TLDR: Sometimes you end up at a hotel gym and you just don’t have the luxury of weight trees loaded with bumper plates or dumbbells that Ronnie Coleman would drool over. This might get you thinking – is this workout going to be pointless? Can you build muscle with light weights…and how much weight exactly is light?
In this guide, we are going to discuss exactly that. From knowing if you can get big biceps with light weights to the science behind it all.
Highlight: Yes you can gain muscle with light weights
What counts as light weight?
A light weight could be 1 kg or it could be 20 kg, it really depends on your strength as to what you perceive as light, and the lift you’re doing.
The weight you use for a deadlift or squat will feel completely different when you use it for an overhead press or biceps curl. This is because compound moves like squats, deadlifts, and bench, use more muscle groups than isolation moves like biceps curls and tricep extension.
Guidelines to work out what is a light weight for you:
You could do 12-15 (or more) reps without straining on the last one.
A weight that is around 50% or less than your 1 rep max for that lift.
Why use light weights for building muscle?
Light weights might be your only option at a hotel gym or for a home session, but there are lifters who always choose lighter weights over heavy ones.
You can really nail the proper form when you’re not straining under a heavy weight.
You can get the full range of motion with lighter weights. Researchers at The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that after 12 weeks of strength training using full range of motion, the size and strength of their muscles increased over the opposing group with used a short range of motion.
You’ll use the muscle, not the momentum.
It goes without saying, if you see professional bodybuilders using this approach, you can definitely build muscle with light weights.
Evidence Behind Building Muscle With Light Weights
This question about light vs heavy weights and low vs high reps has led to a fair few studies.
One study found that using light weights triggered gains similar to those lifting heavy loads when the sets were taken to failure. The subjects in the study who saw the results were all resistance-trained men.
It’s good news for newbie lifters too. A study of 747 healthy adults found that hypertrophy was superior to untrained participants who were using lower loads.
Another study of 18 male subjects involved them training their legs on the leg extension machine 3 times a week for 10 weeks. The group were separated into 3 groups and were tasked with either lifting light for 3 sets, heavy for 1 set, or heavy for 3 sets. The group lifting light and the group lifting heavy for 3 sets gained almost the same muscle mass in their quads.
Studies seem to mostly indicate that lifting both light weights and heavy weights equals the same amounts of muscle growth. However, it also suggests that it’s all about training to failure to really see benefits, something that isn’t always enjoyable. Rep ranges for light weights should be 12+ and you need to do 3-4 sets to help boost volume.
Do all muscles respond to light weights / high reps?
The muscles in your body are made up of slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Some muscles in your body have more of one than the other and using the right weight and rep range may produce a better response.
Slow twitch muscle fibres love a light weight and react well to the stimulus of high reps. You’ll find muscles dominant in slow twitch muscle fibres in your lower leg, shoulders, and forearms. Quads and back muscles are more of mixture of both fast and slow twitch.
Lifting light weights with high reps and lifting heavy weights with low reps is going to activate both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, helping to boost growth and endurance.
High Reps & Light Weight vs Low Reps & High Weight
Low reps are generally 2-6 and used for heavy lifting, high reps are 12+.
If you are lifting lighter weights but with high reps, this is found to help with muscle endurance. It may even boost growth through the response to metabolic stress.
Lifting heavy load but with low reps is found to help boost strength. This study found Results a statistically greater increases in 1RM squat strength favoring heavy compared to moderate in resistance trained men.
If you do have light and heavy weights available, the ideal would be to mix between both methods. Lifting heavier weights is great for those big lifts, so try starting with compound lifts that are heavy with low reps, and finishing off with isolation moves using light weights and high reps to really fatigue the muscle.
Drop set finisher anyone?!
Benefits of Light Weights Workouts
If you have an injury lighter weights may put less pressure on it while still allowing you to train. Lighter weights actually reduce the risk of injury in the first place too. No deadlifter wants to take time off!
New to training
If you’re just starting out training and need to build your foundations and work on proper form, light weights are fantastic..
Lower Equipment Needs
If you travel in the UK or overseas and don’t always have access to a gym, you can build muscle with light weights or bodyweight. Check out TRX Traveller Adam Atkinson who builds muscle using his TRX and keeps in great shape.
How to use light weights to build muscle – Workout Ideas
If you are using light weights to make gains, you’ll want to increase your reps. When lifting heavy you might be just doing 6-8 reps, but lighter weights are going to require more volume, as many as 12-20 (or even more).
We’re going to look at four well established methods that can help you get ripped, even without stacks of heavy barbells and dumbbells.
If you want to give this approach a try – check out our high rep TRX plan:
The 400 Rep Workout
Yep, you heard right. Four hundred reps.
This is an absolute beast of a workout that is going to get you feeling super pumped and get you through a training plateau. You can see why you wouldn’t want to lift heavy weights with this many reps – it’s going to make your back, rear delts, biceps and forearms feel well and truly blasted.
Your 400 rep session
Exercise: Rear flye with band
Reps: 100 reps (rest/pause when you need to!)
Reps: 100 (rest/pause when you need to!)
Exercise: chin ups (or incline rows)
Reps: 4 x 25
Exercise: Dumbbell row
Reps: 4 x 25
This is an example of the sort of thing you can do. Basically, any workout can be modified to switch up the reps when you use light weights or even body weight. If you don’t have access to a barbell you could do push ups. No rack? Use a door frame and try pistol squats.
Time Under Tension Training
Time under tension is a great way to grow muscles with light weights. Time under tension is all about spending more time on the movement, lowering, pausing, then lifting. Ideally, this is 40-70 seconds. Think slow motion!
Here’s a quick plan for you to build endurance and muscle with this method.
The first number on tempo represents seconds in the lowering phase, the second number is the length of pause, the third number is the seconds to lift. These exercises will target muscles in the legs, back, shoulders, arms and core.
Exercise: Sumo squat
Exercise: Shoulder press
Exercise: Bent over row
Exercise: Biceps curl
Tempo: 1/25 pulse in the mid range of the motion/1
You can also just set a timer for around 40-70 seconds and make each exercise last the timer.
Explosive / Plyometric Workouts
These types of sessions are going to get your heart rate up, burn some serious calories, and help build muscle, even with light weights!
Here’s a session to try:
10 reps of each / or 40 sec each
Use either bodyweight or light weights for this beasting:
Front squats with jump
With drop sets you’ll need a few light weights. Starting with the lightest, perform 25 reps of a given exercise (say shoulder press) then drop reps by 5 but increase the weight.
This really gets you feeling the burn. Only downside is that you will need access to a row of weights.
10 Exercises That Work Well When Lifting Lighter Weights
Here are 8 exercises that give you some inspiration for lifting relatively light weights for muscle building. These workouts will get the muscles stimulated and heart rate pumping, burning calories while making strength gains.
Put your own session together and see if you can do 3 sets of 12-15 with 90 seconds rest at the end of one full circuit. This could be a real burner!
Chest – Close Grip Incline Dumbbell Press (Alternative – pec fly)
Muscle: triceps brachii and pectoralis major, anterior (front) deltoids, traps and back
Suggested rep ranges: 15-25 OR Drop set 25 15 10 10 15 25 starting with the lightest weights
Back – Incline Bench Row (Alternative Renegade Rows)
Muscle: pecs, triceps and front deltoids
Suggested rep ranges: 100 reps with rest/pause OR Drop set 25 15 10 10 15 25 starting with the lightest weights
Upper Back – Dumbbell Upright Rows
Muscle: traps and side delts
Suggested rep ranges: 12-25 OR Drop set 25 15 10 10 15 25 starting with the lightest weights
Shoulders – Arnie Press (Alternative Lat Raise)
Muscle: anterior, medial, and poster deltoid
Suggested rep ranges: 100 with pause/rest OR 12-25 OR Drop set 25 15 10 10 15 25 starting with the lightest weights
Dumbbell Burpee Clean & Press
Muscle: Basically everything
Suggested rep ranges: 100 with pause at every 10 OR 12-25
Glutes – Rear Leg Elevated Dumbbell Lunge (Alternative: Reverse lunge)
Muscle: quads, glutes, hamstrings, core and erectors
Suggested rep ranges: 12-25
Quads – Pistol Squats (TRX – Band – Doorframe)
Muscle: quads, glutes, calves, core and hamstrings
Suggested rep ranges: 12-25 OR 100 with pause every 10
Hamstrings – Single Leg Romanian Dumbbell Deadlift
(Alternative Romanian deadlift/ bodyweight good morning)
Muscle: glutes, hamstrings, lower back and core (posterior chain)
Suggested rep ranges: 12-25
Core – Dumbbell Turkish Get Ups
Muscle: shoulders, back, core, biceps, triceps, and legs.
Suggested rep ranges: 12-25
Ready To Build Muscle With Light Weights?
Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to be doing these suggested exercises with heavy weights, particularly the burpee clean and press unless you want to see your lunch again.
What I hope you’ve seen from this post, is you can adapt nearly every workout for a light weights alternative and by switching up the reps you still feel like it’s doing a job.
So, next time the hotel gym doesn’t have much equipment, you know what to do.