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When lifting weights, heavier is not necessarily better

Time for a two-sentence review of the classic self-help book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff ... and it’s all small stuff” (Hyperion, 1997).

Reading the book should certainly help you. But the part of the title that comes after the three dots ... well, that should bother you a bit.

Think about it. If your personal “all” is truly “small,” wouldn’t that mean nothing in your life truly matters?

Okay, I know I’m twisting Richard Carlson’s words a bit to provoke you now, but that twisting is important later. It will help explain why so many people don’t lift weights, yet why it would be easy for them to do so.

But first, we need to give good riddance to what Ralph Carpinelli, Ed. D, calls “a pervasive faulty assumption.”

The belief that heavier is better when it comes to lifting weights.

Carpinelli explains why that belief is bogus in a paper published by the Journal of Exercise and Fitness in January 2008. On a podcast dropped just this May on the science of muscle growth, Andrew D. Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology and of ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, further explains why this is so.

While Huberman acknowledges heavy weights can indeed increase muscle size and strength, he stresses they are “not required” because “weights in a very large range of your max [the maximum amount of weight you can lift in good form for 1 repetition] ... can cause changes that lead to muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy.”

He also stresses the research now shows everyone “of pretty much every age” needs to lift, whether it be with bars and plates, machines, resistance bands or body weight. He then states the case for why: “To offset some of the normal decline in strength and posture and [to maintain] the ability to generate a large range of movement safely as we age.”

After all, he adds, “There’s nothing good about getting old and frail.”

So why do only about 1 in 5 adults (my estimate based on a 2108 CDC survey) actually do enough weightlifting to delay fragility as long as possible?

Too many of the 4 out of 5, I fear, sweat the small stuff.

So let me rollout (or should I say roll on?) an effective anti-perspirant: the flip side of the Henneman size principle, the side that so many muscle heads - as well as researchers - dismiss. By working with cats in the mid-1960s, Elwood Henneman found the first muscle fibers to fire in any given movement are relatively small and weak, and only as the effort behind that movement increases do the larger and stronger muscle fibers come into play.

Since the larger and stronger muscle fibers, the two types of fast-twitch muscle fibers, have a far greater ability to gain size and strength than the smaller and weaker muscle fibers, the slow-twitch muscle fibers, a heavier-is-better mindset quickly came to be in both labs and gyms.

But that mindset Carpenelli effectively offsets in a number of different ways, including one that’s so easy to do that you should try it sometime soon. Grab something that’s easy to hold and feels light to you - maybe a 5-pound dumbbell, a large coffee-table book, or a gallon jug of water - and lift it to the midway position of a biceps curl.

In other words, have your upper arm remain perpendicular to the floor while lifting your forearm parallel to it and hold that position for as long as you can.

Because the effort is easy initially, the only muscle fibers called into play immediately are the smaller and weaker ones. But by the time you can no longer keep your forearm parallel to the floor, all types of muscle fibers have been taxed to their max.

Yet the object that maxed out your strongest muscles weighed about 5 pounds.

And while that effort could very well create a bit of perspiration, its explanation does the opposite if you’re lifting weights for fitness and health. It allows you to stop sweating some small stuff, like choosing the right amount of weight and number of repetitions.

In Heinemann’s previously mentioned podcast, he says, “Research supports that weights in a very large range of the percentage of you maximum, anywhere from 30 to 80 percent [of that maximum] ... can cause changes that lead to muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy.” In other words, whether you select a weight where you need to perform 10, 15, 25, or even 35 reps to get you to the point where you can’t do another one, it doesn’t matter.

You still reap all the benefits of pumping iron in all scenarios.

If reaching a point where you can’t lift the weight for another rep seems a bit too intense, take heart. According to Heinemann, you only have to do that about 10 percent of the time, provided you’re not solely lifting to increase muscle size and strength.