How Heavy to Build Muscle Mass?

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Many lifters are inspired by the likes of the great Ronnie Coleman, famous for squatting 800 pounds of pure iron mayhem, chest pressing ridiculously heavy dumbbells, and for saying…

Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.

Of course heavy weights build muscle.

It’s the tension our muscles are subjected to that regulates their size – more weight, more tension, more intensity – equals more muscle growth.

heavy dumbbells

However, there is a point where the weight you are lifting can become too heavy.

The videos you see of Ronnie Coleman moving extremely heavy weight for 2 – 3 reps is not how he built his incredible Olympia winning physique. Those heavy lifts were for the camera, and not how he normally trains.

In fact, most of Ronnie Coleman’s training is in the 10+ rep range, and he recommends to others that they should work in this range if muscle growth is their goal.

Have you ever noticed that you feel the target muscle contract better on your warm up sets than your heavy working sets?

You should feel the target muscle contract on every rep, if you can’t, it’s a good sign you’re lifting too much weight.

When you lift too heavy is causes supporting muscles to get involved in moving and stabilizing the weight. This shifts some tension off the target muscle and distributes the tension across several other muscle groups as the body tries to move the weight from point A to point B.

This can ‘dilute’ the growth potential of the target muscle.

Building muscle is not about moving the heaviest weight possible from point A to B; it’s about maximally stimulating the target muscle through its full range of motion under sufficient tension.

Too much weight reduces your range of motion, shifts tension away from the target muscle, reduces your mind muscle connection, causes the CNS (central nervous system) to fail before the muscle fibres have been stimulated, and dramatically increases your chance of injury.

I see it all the time, guys in the gym trying to compete with and impress their friends by lifting as much weight as they can, weight that is way too much for them to handle properly.

You’ve probably seen it yourself… the tag-team bench press – deadlift duo. One guy is pressing a barbell with everything he’s got while his friend pulls on the bar shouting “it’s all you bro, it’s all you!”

Just last week in the gym there was a group of guys working on flat dumbbell press. One guy was lying on the bench and his friends placed a huge 100lb dumbbell in each of his hands. With the assistance of his friends he managed to move the dumbbells about 5 inches for 4 reps before they came crashing to the floor.

That charade was followed by high fives all round!

Sure, doing heavy bench presses, deadlifts and squats look real macho and cool, but you’re not in the gym to look cool, you’re there to build muscle effectively. A cable fly done correctly will develop your chest better than a sloppy bench press with too much weight.

Forget about who is watching you, an impressive muscular physique will turn more heads than the amount of weight you can lift.

Now, I’m not saying you should never lift very heavy. The odd heavy week in the low 5 rep range every now and then is fine, but be sensible, lift intelligently and remember your ultimate goal is to train for maximum muscle growth.

Do you want the physique of a weightlifter or bodybuilder? If it’s the later, then you need to optimize your training for muscle gains, not strength.

How to Select the Correct Weight for Growth

Training with very heavy loads (weight) in the low rep range (4 – 6) develops force production (strength) by improving the ability of the CNS (central nervous system) to increase motor unit recruitment.

In other words, using very heavy weight makes more neuromuscular adaptations and is ideal for increasing strength, but is less effective for size gains.

Your goal when training for muscle growth is to make more physiological improvements than neurological.

Studies have repeatedly shown that working with a weight that is 75 – 80% of your 1 repetition maximum (1RM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 1 repetition) to be optimal for stimulating hypertrophy (muscle growth).

75 – 80% of your 1RM is a weight that causes you to reach failure around 8 – 10 reps.

Simply select a weight where you reach failure (the point where you can’t physically lift the weight for another rep) around the 8 – 10 rep mark.

If you failed at 6 reps then the weight is too heavy, reduce the load.

If you failed at 13 reps then the weight is to light, increase the load.

You will not be missing out in strength development by training for hypertrophy (muscle growth). With consistency and effort you will get stronger working in the 8 – 10 rep range, and soon enough you will be working with heavier loads while maintaining 8 – 10 reps to failure

Focus on the Muscle, Not the Weight

Before going to the gym take some time and research online the function of the muscle you’re going to be working, what movements does it create; then simply apply tension to that movement – control the tension!

Keep your form strict on every rep to maximize your time under tension.

Don’t focus so much on moving the weight. Instead, think about the muscle contracting and working to move the weight.

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