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Do you Need to Lift Heavy Weights to Build Muscle?

By Strength Oldschool

Depending on whom you ask...lifting heavy weights is a sure fire way to build both muscle and strength. But the pounding of heavy weights can also lead to aching joints and injuries over time, especially for us lighter framed guys.

In my opinion, heavy lifting is great for pure strength focused goals but doesn't automatically mean muscle size gains. Throughout my younger lifting life, I've trained heavy and competed locally in both Powerlifting & Olympic Lifting. A big part with both those sports is Squats. I squatted heavy for years. I built strength in my legs but size gains were very minimal. Eventually I damaged both my knees which meant no more competing and difficulty with training legs consistently since then!

Lets forget about strength building...

Can a "natural lifter" build muscle using light weights for higher reps? So let's say strength is not a priority, that you would rather look good now than be strong. So your focus is purely on gaining muscle size and building an impressive aesthetic physique.

Light weights is obviously a relative term. What I find light may be heavy to some individuals and vise-versa so the amount of weight lifters use for certain exercises isn't necessarily important, but the amount of reps and number of sets is. Does that make sense?

I've always been fascinated with reading about lifters who build impressive physiques using light weights. You can clearly see fitness enthusiasts online who do nothing but body-weight exercises for high rep sets and have better physiques than regular weight resistance gym users who use barbells, dumbbells and machines. However, depending on the health of your joints, even body-weight exercises like 'Press-Ups' can feel bad on the shoulders and elbows whereas lighter training on the bench press for example, can feel great. I illustrate my point from personal experience.

So I'm interested to hear from individuals who have scrapped heavy weights in favour of higher reps with much lighter resistance. I'd be curious to know how often you train each bodypart, how many sets and reps you do, what exercises etc, and whether you think you should have done it from the start of your training days?

Here is some info (provided by Author / Journalist Magnus) regarding the different ways some well known bodybuilders trained in the past.

“The answer to this one has to be, it depends on your own response to heavy or light training. For examples of heavy training, I was fortunate enough to see Mike Mentzer in good shape when he was doing a UK seminar tour in the 1980s. Even better, I had a long 'one on one' chat with him after his seminar that took place in Swindon UK.

Mike did less than 10 reps on everything, one set only per exercise with no warmups! He believed in heavy lifting even on isolation exercises, on his concentration curls he used a 65 lbs dumbbell and struggled from the very first rep yet forced out 8 reps with his left arm and 7 with his right – every exercise he did was a heavy extreme effort.

Afterwards he took some time deriding some of the big names in bodybuilding and I could pick up on a deep dissatisfaction in Mike’s feeling towards life - but maybe it would be indiscreet to repeat what he said? Admin, what do you think?

Another monster I saw was Tim Belknap, around 5 feet 4 inches tall but built like the proverbial brick outhouse!

Like Mike he trained very heavy with few sets, but used more sets on the bench press as he went well over 400 lbs using a very wide grip. He did not do anything light in his routine.

The strongest guy I saw was Bertil Fox.

Whatever we think of him as a man, there’s no denying what an inspirational trainer he was. On bench press he went up and up in weight until he topped 500 lbs, then did a lengthy stripping set where his partners took weight off the bar every couple of reps or so (got 500 lbs for 2 with no assistance to start this set!).On most exercises he cheated like crazy, all that mattered to him was maximum poundages but, unlike Mike or Tim, he did lots of sets per body part, when I watched he never went below 5 sets per exercise. His joint strength must have been superhuman, I tried to train his way and was a mass of aches and pains within a week so went back to strict and lighter training.

Okay, so these guys proved heavy is where it’s at yes? Well, yes for them but I have seen other guys train very light and still be big. The best guy I saw that trained this way was Serge Nubret, definitely one of the most symmetrical and well shaped physiques of all time.

When I watched him training on 2 occasions it got boring to see. On his deltoids he did press behind neck with 70 lbs, incredibly light for a guy his size. He pumped out 12 reps or so at high speed, rested around 30 to 40 seconds then hit it again – I lost count of the sets but he must have done between 20 or 30 sets on that exercise alone! Then a couple of dozen sets of upright rows with hands touching in the middle of the bar, THEN lots and lots of one arm laterals laying on the floor with a 15 lb dumbbell. In total he took over an hour to work his deltoids and god only knows how many reps!

Another time I saw him squatting with heels on a block, feet about 6 inches apart and NO WEIGHT! He went all the way down but less than 3/4 of the way up like a machine and did hundreds of reps (my guess is around 700 reps).Incredibly, after a short rest and shaking his legs out he did another multi-hundred set! That hurt I can tell you because I tried Nubret training for a while. BUT regardless of extreme pump and burn I gained nothing, blowing up like a balloon during training but always deflating back to square one. Maybe that’s why Nubret trained for hours every day, perhaps he had to in order to stay big.

Francis Benfatto trained the same way and possessed great shape also – once saw him alternate curl 20 lb dumbbells for around 20 to 30 reps and more than 20 sets!

Obviously you need great patience and stamina to train like this.

The main difference between the heavy guys and the light lifters was their shape and joint structures. The heavy lifters all had thicker wrists, elbows, knees etc. and had a more rugged dense look. The light lifters had much more aesthetic looking physiques and generally smaller joints (Nubret’s wrists looked as small as a woman's wrists, and his waist and hips were very small, also his rib-cage under all that muscle looked quite small).

I’ve done it again, rambling on and on, but the point is the naturally thicker guys seem to do best with heavy work and the more fragile types do best with light stuff but not necessarily as light as Nubret goes unless you have all day free to train.” ~ Magnus

I would like to read other peoples opinions on this topic. Please use our Facebook link to comment.

If you long for the good ol' days of "Old School Bodybuilding" check out my Vintage Muscle Magazine videos on Youtube!

Keep training hard folks!

All the best,

Strength Oldschool

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