How lifting less could leave you stronger, according to a new study

We are increasingly aware of the importance of strength training in helping to maintain muscle mass and bone density, particularly as we age. Indeed, in September 2019, the UK Chief Medical Officers issued new guidelines on strength based exercise, now recommending adults do at least two sessions a week. 

And new research from the University of Lincoln published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that weightlifters could build more strength by alternating the amount they lift in a their weights sessions, in a technique known as velocity-based training. 

In the small study of 16 men, researchers compared the results of two groups, all of whom had at least two years’ weight lifting experience, who trained twice a week over a six-week period performing exercises like a deadlift, back squat, bench press and overhead press. One group used the traditional training method of “one rep max” – which is equivalent to the maximum weight an athlete can lift and would traditionally dictate the load for all sessions – and one used a load velocity profile in which weights were tailored so that they lift either more or less in each session.

The researchers calculated a load velocity profile which allowed them to adjust the training load for participants based on their performance that day. So if the athlete was moving the same load at a faster velocity, the weight was increased, but if they were lifting slower, the weight was reduced.

They found that all participants who used the load velocity profile increased their strength more than than those doing one rep max training, despite lifting less overall in the six-week period. 

Lead study author Dr Harry Dorrell from the University of Lincoln’s School of Sport and Exercise Science told the Standard: “The group using velocity lifted less throughout the training programme overall (as they had a lower training volume), but they got greater strength increases than the percentage based group (one rep max group) across the movements.” 

For example, the velocity group lifted 8 per cent more in bench press than they previously could, as opposed to only 4 per cent in the one rep max group, he explained. Meanwhile, with the deadlift movement, only the velocity based group saw a meaningful improvement.

“While some of these changes could be considered as only ‘small improvements’ and were similar to the group using the traditional training method, the velocity group lifted significantly less in order to see the gains they made. The idea of velocity based training has been around for a while, but until now there hasn’t been any science to prove that it actually works; the science has finally caught up,” Dorrell said in a release. 

“There are a lot of factors which can contribute to an athletes’ performance on a particular day, such as how much sleep they have had, nutrition, or motivational factors, but with traditional percentage-based methods we would have no insight into how this effects their strength,” he continued. 

“The velocity-based training enabled us to see if they were up or down on their normal performance and thus adjust the load accordingly. It’s about making sure the athlete is lifting the optimal load for them, on that particular day. If you lift too little then you won’t stimulate the body as you intend to; but if you lift too much you’ll be fatigued, which increases the risk of injury.

“This fatigue won’t necessarily happen immediately, either. You could lift too much regularly, and three weeks down the line this will catch up with you and you’ll find that the muscles are too fatigued to manage what you believe should be in your ability,” he added.


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