“The only way to get bigger is to lift big”.  That is one of the most overused statements that I hear inside of weight rooms and during personal training.  Now, if you lift heavy and your nutrition is spot on, you can gain muscle.

The problem with this statement is:
1. What if I lift heavy and eat a bunch of unhealthy foods?  I will get big, but not in a flattering way.
2. What if I lift heavy and then eat like a rabbit?  There is a very good chance that I will not get big at all.

My favorite is the guy that puts on way too much weight on the bar for the bench press or squat and then goes down an inch.  The funniest thing about that is he is having his friend take a video of him and they both get excited about that.  During this, I am thinking to myself over yourself!

Just because we put on crazy heavy weight does not mean that you are going to look like Arnold.  What if I told you that there is a way that you can gain solid muscle by lifting with a lighter weight.  In past research, studies have suggested that you needed to lift at least 70% of your 1 rep max every set for increasing muscle mass.  If you are unfamiliar with 1 rep max heres an example.  An individual who performs the bench press can squat 225 for 1 rep,  70% of 225 equals 157.5.  Recent research has suggested that lifting less than 70% has shown to have positive effects on muscle gain.  One study even mentioned that lifting 30% of your 1 RM (rep max) until failure showed equal effects in the fibers of the muscles compared to a 90% 1 rep set. Failure means that you do as many reps in one set as you physically can.

A recent study done by Ogasawara (2013), examined whether a low-load resistance training exercise when lifted to failure would be equal to lifting a heavy load for gaining muscle during personal training.  The study used 9 untrained 25-year-old males.  They were given 6 weeks of a heavy bench press that consisted of 75% of their 1 RM.  Their program consisted 3 times per week of 3 sets of 10 reps with 3 minutes of rest in between. Twelve months after the program was over, the individuals came back for 6 weeks and performed 4 sets of as many reps as possible at 30% RM with 3 minutes of rest in between.  The reason why there were 12 months of break in between was to put the body in a detraining mode and essentially start completely over. The results showed that there were significant increases in muscle size when using a heavy resistance and using a light resistance.  The study also mentioned that if you are going to go with a lighter resistance, in order to build significant size, you need to perform the sets until failure.

This study demonstrates building muscle with light load. However, there are other mechanisms for adding muscle. Here are 5 tips on how to build muscle.

5 Tips on How to Build Muscle during Personal Training

1. Work in Compound Exercises into your Program

Studies have shown that the squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press help increase strength, power and muscle size.  These exercises use multiple muscles (especially larger muscles)  that enhance the hormones in your body to help you build solid muscle.

2. Limit the Use of Machines

Especially if you are an athlete, using a machine is a non-functional task that will not maximize a person’s abilities.  Think about it, what do you think will be more beneficial, a dumbbell chest press or a machine chest press?  While there is nothing wrong with a machine chest press, the dumbbell chest press recruits the smaller stabilizing muscles more efficiently because you are balancing 2 separate weights.

3. Sprint Life Away

Sprinting is involved in most sports.  Studies have shown that hill sprints, sled pulling and push, and resisted band sprints are successful tools for increasing muscle size.  Did you know that sprinting can help you increase muscle size while increasing strength and power.  Just remember that sprinting is just like weight training, we need to not overdo sprints. Give your body the proper rest that it needs in order to grow.  Giving your body 1-2 days of rest will help you decrease the risk of overtraining.

4. Eat Big

If you want to build muscle you need to feed your body.  This does not mean that you eat unhealthy foods because I promise you that you will put on some unflattering pounds.  Eat frequently.

5. Quality time in the Gym

What I mean by quality time in the gym, this means that you create a personal training program that is specific to your needs, you execute the plan effectively and you get the proper rest.  Too many times I see people wasting their time in the gym by lifting for 2 hours or talking way too much.  Your workout should get to the point in about 30-45 minutes and you will need the adequate time to rest.

If you are looking for building muscle, it is an exact science and needs to be taken seriously.  This process is not quick either, it takes time and patience in order to build quality muscle.  Sure, I could fatten you up and make you look like a porky pig really fast. Is that how we want your body to look? The answer is no. We want lean, mean fighting machines.  The hard work you put in will pay off in the long successful road.


  1. Riki Ogasawara, Jeremy P. Loenneke, Robert S. Thiebaud, Takashi Abe. Low-Load Bench Press Training to Fatigue Results in Muscle Hypertrophy Similar to High-Load Bench Press Training. International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2013, 4, 114-121

Written by Chris Barber, CPT