Can You Get Strong with Light Weights?
Intensity Matters, Load Matters
We know in programming that for long-term performance improvement, stress must continually and incrementally increase over time. And most of you know, our favorite way to do this is to increase intensity by training heavier and heavier over time.
What is Intensity?
Now, intensity simply means “how heavy,” or literally, “how much weight is on the bar,” often noted in programming discussions as a percentage of 1RM (For Example: “80% intensity for 3×5”). While, for an individual lifter, 80% intensity is always greater than 60% intensity, there are several problems with considering intensity only as a percentage of 1RM.
First, percentage-based programming is based on a previous performance meet or test day, often from months in the past, and not the most recent training completed by the lifter. Second, when intensity is considered only as a percentage of 1RM, it doesn’t take into account the wide variability of stress induced by that same intensity % on lifters of various strength and advancement. For example, a lifter who squats 600lb can likely make progress squatting in the 405lb range for sets across – which is 67% of their 1RM. But a lifter who squats just 145lb almost certainly cannot drive a strength adaptation squatting with less than 100lb for sets across (at the exact same, 67% intensity). Despite being lifts of the same “intensity,” they are obviously different stress events. It’s clear that load matters.
What is Load? Can you get strong with light weights (light load?)
Load (the literal weight on the bar) matters because the goal is increased force production. The SAID specificity principle reminds us that the stress induced must be specific to the goal, therefore we cannot increase force production with light weights.
However, considering intensity only in regard to load is in error as well, because a 275lb squat for one lifter might be an all-out bone-on-bone grinder, and for another lifter might be an easy warm-up weight. Therefore, our training “intensity” must be “heavy” in regard to both load and by percentage of 1RM in order to get stronger.
It is our experience that novice and early intermediate trainees don’t need to worry about a % of 1RM at all. They need to simply add a few pounds to the bar every workout, or every few workouts, for as long as that will work. Load is what really matters, because as the load goes up, the force production requirements to move that load goes up with it, and thus the trainee gets stronger.
For advanced lifters, who often have much longer periods of training between personal records, we frequently consider an incremental increase in percentage of 1RM with a bird’s eye view of their programming plan. That percentage varies with the advancement, athleticism, and demographic of the trainee.
For the day-to-day programming for our lifters, we still program the actual load on the bar, rather than percentage, because each lifter has both different levels of advancement and progress in individual lifts, and because it enables us to take into account the most recent training actually completed by the lifter as well as various stressors outside the gym. This allows to really fine tune programming for each lifter on daily basis to ensure optimal progress.