How To Build Muscle With Light Weights

7 min read
What You're About To Get Into
How to gain muscle with light weights
The principles that drive hypertrophy
Why muscle isn’t built by weight alone

How To Make The Most Of Chump Weights

The gyms may be down, but that doesn’t have to be the killing blow to your dreams of slathering on the baby oil and stepping on the Olympia stage. It’s time to make the most of your coach-side training experience. With the lockdowns set to continue on into the distance, you’ve been left to fend for yourself with a few dusty dumbbells that cap out at a measly 10kgs. With the prospect of churning out a million sets of the same exercise, one groundhog day at a time, digging out the running shoes and hitting the trail may start to look like the appealing option. 

While I’ve got nothing against running, it doesn’t hold a candle to the metabolism-boosting, muscle-popping might of weight training. So I’m here to say that you don’t need to put those dreams on hold. And really, you can’t. The stakes are just too big. Whatever rusty equipment you can scramble together, we can make it work. There’s no reason you can’t continue to make progress with those 10kg dumbbells.

And to make my point, I can take this back to a theme I’ve been preaching long before the lockdowns changed the landscape forever. The gym isn’t a game of who can go the hardest. Intensity helps, but it isn’t the end game. 

The Secret Code For Gaining Muscle

Muscle is built by tension, not the weight, not the reps, definitely not the sweat. Those are the hard facts of physiology. We didn’t enter the barbell scene until a few million years of evolution had already passed by. The first human biceps were probably cultivated by pulling on branches in our old forest homes. They made it work without fancy hammer strength machines, and now may be time to tread in their footsteps.

I’m not necessarily suggesting go find a local tropical rainforest and start climbing up on branches. Rather I’m saying don’t think so much about how heavy your home dumbbells can go. Think about how you can manipulate and dial up the tension being exerted on your muscles. Extra weight is only one lever amongst many potentials. 

The principle of progression is simply in squeezing and stretching the muscle harder than you have before. And that means you’ve got options, it just may take a little innovation to keep the ball rolling.

It’s all well and good discovering the muscles get bigger when they’re put under more tension, but how do you go about making it happen? Knowledge isn’t power, it’s potential power. There are a few more steps before you can get the sleeves to burst at the seams. 

So it’s worth getting to grips with a few principles that drive muscular tension. 

The Eccentric Advantage – Any muscle is going to be at least 30% stronger when it’s being stretched. This is known as the eccentric, the lowering, or negative part of the movement. 

The Isometric Advantage – Your muscles are also stronger when simply holding their shape and staying still while contracting.

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy – This sort of gaining is triggered by taking the muscles to complete fatigue, which you should be able to do with any sort of weight.

Novelty – Adaptation happens when the muscle has to cope with a threat it hasn’t faced before. This means new exercises, or just a change in angle, can often be enough to spark progress.

You might see random words from a physiology textbook here, but what I see is potential. All of the above have the potential to push forward shape and strength. All of them are independent of weight. You may not be able to reach for the next weight on the rack, because those things are expensive, but you have a bunch of levers that make excellent alternatives.

Techniques For Adding Muscle With Light Weights

I’m stuck in this mess with the rest of you, with a few dumbbells that take an age to adjust, and max out at 40kgs each. Which is a lot lighter than I can normally go, trust me. To compensate for the lack of plates, I’ve simply been adding some flavour to these workouts.

This video has me going through a few modifications of a dumbbell floor progress. Each of these modifications takes the original exercise, with the same weight, and manage to dial up the tension. 

  1. Banded Reps – Adding a band massively increases the tension at the top of the press, which otherwise can be a little too easy. 
  2. Slow Negatives – Lowering for four seconds at a time, spending longer in the eccentric, where most of the magic happens. Great for burning out the muscle near the end of the workout.
  3. Paused Reps – Holding the weights for two seconds at the hardest point of the movement, which in this case is at the deepest part of the stretch. I could go further, but there was a floor in the way.
  4. Superset With Lighter Exercise – Following it up by dropping down immediately to an easier exercise that still targets the same muscle. This lets me max out the tension by going past the point of muscular failure.

Don’t Settle For Waiting The Lockdown Out

These are just a few ways of upping the ante without having to stack up the plates. And for the vast majority of us right now, it’s the only way of ensuring progression. If anything, this could turn out to be a positive. You’ve been dealt a bad hand, and it’s forcing you to improvise. You could always settle for waiting it out, or try your luck at running for that matter, but either would be a waste. If you were to double down and push forward, then the chances are you’re going to find ways of making it work. 

And you won’t just make ground by improving strength, because your technique ends up getting the upgrade that could put you in fast-track mode for years to come. Tough times breeds smart people, as long as those people don’t jump at the chance to play the victim game. 

It may look like I’m blowing up the importance of muscle-building a little too far, but really I’m talking about taking on the fitness lifestyle as a whole. And that comes down to setting down an intention, a code of conduct that you can follow regardless of the hailstorm that’s assailing you. If you can’t, then you must. 

When the weather settles and the skies clear up, you’ll have chewed up the ground, and you’ll be unstoppable. All because you refused to quit, and figured how to feel the chest during the eccentric phase of a floor press.

If you’re curious to try out some of this improv coach-side training for yourself, you’re in luck. The Fit Awakening Online Membership takes you through the complete coaching experience, with customised plans across training, nutrition, and lifestyle. Even better, it starts with a free 7-day trial. 

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