Light Weight, Better Results
Yes, you want to be able to lift heavier weight over time. But there are certain exercises that benefit much more from the use of light weight and solid form.
1 – Hip Thrust
Similar to a deadlift, the hip thrust involves many muscles of the posterior chain. But consider the true intention of people who add hip thrusts to their workouts. They’re wanting better, stronger glutes. Not hamstrings, not quads, and not lower back. Just glutes.
A 405-pound hip thrust for 5 reps can’t help you develop that muscle group if you already have an issue engaging the glutes… and most people do. Are your glutes really that strong or are your quads, hams, and low back really doing most of the work?
If you want to make the glutes strong and well developed, and you want to make sure they rightfully fire first in the posterior chain’s firing sequence, drop a couple of plates and look for some isolation on every rep.
Bret Contreras recommends doing “frog pumps” or using a duck-footed stance. This can be a great step in the right direction for teaching the glutes how to fire.
Once you’re able to effectively fire the glutes, keep things light on your barbell hip thrusts. You probably don’t need to exceed one plate on each side. Add a significant pause at the top of each rep and slow the eccentric (negative) down too. Do 10-12 reps per set.
2 – Walking Lunge
Too often, people load up with barbell and dumbbell walking lunges when there’s no reason to do so. The thing is, lunges are a dynamic movement and lifters generally do them for higher reps. Lunges require coordination, balance, and even core strength in order to perform them well. You don’t need to hold 100-pound dumbbells or put 205 on your back to reap the benefits.
A proper lunge consists of planting the front foot firmly on the floor with even balance between the heel and forefoot. To put this in perspective, many people have trouble accomplishing these basic goals even while walking completely unloaded.
Beyond this, there’s another red flag that should make you question the amount of weight you use when doing walking lunges – deceleration. Being able to slow and stop your body while in motion is a lot to ask of the knee joint, and it gives the tendons and ligaments a whole lot of work to do. Adding a stack of weight may be something that your muscles can handle, but it may not be something your joints will benefit from, even if they feel okay right now.
Using dumbbells, most strong guys probably never have to exceed 40 pounds per arm. Aim for 20-24 lunge strides.
3 – Weighted Pull-Up
If you need to improve grip strength, then strap 300 pounds to your belt and grip ‘n rip on pull-ups. If your goal, however, involves actually developing the intended prime movers of a pull-up, then you’re probably wasting time by loading up on the exercise.
Most people don’t have great form while doing bodyweight pull-ups. When they do achieve good form, they think strapping an extra plate to themselves is the reasonable next step. The next day, when they’re sore on the outsides of their “upper wings” they think they got a great lat workout, not realizing that the real bellies of their lats are far below, and they just used their rotator cuff muscles and arms to do their workout.
Not many people have earned the right to load the pull-up. Those who do typically have insane development to show for it… and they’re also under 200 pounds. Most people would get the lat development they’re looking for if they simply didn’t add weight and focused instead of perfect form. More info on that here.
4 – Dumbbell Row
You’ve seen this before: a guy walks up to the dumbbell rack and muscles off a 140-pounder for his one-arm rows. Most of the time, his rows are choppy and jerky. What’s the point? The dumbbell row is meant to be a rather isolated movement to develop the muscles of the upper back.
Using too much weight and having to excessively twist your body means you’re doing more oblique work than really hitting your lats and scapular muscles. The point of the row is to bring up a lagging muscle group for isolated development (if your goal is size), and possibly to assist a bigger movement that involves the same muscle groups (if your goal is strength). It defeats the purpose when you try to haul so much weight that the key muscle groups are no longer being trained in specificity.
Sure, the use of some healthy body English to ensure the back remains engaged and the arm isn’t dominating the row pattern is fine. But that’s not the issue here. I’m referring to movement that bastardizes the lift and no longer isolates the right muscles.
If you want development, ditch the 200-pound dumbbell rows and get some reps in with something lighter. Most strong guys should hover between 70 and 85 pounds and pull for sets of 12-15 reps.
Re-Think Your Loads
All of this should make you rethink the loads you’re using for each lift. Sure, anyone can find their 3-rep max on seated rows or face pulls, but why? If the role of the scapular and postural muscles is to maintain mild contractions to keep the posture erect, do these muscles ever need their max strength to be exploited?
As far as pulling movements go, the deadlift is the only exercise that should be intentionally used with low-reps and heavy weight. Along the same lines, the only time I recommend low-rep pull-ups is when an athlete simply can’t perform many yet.
When an exercise is either dynamic or very isolated in nature, it doesn’t take much weight to reap the benefits. In training, the law of diminishing returns suggests that there’s a point at which the amount of energy (or weight) invested into a movement is no longer matched by the benefits.
That means you just may not be getting anything extra out of hitting a 240-pound lat pulldown or 100-pound biceps curl, especially if your form has to suffer to get there.