do you have to lift heavy for mass gains

by Jason Stallworth

June 29, 2020

Many will tell you that you must lift heavy to pack on muscle mass. But are heavy weights truly necessary for gaining size?

The answer isn’t as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But here are two truths:

  1. Heavy-weights will help you build a foundation for a massive frame
  2. However, lifting heavy does not necessarily equate to muscle gains

Confused yet? I know, those statements sound contradicting. But hang in here with me…

I’m going to explain all of that in this post. You’re also going to get my 3 rules of gaining muscle mass and I’m going to show you what really works for packing on quality size.

Oh, and you may want to get your pre-workout drink ready. After you read this, you’re going to want to hit the gym!

Misconception of Heavy Weights and Muscle Gains

deadlifts low reps

‘Just lift heavy, bro!’ We’ve all heard this or something similar, and on the surface, it may make sense.

But we need to dig a little deeper. How exactly does weight impact muscle growth?

We need to look at how your muscles grow. A ‘big’ part of that is based on muscle hypertrophy.

Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases the mass and size of the muscles.

‘How to build muscle with exercise’ Jayne Leonard on January 8, 2020, (this article is also peer-reviewed)

What leads to breaking down your muscle fibers is, of course, resistance. So we know that weight training in general stimulates muscle growth.

The article then goes on to talk about how hormones play a tremendous role in muscle growth.

This is why so many of us bodybuilders and weightlifters take supplements that boost testosterone. That’s a subject for another day.

The misconception is that you have to lift super heavy to gain mass. But here’s the problem with lifting super heavy weights:

  • Your muscles also need volume to grow, which you do not get from lifting heavy
  • You need a combination of compound and isolation exercises to develop and shape your muscles (this equates to true muscle mass, not just looking like a big block with no form)
  • Going heavy makes you stronger but it’s not the most effective method for building the muscle tissue, aka gaining size.

When To Go Heavy

As with everything in life, there is a time and a place for lifting heavy.

One of those times is when you’re first starting out. You need to develop your foundation for size and strength with heavy compound movements when you first start training.

**If you’re new to the weights or just starting out, here’s a great post that I wrote for beginners: Fundamentals of Weight Training

Another time is at the beginning of your workout. You can go heavy on your first exercise, which should be a compound exercise. This will help further develop and maintain that foundation.

Just remember that the rest of your workout needs to incorporate different exercises in the 8-12 rep range to ignite muscle growth and hypertrophy.

Why Lifting Light Weights Is Not Good for Gains, Either

After reading the above, some may tend to go to the opposite extreme because that’s what society teaches us; if one way isn’t ‘right’ then the absolute opposite must be.

This, also, is a flawed concept. Just as only lifting heavy weights is not conducive to building muscle mass, neither is only lifting light weight.

Remember, your muscles need to essentially be damaged. That damage is caused by resistance from using challenging weights.

What will NOT build muscle:

  • Only going heavy, all the time
  • Only going light, all the time

Here’s what really works…

How to Use Moderate Weight to Gain More Muscle Mass

dumbbells heavy light high reps low reps

The true answer to ‘do you have to lift heavy for mass gains?’ is: ‘no, not necessarily.’

But as we just learned, that doesn’t mean to go the complete opposite direction…

The real answer for gaining muscle size is to use moderate weights.

So, what exactly is a moderate weight?

Moderate weight is something you can do between 8-12 reps. This is known as the bodybuilding rep range. And quite simply, it works best for building muscle size.

If you’re training for muscle size, choose a weight at which you reach muscle failure in the 8-12-rep range. In other words, after your warm-up sets—which are never taken to failure—you should select a load with which you can complete at least 8 reps but not more than 12.

‘How Many Reps Should You Do?’ by Bill Geiger on January 21, 2020,

Moderate weight isn’t super heavy. But it’s certainly not considered light.

The awesome thing about using moderate weight is:

  • It gives your muscles the volume they need to grow
  • You’re less prone to injury
  • It’s not as hard on your joints as going super heavy
  • You’re going to get better results and build more muscle size
  • It’s a challenging workout and will also help you burn more fat
  • It will give your muscles more shape and definition as well as size

3 Rules for Packing on Mass with Moderate Weight

Now let’s cover Jason’s 3 rules of using moderate weight to gain mass. These are just some easy guidelines to think about and follow. And they are catered to helping you pack on quality muscle size that you can be proud of.

Rule #1

Always start your workouts with ‘heavier’ moderate weight. This also needs to be a compound exercise (ex: barbell rows on back day, squats on leg day, bench or incline press on chest day).

On a side note, it’s okay to occasionally drop down to the 4-6 rep range on your final set of that compound movement.

This will help you get stronger, which means you’ll essentially be lifting more weight on your other exercises. And that will lead to progressive muscle growth.

Rule #2

Although moderate doesn’t mean ‘heavy’ the weight should still be challenging. If you’re on your first exercise and eight reps are easy, you need to increase the weight.

Likewise, if you’re on your latter exercises (isolation exercises) and 10-12 reps are easy, you’ll also need to increase the weight.

Rule #3

If you can’t perform your reps with good form then you need to decrease the weight you’re using. Don’t get sloppy for the sake of ego. Work your way up, the right way.

Make Serious Mass Gains the Right Way

Gaining muscle mass isn’t difficult. And there’s no unknown or complex science to it.

If there’s any secret to building muscle, it’s consistency.

Along with that, you must be patient. There will always be highs and lows. But if you keep pushing and don’t give up, you will make gains.

Just know that you don’t have to pretend to be a powerlifter and max out every set. Many new lifters make this mistake in the beginning, and I’ve even seen older folks do it, too.

By reading this blog post, I assume you’re more interested in bodybuilding, not powerlifting. However, if strength is your ultimate goal, read this instead: Critical Bench 2.0.

For size and muscular development, stick with moderate weight. And you need to push yourself to get those 8-12 reps and include more volume with multiple exercises and sets.

Remember, you don’t want to look like a big block. Rather, you want that bodybuilder shape to your muscles. And this is the way for you to attain that look.

If this post helped you, please consider sharing it.

Excuses Don’t Build Muscle,


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