with heavy weights.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former training partner Ric Drasin, for example, said he never saw Arnold curl more than a 50 pound dumbbell.  This was when Arnold had 22 inch arms.  Think about that the next time you go to grab the 50’s or higher.  Many of today’s top bodybuilders train along the same lines, using weights much lighter than their massive muscles suggest.  How is this possible?  They’ve learned to get the most out of the weights that they lift.  They use them as tools to work their muscles and not their egos.

Heavy and Light are relative terms.  There’s a saying that Mickey Mouse weights build a Mickey Mouse body, and that is true.  You’ll never get huge training with the pink 5 pound dumbbells.  However, you can build quality muscle mass without ever lifting anything near your 1 rep maximum.  Truth be told, if you’re exercising to look better and feel better, there’s no reason to ever approach your 1 rep max.  A better training weight for bodybuilding purposes is 50-70% of your estimated 1 rep max.  This works out to a weight that you could lift for 15-25 reps when fresh.  When used correctly, such training weights will build as much muscle as your diet and genetics allow, while being safer, healthier on the joints, and more sustainable over the long term than heavy training.

The key to lighter training is to employ strategies that make your training harder without loading more plates on the bar.  Your muscles don’t know how much weight they’re lifting.  They only know how intensely they’re being asked to contract and how fatigued they’ve become.  Here are the most effective ways to increase the stress on your muscles using lighter weights:

  • Do more sets and reps – This is the most important facet of light training. Overall training volume (weight x sets x reps) is the most critical factor to building muscle, and lighter weights allow you to do more volume.  Try doing 5 sets of 10-20 reps of each exercise.  The training volume and muscle pump will allow you to develop muscle in a way that heavy weights cannot.
  • Use shorter rest periods – Rest no more than 60 seconds between sets on isolation exercises, and 60-90 seconds on compound exercises. Doing more work in less time is a great way to increase the intensity of your workout and to force more blood into the muscle.  You may reduce rest periods even more by doing supersets, which is a pair of exercises done back to back with no rest in between.
  • Use super strict form – avoid swinging up the weight, bouncing the weight, or using secondary muscles to help lift the weight. Make sure the target muscles are doing the work.
  • Slow down the reps – avoid using momentum to help you through the sticking points of the exercise. Slow down to keep tension on the muscle throughout the entire range of motion, especially during the eccentric (lowering) phase.  A good temp is 2 seconds up and 2-4 seconds down.
  • Speed up the reps – this may sound contradictory to the previous bullet, but it’s not if done correctly. If you use exert maximum force when lifting a weight, the weight will move quickly.  The trick is to keep pushing hard through the whole range of motion rather than letting up and allowing momentum to complete the rep.  In the powerlifting world, this approach is referred to as speed work or compensatory acceleration training.  It’s great for building fast twitch muscle fibers.
  • Incorporate bodyweight exercises – great physiques (especially upper body) have been built without any weights at all, using calisthenic exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups, muscle-ups, dips, and more advanced moves. Check out the physique of an elite gymnast or YouTube bar star for proof that this approach can work.
  • Greater mental focus on the target muscle – with practice, you can increase the stress on a muscle simply by concentrating on it more deeply while you lift and by flexing/squeezing the muscle at the top of each rep instead of allowing it to relax. Top bodybuilders have mastered this mind muscle connection, and many consider it to be the “secret” to getting great results.

I’m not going to lay out a specific routine because everyone’s different with respect to training experience, recovery ability, exercise preferences, injury limitations, etc.  If you have some training experience under your belt, I’d recommend designing your own routine or finding a basic bodybuilding routine online and adjusting it for your needs and preferences.  When it comes to the actual performance of the exercises, use the techniques listed above.  Use 50-70% of your 1 rep max, use strict form, do at least 10 reps per set, keep your rest periods short, and focus intensely on the primary muscle you’re working.  Do these things and you will see results, guaranteed, without having to use a lot of weight.

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