Through weight training, you increase strength and muscle size, but you also develop greater functional fitness, the ability to carry out the activities you do every day safely and more efficiently. That’s something we all should strive for if we want to stay fit and healthy!
If your goal is to build only strength, you’ll get the best results by lifting heavier weights (80 to 90% of one-rep max) and do fewer repetitions relative to if you’re trying to build muscle size. To build muscle size, also known as muscle hypertrophy, work with moderate weights and do a moderate number of repetitions. Using a resistance between 60 and 80% of one-rep max and lifting to muscle fatigue is a good formula for hypertrophy gains. No matter how much resistance you use, it’s important to fatigue the muscles you work.
Muscles grow and change in response to progressive overload, gradually increasing the challenge on the muscle so it must adapt and grow by building thicker muscle fibers. To use progressive overload, you increase the weight, number of repetitions, number of sets, or challenge your muscles differently with more advanced training techniques, like supersets, that force your muscles to work harder.
So, how do you know when you’re lifting too light to stimulate muscle growth? Here are some signs that you should reevaluate how much you’re lifting.
You’re Not Fatiguing Your Muscles
If you’re using a weight you can lift more than 8 or 10 times without significant muscle fatigue, you’re lifting too light. Muscles adapt when you work them to the point that it’s difficult to do another repetition using acceptable form. Many people do a pre-planned number of repetitions and stop once they reach that final rep, whether or not their muscles are exhausted. If you’re not feeling the fatigue towards the end of a set, it’s time to go heavier. Otherwise, you’ll hit a strength training and hypertrophy plateau and stop building muscle. You’ll be in muscle maintenance mode rather than making gains.
You Never Feel Sore after Training
When you work your muscles in a way they aren’t accustomed to, you will likely feel sore 24 to 48 hours after that workout. This phenomenon called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMs) is common, and it means you’ve challenged your muscles and pushed them outside their comfort zone.
Studies show DOMs isn’t a prerequisite for muscle growth. However, never feeling sore is a sign that you may not be pushing yourself hard enough to maximize gains. You’re more likely to feel sore when you first start strength training, when you do an unusually challenging workout, or when you add new exercises to your routine. If your muscles don’t feel tired after a strength training session, and you never feel sore, you may be lifting too light.
You’re Not Making Gains
There are a lot of reasons your muscles don’t grow, but if you’re not getting stronger or seeing a gain in muscle size, question whether you’re lifting heavy enough or doing a high enough training volume. You can make hypertrophy gains using lighter weights, but it means you must do enough repetitions to thoroughly fatigue the muscles you’re working. If your muscles aren’t growing, you may need to increase the resistance you’re working with or boost the number of repetitions you do.
Also question whether you’re consuming enough calories and protein to support muscle growth. You need enough amino acids from protein to build new muscle tissue. Women, in particular, are guilty of trying to restrict calories and build muscle at the same time. Calorie restriction creates a catabolic state that discourages muscle growth and can even lead to muscle loss. Nutrition matters when you’re trying to build new muscle tissue.
Keep in mind that you won’t see results from weight training in the beginning. It usually takes 5 or 6 weeks to achieve a change in body composition when you begin strength training, and this assumes you’re training with consistency. But if you’re not seeing changes after 8 weeks, question whether you’re lifting heavy enough and make sure you’re eating a diet that supports muscle growth.
You’ve Been Lifting the Same Weights for Six Weeks or More
Since progressive overload keeps your muscles growing, you will need to increase the challenge over time to see continued muscle growth. If you’re still lifting the same weight as you were six weeks ago, it’s time to step your training up a notch. In fact, you should increase the weight every 4 to 6 weeks as your muscles become stronger and more capable.
Some people get into a rut where they continue to use the same resistance even after it feels less challenging. That’s a recipe for stagnation. Ask yourself at the end of a set whether you’re capable of doing another repetition. If you can, do it and consider increasing the weight the next time you train.
You’re Not Feeling Challenged Anymore
You should feel challenged if you’re lifting heavy enough. Too often, people grab a lighter weight and just go through the motions. They lift without an actual plan for progression and get stuck in a cycle where their body doesn’t change. If you’re no longer feeling the challenge and working out no longer feels like an effort, you may be lifting too light to maximize strength or hypertrophy gains.
The Bottom Line
Now you know some signs that suggest you’re lifting too light to maximize muscle gains. Be sure you’re advancing your training over time so your muscles will keep growing and become stronger. Don’t forget about the basics either-nutrition, adequate sleep, stress management, and the right mindset helps too.
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- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan; 51(1): 94–103. Published online 2018 Dec 14. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
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