Lift Light Weights for Low Reps to Gain Strength and Muscle Definition

December 6, 2007

Have I gone mad, or have I stumbled across an advanced way to gain strength?

Well first let me give credit to where credit is due. This is a method that was introduced by a Soviet “Special Forces” Instructor named Pavel Tsatsouline. He speaks about it briefly in “Power to the People”, but it is easy to miss so I want to expand upon this method a bit…as well as give you my unique perspective.

lift light weights gain strength
[Tanya’s favorite lift is “12 ounce curls”. Don’t do this exercise too often, if you want to get lean!]

Muscle Size and Muscle Strength Are Not Always Directly Related

I used to think there was a direct correlation between muscle size and muscle strength…believing that the if gained strength in a muscle the bigger that muscle would get. If you think that this is the case you are mistaken! Don’t get me wrong…bodybuilders do strive to gain strength to get bigger, but they are gaining strength in a rep range of 6-12 and trying to “tear down the muscles” in the process.

They also employ methods like “forced reps”, “negatives”, and “supersets”. They rest and allow the muscles to repair…striving for the muscles to come back slightly larger and slightly stronger in the process (this is obviously a simplified explanation). Let me ask you to think about this…

What If You Gained Strength Without Damaging the Muscles in the Process?

Seriously…if damage to the muscle is minimized, the potential for growth is limited as well. One of the big reasons I’m against forced reps and negatives is that they are very effective at inducing damage to the target muscle.

This is effective for bodybuilding, but not for the slim and toned “Hollywood” look. Another problem with gaining size at the same rate that you gain strength is that you never develop good “muscle density”. An example of an athlete that displays good muscle density is an Olympic Gymnast. They need to get stronger without getting bigger, to be effective at what they do.

This is what I am talking about. The opposite of this would be professional wrestlers…their muscles have a really smooth and puffy look to them because they strive for size and strength.

How is It Possible To Get Stronger Without Getting Bigger?

I didn’t understand true strength training until I stopped reading mainstream bodybuilding and workout magazines. I became a student of martial arts philosophies, high level sports, as well as military training (from former soviet special forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline).

After much research I discovered that strength was basically based on your ability to send neurological impulses from your brain to your muscles. So basically the better you get at contracting a muscle hard, the more strength you will display in that muscle.

How Does A Muscle Contract Hard?

There is a principle you need to know about called the “All or None Principle”. Each individual muscle is made up of many many muscle fibers. When a muscle contracts, you brain is basically sending an electrical charge to that muscle.

To keep this simple, let’s say that your bicep is made up of 100 individual muscle fibers. Each individual fiber is either contracted or relaxed. When you lift a light weight, maybe only 5-10 fibers will “fire off” while the other 90 fibers are completely inactive. When you lift a heavier weight, your brain may send an electrical impulse to “fire off” 15-20 fibers, while the other 80 or so muscle fibers are inactive.

So muscle contraction is based upon what percentage of muscle fibers are “firing off”…and how many are inactive. So the muscle fiber is either all the way activated or not at all..”All or None”.

A harder contraction would indicate that your brain is sending stronger electrical impulses to the muscle, recruiting more muscle fibers in the process.

So Strength is More Nerve Based than Muscle Based

Gaining strength is largely based upon your skill to recruit a larger percentage of fibers in a specific muscle. Think of your brain as a power source. Between the power source and the muscle is wiring (neurons). The better the wiring to the muscle, the more electrical current that can get delivered to the muscle.

The stronger the electrical current, the larger percentage of fibers you can activate in that muscle. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about the “mind to muscle link”. So increasing the neural pathways (mind to muscle link) is really the way to route to strong contractions and muscle strength.

Turn That Stream Into a River of Electricity!

I think that it helps to visualize a bit when you are tying to gain strength. It makes sense because strength originates from your brain. Have you ever seen a black belt in karate take his fist and put it through a stack of bricks?

Then you will see a beginner try the same thing and fail miserably? The experienced black belt has developed a serious neurological pathway between his brain and the muscles involved in that movement. The beginner has a small pathway between his brain and muscles involved in that movement.

The beginner has a small electrical stream going to his muscles and the experienced black belt has a massive river of electricity flooding his muscles to fire off a larger percentage of muscle fibers!

How to Build Your Neural Pathways With Light Weights

This may blow you away and challenge everything you thought about gaining strength. You don’t have to lift heavy weights all the time to get stronger! To be honest, if you have joint problems you could get stronger while never lifting heavy weights! To get stronger all you need to do is practice the skill of generating hard contractions in a certain lift.

If you developed the ability to contract your muscles hard, like you were lifting a heavier weight…you would experience many of the same benefits of lifting that heavier weight. Your muscles don’t know how much weight you are lifting. Lift light weights like they are heavy, to get stronger with light weights.

There Are Some Limitations to This Way of Lifting

To get extremely strong, your tendons need to feel a heavy load to get stronger as well. The way I like to lift light is to mix up light days and heavy days. I may use 75% of the weight I normally use and lift it for the same amount of reps (5 or less) at the same tempo (slow and steady). Also…even if I am going to lift heavy, I perform my warmup sets like they are super heavy.

For instance on the incline dumbbell bench I would do 50 for 5 reps and pretend like it is extremely heavy and lift it slowly while contracting my arms and upper chest hard…even though I could lift it easily, many more times than that.

Then I would do the same thing with 60 pounds before moving on to my work sets. You will find that your work sets feel lighter after doing this…it is really strange!

Tips to “Increase Your Skill” at Generating Strong Contractions

The easiest way to increase your mind-to-muscle link is to just practice contracting that muscle as hard as possible while lifting…regardless of how light the weight is. Don’t ever lift a weight again without taking advantage of this opportunity to gain strength. You have to lift the weight slowly to generate a lot of tension in the muscle.

The way I like to visualize it is this: Let’s say I’m benching…on the way down I’m squeezing harder and harder and my brain is charging up my muscles to the max…this takes about 2-3 seconds. At the bottom of the lift I easily push the weight back up, because my muscles are charged with electricity. At the top I rest for one second to let my brain charge up again before it gets ready to send voltage to the muscle again.

Borrow Electricity from Surrounding Muscles

This is a great tip that will help you get stronger immediately. It will also help you get toned over every inch of your body, when you master this skill! All of your muscles have a certain amount of electrical current in them at all times.

When you flex a muscle near the muscle being worked you can add a bit of voltage to that muscle and generate a stronger contraction. Here is a quick exercise I want you to try…1) flex your pecs without flexing any other body part…2) Now flex your pecs but this time make a fist and squeeze it as tight as possible…make the fist tighter and tighter over 2-3 seconds while flexing your pecs harder and harder. Did you feel a difference? Want to gain strength on a lift your next workout?

Next time you do any sort of bench press or barbell curl, squeeze the heck out of the bar! Eventually you will got so good at this technique that you will flex a muscle groups that aren’t even close to the muscle group being worked and it will aid in the lift. Believe it or not, contracting your abs can help with almost every lift…plus you will quickly get amazing abs, since you are increasing the mind to muscle link in this muscle every time you do a lift for a different body part.

But Won’t Strength Gains Stop at Some Point?

I was worried that once I developed the ability to “fire off” 100% of my muscle fibers in a given muscle that I wouldn’t gain any additional strength. What I found was very interesting.

Most of us are only using a very small percentage of our muscle fibers. The only way you would come close to firing off 100% of your muscle fibers is if you got electrocuted.

There is certainly a point where you will quit gaining strength, but a lot of that is tendon strength and skeletal structure, etc. At that point you would want to just concentrate an generating strong contractions with that same weight instead of lifting heavier. This will increase muscle density and muscle tone.

Some Things To Avoid When Aiming For Strength

A big thing to avoid is lifting the weights at a fast pace. This is great way to workout your tendons and temporarily get stronger, but it is also a great way to get injured. Also…you want to avoid damaging the muscles. Your brain will not send a full electrical impulse to a damaged muscle! Ever try to flex a muscle that was really sore? It is next to impossible.

A great way to avoid muscle damage is to keep the your workout volume low. Just do a total of 8-10 sets per body part…and stick to around 5 reps (remember you can lift light weights for 5 reps as well).

The reason you keep the reps low is that it is hard to focus on generating strong contractions on each rep if you have to do 8-12.

Strength Training Is Actually The Best Route To Permanent Muscle Tone

I’m a big fan of getting stronger without getting bigger. This is a great way to look really well defined. Again…think of an Olympic Gymnast or a Welterweight Boxer. These are athletes with strong muscles that aren’t big.

Efficient muscles are defined muscles. That “high rep” way of getting defined muscles is caused by creating a temporary “pump” in the muscles. They will look great while working out, but this muscle tone is temporary. Obviously, to see all of this muscle tone, you will need to make sure your body fat is under control.

Here are 3 other articles I wrote that will help with the “Toned Look”

High Reps for “Muscle Tone”…BAD Advice!

An Aerobic Workout Program That Forces Your Body to Burn Fat

Is Diet OR Exercise More Important for Fat Loss and Getting Lean?

As always…your comments are GREATLY appreciated! Everything has to okay’d by me before it is posted for everyone to see (I normally do this at night)…and I try my best to reply to everything.

I have a fun time talking about these ideas with you guys…plus I am jazzed at all the people who comment from different parts of the globe. You gotta love the internet!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Antonio December 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Thank you for this new method of lifting! I am definitely going to apply this every day i go to the gym now. I do have a question though, how much time do you allow between sets for maximum effect?

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