For the vast majority of gym-goers, the overall goal is to get stronger and to be able to lift heavier and heavier weights (unless your goal is to increase muscle size, in which case you’d go down a hypertrophy training route). But, simply picking up a set of heavier dumbbells during the following session, or moving the pin further down the stack on the cable machine, isn’t always going to guarantee success.
In fact, lifting lighter weights can be just as effective, as fitness trainer Paul Sklar explains in a recent Instagram post. In his video, Paul can be seen performing hammer curls and bicep curls, using 25lbs and 30lbs dumbbells, respectively. For a man of Paul’s sheer size, these would be considered ‘lightweight’. So, why wouldn’t he increase the weight when he’s perfectly capable?
As Paul explains, it’s because of the mind-muscle connection: “If you have the right mind-muscle connection, it doesn’t matter how much weight you use,” he relates.
“Make the most out of any exercise you do, because each one may work a lot more than you think they do. When I use a weight like this, I take all sets to failure, understanding what failure is.”
Check out Paul Sklar’s training to failure workout in the video below
There are a couple of key points to unpack in those comments: what is mind-muscle connection, and what exactly does taking sets to failure mean?
Mind-muscle connection, as Muscle and Strength explains, “means you are mentally connected to the body and how it’s working while you’re performing activities.” Essentially, this means you shouldn’t focus on the weight you’re lifting and eyeing up being able to lift as much as possible, but rather, understanding what is happening with the muscle through the entirety of the exercise. And the best way to do this, is to use a lighter weight.
To help improve your mind-muscle connection, you can employ various techniques, such as time under tension. Time under tension involves increasing the amount of time you take to perform an exercise, putting greater tension on the muscles for a greater amount of time. Studies have shown that increasing the eccentric portion of an exercise (the lengthening) can result in greater muscle growth. With a bench press, for example, you would slow down the lowering of the bar, putting greater tension on your chest muscles, before pressing it back up quickly.
You can also pause at peak contraction to help increase time under tension. Using the bench press as an example again, this would mean you would pause and squeeze the chest muscles once you have pushed it back up to the starting position.
Again, increasing time under tension will be much easier using a lighter weight, compared to what you would lift if you were to perform the same exercise at a faster pace.
As for training to failure, there is mixed opinion with regards to both its effectiveness and how it should be implemented. Training to failure means to train to the point where you can physically no longer lift the weight you have selected with correct form. If you are able to pump out another rep with good form, even if it feels difficult, then you haven’t technically reached failure.
The general consensus suggests that by training to failure, you’re working your muscles to within their limits, which will in turn cause them to rebuild themselves to be much stronger. However, some weight lifters choose to take all sets to failure. According to Bodybuilding.com, this is something Spanish researcher Dr. Mikel Izquierdo has found causes more harm than good. With his study, he found “training to failure every set drastically increased resting levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol and suppressed anabolic growth factors such as IGF-1.” Basically, people who do this may not actually see any long-term muscle growth.
However, a 2016 study conducted by researchers at McMaster University in Canada, found that “lifting lighter weights many times is as efficient as lifting heavy weights for fewer repetitions.” And, while it is recommended that you only take your last set of an exercise to failure, it can be possible when performed with lighter weights, as it can be less taxing on the body, yet still prove to be effective.
This is likely what Paul means when he says “When I use a weight like this, I take all sets to failure, understanding what failure is,” i.e. he wouldn’t take all sets to failure if he were using a heavier weight.
The whole concept of lifting lighter weights to make gains may be lost on many, because as we mentioned at the beginning, the very point of going to the gym is to become stronger. But, leaving ego aside and understanding exactly what happens when you’re lifting a weight and not just looking at how good you look in the mirror, could be your best route to ‘Gainsville’.