Light or Heavy for Strength?

Image result for lift heavy stoneOne of the challenges for anyone trying to get stronger is the endless supply of fitness related information out there for the taking. Sorting through it all and maximizing gym efficiency is a centerpiece of the Nephilim Barbell Program. Now, the Nephilim Barbell Program is a conjugate method, designed to raise multiple aspects of strength athleticism concurrently. One of those aspects is shear strength, or 1RM capability (which is really the major goal of NBP). If increasing maximum strength is your goal, then you are probably at some point going to ask what set/rep pattern will get you #strongAF. Should you do the old Arnold standby of 3×10? Or perhaps a more powerlifter oriented 5×5? Or maybe just throw caution (and common sense) to the wind, and throw as much weight on the bar as you can without crippling yourself?

The answer is both simpler and more complex. It is simpler because set and rep schemes are relative to %1RM used. It is more complex because the weight you use is relative to specificity – the specific goal for your training. You can certainly train for multiple outcomes at once, but each outcome requires a different kind of training. Think about strongman – you need to lift insanely heavy stuff, but you also need cardio endurance. Well, you won’t learn how to lift a hussafell stone on a treadmill…but lifting a super heavy stone won’t give you the cardio endurance you need.

So back to the sets/reps question. There are three outcomes we care about at Nephilim: maximal strength, muscle size and density, and explosiveness. Without going into the science, here is how to train for each outcome:

Maximal Strength: You need to lift heavy. However, “heavy” generally just means greater than 60% 1RM. According to Greg Nuckols, the science seems to indicate that the more trained an individual is, the more important a high percentage is when training to increase 1RM1. However, percentage is not enough – volume is also a factor. Obviously 1 rep per week at 60% isn’t going to do jack shit for you.

Muscle Size and Density: Scientifically and technically, muscle cell size (hypertrophy) can be attained by using light or heavy weight. However, in my coaching experience this comes with a heavy asterisk. The physiological key to hypertrophy seems to be working to muscle failure2. The problem with light (<60% 1RM) weights is that in my experience, most of my clients suffer from either or both of two issues when utilizing light weight in pursuit of hypertrophy. The first occurs when ancillary muscles tire and fail first, preventing the larger muscle from reaching failure. The second occurs when the individual gasses out (lack of cardio-respiratory endurance). I always chuckle when I hear powerlifters talk about doing “hypertrophy work” following heavy triples – they don’t realize that they just were doing hypertrophy work. Instead, what they are usually actually doing is pumping their muscle full of blood, which may be inducing hyperplasia and may be accelerating growth through nourishment – I say “may” because the science in inconclusive. So if you are already doing heavy work you probably have hypertrophy covered – I recommend focusing on light weight and stricter form to activate all muscle fibers. This will also have a solid influence on your cardio and body fat ratios.


Explosiveness: This is critical for powerlifting, and will make you generally more useful. Explosiveness is one of the easier aspects of training in the sense that you just have to do explosive. Accommodating resistance, repetitive strict form, and maximal acceleration are the keys here. Even for this, though, I recommend a weight in the 65%-75% range. I have found the most effective setup to be accommodating resistance with about 65% at the bottom of the lift and about 75% at the top. If you don’t have access to bands, you can use compensatory acceleration training as a proxy. However, explosiveness is about applying maximum impulse from the beginning, and for CAT to work you have to increase velocity as you contract. This can be very difficult without slowing down or retarding your velocity at the bottom, which defeats the purpose. The goal is to reverse and accelerate the weight with maximum impulse.

Conclusion: You can train all of these aspects simultaneously, or you can focus one one at a time or put a heavier emphasis on one or another at a time. It is up to you. Just remember that the weight you select and how far you push yourself directly influence what outcomes you will see.

  1. Nuckols, Greg. Is Heavy Lifting Necessary for Muscle Growth and Strength Gains? Monthly Applications in Strength Sport. Issue 7, 2017 Oct; 6-14.
  2. Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, West DW, Burd NA, Breen L, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Resis- tance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Jul;113(1):71-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00307.2012.