Does Lifting Heavy Weights Build Muscle?

Does Lifting Heavy Weights Build Muscle?

A strong belief in most gyms is that you have to lift heavy weights to build muscle. However, according to a study by Nicholas A. Burd of the Exercise Metabolic Research Group at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and published in the science journal, "Plos One," lifting heavy weights may not be the most effective way to build muscle.

Heavy Weights

To build muscle, particularly if you are a beginner or hardgainer, you may prefer to lift heavy weights. Use heavy weights on compound exercises like squats, dead lifts, bench press, military press, barbell rows and lat pull-downs. Do three working sets per exercise, six to 12 repetitions per set and maintain intensity by resting no more than two minutes between sets.

Lighter Weights

The McMaster University study found that subjects who use heavy weights, and lift 90 percent of their maximum capacity for as many repetitions as they can, may not gain as much muscle as those who use lighter weights and lift 30 percent of their maximum capacity. The study suggests it is not the amount of weight you lift that builds muscle, but doing repetitions until you achieve muscle fatigue.


Lifting heavy weights is more important to power lifters or those whose only goal is to increase their strength and ability to lift more weight. To build muscle, you have to stimulate the muscle by overloading it with a combination of heavy weights and more repetitions. More reps often necessitate using lighter weights. Muscle responds to the constant overload by getting bigger and stronger. Switching the emphasis of your workouts between heavy weights and low reps and lighter weights and higher reps will keep your muscles guessing and force them to respond to different stimuli.


Progressive overload of muscles, whether through heavy weights and low reps or lighter weights and high reps can increase lean muscle tissue. A healthy young man in his 20s is able to use heavy weights to gain muscle. However, the elderly, and people recovering from illness, surgery or trauma, would benefit from using lighter weights and high reps to gain lean muscle tissue.

Expert Insight

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the beginner train two or three days a week, intermediate trainers three to four days a week and advanced trainers four to five days a week. To maximize muscle gains, emphasize multijoint exercises and do six to 12 reps. Increase the weight by 2 percent to 10 percent once you can do one to two reps above 12. Weights used for upper-body exercises should be 30 percent to 60 percent of your one-rep maximum, and for the lower body, 0 percent to 60 percent of your one-rep maximum. Do three to five sets with three to five minutes of rest between sets.