What Are the Benefits of Lifting Light Weights?

Light weight training benefits include an increase in cardiovascular involvement and a decrease in injury risk. Low-load workouts are also more convenient and less expensive. Learning more about this type of resistance exercise will help you reach your health goals.

You don't have to lift heavy to create muscle definition. (Image: Cavan Images/Cavan/GettyImages)

Tip

A light weights workout can help at-risk people get started with resistance training. For example, the authors of a December 2012 report in Procedia showed that light weight training helped overweight women better manage their pregnancy.

Light Weight Training: Benefits

Most people think you need to lift heavy weights to see results. Yet you can gain the same amount of muscle mass by lifting light weights, according to a December 2017 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. These researchers also showed that you can gain the same amount of isometric strength. This type of strength can be useful for people with an injury or arthritis, according to a January 2018 paper by the Mayo Clinic.

Lifting heavy weights does have one advantage: It will increase your maximal strength. Unfortunately, this benefit comes at a price. High-load training increases your injury risk, according to a January 2014 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This research team showed that strongman athletes are twice as likely to get injured during exercises needing maximal effort.

The awkward nature of strongman tasks like the Atlas stones can also contribute to injury. These exercises often put the athlete in a less-than-optimal position. The writers of a July 2018 study in BOSEM noted that poor technique, heavy loads and fatigue likely play a role in some injuries. Doing light weight training will allow you to avoid fatigue while keeping proper form. This approach should decrease your injury risk.

Light Weight Training: Limits

Working with light weights has another drawback. The authors of a December 2014 paper in the European Journal of Physiology tested 10 men and showed that low-load lifting doesn't activate all motor units in the target muscle — even when you practice lifting light weights until failure. In contrast, high-load activates all motor units. The lack of complete activation that happens while lifting light weights could limit its effect on muscle mass.

Yet a study published in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology contrasted this finding. These researchers tested 18 men and showed that low-load and high-load training similarly increase muscle mass.

Close inspection of these data might explain this paradox. Low-load training tended to increase type I muscle fibers, and high-load training tended to increase type II fibers. Thus, lifting light weights seems like it would most benefit endurance athletes like runners.

These studies had fewer than 20 participants, and the researchers tested only men. Scientists will need to do more research before firm conclusions can be drawn about the motor units and fiber types affected by lifting light weights.

Combining Light and Heavy Weights

Light weight training has both advantages and disadvantages. Given this, the writers of a March 2017 report in Sports Medicine recommend doing both types of training. These researchers suggest a varied approach to resistance training would benefit both sedentary people wanting to improve their health and trained athletes needing success in any setting.

Low-load training best increases isometric strength, and high-load best increases maximal strength. Yet you will ultimately need both types of strength to succeed in daily life. The author of a March 2019 article on HealthGuidance.org argues that exercises like biceps curls don't increase the strength you need each day — your functional strength. That type of strength will let you move heavy and light objects from any position.

You can gain functional strength with variable resistance training. This type of training uses elastic bands or metal chains. The writers of an April 2017 paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested 16 elite youth athletes for six weeks and found that variable resistance training increased their muscular strength. It also increased their muscular power.

Interestingly, variable resistance training outperformed traditional resistance exercise in this small-scale study. Yet researchers will have to do more experiments to properly compare these two types of training. However, one thing is clear: Both variable resistance training and traditional resistance exercises have many benefits — even when you use light loads.

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