Why bigger isn’t better in weight training


When it comes to building muscle in the weight room, size doesn’t matter. So before you grab the biggest weight in the rack, consider the latest study from McMaster and Waterloo universities, stating muscle size and strength are not related to the size of the weight lifted.

That’s a bold statement considering the long-held belief that the heavier the load, the bigger the muscles. But the Canadian researchers took tradition to task and found that lifting smaller weights for more repetitions was as effective at building muscle as lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions, as long as the muscle was appropriately fatigued by the end of the last rep of the set.

To be clear, the definition of a heavy load is 70 to 85 per cent of one repetition maximum (the heaviest load that you can lift once). And the recommended number of repetitions of a heavy load, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, is eight to 12 reps for one to three sets.

Taking on the ACSM, not to mention the gym rats who are wary of change, is no small task, but there were inklings a few years ago that the ACSM’s recommendations are out of date. The McMaster researchers published a couple of studies in 2010 and 2012 that foreshadowed their latest results. This most recent study, published this year in the Journal of Applied Physiology, adds to the growing evidence that bigger isn’t better.

To prove their point, the researchers gathered 49 young men with at least two years of weight training experience, divided them into two groups — one high rep and one low rep — and sent them to the gym, where they worked out four days a week for 12 weeks.

The high-rep group performed three sets of 20 to 25 reps with a load that varied between 30 and 50 per cent of one repetition max (1RM), while the low-rep group performed three sets of eight to 12 repetitions with a load between 75 and 90 per cent of 1RM. The workout consisted of five exercises that targeted both upper and lower body muscles, and each of the subjects had their loads adjusted so that they reached muscular fatigue by the last rep of each set.

At the end of the 12-week program, there was little difference between the amount of muscle and strength gained in the two groups, with the exception of the bench press, where 1RM increased to a greater extent in the low-rep group.

Also worth noting is that there was no difference between the high- and low-rep groups in the surge of muscle-building hormones reputed to occur after a weight-training workout. This suggests that strength training does little to promote a hormonal-based increase in muscular size or strength.

Keep in mind that the results of this study are based on training to muscular fatigue, or what the authors call “muscular failure.” This term can be defined as occurring when exercisers are no longer able to perform an additional repetition while maintaining good form. Basic muscle physiology suggests that only when muscles are taken to full exhaustion do they adapt by building themselves back up bigger and stronger. So the lesson learned from these results is that your muscles don’t care what size weights you lift, as long as you lift enough weight often enough to reach muscular fatigue.

Why has it taken so long to make this discovery? The study’s authors suggest that most researchers use similar training volumes (total number of reps) when studying the effects of weight training, so it makes sense that heavier weights would produce greater muscular fatigue. But when the volume of training was based on the end goal of reaching muscular failure, with the low-weight group able to perform the extra reps necessary to fatigue the muscle, the results showed similar gains in muscle strength and size. In the McMaster study, the subjects in the high-rep/low-weight group performed 38 per cent more reps than the low-rep/high-weight group.

“We propose that exercising until volitional failure with adequate volume and load (between 30-90 per cent 1RM) will sufficiently activate muscle motor units, which drives skeletal muscle hypertrophy,” said the researchers.

How does this affect the average Joe and Jill’s gym workout? It suggests that anyone looking to build muscle size and strength should focus not on the heft of the weight or an associated recommended number of repetitions, but they should ensure that they perform enough repetitions to take the muscle to full fatigue or failure.

So whether you reach exhaustion doing 50 squats while holding a couple of dumbbells or by performing six squats using a bar loaded with as much weight as you can muster, your muscles will realize the same degree of adaptation. That’s good news for anyone who routinely tries to lift too much weight in an effort to gain the best results. Being more conservative in the amount of weight you lift reduces the risk of injury and ensures that you can maintain proper form throughout your workout — something your body will thank you for later.


All kinds of Canadians neglect their feet, but that can be a life-altering decision for people with diabetes.

The chances of having a toe or foot amputated due to an infected wound are about 20 times higher for a diabetic. And a lower limb amputation often starts a spiral of decline: up to two-thirds of patients die within a year.

“There’s a high risk of death following amputation. In fact, the mortality rate is greater than some cancers,” explains Dr. Jan Hux, chief science officer for the Canadian Diabetes Association.

That organization is on a mission to remind the growing number of people with diabetes to baby their feet like never before. Thousands of Canadians are expected to lose their toes or feet each year despite advances in care that have brought the rate of amputations down among diabetics. That’s because the sheer number of people diagnosed is forecast to rise to 4.2 million by 2020.

There were 4,400 diabetes-related amputations across the country in 2008, the last year for which reliable data are available. That marked a small increase from 4,020 10 years earlier, according to the Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System.

The road to the operating room starts with foot numbness called diabetic neuropathy.

“Pain is an important defence mechanism. If you or I had a pebble in our shoe, we wouldn’t walk three steps without taking it out. The person with diabetes will walk on it all day,” says Hux.

That creates a sore that remains unnoticed because nerves to their feet have been damaged due tohigh blood sugar and a lack of oxygen from poor blood flow. That same lack of circulation — again coupled with high blood sugar — creates the perfect environment for infections to grow.

“They’re more likely to get an injury and they’re less likely to be able to heal it,” says Hux. That’s why diabetes accounts for up to 70 per cent of all non-traumatic limb amputations.

Wayne Sidsworth, a 56-year-old management consultant from Hamilton, Ont., watched the process claim his foot in a matter of days. He had been diagnosed at 37 with type 1 diabetes and thought he had it under control. It turned out that a blockage in the main artery of his leg — likely formed before he knew he had diabetes — couldn’t be repaired through several surgeries.

He knew then his lower leg would have to come off, but was unprepared to watch a tiny cut on the sole of his foot transform from a dime-sized sore to a gangrenous limb over the course of a weekend. A surgeon removed it in an emergency operation on the Monday morning.

“I woke up at 9 o’clock without my leg,” Sidsworth recounts. “I got through that part OK. The hard part was rehabilitation, learning how to walk again.”

His advice to others? Get diagnosed. Sidsworth believes he could have avoided some of the damage by getting his blood sugar down from its sky-high levels earlier.

Hux agrees, but goes further. The CDA says 57 per cent of diabetics don’t follow doctors’ orders because they can’t afford the medical supplies to monitor their blood sugar levels or the medications that can help. As a result, only half of Canadians with type 2 diabetes have their blood glucose levels under control and therefore run the risk of slow-healing wounds along with heart diseasekidney damage and blindness. That’s why the CDA endorses proposals for a national Pharmacare program to make sure low- and middle-income patients receive proper care.

“If people can manage their blood sugars well and have the resources they need to do that, then the damage to the nerves won’t happen. This cascade can be avoided where a barefoot walk in the park leads to a below-the-knee amputation,” says Hux.

Sole searching

Foot care advice from the Canadian Diabetes Association:

  • Wear shoes that fit with clean socks.
  • Avoid going barefoot — even in the house — or wearing flip-flops or footwear that presses in one spot.
  • Check your feet daily for cuts, sores and cracks, using a hand mirror to see the bottoms if needed.
  • Don’t use over-the-counter corn and wart removers.
  • Seek help if you notice a wound. Foot specialists can offer advice for protecting a sore.
  • The CDA’s Clothesline program is collecting gently used shoes to distribute to homeless shelters across Canada. For more information call 1-800-505-5525 or download the Clothesline app to find the nearest drop box.

Diabetes in brief

Blood sugar. The key factor in all diabetes is the body’s inability to process sugar. It can be caused by a lack of insulin — the hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate it — or insulin resistance, which is a key indicator of pre-diabetes. Regular finger-prick blood tests throughout the day show diabetics their blood sugar levels so they make changes in food intake, exercise or medication to keep them stable. Uncontrolled high blood sugar causes damage throughout the body. Prolonged high or low blood sugar can cause a diabetic coma.

Type 1 diabetes. Also known as juvenile diabetes, the disease is often diagnosed in children and teens and typically require insulin injections to stabilize blood sugar. It accounts for about 10 per cent of cases and is a serious chronic illness that requires a lifetime of attention.

Type 2 diabetes. This condition is a fast-growing plague in North America that now makes up 90 per cent of all diabetes. It can be brought on by carrying extra weight, a lack of exercise and poor diet. It can sometimes be controlled by lifestyle changes. Damage to the body accumulates the longer it goes uncontrolled.

The epidemic. In 2000, 1.3 million Canadians had diabetes. Ten years later that number more than doubled to 2.7 million. It affects every sphere of society, but has hit First Nations particularly hard, with prevalence about 40-per-cent higher than the rest of Canada.

Sources: Canadian Diabetes Association, National Diabetes Surveillance System

Vancouver Sun

The Secret to Healthy Digestion? Start With Water

(NC) Everybody wants to have a healthy stomach, yet when it comes to understanding our digestive systems, many Canadians are wet behind the ears.

A recent study by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation revealed that common problems like heartburn and constipation affect millions of people, yet many of those who suffer are not receiving effective treatment.

If you too, are looking to take control of your digestive health, the first step is simple: just add water. Continue reading The Secret to Healthy Digestion? Start With Water