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’ve always struggled with both my weight and anxiety throughout my life. As a writer you live a pretty sedentary lifestyle filled with both realistic and unrealistic deadlines, so I needed something to get me off my butt and to get me moving. JK has been a godsend during this past year and a half in particular. The pandemic has been tough, but workouts with both Thomas and Jon have really helped reduce the stress and strain of a global pandemic, and added an anchor of normalcy back into my life — which has been worth its weight in gold.

JKC has created an incredibly inclusive environment that’s filled with all kinds of supportive folks from all kinds of different backgrounds. For folks like myself, being surrounded by people with such athletic ability can be intimidating in most gyms. It can actually be a deterrent, and it sometimes has been for me. But, at JKC it’s far from that — it’s inspirational. Everyone supports one another. Which is something that’s not easily found in this day and age, inside of a gym or out. Not to sound like a total cheeseball here, but it really feels like a family.

JKC was recommended to me by my good friend Casidhe Dyke. Cas had been training with JKC for a while, and both he and his father had seen great results from the personal training that Jon and Thomas were giving them. I was and still am primarily a triathlete and I’ve always struggled with injuries. I was talking to Cas about incorporating more strength training in my program to try and prevent injuries going forward and Cas suggested that I give JKC a try. I reached out to Jon not long after, and the rest is history! After working with Jon and Thomas for a few months, I was getting stronger, faster, and most importantly, I was staying injury-free. I ended up being able to train the whole season without significant injury and posted a personal best at Ironman Copenhagen in 2018. A big part of that was due to the strength training and coaching I received at JKC.

Kathryn Sparrow

Nutritional Coaching by Julia Howard

From my initial consult with Julia, she was professional and knowledgeable as both a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and athlete. She was interested in my nutrition and fitness goals and the development of a plan that would set me up for success.

Julia designed weekly meal plans that were complete with recipes and shopping lists. The food choices were nutritious, easy to prepare, and ensured that I felt well nourished and energized throughout my training and non-training days. Not only do I feel leaner and more fit, but I have more energy and I feel much more in tune with my body and food choices. Julia really helped me put everything in place so I can continue this process going forward- I cannot thank her enough!

A few years ago, I pinched a nerve in my neck which led me to be stationary as any form of movement would cause extreme pain. During this time, my fiancé (Sean) started at JKC and loved it!! Once I overcame the nerve issue, Sean spent a long time trying to convince me that JKC is exactly what I needed to safely start working out again (I’m slightly stubborn and was super scared of re-pinching the nerve). Long story short, Sean was right… as much as I hate to admit it!

I never had luck at gyms, if it started to hurt I would call it a day. At JKC that is not an option, as Jon & Thomas will push you to finish the workout, whether you want to or not! Working out in a group setting is also a big benefit of working out at JKC, if you’re not feeling motivated you can simply feed off of someone else’s energetic vibes.

I was referred to JKC by my sister-in-law and had heard good things about it from many people in the running community. I also saw Jon’s picture on the wall at lululemon years ago! I really like the personalized training and the variety the guys provide. I started for strength training for running. I love cardio and do tons of it but wasn’t motivated to do much strength work on my own. Jon mixes up my strength work week to week so I don’t get bored but also lets me work in a hard circuit for the last 20 minutes of most sessions to get my cardio fix 

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