Do Heavy Weights Make You Bulky?
Its 2016. We will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the internet. The internet is the reason that you are able to read these words right now. But for some reason, people still believe in flawed information. Humans are like parrots, we just repeat everything we hear. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, that is, if the the information is correct. However, sometimes the information is false and people spread this information to their peers. I have been a personal trainer since I was nineteen years old. If they had an award for an industry that shared the most myths then the fitness industry would win easily. They would sweep the floor. Now this doesn’t mean that the whole industry is wrong, we are actually in the golden age of health and fitness. We have learned more about the human body in the last 25 years then we have in the last century. And this is all thanks to the internet.
Today I want to address one of those myths and put it to bed. For some reason, certain trainers and clients still think that heavy resistance training and low reps will make you bulky and turn you into the hulk versus high repetition and low weight which will give you the “toned” look. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Actually, heavier weights and lower reps will keep you smaller and stronger, while lighter weight and higher volume (sets and reps) will make you bulkier. But even then you won’t become bulky because your exercise program doesn’t dictate how big you become. Your diet, hormones, and genetics do. In order to understand this, we must take a step back and go over muscle hypertrophy aka bigger muscles!
The term for muscle growth is called hypertrophy. When you perform resistance training to a group of muscle fibers, you damage the muscle causing small tears in the fiber and force the body to repair those damaged fibers during your recovery (sleep). During the recovery phase the muscle’s cross sectional area becomes larger, which increases the size of the muscle. And the only way to damage the muscle ( tear the fibers) is through force. The best way to do this is through high volume training. For example, if you perform five sets by ten repetitions with a load of 100 pounds during the bench press then you put 5000 pounds of force on your upper body. Now, if you did 3 sets by 5 reps with a load of 150 pounds during the bench press then you put 2250 pounds of force on your body. (multiply the weight by the reps then by the sets) So which one do you think is going to cause more growth to the muscle?
Hopefully you went with the first choice because you would be correct! The reason that the first option would actually make you "bulkier" than the second one is due to the volume. You see, the weight and repetitions won't make a huge difference when it comes to becoming "bulky". In my opinion, how much volume (total load) you perform for a given exercise is the most important factor. Therefore, if you want to stay small but increase your strength and power then it is best for you to lift a heavier weight with lower reps (1-5) and moderate sets (1-3). Furthermore, if your goal is to have a bigger upper or lower body then you should do high volume training, hence bodybuilding programs. However, regardless of your training program, if you aren't eating enough calories and sleeping enough, it is pointless to worry about becoming "bulky" because your body won't be able to, but we'll save that discussion for another time.