Changing the way we lift

Walk into any gym and
you will see all shapes and sizes hard at work trying to change something about
their shape or size. Some are trying to gain weight, some are trying to lose
weight, while other are trying to improve their sporting performance.

It has long been said
in boxing that heavyweight bouts are boring – just big, lumbering fighters
trying to land one big knockout punch. The exciting fights, they say, can be
found in the lower weight classes. So lower weight equals more bang for your

Could the same be
said for weight training?

Well, that probably
depends on what you want to achieve.

Weight training can
form part of a more extensive training programme aimed at overall fitness, part
of a weight loss programme or part of a bodybuilding programme, amongst other

The aim of
bodybuilding should be seen as quite distinct from regular weight training. In
bodybuilding, the aim is to increase the size of the muscles and aim for an
aesthetic balance between muscle groups. Strength and fitness gains are not
important and if they do occur, they are merely a side effect of the training,
not the aim.

When weight training
is used as part of a programme to improve sporting performance, the desired
result is quite often the opposite – gain strength without gaining size and

Traditional wisdom
has it that you should use very heavy weight with limited repetitions for
gaining strength gain, somewhat lighter weights with more repetitions to
increase muscle size, while light weights and high repetitions will deliver
toning without gaining much in the line of muscle volume.


New approach through

Recent research at
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, suggests that straining to lift a
very heavy weight is not necessarily better than working with lighter weights,
as long as muscles are worked to exhaustion.

The research used a
group of 21-year-old men following different weight lifting programmes
prescribed for them by the researchers.

The group lifting
heavy weights were instructed to lift weights that were 90 per cent of the
heaviest weight they could lift, also known as their one rep max. The group
working with lighter weights were instructed to lift weights around 30 per cent
of their one rep max. However, both groups had to lift until they could lift no
more, thereby inducing complete fatigue in the muscle groups being trained.

According to Stuart
Phillips, associate professor in kinesiology at the university, the test
subjects working with the heavier weights could complete between five and 10
repetitions before exhaustion, while it took a minimum of 24 repetitions before
the test subjects using the lighter weights reached exhaustion.

The research team
examined the effect of the workout on the muscles through muscle biopsies done
four hours and 24 hours after the workouts. A muscle biopsy involves a sample
of muscle tissue being taken. This can then be examined under a microscope and
with various other methods to note any changes brought about by the exercise.

The outcome of the
research was surprising, with the researchers noting that similar amounts of
the protein used to build muscle were produced in both groups, regardless of
the weight they lifted. According to the researchers, it is these proteins that
determine the amount of muscle building that will take place, thereby seeming
to indicate that in the long term the muscle building results for the two test
groups should be the same.

However, the two
weight categories selected for the research seem

 to fall into a range not generally used by
body builders, as the very heavy weights are more likely to be used by people
seeking strength gains rather than size gains, while the lower weight class is
more likely to be used by those looking to improve the aerobic capacity of

Had the research
included a lift around the 70 per cent range, the results may have been

However, the
information gleaned from the research is definitely useful,

 not only for those looking to gain muscle for
aesthetic reasons, but especially for cases where reduced muscle mass arises
due to medical reasons such as advancing age. Using lighter weights is far less
likely to lead to injury than using heavier weights.


The growing injury

As the awareness of
the need for weight training and the maintenance of lean muscle mass has grown,
so has the number of injuries reported due to weight training. A recent study
published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that between 1990
and 2007 close to a million people in the United States ended up in emergency
rooms due to injuries sustained while weight training. The annual number of
visits to emergency rooms due to weight training related injuries has also
increased by some 48 per cent during the same time period.

Free weights were
responsible for more than 90 per cent of the injuries, with people dropping
weights on themselves or crushing a body part between weights.

Using lighter weights
could help to reduce the number of injuries suffered, although researchers also
pointed to the need for proper instruction and technique.

It is also important
to use a spotter when working with very heavy free weights, especially during
exercises such as the bench press, where a failed lift could results in serious