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The Untimely End of The Great Rachel Cosgrove Fitness Experiment (II) [lighter weights/high reps vs heavier weights/low reps?]

Posted May 20 2013 2:13am


Someone stole my book. Right off the dumbbell rack on the weight floor where I’d left it propped open with a 2-pounder. (Because what else do you do with a 2-lb dumbbell? Use it to crack pecans? Roll out dough? Do that weird forearm exercise where you curl it backwards?) In all my years of Experimenting, I’ve left a lot of things at the gym, ranging from small stuff like lip gloss and wet towels to bigger stuff like my phone. Oh, and one of my kids. (Twice. Yes, same kid. We’ve already started a fund for his therapy.) But this is the first time I’ve ever had the lost item not show up again.

Confession: I wasn’t really sad about it. Annoyed, yes. But I won’t miss Rachel’s Cosgrove’s Lose Two Dress Sizes in Two Months book. And I definitely won’t miss toting it around the weight floor. I have my reasons .

The Gym Buddies weren’t sad to see it go either. They liked it even less than I did.

The original plan was to do the whole 3-month program as written. But since I found out I was moving to Denver (next weekend, aagggh!) and I wanted to finish this Experiment with the Gym Buddies I decided to accelerate it just a bit. We ended up doing each phase for three weeks, except for the last phase which we only did for two. (Because somebody stole my book. I’m still boggled by this. Just… why?) So keep this in mind as you read my thoughts.

“Ugh, I don’t wanna do this!” “Don’t make me do this again!” “I can’t take it anymore!” were familiar refrains during both Rachel Cosgrove Experiments but the difference is that during our first go-round with her (The Female Body Breakthrough) it was usually because it hurt. There was some tough stuff in that book but while there was some whining (let’s be honest, there always is with us – we’re all moms of toddlers and clearly very susceptible to tiny-person peer pressure), we liked pushing ourselves through it anyhow. This time however, the whining was because we were bored. As in “please do not make me do another step-up because 4 sets of 15 reps on each leg means that I’ve climbed up the Eiffel tower, minus the view and bragging rights and HOLY CRAP WHY ARE WE STILL STEPPING MAKE IT END!!!”

Don’t get me wrong, step ups (holding weights at your sides and stepping up and down on a riser, step, weight bench or box) can be a powerful exercise. Indeed, in her first book – which I affectionately called my “build a butt” workout thanks to all the glute action – step ups were a mainstay. The difference in the new book is that instead of holding heavy weights and doing less reps, this time you’re holding light weights and doing lots of reps. Which brings up an interesting and long-standing controversy in the fitness world: which is the better way to weight train? And does it matter if your goal is to get stronger versus if your goal is to “get lean” or “tone up”?

I started out hating the weights. Cardio queen that I was, I had to be dragged by my friend Nasca onto the weight floor by my hair. Once there however, she converted me to the benefits of weight training and while I won’t say that I love it like I love cardio – no way are bicep curls more fun than Zumba! – I have learned to enjoy and appreciate the iron. Since Nasca was a bodybuilder, she never let me get away with light weights (I basically started with Bill Phillips’ venerable Body For Life program) but since then I’ve tried all kinds of variations on that theme, even going so far as to do Tracy Anderson’s (in)famous workout where you never lift anything heavier than 3-lbs. (Which, I was set to think was ridiculous but when you do 100 reps, even 3 pounds will make you want to chew your own shoulder off to make the pain stop.) But after years of vacillating  do you know who convinced me that heavy weights for women were best? Rachel Cosgrove. (Okay, and CrossFit. Let’s give credit where credit is due.) Her first book was all about teaching women to get strong and not fear “bulking out.”

So I was baffled when I got her new book only to discover the models using teeeeeny dumbbells in all the examples. I won’t tell you how many arguments we had on the weight floor over whether the models were doing shoulder presses with 2-lb ‘bells or 5-lb ‘bells. But they are models (and not even fitness models – just model-models) so maybe that was a good starter weight for them? I’m totally not judging anyone who starts out weight lifting with the smaller ‘bells; we all have to start somewhere! But this time there was no instruction from Rachel to lift heavy or even how to progress your weights. It was just the pictures. So the Gym Buddies and I stuck with the heaviest weight we could handle but because the sets/reps were so long, we naturally had to go lighter than before.

But just as I was setting my stun gun on Full Snark, I read  this article in the New York Times about this very subject. And their answer surprised me:

If by “better,” you mean helps you gain muscle and strength without hurting yourself, then “the answer, to me, is pretty clear,” said Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “Lighter weights!”

In a 2012 study by Dr. Phillips and colleagues,  published in PLoS ONE , college-aged young men were randomly assigned to a weight training program in which they repeatedly lifted either 30 percent of the maximum weight possible for them until their muscles were exhausted; or 80 percent of their maximum until, again, their arms or legs were noodle-y. Afterward, both groups developed cellular changes related to muscle growth, meaning either routine would add similar amounts of muscle.

But lifting the lighter weights, Dr. Phillips said, also builds muscular endurance, far more so than grunting through fewer repetitions with heavy weights, and results in less risk of muscular injury. As a bonus, completing more repetitions with lighter weights also results in “a greater amount of total work” per session, meaning more calories burned than fewer repetitions with heavier weights. [emphasis mine]

Are the fitness tides changing again? After the past 5 or so years where “lifting heavy” has gained such popularity, are we seeing a swing back to the tiny pink dumbbell phase? And which does the research support? I’m honestly not sure. At moments like this my gut says to just do whatever I enjoy best and to heck with dueling researchers. But I can’t get over the bolded statement above. It seems so counter-intuitive to me. Can that be true?

I have seen an increasing amount of people talking about the greater risk of injury for lifting heavy as compared to lifting lighter. And my experience has shown this to be true. (My hemorrhoids from my one-rep max experiment are high fiving each other as we speak.) I’ve also heard a lot of chatter of late about how the emphasis should not be on “getting as strong as possible” or “getting big” but rather to have lean, functional muscle. Lastly, I’ve always had my qualms about the “lifting heavy won’t make you bulk out” assertion. Sure lifting heavy won’t make us big like dudes but it can certainly make us bigger than we like. And the people who say otherwise are generally the same people who post things like “10 exercises for a bubble butt!” (I swear I didn’t make that up). So if you can bulk your butt out then why would it not work the same for your quads or shoulders?

Anyhow, I think Gym Buddy Megan summed it up best when she said Drop Two Sizes… is really a prequel and not a sequel to Rachel’s first book. And considering a lot of people were intimidated by The Female Body Breakthrough or found it too difficult then I can see how this book would have a place.

MY Conclusion

As a seasoned weight lifter, I found the workouts boring and not progressing enough. I also question her reverting to the high rep/low weight theory (but like I said, maybe there’s a good reason for that?) But if you are newer to fitness and intimidated by traditional weight workouts this could be a great start for you. Also, if you liked her first book and are looking for a few more “Rachel” moves to add to your repertoire this is great. And hey, just the fact that somebody stole my book says something, right?

What’s your opinion about high reps/low weight vs low reps/heavy weight?

P.S. Megan wanted me to tell you that she thinks she went up a pants size during this Experiment, mostly in her quads. Allison, Daria and I all saw no change at all.

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