How to Build More Muscle When All You Have Is Lighter Weights

The other day I walked into yet another gym that only had light weights. It’s been an issue throughout my travels, gyms that have only lighter dumbbells and if they do have barbells, the bar is 15 kilos and the plates are fine but few in number. And so, I’ve had to adjust my training, and the article that follows will help you adjust yours so that even if you’re faced with the same predicament you’ll be able to not only save your workouts, but increase your results.

Myth: You Need to Lift Heavy Weights to Build Muscle

Lifting heavy weights is one way to build muscle, but heavy weights are better for strength and power and athleticism. I love heavy weights. But you don’t need them to build muscle. In this article you’ll not only learn how to build more muscle with lighter weights when lighter weights are all you have, but you’ll discover how to build more muscle, period, by using your body to increase the tension in the muscles you’re training, heavy weights not needed.

The Best Workout is the One You’re Not Doing

Training is a funny thing because our bodies are incredible organisms that adapt to the demands being placed upon them. Thus, you can’t be doing the same mode of training for too long if you want to get the best results, you have to change things up, and being in a gym that only has lighter weights gives us a rare opportunity to do so, so yes, there is a silver lining to this pickle we’re in.

Speaking of the workout you’re not doing, tempos are something we rarely mess with when we lift weights typically pushing or pulling at full speed on the concentric contraction and going at a fast but controlled pace with the eccentric contraction. We lift to hit our desired rep and then we drop the weight, grunt, and drink some water waiting for our rest period to end before we get back at it. 

With light weights you can’t do this, your rep count will be too high to experience the tension and reach failure within reps that are typically designed for hypertrophy. So what you have to do is fail as quickly as you possibly can. By speeding up your rate of failure by maximizing tension and messing with the tempos of the exercise you can create a ton of tension in fewer reps with lighter weights creating more muscle damage from a load your body’s not used to, in turn, helping you build more muscle.

There are other ways to build MORE muscle even if you’re relegated to using lighter weights that we’ll cover below. So read, give the tips a try, and tell me your thoughts and questions in the comments section.

How to Fail as Quickly As Possible

We’ll use the chest as an example for this one, but the same stuff applies to any muscle you want to train. 

Let’s say you only have dumbbells that go up to 70lbs, which is too light for you to do bench press and fail within the 8-12 reps that you want to fail in, what do you do?

1. You can simply change the tempos.

If 70 lbs isn’t that light, you can add more time to the eccentric contraction (EC), that is, the way down. Use a 4-7 second count on the EC, but don’t stop with the the EC, pause for one second at the bottom, press as fast as possible, then pause and squeeze the muscle at the top for one second, and repeat.

This can apply to any exercise and any muscle group. But there’s more that you can do to fail in the desired rep range.

2. Increase the tension in the muscle.

Usually we increase the tension in the muscle by adding more weight, but that isn’t an option here. So instead of doing the bench press, where you have the vertical tension of the press, change to a squeeze press, where the two weights are brought together at the chest. Press the parallel dumbbells together as hard as you can (the horizontal tension), and then as you keep this horizontal tension firm, press the weight.

Remember, pause for 1 second at the top and squeeze, then 4-7 seconds on the way down, pausing for a second at the bottom and squeezing, and repeat. You’ll find that getting to even 4 reps is a challenge if you’re squeezing as hard as you can and sticking with the tempos. 

Light weights aren’t the enemy, tension is the obstacle, if we create more of it we create more muscle damage and if we create more muscle damage we build more muscle. Aim for anywhere between 4-12 reps with this tempo, the faster the tempo the higher your rep range should be. And in this case 4-6 reps isn’t a strength set because of the speed at which you’re lifting, the time under tension dictates that it’s a hypertrophy set, and a great one at that.

Note: You can use this same method for any exercise, increasing tension, you can do it with your pull-ups or push-ups or bench press (with a bar) or squat (push your heels outward or inward depending on where you want to create the tension). You’ll find that you’ll fail much quicker with much lighter weights if you combine this added tension with the variations in tempo that you’re using. 

How to Add More Tension to Your Exercises

Use Extreme Rep Counts

Does hypertrophy have to be confined to the 8-12 rep range? Of course not. Hypertrophy is building muscle, so whichever exercises or rep counts or sets help you build the most muscle can be coined as hypertrophy. With that, the best workout is the one you’re not doing because it’s the stuff you’ve never done that will give your body, that wonderful organism that adapts to the demands that are placed upon it, a different look and something entirely new to adapt and grow in response to.

So if you’ve never done a set of say, 100 reps before, then that’s a great set. If you’ve never done a slowed cadence of 4 reps, keeping a high time under tension (40-70 sec), then that’s a great set for you to build muscle.

This is where high-rep finishers come in, something that you should add to your current program regardless of whether you only have light weights – actually, all this stuff is stuff you should try to incorporate in your programs for a change of pace.

Use high rep finishers at the end of your workouts. So, if we’re keeping with the chest, you can use dumbbells and perform an inclined bench press or you can just do push-ups, I prefer push-ups. Perform 1 single set of 100 reps. If you don’t get to 100 in one shot, all good, treat it like a rest pause set, rest for a few seconds, then get back at it until you’re finished.

These high rep finishers are a great way to end the workout. You can do lateral raises, inverted rows, bodyweight squats or bodyweight split squats. Whatever body part you want to work on you can do these finishers and they actually require lighter weights.

Are Lighter Weights a Blessing or a Curse?

A warrior sees life not as a series of blessings or curses, but as a challenge.

Therein lies the answer. Getting stuck with lighter weights is neither a blessing nor a curse but a challenge, something that you have to figure out how to utilize and maximize and hopefully this article has served you in this capacity. No matter what gym you have to use there’s an opportunity to get great results.