Making Gains Whilst Training At Home
Updated: Apr 11
1 Rep Max - Maximum weight that can be lifted for 1 repetition
High/Heavy Load – Typically those above 80% 1 rep max
Low/Light Load – Typically those blow 30% 1 rep max
Isotonic exercise – Exercise where the muscle maintains equal tension throughout an exercise.
It is well known that the body starts to atrophy (weaken) when our levels of exercise reduce, muscles lose their mass and strength and bones lose their density. The knock-on effect of this is reduced performance and increased risk of injury when we return to normal activity levels (Muller 2002, Gabbett 2016).
Over the last 2 weeks the question I have been asked repeatedly is ‘What can I do to minimise loss of strength whilst the gyms are closed and I only have light weights and little equipment at home?’
Many people find it hard to believe we can make strength gains with lighter weights and improve body composition too. Therefore, I thought I’d write a blog with the evidence to back it up.
A word of warning, there are many variables that can be manipulated in a training programme but this blog focuses on the differences between heavy and light loads and how varying these loads affects strength and body composition. I am also aware that load can be made up of many biopsychosocial factors but for this blog load refers to amount of resistance.
How do high and low weights compare
We are not limited to simply minimising strength loss, we can make strength gains and build muscle mass too, even with lighter weights. A review and meta-analysis carried out by Schoenfeld et al (2017) had 3 major findings:
1. High loads are needed for maximal strength gains, but substantial increases in strength can also be gained from lower loads. This is especially true for people with less experience of strength training.
2. There were no differences in isotonic strength gains when comparing high and low loads.
3. Heavy and low loads produced the same increases in muscle mass (hypertrophy), as long as the effort level was high enough and exercises carried out till failure.
Most papers included in Schoenfeld’s review were carried out on untrained males, meaning the findings may not be applicable to females or resistance trained males. However, several papers have been published since, including Franco et al (2019) who showed that both low and high loads increased maximum strength in young women, like Schoenfeld findings. They also found that the low load group had bigger increases in bone and fat free mass gains than the high load group. This may be due to females having more resistance to low load fatigue than males. As a result, women experience more time-under-load when training to failure using low loads, with time-under-load being one of the stimuluses for hypertrophy. Dinya et al (2019) also found that untrained women can increase maximum strength equally with low and high loads if repetitions were taken to failure. However, they were unable to detect changes in bone and fat free mass or percentage body fat in either the high or low load group which does not support Franco et al (2019) et al and Shoenfeld (2017).
It is possible that high and low loads stimulate the development of different muscles fibres with low load training developing Type I fibres and high load training developing Type II fibres. Type I fibres are more suited to endurance having a greater blood supply and more mitochondria, where as type II fibres are more suited to power. Although there are some studies on load and fibre type it is too early to draw any clear conclusions.
1. For improving body composition volume is more important than load, provided exercises are carried out to failure or near failure.
2. For women it is possible that lower loads may produce more beneficial changes in body composition that lifting higher loads.
3. Substantial strength gains can be made with lighter loads provided the effort level is high enough. However high loads are required for developing maximal strength.
4. It is possible that different loads stimulate the development of different muscle fibre types, though this is still not clear.
Using the Science to Maximise Lockdown Training and Reduce Injury Risk
It is simply not possible to prevent injury. If you carry out physical activity you will always have the risk of getting injured, but we can minimise that risk with smart training (Gabbett, 2016). One of the most effective ways to minimise injury risk is by making our bodies stronger and more robust. The most effective way to do this is via resistance training. The same is true for rehabilitation, we need to take an injured person and rebuild their physical and psychological capacity until they can carry out training for improving performance. For resistance training and rehabilitation to be effective many criteria must be met:
1. The right stimulus must be applied to the body to generate the desired adaptation.
2. Training must compliment a person’s sport e.g. Strength is beneficial for a distance runner, but extra mass is detrimental.
3. Training must fit in to a person’s schedule, so needs to be time efficient.
4. The person must enjoy and be motivated to carry out the activity.
The evidence is clear that we do not need to be lifting high loads for developing mass, lower loads are just as effective if the effort level is high enough. This is ideal for people who are new to resistance training, lack confidence with heavy weights or simply do not have access to heavy weights. One of the biggest barriers to resistance training in women is an aversion to lifting heavy. With the above science we find that lower loads have equal benefit to heavy loads.
It is possible that training with different loads may stimulate the development of different muscle fibres. To reduce injury risk, it is beneficial to train the body so it can cope with a range of different forces and conditions. Therefore, to develop a more rounded level of fitness, training programmes should encompass a range of heavy load and low load training. For those used to training in a gym with heavy weights this period of lockdown is an ideal opportunity to change training regime and implement low load training.
Although we can get major benefits from lower loads we do need to be training with heavy loads if our aim is to develop maximum force or if time is limited. Many gains can be made from lower loads, but we must remember that exercises do need to be carried out to failure or close to failure. This takes time, which is often in short supply. It is far less time demanding to train to failure using heavy loads rather than light loads. Maximum force production is also important for sports such as running. Although we would rarely produce maximum force during a run, we do have to produce power, and force is a fundamental component of power. Therefore it is important for runners to train with heavy loads especially of they want to bound up hills and steps more efficiently and reduce risk of injury from trips and falls.
Increases in strength can reduce risk of injury and lead to better sporting performance. The best way to develop strength is via resistance training. Substantial strength gains can be made with light loads, provided exercises are carried out to, or close to, failure. Although heavy loads are more effective at developing strength and to develop maximal strength gains heavy loads are required. Heavy and light loads are just as effective at improving body composition and for women light loads may even be more beneficial.
Training with heavy loads is more time efficient as few reps and sets are needed to reach failure. Lighter loads are great for people new to resistance training, those who are not confident with heavy weights and those who do not have access to heavy weights and gym equipment.
1. Muller (2002), Tissue Adaptation to Physical Stress: A Proposed “Physical Stress Theory” to Guide Physical Therapist Practice, Education, and Research. Physical Therapy
2. Gabbett (2016), The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? British Journal Sports Medicine
3. Schoenfeld et al (2017) Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- Vs. High-Load Resistance Training: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
4. Dinya et al (2019), Low-Load Vs. High-Load Resistance Training To Failure On One Repetition Maximum Strength And Body Composition In Untrained Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
5. Franco et al (2019), Lower-Load is More Effective Than Higher-Load Resistance Training in Increasing Muscle Mass in Young Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research