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Do you need to lift heavy weights to get big?

Q: One of the top bodybuilders from my gym told me you don’t need to lift heavy weights to get big. He said it’s much more important to feel the muscles contracting and to keep the muscles under tension than to lift heavy weights. He recommends doing very slow repetitions so you can feel the muscles working. He also uses a lot of machines and even cables in order to feel the muscles better. Is he right?

A: That’s an excellent question! I both agree and disagree with the person giving you advice. It is true that you do need to feel the muscles working and contracting when you are training them. Simply throwing the weights up as opposed to working the muscles is not a good way to induce muscle growth.

For example, take Olympic weightlifters. Their goal is just to get the weight overhead. They don’t care if their deltoids or lats or legs grow from the effort. They are only interested in how much weight they can lift. How they get that weight overhead is irrelevant. The person who wins the event is the one who can lift the most weight.

Bodybuilders, obviously, are very different. We don’t care how much weight we can lift; we are just trying to develop the muscles. The free weights and other weight-resistance machines that we use are simply the tools for developing our own physiques. Just as a sculptor creates a statue using his tools, we use the weights to develop our bodies.

Even so, one important rule in developing muscle mass is that “a big muscle is a strong muscle.” It’s true that after a certain point, getting stronger is not as important as training the muscles hard—but you have to get to an advanced stage before that can happen. When you’re trying to get big, you definitely need to get stronger first in order to make the muscles bigger.

Let’s take a 5’10”, 150-pound ectomorphic teenager as a case study. This kid eats everything in sight, but he can’t gain weight. He wants to get bigger and put on more muscle. If he went to the gym and applied the logic of only feeling the muscles working and keeping the tension on them, he will only make limited improvements in his physique. Will that method transform his physique into a 220-pound mass monster? I doubt it.

If our subject can only bench-press 135 pounds for eight reps, will squeezing the muscle, slowing the rep cadence and keeping more tension on the muscle for longer periods do a better job of developing more muscle? Or will he be better off using the basic exercises exclusively with a resistance that limits his repetitions to six to eight and works on developing more strength in order to achieve his goal of more size?

When building muscle, particularly in the beginning stages, it’s critical that you build your strength first. The more resistance your muscles can move for six to 10 repetitions, the bigger the muscles will get. The muscle fibers themselves will actually increase in circumference due to the overload placed on them with heavy resistance.

A beginning or intermediate bodybuilder should be using mostly barbell and dumbbell exercises. The free weights will force your muscles and nervous system to work harder and develop more strength and coordination in the execution of the movement. Building more strength by using the compound movements that stress several muscle groups at once will lead to more overall muscle.

As the strength begins to increase, more weight can be used for the correct amount of reps for building mass, which is six to 10. Imagine how much bigger our subject’s legs will be when he can squat 300 pounds for eight reps as opposed to only 150 pounds? Building more strength so you can use heavier resistance is an absolute requirement for building bigger muscles.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should be performing the exercises with good form. Throwing the weights around, not emphasizing the negative portion of each rep and generally using bad form will only lead to injury and will not help you get to your goals. That said, the emphasis should always be on using more weight and getting stronger, especially for beginning and intermediate bodybuilders.

When I was in my early 20s and was trying to increase my muscle mass from my skinny teenage years, my main emphasis in the gym was on using more weight on all the basic exercises. After warming up on a movement, I would use a resistance that would limit my repetitions to six to eight. Often, I would throw in an extra set or two for three to five reps in order to build up my strength even more.

I was constantly trying to use more weight on all the exercises I was doing because I knew that the more weight I lifted for the right number of reps, the bigger I would get. That type of training routine, along with increasing the amount of food I was eating, helped me to bulk up and drastically increase my muscle mass.

If you look at the biggest bodybuilders in the history of the sport, from the 1950s to the present, you will see that the biggest bodybuilders were also the strongest ones. From Reg Park and Bill Pearl in the ’50s and ’60s to Schwarzenegger, Columbu and Oliva in the ’70s; Platz, Haney and Fox in the ’80s; Yates, Levrone and El Sonbaty in the ’90s; and Coleman and Cutler in the 2000s up to today’s bodybuilders, the really massive ones were all very strong in order to build the impressive musculature they displayed later in their careers.

If you want to build thick, massive muscles, you will first have to develop your strength to handle more resistance for the growth-producing rep range of six to 10. Don’t believe that you can train like a pro by slowing down the repetition speed, squeeze the muscles on each rep and do more machine and cable exercises to increase the tension on the working muscles. Before you get to those advanced techniques, you need to get stronger on the basic exercises in order to get bigger.

Beginning and intermediate bodybuilders will find your strength developing naturally as long as you use the basic movements with barbells and dumbbells and don’t overtrain by doing too many exercises, too many sets or too many  workout days in a row without enough rest days.

Keep pushing yourself to train heavier by using more weight while maintaining good form. I always kept a training diary in which I would record every weight I used and how many repetitions I performed. I would try to increase either the weight or do more reps with the same weight each week.

Advanced bodybuilders would be well served by spending some time specifically designed to increase your strength. My new system, called the MP6 Cycle Training, alternates six-week cycles of power training (using heavier resistance with fewer repetitions in the three-to-five-rep range) with mass training (using resistance in the six-to-10-rep range in order to build more muscle). By alternating these cycles, you can continue to get stronger and, in the process, develop more muscle mass. You’ll find more information on this new system at

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a three-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. For information on his exciting new program, The MP6 Cycle Training, check out his Web site at and become a memeber. To attend the Natural Olympia Fitness Getaway, go to Send questions or comments to [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” as well as his new DVD “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competition” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, IM

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