By Pete Sisco - Developer of Static Contraction Training
An Honest Look at "Light"
vs. "Heavy" Training
Ever heard this one in the gym? "I'm
just going easy today; yesterday was my 'heavy'
day." Those few words point to a plethora of
misconceptions and false premises that thwart maximum
muscle growth and can even lead to a loss of strength
and mass. It's not that "light" or "heavy"
are the right or wrong ways to train. It's that
you need to know exactly what you are trying to get
out of your training in order to choose the right
Your body responds to exercise in a similar way it
responds to any other stress. It makes an adaptation
so future stresses are less... well, stressful.
For example if you go out into bright sunshine today
your light skin is pushed to the limits of its ability
to protect you and will adapt by darkening into a
tan. So tomorrow the same amount of sunlight is less
stressful to your body.
Similarly, you make muscle building progress by pushing
your muscles to the limits of their ability to work
so they adapt by increasing in size and power so the
identical workout is less stressful next time.
The Invisible Line
The trick is finding the "invisible line"
between a workout that is stressful enough to trigger
new muscle growth and a workout that is not. We all
understand that a day spent in the shade is not going
to deepen our suntan, but do we truly understand that
a "light day" of weight lifting will not
increase our muscle? Because I assure you it won't.
To help visualize this very important and fundamental
concept, imagine that your level of strength could
be measured on a scale of 1 to 100. The number 100
represents the absolute limit of how strong you could
become if everything possible was done perfectly to
build your muscles.
Let's say today your strength scores 35 on
that scale. Now let us suppose that if you work your
muscles to within 5 points of your maximum you will
generate 2 points worth of new lean, hard muscle.
Now it's all very simple and clear. If today's
workout pushes past "30" in intensity
and work done then your strength level will grow to
37. Wow! A productive workout! But your next workout
will have to push past "32" (5 points
from your new maximum) in order to trigger even more
muscle growth. If you do that "30" workout
again, or... God forbid!... a "light"
day of an "18" workout you don't
have a prayer of generating new muscle. So what would
be the point of the workout?
"You Can't Train Heavy
All the Time"
This leads us to something else you might have heard
in the gym. "You can't train heavy all
the time." I hear that refrain every time I
try to explain the concept in the last paragraph.
But what people really mean when they say that is,
"I love to lift weight 3 or 4 days a week and
I can't train heavy that often." Yup,
very true. And I can't get my hair cut 3 times
a week just because I like going to the barber.
Reality check: Do you want to lift weights or do
you want to build muscle?
The fact is you can't train heavy all the time... but
you can train heavy every time. But because your body
needs time to recover from heavy, productive, muscle
building exercise you need to add more time off between
workouts. Our man in the above example can do a workout
that is a 37... then one that is a 40... then
one that is a 41, if he takes enough time off between
workouts. That's the way you work your way up
to 100. That's the way everyone has to do it.
It's a physiological law.
There is a concept that can really help unlock the
secret to all of this: Perceived Effort. Hypothetically,
if your level of strength is "28" then
a "26" workout feels extremely intense
and demanding. But if your strength level is "88"
and you perform an "86" workout the perceived
effort is identical! As you get stronger your workout
intensity increases but your perceived effort stays
the same! That's great news because it means
you don't really have to psych yourself for
more and more difficult workouts... just the same
level of perceived effort every time.
One Real Benefit of Light Training
So you can see that the guy performing a "light
day" is pretty much wasting his time. There
is no possibility whatsoever that his light workout
can trigger new muscle growth. In fact, if his last
workout was productive his body will be in recovery
mode and will need to fully recover before the new
muscle growth will manifest. And doing another workout
the next day - even a light one - will
only slow down recovery.
Personally, I think the main reason guys go to the
gym for "light workouts" is just so they
can watch that cute blonde on the stair master. The
gym, for many guys, is what the local bar is for others:
a place to meet and socialize. So people have taken
their need for frequenting the gym and rationalized
it into a training method of frequent "light
days" without regard to the physiological facts
of the matter.
But, all that said, there is one tangible and valid
benefit of lighter training. Stress relief. Speaking
for myself, I tend to carry stress in the muscles
of my lower back and my neck and traps. If I do a
few deadlifts and shrugs I get instant relief. I only
need to use 30 or 40 percent of my maximum to get
this stress relieving benefit. The best part is that
if I keep the perceive effort very low I know I'm
not slowing down my recovery too much. The stress
relief and mild endorphin release makes it a pretty
good bargain. But I don't kid myself that I'm
building muscle. I know that takes truly grueling
So... want to get the best of both worlds? Plan
your productive, muscle building workouts far enough
apart to ensure a steady climb to that "100"
that represents your full genetic potential. And when
you need some stress relief and a shot of endorphins,
do a few lifts at about 30% of your capacity... if
you really feel you must.