The concept of getting “toned“ can mean different things to different people. Muscle tone typically refers to the degree to which you have some amount of visible muscle definition, even at rest.
Getting toned by working out is a process that involves simultaneously increasing lean body mass so that your muscles are larger and stronger and reducing body fat so that your muscles are not concealed under a layer of thicker subcutaneous fat.
One of the most common questions that beginners ask is, “Can you get toned lifting light weights?“ Keep reading to find out!
We will cover:
- What Does It Mean to Lift Light Weights?
- 5 Benefits of Lifting Light Weights
- 9 Tips for Getting Toned Lifting Light Weights
Let’s dive in!
What Does It Mean to Lift Light Weights?
Most people are aware that lifting weights can help you build muscle, but the general guiding principle in resistance training is that lifting heavier weights will result in more significant muscle growth.
Hypertrophy, which is the process of building muscle mass, is said to be supported most effectively when your strength training workouts involve lifting weights that are 65 to 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the exercise.
For example, if you want to increase the size of your quads and glutes, if you can squat 200 pounds for one repetition at an all-out effort, you would want to be squatting 130-170 pounds during your hypertrophy training workouts.
Furthermore, in the standard hypertrophy training protocol, you complete 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise at 65 to 85% of your 1RM load weight.
The reason that heavier weights are typically implicated if you want to effectively increase lean body mass is that you have to overload the muscles significantly enough to cause structural damage to the muscle.
Microtears in the muscle fibers are what trigger the process of muscle growth, termed myofibrillar protein synthesis, or muscle protein synthesis for short.
With that said, there is evidence to suggest that you can build muscle and get toned by lifting light weights.
What do we mean by “light weights“?
There isn’t necessarily one definitive definition for what constitutes as light weight in strength training.
Of course, the entire concept of lifting light weight is relative. What may be a “light weight“ for one person doing a given exercise might be beyond the one repetition maximum or “super heavy“ for another person.
Even within the same individual, what constitutes as light weight for one exercise could be a very heavy weight for another exercise. For example, you might be able to do a front squat very easily with 40-pound dumbbells but would not be able to do a single overhead shoulder press with the same weight.
With that in mind, the following are helpful guidelines to try to quantify the descriptive term “lifting light weights”:
- If you can perform more than 15 repetitions with good form and proper technique, you are lifting light weights.
- If the weight that you are using for an exercise is approximately 55 to 60% of your 1RM for the exercise, you are using a light weight.
Can You Build Muscle Lifting Light Weights?
General fitness training principles suggest that lifting lighter weight is ideal if you want to increase muscular endurance because you can perform more reps, but most people do not consider lifting light weights the most effective approach to building muscle.
With that said, numerous research studies have demonstrated that it is possible to build muscle by lifting light weights.
For example, one study found no significant differences in the amount of muscle growth between people who lifted weights using moderate loads equal to their 10-repetition maximum (the weight they could lift for exactly 10 repetitions at an all-out effort) compared to individuals who lifted with light weights equal to their 20-rep max.
Similarly, a large review found that overall, novice and recreational weightlifters who trained with light weights less than 60% of their 1RM or that they could use to perform a minimum of 15 reps experienced roughly the same increase in muscle growth as novice and recreational lifters who used loads between 60-70% or more of their 1RM for the exercise.
It’s important to note that the increases in muscle hypertrophy lifting light weights were more significant in untrained lifters compared to experienced athletes.
Therefore, it might be that the muscle-building benefits of lifting lighter weight decrease as your training level and overall muscular strength increase.
With that said, there is also evidence to suggest that it is possible to build muscle by lifting light weights even if you are an experienced, fit weight lifter, as long as you perform the set to failure.
This might mean doing a very high number of reps, depending on the relative intensity of the load you are using and the overall workout format.
Essentially, using light weights and lifting to failure will involve a higher number of reps if you are doing a total-body workout that includes only one or two exercises per muscle group separated by exercises that use alternative muscle groups.
For example, if you are doing a deadlift with light weights and the only other leg exercise in the workout is a squat, you will probably need to do 20 to 30 or more reps using a load equivalent to 55 to 60% of your 1RM for deadlifts to reach complete failure.
On the other hand, if you are doing a body part split workout routine and focusing on just a certain subset of muscles or muscle groups during the workout, or you perform supersets with exercises back to back that target the same muscle groups, you can lift light weights to failure quicker.
For example, if you are following a push-pull strength training workout routine and you are performing exercises like push-ups, bench press, and dumbbell chest press all in the same workout, you can sequence the exercises together in a row and reach fatigue using light weights rather quickly, as these three exercises all work the same muscle groups.
The main takeaway is that it is possible to build muscle by lifting light weights as long as you are either untrained or perform at least 20 to 30 reps per set or perform your sets to failure.
However, in these studies, greater hypertrophy results were seen in the untrained individuals who lifted light loads than those with more lifting experience.
5 Benefits of Lifting Light Weights
In addition to potentially helping you increase muscle mass, the following are some of the benefits of lifting light weights:
#1: Lifting Light Weights Is Beginner Friendly
When you are just getting started lifting weights, it is really important to use proper form and learn the correct technique. This can be challenging to do when you are also juggling the need to support heavy weight.
For this reason, lifting light weights can be beneficial for beginners as a way to master proper form and develop neuromuscular coordination for heavier loads in the future.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that even lifting light weights can be as effective at stimulating muscle growth as lifting heavier loads for beginners, as long as sets involve 15 to 20 repetitions or more.
#2: Lifting Light Weights Reduces the Risk of Injury
Lifting heavier weight increases the risk of injury because it overloads your body. Lifting light weights can be safer, particularly if you are rehabbing an injury, because there will be less load on your muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues.
#3: Lifting Light Weights Increases Muscle Endurance
If you perform your sets to failure, or complete 20 to 30 reps per exercise, lifting light weights is a great way to increase muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance refers to the ability of your muscles to continually generate force without fatiguing.
As one of the five components of health-related fitness, muscular endurance is useful in any type of endurance aerobic activity such as running, cycling, triathlon, distance swimming, rowing, and longer cardio workouts on stair steppers, elliptical machines, etc.
#4: Lifting Light Weights Can Be Safer for Seniors
Strength training should not cease just because you are aging. In fact, studies suggest that elderly adults in their 70s and 80s can still build muscle through structured resistance training programs.
However, elderly individuals who are either frail or struggle with balance and coordination can lift light weights more safely than risking falling or losing balance while holding a heavy weight.
#5: Lifting Light Weights Can Help You Get More Toned
Lifting weights can help you get toned as long as you are doing your sets to failure so that you build muscle mass and burn enough calories in your workouts, and follow a nutritious, calorie-controlled diet that puts you in a caloric deficit so that you lose body fat.
9 Tips for Getting Toned Lifting Light Weights
The key to getting toned by lifting light weights is to focus on both strengthening your muscles in your workouts and reducing your body fat through diet and exercise.
Here are some tips for how to get toned by lifting light weights:
#1: Increase the Length of Your Workouts
Lifting light weights will not burn as many calories per minute as lifting heavier weights because the intensity of the exercise is significantly lower.
Fewer muscle fibers will be recruited to contract and lift a light weight, reducing the energy demand and need to elevate your heart rate compared to high-intensity strength training with heavy weights.
Therefore, you will have to do longer workouts.
#2: Perform Sets to Failure
As mentioned, to maximize the benefits of lifting light weights, perform your exercises to failure or complete at least 20 to 30 reps per exercise.
#3: Add Aerobic Exercise
It can be difficult to do strength training with heavy weights before or after cardio exercise, but if you are lifting light weights, you might be able to also do some aerobic exercise in the same workout session.
Doing so will increase the number of calories that you burn, helping you lose more body fat.
#4: Sequence Exercises Strategically
You can challenge your muscles and increase the difficulty of your strength training workout with light weights by performing exercises back to back in supersets that use the same muscles. This will lead to faster fatigue.
#5: Be Mindful of Your Diet
If you want to lose body fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit.
Keep track of your caloric intake and try to maintain a moderate caloric deficit of at least 500 calories per day through diet and exercise. This will help you achieve one pound of fat loss per week.
#6: Lift Light Weights Every Day
It should be possible to lift light weights every day because your muscle fibers should recover in about 24 hours after muscular endurance workouts.
With that said, taking at least one rest day per week is advisable to support recovery.
#7: Perform More Sets, Reps, and Exercises
Bulk up your workouts by doing more exercises and a higher number of sets and reps per exercise. Aim for 15 to 20 exercises, 15 to 30 reps per exercise, and 3 to 5 sets per workout, depending on your fitness level and training goals (beginners should do less).
#8: Slow Down
Slow down the tempo of each rep, resisting the force of gravity on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise, and incorporate pauses at the sticking point to induce an isometric hold.
#9: Lift Heavy Weights Too
Instead of lifting light weights every day, vary your strength training routine by lifting light weights some days and heavier weights other days to challenge your muscles in different ways.
Ready to get fit and toned by lifting light weights? For an extensive list of compound exercises that you can add to your strength training programs, check out our Complete List Of Compound Exercises To Spice Up Your Training.