Why It’s Better to Lift Heavier Weights When You Work Out

How brain power might impact your muscle mass
Your brain power is more important to your strength than you might think. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you’re all about #gains, chances are you’re hitting the gym and targeting the muscle groups you’re looking to grow. But a new study suggests that physical strength might stem as much from exercising your nervous system as the muscles it controls.

Previous studies have indicated that doing many repetitions with low weights can build muscle mass as efficiently as doing fewer reps with more weight, but those who use heavier weights tend to see greater strength gains. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sought to study this inconsistency, and they found that heavier weight training improves the communication between the nervous system and muscles.

“If you’re trying to increase strength — whether you’re Joe Shmoe, a weekend warrior, a gym rat, or an athlete — training with high loads is going to result in greater strength adaptations,” Nathaniel Jenkins, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Oklahoma State University who conducted the research for his dissertation at Nebraska, told EurekAlert.

Studying 26 men for six weeks, researchers loaded a leg-extension machine with either 80 percent or 30 percent of the maximum weight that the men could lift. Three times each week, the men lifted until they could not perform another repetition. Those lifting at 80 and 30 percent of their ability exhibited similar growth in muscle, but the high-load group also achieved a 10-pound strength increase.

Jenkins explains that despite similar muscle size gains, a high number of reps using low weights can’t build as much strength as low reps with heavier weights due to the fact that fewer active motor neurons are generated by the brain during high-repetition weight sessions.

The study also found that high-load lifting is more conducive to functional fitness. “From a practical standpoint, that should make the activities of daily living easier,” Jenkins said. “If I’m lifting sub-maximal loads, I should be able to do more repetitions with fewer motor units active, so maybe I fatigue a little bit slower.”

Jenkins suggests that low-load training is best for those looking to build mass without much emphasis on strength and people who wish to avoid stressing their joints, but finds that for those with busy schedules, heavy weights are the way to go.

“I don’t think anybody would argue [with the idea] that high-load training is more efficient,” Jenkins said. “It’s more time efficient. We’re seeing greater strength adaptations. And now we’re seeing greater neural adaptations.”

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