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 originally joined JKC because I was anxious about passing out and embarrassing myself since I hadn’t weight trained in a while and I’d hoped to find somewhere sympathetic. My husband @terry_hussey had been training at JKC and his success there made me miss the achievement you feel from a good workout. I went to meet Jon and immediately knew it was going to be a safe space for me. I was never judged for the fears I had and where I was starting from. Jon and Thomas made sure to check on me often, and found a way to challenge me but make me feel secure at the same time, and Terry and I were able to book sessions together, so working out became a shared win for us!

JKC is different from other gyms because of the personal growth you have outside JKC (the sessions inside JKC creates a great positive feedback loop!). You gain self confidence, learn how to show up for yourself, meet a community of newfound friends, and get the support of your trainers who are behind you 100%. I’ve left a scattered workout so proud of myself I’ve honestly shed a tear in the car on the drive home. JKC is the mental health relief valve I need to stay positive, and keep my anxiety and health related fears at bay.

I heard really good things about it from my sister, and I could see the positive results she was getting.  I needed to do something.  I was overweight, depressed, and recovering from a back injury.  I had reached a point where simply getting up out of a chair was becoming difficult.  I knew that if I didn’t do something about it my senior years would be very burdensome to the people close to me.  I’m so glad I did!  After just a few weeks my day-to-day pain was drastically reduced, and my mobility increased. I had the confidence to try sea kayaking, and I now play ice hockey twice a week!

The key difference is the expertise.  The trainers know the gym equipment and the exercises, but they also have degrees in kinesiology, and can apply what they know to your workout.  As someone who was in poor physical condition starting out, I was worried about hurting myself.  Previously I tried an outdoor weekly bootcamp and injured my knee by pushing too hard.  The trainers at JKC constructed a program that started at the right level for me, evolving it as I grew stronger and more fit.  I feel well looked after.

Tara Rector-Whelan

Personal Strength Training by Thomas King

I started at JKC after a good friend recommended it to me. She had been coming for about a year and I was envious of her great results. I felt sluggish after failing to motivate myself with various home workout routines. I love the fun and relaxed atmosphere at JKC. It’s such a comfortable gym space and I enjoy knowing so many of the people I work out with. Jon and Thomas make an effort to introduce everyone to each other and with all the joking around,  it starts to feel like a family. Not to mention the awesome results. I’ve always liked to run on a treadmill but I’ve never had the drive to lift weights on my own. Going to JKC makes me accountable which was what I really needed. I feel so much stronger and healthier than I did 4 years ago when I started.

cas dyke

I started training at JKC in 2016 because I had built up a number of muscle imbalances from old injuries and activities like rock climbing which had led to some really bad posture and mobility issues. On top of that some friends had convinced me to sign up for a half-ironman. Working with Jon and Thomas was a way to pull my body back into alignment and make sure it wouldn’t fall apart during my race. The staff at JKC pride themselves on continuously advancing their knowledge, which leads to new and inventive way to address problems, old and new. I got my Dad to start training here and recommended JKC to all looking to improve their strength and fitness.

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