Exercise Safety: Should I Use Light or Heavy Weights?

By on December 21, 2015

“Is it better to work out using light or heavy weights?”

While this wasn’t a question submitted for an Ask Dana post, it’s still something I have been asked several times.

And given that there is quite a bevvy of information out there in regard to various exercise programs, I’m sure it can be pretty confusing trying to decipher what is actually true.

I personally feel there are plenty of articles covering the benefits of using either of the two options, so to give this topic a different spin, I’m going to discuss the safety aspects of using light vs. heavy weights since I feel this is a subject matter deserving of attention.

Exercise Safety – Using Light vs. Heavy Weights

In all honesty, it’s perfectly fine to use both light AND heavy weights in your exercise program. It’s really just a matter of doing this wisely.

Both light and heavy weights offer different benefits, however, not everyone is well suited for the latter.

To give you a better idea of what you should use, and when, let’s discuss the conditions that each method is most appropriate for.

When to Use Lighter Weights

There are several reasons as to why using lighter weights in your workout might be best suited for you.

They are:

  • If you are a beginner to exercise.
  • If you’re involving multi-muscle groups and/or calisthenics into your movements while you are using weights.
  • If you are doing a lighter workout following a heavier one to act as a form of “recovery”.
  • If you need to perfect your form while performing a specific exercise.

If you are a beginner to exercise, the only safe way, in my opinion, to start your program is to use lighter weights. This is because your body isn’t yet accustomed to the stress that exercise places on the bones, joints and tendons.

Believe it or not, your bones actually go through a weakening process in the beginning stages of a strength training program, and because of this, it’s a good idea not to overdo it.

The best course of action is to start with lighter weights and allow for a few weeks of doing repetitive movements as your bones become stronger. Then you are ready to slowly increase your weights in an effort to challenge yourself further.

If you add multi-muscle group activity or calisthenics to your workouts during a strength training program (ex – lateral lunge/ bicep curl combo), your best bet is to use lighter weights. You are moving around and in need of establishing balance and stability in an effort to make sure you don’t lose control of the movement.

A perfect example of this would be some of the exercises demonstrated in this video.

Unless you’ve been at it for a while and have safely progressed yourself to a more advanced level of fitness, using heavy weights restricts the ability to properly control your form, hence contributing to an increase of momentum as you perform a particular exercise.

Trying to perform something like a lateral lunge, a squat or an rdl involves being able to control deceleration of your body in the presence of gravity. Adding heavy weights to the mix increases the intensity of this – and if you aren’t strong enough or have properly progressed into being able to accomplish this using full control of the movement, you’re placing yourself in a position to get injured.

If you have worked out one day using heavy weights, it’s ideal to use lighter ones the following day if you are working the same muscle groups. An example of this might be if you did a heavy chest day (ex – bench press, chest flys, seated incline press) using heavy weights on Monday, follow up on Tuesday doing similar exercises using resistance bands.

Lastly, if you are performing an exercise for the first time, or are in need of perfecting the form, you’ll need to use lighter weights.

When to Use Heavier Weights

Once you have addressed the components mentioned in regard to using lighter weights and have progressed into a physical condition that warrants using heavy weights safely, then the time is right to begin doing so.

The truth is that using heavy weights can offer a variety of benefits, and if you are capable of incorporating them into your exercise program in a safe and structured way, then you’ll enjoy the rewards.

Working out with heavier weights using a range of approximately 8-12 repetitions helps to build muscle hypertrophy (an increase in the size of the muscle tissue).

An increase in the size of a muscle is not only capable of offering an attractive shape to the body, but any time you successfully lift a heavy weight to the point where you need to continue to add resistance over time because the current weight has become too easy, it means you are getting stronger.

Obviously, this is a good thing.

And considering that as we age, our bodies lose muscle tissue naturally, it’s a good idea to include some heavier weights into the mix to help maintain what we do have while building more.

Now while I had mentioned earlier that when performing multi-muscle group activities or calisthenics, it’s best to use lighter weights because you’re moving around (until you’re in decent enough shape to do otherwise), heavier weights are excellent for exercises in which you are standing, seated or lying in a still position without moving around a lot. This way, you aren’t in a place where you need to call upon your stabilizing muscles as much and the focus can remain on simply lifting weights.

As Usual, it All Goes Back to Balance and Safety

As with everything I have ever written about in this blog, regardless of what the subject matter was, balance is, was and always will be the key to any successful health and fitness program.

There is a time to use lighter weights, and a time to use heavier ones. The way to do this is to exercise like a beginner if you ARE a beginner and then to safely progress yourself into something more challenging.

I personally use both light and heavy weights in my workouts because I prefer to get a wide variety of different activities and benefits.

A single arm, bent over row performed in a staggered stance using a 30+ pound dumbbell may help me to develop the strength to lift heavy objects from the ground…

…while a single leg lateral reaching lunge/ bicep curl combo using a 10 or 15 pound dumbbell will offer me an excellent way to get several muscle groups involved in one combination exercise while being able to work on balance without losing control of the movement itself that using heavier weights would possibly cause.

There is a time and a place for everything, and this is just another example of this philosophy.

I would encourage you to get a well-rounded program using both methods – and to do so the right way.

Do you use both light and heavy weights in your workouts?

About Dana Gore

Author of the book A Simple Guide to Exercise Safety (What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You), Dana Gore completed the curriculum at Fitness Institute International, Inc. as an outstanding graduate in 2009.

One Comment

  1. Lina

    January 24, 2016 at 6:24 am

    Thanks for the information

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