There’s no denying that lifting heavy has its benefits, including kicking up confidence. To be able to pick up something heavy, put it down with control, and see yourself getting stronger and more capable every week? That’s something special.
But the thing is, lifting heavy is so praised as The Way for athletes to improve performance that we tend to ignore those lighter weights collecting dust on the bottom of the weight rack (or in a bin on a bookshelf at home). Those two- and three-pounders actually play an important role in your fitness routine.
The idea of lifting light weights for strength isn’t without controversy. Meghan McFerran, professional dancer, dance fitness instructor, and founder of City Sweat, knows this well. She’s gotten some criticism on social media from people who suggest it’s bad to promote lifting light weights. But McFerran says that as a dancer, she’s always trained with bodyweight or resistance bands. In her classes, she incorporates 1-to 3-pound weights.
“My mission statement is viewing movement as a celebration rather than a workout,” McFerran says. “If your goal is just to get healthy and move, then it does not matter what weight you’re lifting.” A workout is a workout—and movement is good for your body. Period. No weights required.
The idea that resistance training always needs to be ultra heavy or else it doesn’t do anything for you can be a huge turnoff for exercisers who are just finding their footing in the gym. For beginners, or for people who are just looking to make movement a more regular part of their routine, lifting light weights (or none at all) can take the focus off daunting numbers and get them excited to exercise, McFerran explains.
There are plenty of benefits—which go beyond the psychological—to switching the focus off super heavy lifting in all your strength workouts. And those advantages apply to both beginner and experienced lifters alike. Here’s when lifting light might actually be the smarter move for your training.
When Lifting Light Weights is the Smarter Training Move
You want to build endurance
Muscular endurance refers to the muscles’ ability to do work over a sustained period of time. So instead of lifting something really heavy for one to 10 reps, the goal is to lift something that you can keep lifting for 15 to 20 (or even more) reps.
“By going lighter, you’re able to do the exercise for longer, so muscular time-under-tension increases,” says Blake Dircksen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. There’s also more of an aerobic process happening when you lift for muscular endurance, and there’s less of a strain on the central nervous system compared to heavy lifting, he adds.
As you can probably guess, muscular endurance is critical for runners. It’s what gives your muscles the stamina they need to keep trekking through many miles, Dircksen says. By working on muscular endurance, you can also bolster yourself against overuse injuries.
“Running is a series of repetitions and cycles of the same thing over and over,” Dircksen says. “Endurance is something that can prepare you for those repetitions and be really protective against injury.”
Muscular endurance is most important in the areas of the body that take the most heat from running—the hips, calves, and core. “We want those muscles to have higher endurance because we’re doing a lot of different cycles with those muscles in particular,” Dircksen says.
The hips are probably the most important: They stabilize your pelvis with each step, and take a lot of impact over the miles. Lifting heavy increases leg strength and your ability to produce power, but lifting light is what lets you sustain the movement for the long haul.
P.S. This kind of high rep low weight work is what’s usually used in physical therapy to rehab athletes after an injury, Dircksen says. “It’s tolerated really well, generally perceived as easier, and if you do it for longer you’re going to get strength and endurance benefits,” he adds.
You’re doing complex movements and learning new skills
When you’re attempting to do any movement that’s new to you, it’s important to keep it light, Dircksen says. This is sort of a golden rule of lifting in general: Start with light weights so that you can perfect form before dialing up the resistance. You’ll still gain some strength, even if you’re lifting lighter than what you can theoretically handle, thanks to the neurological connections that form rep after rep, Dircksen says.
“There’s a good amount of motor patterning happening because you’re able to do so many reps of it,” he says. This repetition of a strength move with a low weight lets your body and brain learn the pattern so that you can crush it when you add heavier weights. If there’s a move you want to learn or just get better at, starting light is the way to go.
You’re looking to train speed
“To be able to produce force quickly is a benefit of lighter weights,” Dircksen says. That comes into play when you’re working on velocity training or how far you can move in a certain amount of time. He calls velocity a “forgotten variable of training,” because a lot of people don’t prioritize it in their routines.
Velocity training is a combo of strength and speed work—think med ball throws, where you have to use a weight that’s heavy enough to feel challenging but light enough that you can throw and catch it quickly without hurting yourself. Another example is jump squats with light dumbbells in your hands. You want to add a little resistance to up the load your body can handle, but it needs to be light enough for you to jump with good form and quickness.
“It’s something you can really only do with light weights or bodyweight,” Dircksen says.
Lifting light weights allows you to move faster and push yourself at an elevated heart rate for longer. You can swing a light weight and move it dynamically in ways you can’t move, say, a barbell.
You just want to lift for everyday life
Let’s look at rotation—a functional movement that’s important to train to keep the back healthy and the core strong. You rotate on the regular when you turn around to grab your seatbelt or twist to chat with someone behind you or even to put something on a top shelf when you’re not facing it head on.
Go too heavy with rotational moves in training and you risk causing some serious issues. That’s because these types of twisting exercises—for example, the woodchop and Russian twists—can be really bad for your lower back if you don’t do them carefully. (If you have low-back issues, your doc might even advise against rotation work.) Lighter weights let you master proper form and keep you from overdoing it on the back, while still gaining the benefits of these moves. Even if the weight feels too light, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Sarah Apgar, founder and CEO of FitFighter, says that these kinds of functional movements, plus ones that require speed, are what inspired her signature weights (called the FitFighter Steelhose)—which go from five to 50 pounds.
After leaving the military and becoming a volunteer firefighter, she realized there was no standard strength training regimen. So, she started making up her own workouts and creating her own tools with items around the firehouse, ultimately leading to this equipment that is essentially a portion of a firehose filled with steel. She found this relatively light tool was perfect for performing exercises that mimic the quick movements firefighting demands.
“Most humans are not trained well to move quickly under loads and part of that is because we’ve always thought of weightlifting as picking up and putting down dumbbells,” Apgar says. She says to think about resistance training as “moving weights” instead of “lifting weights,” leaving it open to whatever movement is most appropriate for the work or sports (or just life event) you’re training to improve.
In real life, we have to be able to react quickly if we miss a step coming down the stairs or we forget to take the step off the sidewalk on the run, Apgar says. Training with weights that are light enough for you to safely work on these quick, agile twisting and turning and jumping movements is what preps you for real-world situations, whether you’re a runner trying to dodge a car, a mom on a playground dashing to catch her kid, or a firefighter rushing to save lives. If you can do those things, it doesn’t really matter what your one-rep max is anyway, right?
The Bottom Line When It Comes to Strength Training
Lift heavy if you want to and if that’s the challenge you crave. Some people prefer it for seeing strength gains and getting a confidence boost. But if barbells or other heavy weights aren’t your thing—or worse yet, the thought of having to use them is keeping you from strength training—you’ll still gain plenty of benefits from going for those light dumbbells or other equipment that you can toss, turn, or even pick up while you dance.