Besides the most common question that people ask of whether or not you should be lifting light or heavyweight, the next question after that is typical, which you should do first. Well, there are many factors to consider, so let’s.
Unless you are doing warmups that are not to failure or performing a specific exercise for a particular reason, you should always opt to perform exercises with heavier weight first. This will allow you to still have enough energy left to perform any endurance exercises or repetitions.
This article will cover the various aspects of heavyweight and lightweight, considering how the muscles respond accordingly. It will also look at how you should be lifting according to your goals, such as strength, muscle size, toning, and endurance, and focusing on aspects that most individuals who train do not consider.
Lifting heavy and light overview
The fitness industry is booming, being one of the largest industries in the world and growing at an annual rate of 8.7% per year based on statistics.
This means thousands of people a year decide that they want to be healthier and get into shape.
One of the first questions I have always been asked by clients I trained is how much weight they should lift.
Regarding exercise, the individual, and their goals, the answer is never as straightforward as you may think and will vary even throughout their training regiment.
The general aspect that you have to understand before we take a deep dive into the fundamentals of muscle with regards to heavy and light lifting is that heavy lifting is primarily used to increase muscle mass and strength. In contrast, light lifting is used for toning and increasing endurance.
Understanding how muscles grow
The process whereby muscles break down and grow due to the continuous challenge of various resistance levels or weights is known as muscle hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy occurs when the muscle fibers sustain damage (tear) or get injured. When the muscles are torn, the body helps to rebuild them and fuses them back together, making them thicker and stronger. This essentially increases the muscle mass and size.
Using a bit of common logic, we can assume that the heavier the weight is, the more likely we are to tear more muscle and tear muscle more effectively.
Please consider that using a weight that is too heavy will injure you, and that is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to break the muscle down enough to grow stronger and bigger without sustaining injury.
Also, note that using lightweight will also accomplish this, just not to the degree that heavier weight will.
Going into depth about muscle hypertrophy, fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers, and a percentage of your 1 rep max is a little beyond the scope of this article and not really needed to understand whether or not you should be lifting heavy or light first. However, take a look at this video here, where the concept of heavyweight versus lightweight is explained.
Understanding rep range for muscles
No matter if you are lifting heavy or light, you will complete what is known as repetitions.
A repetition is essentially a full ROM (range of motion) through the appropriate exercise using resistance (machines, cables, bands, etc.) or weights (dumbells, barbells, weighted machines, etc.). For example, performing a barbell curl where you drop the weight all the way down so that it touches your legs, and then you curl it all the way up that it comes close to touching your chin or chest (depending on how long your arms are).
For the most part, unless you are doing tailored specific training for particular goals, you will use a full ROM no matter if you are using heavy or light weights. The only difference is that utilizing heavier weights will accomplish one goal, while lifting lighter will accomplish another.
Keeping your rep range between 5 and 8 will effectively build muscle mass and strength. A rep range between 9 and 12 would be used if you would like to tone muscle, and a rep range from 13 to 15 is intended for endurance. Keep in mind that the weight depends on what you are trying to achieve, and the rep range must be sufficient that you are at failure when you reach your last rep.
Individuals always get this aspect of training wrong and either go with a weight that is too heavy, too light, or they can complete the rep range without going to failure.
Going to failure with the correct weight is critical for any of these, even if you are trying to build endurance. Pumping out 15 reps does not mean that you are building endurance for the muscle you are working if you can hit 15 reps easily. You always have to make sure that the weight is sufficient enough that your last rep in your rep range is to failure.
Another aspect to note is that these rep ranges will apply to all muscle groups and will not be different. That means if you intend to train legs for endurance, the rep range will be between 13 and 15, and if you are training chest for endurance, the rep range will be the same.
The only difference will be the amount of weight you are lifting because different muscle groups are larger and stronger than others. Furthermore, this will also apply to any exercise, whether lifting dumbells, barbells, or using machines.
Other types of training that include HIIT and CrossFit will work a bit differently, and for some exercises, you will be counting down in terms of time rather than repetitions. Note that this type of training is as the name would suggest for fitness, endurance, and toning.
Below is a table outlining rep ranges and fitness goals that I have taken from my other article here, where I cover if using dumbells alone is sufficient for training.
|Fitness goal||Rep range||Weight needed||Exercise involved|
|Strength and muscle building||5 – 8||Will vary||Will vary|
|Toning||9 – 12||Will vary||Will vary|
|Endurance||13 – 15||Will vary||Will vary|
As we now know, lifting heavier weight will essentially tear down more muscle allowing our body with the correct nutrition, supplementation, and rest to grow stronger and bigger.
We also know that the rep range to achieve this goal is to utilize a rep range between 5 and 8 with a weight that will allow us to get into the rep range with our last rep not exceeding 8 and going to complete failure.
We also now know that this rep range and technique are utilized for all muscle groups, whether it is legs, arms, chest, shoulder, back, etc. Furthermore, this technique applies to all types of exercises and weights. For example, squats, lunges, chest press, bench press, dumbells, barbells, or machines.
We will comprehensively cover which to do first in the following sections, but you need to understand that if you are looking to achieve maximum strength and muscle mass (size), you will have to do this type of lifting.
Even though studies have shown that individuals who took part in an exercise with different groups lifting light and heavy both achieving the same muscle mass, the study is based on beginners and not individuals who have had experience training. The fact remains that lifting heavier weight will increase size and strength.
When it comes to lifting light, there are two factors to consider. As with lifting heavy, there is a specific rep range to follow depending on your goals. We know that between 9 and 12 is for toning, and between 13 and 15 is for endurance. This means that the two aspects are if you wish to tone muscle, the weight will have to be a little heavier than for endurance but not as heavy as for muscle building and strength training. If you wish to build endurance, the weight must be light enough that you hit between 13 and 15 reps, but you are still going to failure.
Furthermore, the same technique that applies to heavy lifting applies to both toning and endurance. That is that the exercises can vary, the equipment can vary, and so can the muscle groups, but the principles of the rep range will stay the same.
Again, if you wish to tone, we suggest sticking to the rep range suggested, and if you wish to build endurance, you should be sticking to the rep range of between 13 and 15.
Which to lift first? Heavy or light?
Now that we understand how to exercise for specific goals, we need to consider which to do first because some individuals don’t just want to train for endurance or strength but a combination. Furthermore, training with variation is always the best if you hope to keep your body in a state of “shock,” which means it never gets accustomed to one specific method, and you should thus never hit a plateau and always progress.
Each individual will be different, and you have to consider what you want your result to be. By doing this, you can understand what steps you need to take and how you have to train in order for you to get there.
For example, are your goals to build a ton of muscle and compete in bodybuilding competitions, do you want to get your body ready for summer and the beach, do you want to lose weight, do you want to stay healthy, or are you training for a specific event such as a triathlon or a marathon?
By working out your goals, you will get a clear indication of what you need to do and how you should be lifting in conjunction with your other fitness regiments.
With that being said, I would never recommend lifting heavy after light unless it is for warmup only. Considering the amount of effort to lift a weight to failure and make it through a rep range of between 9 and 15, your muscle will be too fatigued to lift a heavy enough weight after that to impact the muscle in such a way that it needs to be impacted in order for muscle strength and size to be achieved. Confused?
Let’s say that you do barbell curls to failure with a weight of 20lbs and make it to 14 reps. At this point, your muscles are very fatigued. If you go and try to do any form of exercise now utilizing your biceps and plan to lift heavyweight in order to break down the muscle so it will get stronger and bigger, this will not really be possible.
This is because, at this point, your muscles are too tired to lift a weight that is heavy enough to tear your muscle down effectively. Essentially, this will negate the aspect of heavy lifting that you are trying to achieve.
Don’t get me wrong, you may be able to go and lift 25lbs for 7 reps, but the point of heavy lifting is to tear as much muscle as possible using the heaviest (most appropriate) weight possible. You can only do this when your muscles are “fresh” in a way otherwise;, you will be doing a “half job,” as they say.
Warmup is different. Grabbing a weight and going through the ROM of the exercise with very lightweight is just to allow blood and oxygen to flow to that muscle, telling it that it is about to be worked. Remember that a warmup is not to failure, and going to 20 reps easily is considered fine.
Hence, if anything, you should always be lifting heavy first and moving to a lighter weight after that. There are specific training techniques that break this rule like reverse drop sets and others but remember you are probably reading this article because you are new to exercise, and sticking to and understanding the basics will get you much further than if you try to exercise at an advanced level and do not know what you are doing.
Another aspect to consider is that unless you know how your body works and are experienced in exercising, you should not really be lifting heavy and light during the same workout unless it’s for different muscle groups.
Remember, you are trying to achieve a specific goal, and combining different principles is not really what you should be doing. You should focus on one aspect, and then once that has been achieved, you move onto the next. Thus, if you want to build strength, muscle mass, tone, and endurance, you should break up your workout where perhaps one training session focuses on endurance, the other on powerlifting, and one on muscle building.
In the best scenarios, you would be breaking your regiments up into weeks, focusing on strength for an extended amount of time, or endurance, muscle building, and so on.
It is perfectly fine to combine these in such a way that you focus on one aspect per training session, but the best would be to break each aspect up into complete training regiments that span a couple of weeks.
Understanding and going through this concept is beyond the scope of this article, but we will surely cover it because it is a big topic to consider.
We discovered that lifting either heavy or lightweight will achieve different results, and there are specific techniques in terms of rep range that you have to consider to achieve these goals.
Understanding how heavy and lightweight works and what your goals are, are the most important factors to consider when trying to determine whether or not you should be lifting heavy or light first.
Furthermore, Unless you are a person who is experienced in the gym and knows how to exercise, it is always best to do heavier weights first unless you are doing warmups. Then you would be moving from lighter weight to heavier weight, not going to failure.
Performing an exercise with a lightweight first to failure will not allow you to move on to a heavier weight that is sufficient enough to tear down your muscles in such a way that you are correctly exercising the muscle in accordance with characteristics of heavyweight training.
The last thing to note is that going to failure is the most important concept that many individuals don’t take into account, and this is critical no matter if you are lifting heavy or light weights.
How to build muscle with exercise
Fitness Industry Statistics 2021 (Editor’s Choice)
The Effects of Lifting Light or Heavy Weights on Muscle Growth and Strength in Trained Young Men
Is it better to lift heavy or light weights to gain muscle: Which is best for muscle growth? (6 Studies)
Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis