Lighter Weights for MORE Muscle?

For beginners and veterans alike, there’s one “fact” that everyone involved in fitness and bodybuilding is absolutely sure of: You have to train heavy to grow!

Well, I hate to break any hearts or long-standing belief systems out there, but while you can obviously build some muscle with heavy weights, and training heavy certainly has it’s merits, it’s not the only way to build muscle.  In fact, it may not even be the best way…

To say that only heavy weights build muscle, let alone that lighter weights will not build muscle, is absolutely false. In fact, there’s a fair amount of research out there showing that very light weights can match or even surpass the muscle-building potential of using only heavy weights: Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Jun;37(3):551-4. Epub 2012 Apr 26…

It’s stated quite clearly in that article: “It is often recommended that heavier training intensities (∼70%-80% of maximal strength) be lifted to maximize muscle growth. However, we have reported that intensities as low as 30% of maximum strength, when lifted to volitional fatigue, are equally effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis rates during resistance exercise recovery.”

That study, along with several discussions with fellow Labrada Nutrition contributor Doug Brignole, convinced me to give my stalling gains and aching joints a break in favor of trying lighter-weight, higher-rep training. Doug had claimed it was getting him bigger and better than he’d ever been, even with multiple decades of experience and major bodybuilding titles under his belt, and everything behind it made a lot of sense.  It simply works, and I’ve had dozens of trainees comment on how well it’s worked for them, often to their amazement, and usually followed with sentiments such as, “I wish I had started training this week 10 years ago.”

The version we developed and experimented with for our 4X Mass Workout 2.0 e-book  is called TORQ, or tension-overload repetition quantity. It based on some of Doug’s findings, and involves sets of 30-20-15 reps with around 45 seconds of rest between sets. Those high-end tension times are something most bodybuilders never get, and it could explain why many long-time bodybuilders will reach a sticking point, and then stall in their muscle growth, regardless of their efforts to continuously train heavier and heavier.

That TORQ method described in the 4X e-book is based off of those discussions with Brignole, but his Super-TORQ method is explained in The Ultimate Power-Density 2.0 e-book.  Why is Doug’s method referred to as “Super-TORQ?” Well, he uses just one exercise per muscle group, but here’s the catch: He does a 50-40-30-20-10 sequence of reps, adding weight on each set, and he adds drop sets to the last set.

He’ll also superset with an opposing-bodypart exercise fairly often at the end of the sequence. I’ve used that method, and I absolutely love it, but I’m not quite “super” enough, as I need a break from the Super-TORQ method after a few weeks.  The muscle feel, however, is almost indescribably good.  Painful, but good.

So, why do TORQ-based training techniques work so well at creating muscle growth? Here’s a quote regarding time under tension (TUT) from strength and muscle-building expert Jim Stoppani, Ph.D. (from his book Encyclopedia of Muscle and Strength):

“The best TUT range for strength is about four to 20 seconds per set and about 40 to 60 seconds per set for muscle growth.”

Some researchers believe the tension time for muscle growth is actually closer to 90 seconds. As stated earlier, though, the thing  to remember is that most bodybuilders rarely, if ever, even get close to the low-end 40-second mark. Next time you’re in the gym, look around;  most people train with  sets that last around 20 seconds, and that’s the TUT for strength, not size.

So getting into the upper tension times required for muscle GROWTH—60 to 90 seconds—has great potential for triggering a lot of new growth, primarily in the sarcoplasm, which is the energy fluid in the muscle that increases the best with longer tension times. A set with 20 to 50 reps, depending on rep speed, obviously, will give you the tension times needed for hypertrophy, and can stimulate some incredible gains in muscle size.

That sort of training isn’t for everyone, though, at least not from a mental standpoint. If you’ve been brainwashed into believing heavy weights are the ONLY way to build muscle, then doing a set with a weight which allows you to get 30 reps, let alone up to 50 reps, can wreak havoc on your mindset. The 4X method might help get your mind wrapped around doing something new, with at least moderate weights instead, that can still trigger impressive new muscle growth.

The key to 4X is the use of moderate weights and short rest times between sets—35 seconds. That combination brings both power and density training together for maximum growth of the fast-twitch 2A fibers.

“Power,” referred to above, is basically the heavier lower-rep work with longer rest periods, and it emphasizes the myofibrils, or force-generating actin-myosin strands in muscle fibers. “Density” refers to the longer tension times, or the idea of doing more work in less time. The short rests between sets of 4X and TORQ training methods compress the workload, and that focuses on expanding the sarcoplasm, which is the energy fluid inside muscle fibers consisting of glycogen, ATP and the mitochondria. Both power and density are important if you’re after maximum muscle mass.

Another one of the  reasons these methods work is something something known as the  growth threshold.  4X, TORQ, and Super-TORQ methods allow you to reach it without overtaxing your nervous system and adrenal glands—and without superheavy joint-smashing weights. Lee Labrada describes the growth threshold as such:

“The growth threshold is the point at which the level of fatigue in the muscle is high enough that a growth response is elicited. Your goal during a workout should be to fatigue the target muscles you are training more and more with each succeeding set. In other words, you want the muscles to progressively get more and more tired out, until you reach a point where the muscles are functionally ‘worn out.’ Signals are sent to the brain that set up the compensation, or growth, process during the postworkout period, so that in future workouts, you can handle it.”

Don’t be mistaken, though.  Just because light and moderate weights are used with these types of training methods doesn’t mean it’s easy.  In fact, it’s quite the contrary! These workouts are extremely challenging to both the muscles and the cardiovascular system, especially on some of the bigger compound exercises, and the muscle burn alone requires a whole new level of pain tolerance. The gradual buildup in intensity over four sets with 4X, and the lighter poundages and longer tension times with TORQ and Super-TORQ, are also less stressful on the joints, nervous system and adrenal glands.

A big key to allowing any of these methods to work best for you is to leave your ego at the door. If you’re used to heavy weights and low reps, you’re not only going to have a tough time figuring out your weights at first, but you’ll also have to remember that these methods work. Plus, you can always challenge someone to try TORQ, Super-TORQ, or even 4X with you… It’s harder than it sounds and it burns like nothing you’ve done before, but the results will prove to be worth it.

[Note: If interested on the e-books mentioned in this article, you can check them out by visiting the following pages: 4X Mass Workout 2.0 Page  &  The Ultimate Power-Density 2.0 Page]

About the Author

Jonathan Lawson has been working in the health and fitness industry for over 20 years; weight training for 21 years, competed in numerous bodybuilding competitions, worked for IRON MAN Magazine for 17 years, co-owns where he has co-published over 15 e-books and writes a daily training blog.  He has appeared on the covers of, and been featured in, dozens of international magazines, books and e-books.