Why You Should Lift Light AND Heavy
If we’re talking about strength training, conventional wisdom tells us that you need to lift heavy weights to get stronger and grow. This is definitely true to some extent—no one ever got strong bench pressing the bar for 50 reps every session. However, there are a lot of components to getting stronger that don’t often get the spotlight, and I want to highlight some of those.
What you need to realize is that light weight needs some love too!
Lifting light Isn’t Useless
There are some (okay, a lot) of muscle groups in the body that aren’t really that big. Your prime movers like the lats, legs, and chest are definitely pretty large—but most of your other muscles are small in comparison. Muscles like your biceps, triceps, deltoids, calves, and forearms are some that come to mind.
Heavy compound movements are great in the sense that they force you to recruit the highest number of fibers possible to move the weight. This is great for getting stronger! More weight lifted over time translates to more gains, and logically it would follow that you should focus on movements that allow you to lift the most weight.
However, there are a number of things that heavy lifting isn’t so great for. What’s more, if you’re only lifting heavy and neglecting assistance movements you’re shooting yourself in the foot in the long run.
Compound Lifts Can Mask Weaknesses
You’ll often hear the opposite cited about compound lifts. Something along the lines of “compound lifts will expose your imbalances and force you to correct them!”
I actually think the opposite is true. Compound lifts might indeed expose any weaknesses or imbalances you have…..IF you’re using correct form. Chances are, if you have existing weaknesses, you’re not even ABLE to use correct form!
What do I mean by this? Well, if certain muscle groups are weak relative to other muscle groups, what can end up happening is that your stronger muscle groups overcompensate to help you lift weight you couldn’t otherwise handle.
Compound Movements, Poor Form, and Muscle Weakness
Suppose you’re setting up for the bench press but you lack the strength to keep your scapula retracted. For laymen, this just means being able to keep your shoulder blades pinched together during the movement. If you aren’t used to retracting your scapula, this is actually quite difficult!
So, you set up to perform the lift like you see other people in the gym doing it. I mean, how tough could it be? Lay flat on the bench, grab the bar off the rack, and press it up and down a few times! For reference, I like this example from stronglifts:
Without practicing retracting your scapula and strengthening the muscles around it, here’s what will happen over time:
- without your scapula retracted, your shoulders are much less stable AND you’ll consistently under-engage your chest in the lift
- because you under-engage your chest, your anterior or front deltoids and triceps will likely work harder to complete the lift
- you’ll have incredibly over emphasized your “mirror muscles” with almost zero emphasis on your back muscles
It’s crazy how one simple thing like not retracting your scapula can lead to disparities like this! Imagine if you just kept bench pressing like this for years. If you miraculously avoid shoulder impingement, you’ll probably have posture resembling that of our primate relatives. That’s not good.
Where Light Weight Comes In
Ok, I won’t just leave you with a problem and no solution. If you have a weak scapula….well you need to strengthen it! If you think you’ll be lifting 300lb barbells for these exercises, prepare for a rude awakening.
Let’s suppose you can’t keep your scapula retracted because you have a weak supraspinatus and serratus anterior muscle. If you’ve never looked into anatomy, you might not have heard of these:
Without overcomplicating things, the surpraspinatus is one of 4 roar cuff muscles that assists with shoulder mobility, and the serratus anterior is the well developed muscle group you see on prize fighters like Manny Pacquiao. Well, BOTH have a role in maintaining proper back positioning on the bench press.
You know what an exercise for these muscles look like? Well, let’s just say you won’t be pulling a 300 lb barbell with it:
If you have weak upper back muscles or you just haven’t done this exercise much before, I can promise you it’s gonna be hard. Guess what, though? If you incorporated these into your exercise routine, you’d progress in them really fast.
After a few weeks, you’d probably find that retracting your scapula is a lot easier and more comfortable too. No more wonky-ass bench pressing.
All right, that’s it for now. I really hope this is helpful! Educating myself on exercises like these and just basic anatomy in general has done leaps and bounds for my weightlifting, and I hope it benefits you too.
Stay tuned for more!