If you don’t have access to heavy weights, can’t lift heavy because of an injury, or simply aren’t interested in lifting heavy, you may wonder if you can still build muscle with light weights.
So can you build muscle with light weights? Studies have shown that lifting at 60% of your 1 rep max (1RM) can be just as effective at building muscle as lifting heavier weights. You can boost your results by doing enough volume, training often enough, and eating enough calories. You can also slow down your lifts and add pauses to increase time under tension.
In this article, I’ll define what light weight means and discuss findings from several studies about the effectiveness of using light weights to build muscle. I’ll also discuss the types of people who would benefit from lifting light weights and how you can build muscle when lifting light weights.
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What Is Considered Light Weight?
Some general guidelines to follow when it comes to defining light weight are:
- Any weight that you can do 15+ reps with before getting fatigued
- Any weight that’s 55-60% or below of your 1 rep max, if you know that number for a particular lift
But “light weight” is subjective and will vary from person to person, lift to lift, and even what equipment you’re using.
For example, what feels light for a squat will likely feel heavy for an overhead press because the squat utilizes larger muscle groups than the overhead press.
As well, if you’ve been working out for a couple of years and can squat 500lbs, a 135lb squat will feel light to you. But that same 135lbs could be a max effort for someone who’s new to lifting.
How light a weight feels also depends on what equipment you’re using. Lifting an empty 45lb barbell may feel light, but lifting a 45lb dumbbell could feel heavy because of the differences in size and how the weight is distributed.
Can You Build Muscle With Light Weights? (What the Science Says)
Many research studies have shown that lifting light weights can be just as effective at building muscle as lifting heavier weights.
In a study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, researchers found no significant differences in muscle growth between individuals who trained with moderate loads (the equivalent of a 10 rep max) vs those who trained with low loads (the equivalent of a 20 rep max).
A review of more than 28 studies showed that overall, untrained and recreational lifters who lifted loads less than 60% of their 1 rep max or a weight that they could do more than 15 reps with experienced similar gains in hypertrophy as those who lifted weights between 60-70% of their 1RMs and greater than 80% of their 1RMs.
However, in these studies, greater hypertrophy results were seen in the untrained individuals who lifted light loads than those with more lifting experience.
Another review of four studies, all of which used experienced lifters as their subjects, showed that muscle growth is possible when lifting light weights when sets were taken to failure. The individuals who trained to failure with low loads showed similar levels of hypertrophy as those who trained with higher loads and fewer reps.
All of these findings suggest that the amount of weight lifted isn’t the sole contributing factor in muscle gain. The participants in these studies performed all of their sets to failure or completed at least 20-30 reps per set.
Key Takeaway: It is possible to build muscle with light weights as long as you’re doing an adequate amount of volume. This means doing sets of at least 10 reps, though sets of 15 or more are more effective at building muscle with light weights.
Related Article: Can You Build Muscle With Resistance Bands? (Yes, Here’s How)
Why You Would Want to Lift With Light Weight
There are certain scenarios when lifting light weight is beneficial.
1. You’re Coming Back From an Injury
If you’re returning from a significant injury, you’ll want to ease into a workout routine with light weights. Even if you’ve been going to physical therapy to rehab your injury, you’ll need time to work back up to the strength levels you were at previously.
Pushing too hard too soon after an injury can result in reinjuring the area or injuring other areas of the body that are trying to compensate for the weaker ones.
2. You’re a Beginner
It’s good to set goals for yourself and strive to be as strong as you can be, but you shouldn’t be in a rush to see results when you’re just starting out.
New lifters have the advantage of “newbie gains,” which means that they can get stronger and build muscle quickly. This is because their bodies haven’t yet adapted to the stimuli of lifting weights, and they respond by increasing in strength and muscle mass at a fast rate.
But that still doesn’t mean you can expect to gain 25lbs of muscle within your first month. For almost every individual who goes to the gym (and doesn’t take performance-enhancing drugs), it will take several years to be able to gain a significant amount of muscle mass.
As such, there’s no need to rush to get stronger and lift heavier weights when you’re a beginner because it can just lead to burn out and injury if you push yourself too hard too soon.
Related Article: 3 Day Workout Split For Beginners (For Muscle Gain & Fat Loss)
3. You’re Coming Back From an Extended Break From the Gym
If you haven’t been to the gym for several months or even years, don’t expect to be able to lift what you could before your break. You’ll need to take it easy for the first several weeks and start with lighter weights than you were used to before, as disappointing as that may feel.
Similar to returning to the gym after an injury, getting back into a workout routine after a long break requires an adjustment period. Your body will need time to get used to working out again before you can start to push heavier weights.
4. You’re Training for Another Sport That Requires A Lighter Body Weight
Being smaller and lighter is beneficial for endurance sports such as marathon running or cycling. While you can benefit from strength training if you participate in an endurance sport, you may not want to build a lot of muscle mass since the extra weight can slow you down.
At the same time, having a low body fat percentage and more lean mass can help make you faster and more efficient. While body fat percentage largely comes down to diet, lifting light weights can ensure that you don’t lose too much muscle from all of the activity you do.
Training with light weights can also help you build muscular endurance so your muscles are able to sustain activity over a longer time period.
5. You Don’t Care About Hitting PRs or You’re Burned Out
You may reach a point in your lifting journey where you just don’t care about smashing PRs every time you go to the gym. Instead, you lift for enjoyment, to stay healthy, and/or to look good rather than to train for a competition or outlift your gym buddy.
There’s something to be said for progressive overload and trying to add weight to your lifts consistently. But you don’t always have to work out with the goal of being the strongest person in the room, especially if you’ve been overly tired, sore, or burned out from exercise lately.
Sometimes lifting light weights is sufficient enough to keep you in shape while giving your body and mind the break they need from heavy, intense workouts.
6. You’re Older
For most people, strength levels start to plateau or decrease starting around age 35. This means that if you’re just starting to lift weights for the first time when you’re in your mid-30s or older, your strength potential can be much lower than what it would have been when you were younger.
You can still get stronger, but you may not be able to lift what you would have been able to if you had started in your early 20s. It may also take you longer to improve your strength, which means more of your training will involve lifting relatively light weights.
Even if you’ve been lifting weights since your 20s, you may notice that your strength levels are no longer what they used to be as you approach your 40s, 50s, and 60s.
As bruising as it may be to your ego, lifting light weights is better than no strength training at all. Even lifting at 60% is enough to prevent sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and strength) and loss of motor control as you age.
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How To Build Muscle With Light Weights
If you’re lifting with light weights, there are several tips you can follow so you can still build muscle effectively.
1. Lift With a Slower Tempo
Slowing down your tempo is an excellent way to build muscle when lifting lighter weights. The most common way to do this is to slow down the eccentric portion (or the lowering phase) of each lift.
Some ways you can do this include using a 3-second descent on squats or bench presses or lowering the bar to a 3-second count on deadlifts.
Tempo training is beneficial for building muscle because it recruits more muscle fibers due to increased time under tension. This, in turn, provides more of a stimulus that allows your muscles to grow, even when lifting lighter weights.
Related Article: 7 Benefits of Tempo Training (Science Backed)
2. Incorporate Pauses
Like slowing down your tempo, adding pauses to your lifts increases time under tension, which can help you build muscle when lifting light weights.
For example, you can add a 2-second pause to the bottom of a squat, hold the top of a hip thrust for 5 seconds, or pause for 2-3 seconds with the bar on your chest during a bench press.
3. Increase Sets and Reps
When you’re lifting light weights, you’ll need to do more sets and reps to achieve a similar stimulus as what you’d get if you were lifting heavier. This means you may have to do sets of 15, 20, or even 30 reps.
You can also train to failure by choosing a weight that isn’t super heavy but still allows you to do at least 12-15 reps with proper form with the last rep being a struggle to complete.
As well, you may want to consider increasing the number of sets you do per exercise. If you’re only doing 2-3, try to increase it to 4. The increased volume can help you build more muscle even if the overall intensity is low.
Related Article: Should You Do High Reps to Get Ripped?
4. Do Unilateral Exercises
Unilateral exercises are those in which you use one arm or one leg at a time. Examples include single-arm dumbbell rows, single-arm dumbbell bench presses, and Bulgarian split squats.
Training one side at a time will always be more challenging and require you to use lighter weight because you can’t rely on your other side for assistance. But you also get some added benefits such as improving muscular imbalances and core stability when doing unilateral work.
5. Train More Frequently
The good thing about lifting light weights is that it is less taxing on your central nervous system. For example, doing 12 squats at 60% of your 1 rep max isn’t as fatiguing as doing 5 squats at 80%. This means you can train more often while still being able to recover properly in between each workout.
If you’re only lifting light weights twice a week and not seeing results, try increasing your training days to three, four, or five days per week. You can make more progress by adding more lifting days into your workout schedule.
That said, it’s still important to have rest days and leave time to focus on your other training if you participate in another sport. But if your schedule allows, increasing the frequency of your training can help you build more muscle even if you’re lifting light weights.
6. Don’t Neglect Your Diet
Regardless of how much weight you lift, diet is an essential component of building muscle. You’ll need to eat in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you burn through exercise and non-exercise activities each day) in order to grow.
You can use an online TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculator to figure out how many calories you should be eating. This calculator estimates how many calories you burn each day, which is a reflection of how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight. You can then add 150-200 calories to that number to put yourself in a calorie surplus.
Consuming enough protein each day is also important because it’s necessary for muscle growth. I recommend 0.8-1g of protein per pound of body weight each day. If you weigh 175lbs, this would be 140-175g of protein per day.
Related Article: What Should Your Calories & Macros Be When Bulking?
7. Use Proper Form
When you’re lifting light weight, it’s easy to speed through your reps and not pay attention to form because the weight isn’t very challenging. But even if you’re lifting at 60% of your 1RM for a certain lift, it’s still important to use proper form to make sure you’re working the targeted muscles properly.
For example, this includes making sure you’re squatting to at least parallel or straightening your arms all the way when doing overhead presses.
Moving through the full range of motion with each rep will ensure you’re putting your muscles under an adequate level of stress that they need to develop.
If you need help finding a lifting routine that can help you reach your goals, check out the Fitbod app. You can create a routine that’s fully customized based on your ideal training frequency, available equipment, and the muscle groups you want to focus on. Download Fitbod today to get three free workouts.
It is possible to build muscle with light weights as long as you do an adequate amount of volume, train frequently enough, eat enough calories (especially protein), and always use proper form.
Slowing down your lifts and increasing your time under tension is another excellent way to build muscle with light weights.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.