5 Ways to Make “Light Weight” Go Far!
When I first started strength training, the feeling of getting stronger, and stronger every workout was captivating. Addictive. Challenging. I loved every single aspect of trying to be a better version of myself, every time I stepped into the gym. Let’s face it, I STILL do love that, but now, instead of solely focusing on load, I also have learned to place a greater emphasis on quality, and to make “lighter loads” go further. You see, the “bigger the movement”, the more you can tend to get away with not thinking about the mind muscle connection, or even the overall quality of each rep being suboptimal. I am not saying that repetition quality doesn’t matter at all when using Goblet Squats to build your legs, but what I am saying is that it matters MORE when you want to really focus on smaller muscle groups like rear delts, biceps, your glute medius, etc. Additionally, there are times when you will be limited by the load you can use on a given movement by equipment selection (i.e. vacation workouts) or limitations from other muscle groups (i.e. a lot of female clients on goblet squats).
Here are 5 tips that I have had a lot of success with to make “lighter weight go further.”
Pause with a Squeeze
At times, training can be overwhelming. “Chest up!” “Shoulders back!” “Soft knees!” “Core tight!” There can be a lot to think about, so much in fact that we often forget the most important reason we are training in the first place: to contract and fatigue specific muscle fibers.
In a state of fatigue, it can be really easy to get caught up in focusing on your form, or just trying to reach the “end” of the set alive and intact…let’s face it, we have ALL been guilting of “rushing” to reach a certain rep count so the set ends, or “surviving to the bell” on a seemingly eternally torturous set done for time. True strength training, and true bodybuilding, done properly, is not JUST “weight lifting”; it is controlling loads to place the muscle under tension. This TUT will drive the necessary muscular damage, and induce the needed metabolic stress to cause growth and strength adaptations.
So knowing this, it is extremely important to make the “mind muscle” connection on almost every exercise we do. Granted, I am a realist, and on a heavy set of Goblet Squats, you may not be truly thinking about your VMO firing…I get that. However for the context of this article, I am talking about making lighter loads feel heavy, so in that scenario, you would absolutely want to squeeze the hell out of every single targeted muscle fiber, during every single rep that you do.
On smaller movements, like DB Lateral Raises, this becomes even MORE important, as going too heavy can often take the targeted musculature right out of the equation. If you are swinging loads up that you can’t control or contract, odds are your traps, forearms, and lower back are taking on the brunt of the tension…and NOT your medial delts. I am a big fan of intentionally going a shade lighter on “smaller” movements, so I can really get that contraction right where I want to. The smaller the muscle, the smaller the margin for error with form breakdown, so in this instance, going lighter is often far more beneficial, so you can really feel the targeted muscle during the entire set.
Given the choice, I would still prefer to see “heavier” loading to fatigue, with proper form on larger movements, but when an increase in load is not feasible or possible, really squeezing the targeted muscle like a fresh canister of “Ignite” can go a long way!
Speed it up
This tip comes into play the most when you have a given load that may be “lighter” on a “normal” set of :30-:40 or 8-12 reps. When your protocol calls for less time, and the load is already “easier” for you, a great technique it to INCREASE your repetition speed, and expedite the commencement of metabolic stress, which occurs through lactic acid accumulation. In layman’s terms, this is going to cause it to burn as your muscles scream for oxygen, and your body can’t keep up with the demand. Metabolic stress is one of the key drivers of hypertrophy, so increasing rep speed can be a great tool, but it does come with a couple of caveats.
While increasing rep speed, you still need to actively squeeze the muscle for each contraction, and show enough control that is someone were to yell “freeze”…you could. If you look like you are doing the worm during a set of pushups, or your neighbor trying to start his lawnmower, and getting increasingly more pissed off that it won’t start, that is NOT what I am talking about. “Hurry, but don’t rush.”
Time under tension (TUT) is also critical here. You would ONLY want to use this technique when you are put in a box of a smaller window of time to get your working sets done in, say :30 or less. The goal is to approach muscular fatigue in the window of TUT you have been given, so using faster reps on a longer TUT protocol like :70 is a senseless endeavor, as you will continue to fatigue, and essentially do one big “rest pause” set. If you don’t currently train with TUT, first of all, you should start, but secondly, just select a couple of body weight movements, or banded exercises where you are looking to fatigue in the 20+ rep range, and play around with it.
Speeding your reps up can be used with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, etc, but just be extremely cautious, and under ideal scenarios, would be reserved for bodyweight/banded movements where the “juice is worth the squeeze”.
Slow it down.
“Slow it down? I thought this guy wanted us to ‘speed it up’, what gives?” It is certainly understandable if this seemingly contradictory bit of information has you scratching your head, but let me explain. Try implementing a 10 second eccentric, and getting 6-9 reps with that. Odds are you will have to use a bit of a lighter load. By slowing down the eccentric you are giving yourself the opportunity to place the muscle under a greater amount of tension.
This option is fantastic when they loads you have access to are limited (maybe you are in a hotel gym with lighter dumbbells), or you would like to do a bodyweight only workout. In addition, choosing an option like this when you have trouble making that “mind muscle connection in a fantastic way to really start recruiting the proper muscle fibers, and “feel” the movement where you should.
1 & ½ Reps
Performing 1 & ½ reps is an excellent way to increase TUT and enhance muscular fatigue when the load you are using is limiting. To properly perform them, you want to perform a full repetition, with an extra “half rep” at either the “top” (rows, curls, chinups) or the “bottom” (squats, presses, hinges) of the movement. By doing this, you are not allowing the muscle fibers to rest at all from rep to rep, and really causing a significant amount of muscular damage with a moderate loading scheme. It is extremely important to do them in the part of the ROM where the most “tension” exists. You CAN do them at the opposite end of the ROM to target different muscle fibers, but at that point, I would probably choose a different movement that more effectively got after the proper musculature.
At Metabolic, we have a number of female clients who possess the leg strength to squat more weight utilizing a Goblet Squat or DB Front Squat, but are limited by upper back strength. Any time, there is a limiting factor in another body part, or where load is a limiting factor (bodyweight only workout), 1 &½ reps are a fantastic tool.
When you don’t have access to as much load, pre fatiguing a muscle group is a GREAT way to induce fatigue, and elicit the metabolic stress needed to experience those results that you seek. To properly perform a “pre fatigue” protocol, you essentially have 3 options, but remember, no matter which option you choose, the key is to take little to no rest between sets!
a.) Single Joint to Multi Joint:
You could select a single joint movement, and perform it immediately before a compound, multi joint movement. An example of this would be performing a set of Leg Curls immediately before a set of RDL’s to really fire up those hamstrings. This is an effective mechanism for targeting the hamstrings with a lighter load on the RDL, because while your hamstrings are pre fatigued, your glutes, upper back, and grip are fresh, and can really help carry the hammies into a dark place of pain and misery…and oh yeah, gains!
b.) Bodyweight/Band to Loaded:
You could utilize a band, or a bodyweight movement, to perform right before an exercise with a similar motor pattern, given a limited load. For example, you could perform Band Bicep Curls for :30, and go right into DB Bicep Curls for :30. This is an excellent tool to use to mix your training up, and once again, when the load you have is limiting. Believe me, whatever weight you are using on DB Bicep Curls may feel light when you are fresh, but it will feel like a ton of bricks here!
c.) Iso Hold to Dynamic
“Iso-Dynamic” sets are GREAT ways to really activate and prime the muscle fibers you want to engage, especially when you don’t have a ton of loading options. Not convinced? Hold a DB Goblet Squat at a 90 Degree Angle for :45, and then go immediately into a set of DB Goblet Squats for :45….your quads and glutes will be on absolute fire, and odds are, with a relatively “light” load.
So there you have it, a plethora of ways to make a “light” load go far! Whether you are recovering from an injury, are on vacation with limited access to your normal loads, or just need something new, it is always a good idea to take a step back from time to time, respect the art of training, and allow lighter loads to work their magic. And remember, if there is one thing to take from this article… “lighter” does NOT mean “easier”!