JP Mullowney
JP Mullowney

Think about all you know about gaining muscular strength and size. Perhaps you envision hoisting massive weights mightily overhead as you grunt like Atlas holding the heavens upon his back. Well maybe not quite that extreme but you probably assume that at some point in your pursuit of a Herculean physique it will be necessary to lift enormous weights. However, a new study by Morton el al. (2016) appears to challenge this idea. For their study, Morton et al. (2016) examined muscular strength and size gains in those who followed traditional, heavy weight, lower repetition training programs and those who followed lighter weight, higher repetition programs. After twelve weeks of training, the results were astounding, there were no significant differences in the gains made by either group!

“But what about the massive weights!?” you may ask, “Don’t I have to lift big weights to get big!?”. Slow down and prepare to have your mind blown, the answer to that question, interestingly, is yes and no.

Muscle building is a complex series of processes whose exact details are beyond the scope of this post. To simplify it however, muscle building requires inducing microtrauma in the muscle fibres which stimulates the release of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone. Microtrauma can be thought of as small tears in the muscle fibre which you may have heard some people refer to. HGH and testosterone are “anabolic” hormones. You may have previously heard the term anabolic with reference to anabolic steroids. In exercise physiology however, anabolic or anabolism simply refers to building up of cells. Muscle hypertrophy, an increase in muscle cell size, is an anabolic process, the building up of muscle cells. Essentially, HGH and testosterone assist in the building up of muscle cells by aiding in the repairing of the exercise induced microtrauma. Several factors influence the release of these hormones including volume, intensity of the exercise, and size of the muscles being exercised.

In the fitness world, volume refers to the total weight lifted during an exercise. Let’s start with a light weight example: if I curl 45 pounds for 3 sets of 20 repetitions, my total volume is 45 x 3 x 20 = 2700 pounds. Now a heavy weight example: If I curl 135 pounds for 4 sets of 5 repetitions, my total volume is 135 x 4 x 5 = 2700 pounds, the same as the light weight example. Intensity refers to the effort which the exercise requires. In the Morton et al. (2016) article, the authors note that every exercise was taken to failure, that is, the participants could not perform another repetition of a particular exercise. This is very important as taking each set to failure means the intensity of the exercise was very high. The authors note that a perceived level of difficulty of 8 out of 10 or greater is necessary to elicit results.

Finally, the size of the target muscle group is important. A larger muscle will have more tears due to its larger overall area. In their paper, Morton el al. (2016) noted that exercises that were performed included: leg presses, leg extensions and hamstring curls. These exercises specifically target the quadriceps (front on the thigh), hamstrings (back of the thigh) and glutes (bum) which are some of the largest muscle groups in the human body.

Knowing now that testosterone and growth hormone are key muscle building hormones, and that their release is dependent on the volume and intensity of the exercise and the size of the target muscle groups, it should not be surprising that the authors of this study found no significant difference between the light weight and heavy weight groups as the intensity and volume for both groups was high and the muscles which were targeted were very large.

While the study conducted by Morton el al. (2016) was scientifically sound, the way in which the results were portrayed in the media were of issue. In the Globe and Mail, this story carried the headline “Lifting lighter weights can be just as effective as heavy ones: Study” and the first paragraph of this story read as follows:

“Upending conventions about how best to strength train, a new study finds that people who lift relatively light weights can build just as much strength and muscle size as those who grunt through sessions using much heftier weights – if they plan their workouts correctly.”

The story implies that lifting lighter weights is easier as you do not need to “grunt through sessions” in order to gain muscular strength and size. This is not what Morton el al. (2016) found. They found that while the weights were lighter, the necessary intensity to stimulate muscle growth was just as high! This means increasing the number of repetitions which were performed with the lighter weights. Don’t think that this research means you can start curling with the 1 pound weights and turn yourself into an Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight. High repetition sets taken to failure are exhausting. Ask yourself this question: would you rather do 5 or 25 reps of split squats? Chances are you would opt for the 5 repetition option, I know I would!

The Bottom Line: If you want to maximize your strength and muscle size development potential and all you have access to is lighter weights (think using a hotel gym or even a home gym with minimal weights), you need to perform as many reps as it takes to bump up the intensity required to illicit these adaptations. If your body prefers lifting lighter weights because it’s easier on your joints, this requirement of performing higher reps to failure is also necessary.

Prepared for JKC by Coach Thomas
Photo credit: JP Mullowney Photography

I’m 34 and started at JKC in 2015. My wife joined while I was working away in 2015 and started making amazing progress while also completing exercises I’d never perform on my own. I felt I was missing out so I signed up. JKC helps in establishing goals while also having clear direction of what to do, and how, in each session. They also measure your progress which is another means of motivation! At other gyms I wouldn’t have a clear plan and would just use whatever equipment was free, it was hard to see any results. Between setting some personal bests and making good friends its hard to identify a favorite memory.  One that does come to mind was when I hit my target goal/PB in both bench and squats in the same session, big day.

After my children were born, I was completely out of shape. I had been active before my first pregnancy in 2008. I saw a post on social media about a charity event that was hosted at the gym. It prompted me to check out the JKC website. I was immediately impressed by the professional content and decided to give it a try. The professionally crafted and uniquely tailored work outs, as well as the sense of accountability and commitment that they foster. I have not missed a workout since joining – contrary to other experiences I have had when purchasing gym memberships. The flexibility of booking and rescheduling workouts, made easy by an online app, also contributed to my success in meeting my fitness goals.

I enjoy every session, working out with Jon, Thomas and Craig, as well as the “JKC Community”. Anytime someone achieves a personal best, I enjoy the celebration and support everyone gives each other. For me, I fondly remember achieving personal bests on bench press, chin ups and the sled push, in particular.

My original reason for joining JKC was to get some sage advice to help with my running. I had been looking for awhile, came across Jon, met for an assessment, and was quite happy with how that all went. Apart from the running specific strengthening and conditioning approaches, JKC is different from other gyms as I am a fan of the small group sessions where everyone has their own goals and individualized programs. As well, the run coaching is super. All the coaches go the extra mile to make sure you get the best out each training session. They are fantastic motivators! My favourite memory is deadlifting 330lbs. Making a lot of great friends and meeting some really cool people is pretty high up on that list, too.

My initial goal was to find qualified personal training services in a personalized small gym setting. I have never been a fan of large gyms. JKC offers a friendly, happy gym experience that motivates me to strive for bigger and better results every week. Jon, Thomas and Craig are genuinely talented and always excited to celebrate everyone’s success.

I have a passion for challenging myself to achieve or beat goals. My favourite memories take me back to greater wins than I ever imagined with deadlifts and after a lot of determination and hard work, being able to do multiple chin-ups. Training at JKC has been one of the best experiences of my life – thank you for your commitment to helping me stay fit!!💪🏼😅

I saw an article in Men’s Journal that quoted Jon in about 2018 while traveling and was impressed that someone in St. John’s made that international magazine.  Jon spoke about an exercise called the Farmer’s Walk and I started working that into my routine at the YMCA. I tore that article out of the magazine and kept it, meaning to make contact, but got busy. Then I had lunch with an old friend Bruce Dyke. I hadn’t seen Bruce for a while and I remarked that he looked super healthy and fit. He told me about his, and his son Cas’, experience at JKC and then I remembered the Men’s Journal article! No coincidences!

The experience is unique on many levels – great people, camaraderie, passion, purpose, and dedication. Jon and Thomas are attentive, precise and understanding.  Their teaching has unlocked a new perspective for me with what our bodies are capable of. I still appreciate the YMCA, wonderful place, but I can’t imagine working out without Jon and Thomas now.

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