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Building Muscles With Light Weights: Can It Be Done?

Holly Smith

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

building muscles with light weights

Is building muscles with light weights possible? “Lift heavy weights with low reps to build muscle. Lift light weights with high reps to stay toned.”

Is there really any truth to this, or can you build muscles with light weights?

The short answer is … absolutely!

You just have to incorporate the proper number of reps, sets, and rest periods and have the dedication to commit to a solid nutrition program.

Keep reading to learn more about building muscles with light weights!

Before you get started, did you know we have tons of FREE articles, videos, and tutorials on building muscles with light weights (and heavy weights, and no weights …)? Well, we do! Start here!

best exercise for men 40+

What Are The 5 Best Muscle Building Exercises For Men 40+?

best exercise for men 40+
The secret to building age-defying muscle in your in 40s, 50s, & 60s is to modify the best muscle building exercises (bench, squats, rows) to make them safe on your joints…

The Science Behind Muscle Growth

To start, it is important to understand that muscle growth requires resistance training.

When you contract your muscles against resistance, you are breaking down muscle fibers. These fibers will then be stimulated to grow bigger and stronger.

This includes concentric, eccentric, and isometric contractions.

The common teaching has been that high reps with low weights is good for toning muscles, while low reps with heavy weights is better for muscle growth and bulk.

This makes sense as heavier weights increase tension on the muscle fibers to stimulate muscle growth.

However, studies have also shown that time under tension is also important to stimulate muscle building, and that as long as the muscles are exercised to the point of fatigue, there can be similar gains regardless of the amount of weight used.

One study showed that participants doing 10-12 reps with heavier weights had similar muscle gains as those that did 30-40 reps with lighter weights.

Another study looked at young men performing either sets of 7-9 reps using heavy weights or 21-36 sets reps using lighter weights.

Both of these groups demonstrated similar muscle growth.

Now, that’s not to say you have to do 40 reps of an exercise to see strength gains.

However, this does show that as long as you push your muscles to fatigue, light weights — and even bodyweight exercises — can still build muscle.

Want to get buff — without leaving the comfort of your own home? Try these bodyweight exercises for men!

Benefits of Lifting Light Weights

Decrease Injuries

Lifting with light weights not only can build strength, but it also has some benefits over heavy lifting.

First off, it can help decrease injuries.

Joint problems, especially in the shoulders and knees, can be worsened by trying to lift heavy weights.

And it’s not just your joints that are at risk.

Muscle strains and even complete tears are much more likely if you are lifting heavy weights.

These are injuries that could keep you out of the gym for weeks to months at a time.

Lifting light weights with proper form helps decrease this risk.

Target Muscles Through Their Full Range of Motion

Using light weights also allows you to perform movements through your full range of motion with the proper form.

A lot of guys will try to throw around heavy weights in the gym without actually using the proper form.

Not only will this increase the risk of injury, but you won’t be targeting the muscles correctly and will never see muscle growth.

By focusing on form with lighter weights, you will feel the burn throughout the entire exercise and start to see strength gains right from the beginning.

A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research even found that after participants performed 12 weeks of strength training, those who did the exercises with full range of motion had improved strength compared to a group that used movements with a shorter range of motion.

Got joint pain? Try these practical at-home remedies to treat it and reduce it.

Increase Workout Frequency

Lighter weights are a great tool to use during full-body workouts.

By incorporating these types of exercises, you can hit each muscle group in a single workout session instead of isolating your muscle groups to one day a week.

Research has shown that increasing the frequency of exercising each muscle group can lead to bigger strength and hypertrophy gains as compared to isolating muscle groups and only targeting them once a week.

Plus, if you are working out from home, it’s easier to keep a set or two of light dumbbells around as compared to building your own personal gym with stacks of heavy weights.

Plus, you can add in things like resistance bands, TRX bands, or bodyweight-only exercises to get great strength gains without the need for heavy, space-consuming weights.

Watch this video to learn how to set up an at-home workout schedule that's right for YOU!

10 Exercises for Building Muscles With Light Weights

When you work certain muscle groups, light weights are actually better at certain angles.

For example, if you are doing shoulder exercises that focus on the rotator cuff, you have to use lighter weights.

But you can also work large muscle groups with light weighst!

Some of the best exercises to do with small weights work multiple muscle groups, known as compound movements.

There are a number of recommended reps listed, but if you feel like you need to do more to fully fatigue your muscles definitely go for it!

1. Lateral Raise to Front Raise

This is a perfect shoulder exercise for using light weights.

Since you are lifting the weights out to the sides and in front of you at 90-degree angles, you really don’t want to use anything too heavy as this will lead to poor form and injuries.

  • Hold a pair of light dumbbells by your side while standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Your palms should be facing in.
  • Raise your arms straight out to the sides to shoulder level.
  • Slowly lower back down.
  • Then raise your arms straight out in front of you and lower back down.
  • This is one rep.
  • Go for three sets of 8–10 reps.

2. Triceps Kickbacks

  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing your torso.
  • Keep your back straight with a slight bend in the knees and bend forward at the waist.
  • Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your upper arms close to your torso and parallel to the floor.
  • Your forearms should be directed towards the floor as you hold the weights, with a 90-degree angle between your forearm and upper arm.
  • This is your starting position.
  • Keep your upper arm stationary and contract your triceps to extend the weights behind you until your arms are fully extended.
  • Focus on moving the forearms and try not to swing the upper arms.
  • After a brief pause at the top slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position to complete one rep.

3. Renegade Rows

This is an awesome compound move that targets your core and back.

You really have to contract your abdominal muscles to hold your body steady as you complete each row.

  • Assume a plank position and grasp two dumbbells on the floor shoulder-width apart.
  • While holding your right arm stationary, row the left dumbbell up and to the side of your rib cage.
  • Engage your core and keep your body stable as you slowly lower the dumbbell back down.
  • Then repeat on the other side.
  • Complete 10-12 reps on each side.

Watch this video to discover the proper form with both dumbbells and kettlebells, along with some in-depth routine recommendations to direct renegade rows towards your specific fitness goals.

4. Supermans

This full-body exercise will strengthen your back, arms, shoulders, butt, and hamstrings all at the same time.

  • Lie on your stomach with your arms and legs extended out straight, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Engage your core and lift your arms, chest and legs off the ground.
  • Pause for a moment, then release back down.
  • Repeat 8-10 times.

5. Curl to Push-Up Burpees

This is a killer full-body move that will get you ripped while just using light weights.

  • Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
  • Curl up into a standard bicep curl then lower your arms back down.
  • While still holding the dumbbells, lower your body to place the dumbbells on the floor about shoulder-width apart.
  • Kick your legs back so that you are in a push-up position.
  • Do one push up, then jump your knees back into your chest.
  • Stand up to complete one rep.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.

6. Squat to Shoulder Press

You can make the most of using light weights by targeting multiple muscle groups at once, and this move hits everything — quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, and upper body.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing away from you.
  • Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground or slightly lower while keeping the dumbbells at your shoulders.
  • As you stand back up from the squat, extend your arms to push the weights up into the air above your shoulders.
  • Extend your legs at the same rate you extend your arms.
  • Lower your arms back down to your shoulders.
  • Repeat 8-10 reps for three sets total.

If you've never done squats before, learn how to do them without weights with this proper bodyweight squat technique.

7. Curl to Reverse Lunge to Row

  • Stand upright while holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Curl the weights up to your shoulder then lower back down.
  • Now step back with your left foot into a lunge.
  • Hold briefly then return your left foot back to the starting position.
  • Then hinge forward at your hips and bend your elbows to pull the dumbbells toward your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body.
  • Straighten your arms and lower back down.
  • Repeat the curl, lunge, row for 6-8 reps with the left leg.
  • Then repeat lunging back with the right leg for 6-8 reps.
  • Perform three sets total.

8. Bridge Tricep Extensions

  • Begin by lying on your back with your legs bent and your feet flat on the ground.
  • Hold a dumbbell in both hands with your arms extended straight out in front of your face.
  • Push your butt up into a glute bridge position.
  • While keeping your arms straight, lower the dumbbell back behind your head.
  • Then lift it back up until it is over your chest.
  • Repeat for 10-12 reps.

9. 180 Jump Squats with Dumbbell

This plyometric move will get your heart pumping and seriously work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

  • Start in a deep squat while holding a light dumbbell in front of you at chest level.
  • You can hold each end of the dumbbell in one of your hands.
  • Now jump up from the squat and spin to the left 180 degrees (halfway around), so that you are facing the opposite direction.
  • Land softly in a deep squat.
  • Repeat, but reverse directions so you jump spinning to the right and go back the way you came.
  • This completes one rep.
  • Try to repeat 10-12 times

10. Turkish Get-Ups

This exercise seems complicated at first.

But once you get the hang of it, you will see that this is a great move to build muscle while using light weights.

It works both your upper and lower body and also requires core stabilization to maintain proper form.

  • Choose a lighter weight dumbbell or kettlebell.
  • Start lying on your side and roll onto your back holding the weight close to your body with both hands.
  • Move the weight into your right hand and extend your right arm up into the air.
  • Bring your right heel close to your butt.
  • Drive through your right heel and roll to your left elbow.
  • Push down with your left hand to a sitting position.
  • Then bring your left leg under your right leg and behind you until your left hand, left knee, and left foot are in a straight line.
  • Sit on your left heel and go into a tall kneel.
  • Then bring your left leg around until you are in a lunge position.
  • Stand up.
  • Then reverse your movements to go back to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side of your body.
  • Try to do 6-8 reps on each side for three sets total.

Want another great low-weight workout? Try this under 15-minute resistance band workout!

Light Weights Can Get Big Results

So don’t think that you have to lift heavy loads to get strong and fit.

While many programs have you lifting heavier lifts at lower reps, you can ramp up the number of reps when you're lifting less weight and still build muscle.

And to really increase your potential for muscle growth it’s important to know that muscle protein synthesis is stimulated after resistance training, but then returns back to normal shortly thereafter.

Therefore, to continue with strength gains, you should try to incorporate resistance training at least twice a week, and even three times if you can work it into your schedule.

So grab some dumbbells and try out these great light weight exercises that will have you building strength and muscle in no time!

Holly Smith

Holly Smith M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is board-certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly is a keen runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast. She has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, Olympic distance triathlons, half marathons, and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

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