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5 Tips for Building Muscle Without Heavy Lifting

Follow these expert tips and pack on pounds of muscle.
FACT CHECKED BY Alexa Mellardo

If your goal is to gain muscle, then you need to do strength training. There's no way around it. However, you can build muscle through strength training in various ways. For example, you can use resistance bands, lift free weights, or perform calisthenics (bodyweight) exercises. Among the many forms of strength training, weightlifting is likely what comes to mind most often when people want to build muscle. But lifting heavy isn't the only way to make gains in the gym. We spoke with an expert who breaks down exactly how to build muscle without heavy weights. By implementing other practices, like focusing on form, switching up your exercises, and eating a healthy diet, you can optimize your strength training efforts and add more muscle mass to your frame.

Packing on muscle and increasing your strength offers several health benefits, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In addition to improving your body composition, engaging in physical activity like strength training can help prevent chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, research shows that building more muscle can promote healthy aging by slowing down the natural loss of muscle that occurs with age.

To find out how to build muscle without heavy weights, we chatted with fitness expert Kate Meier, CPT, a certified personal trainer with Garage Gym Reviews, who serves up five pro tips. Read on to learn more, and next, check out 7 Best Exercises for Men to Gain Muscle Without Equipment.

Slow down your movements.

woman performing deep squat stretches for weight loss outdoors with beautiful city view

In our rapid-paced world, it's more crucial than ever to take the time to slow down. And building muscle is no exception to this principle.

"If your goal is to build muscle and you don't want to go heavy with weights, try playing with the tempo of your movements to keep your muscles engaged for longer during the exercise," Meier explains. "For example, with a light weight or bodyweight squat, take four or five seconds to descend, then stand back up at a normal pace."

You can pause briefly at the bottom of the movement, but taking time in the eccentric (descending) phase is vital for optimal strength and muscle-building, research shows. "This also works for plyometric moves like squat jumps—take your time on the way down, then explode upward for optimal muscle-building," says Meier.

Switch up your exercises.

bulgarian split squat exercise, how to get rid of leg fat

The expression "variety is the spice of life" has stood the test of time because it rings true. And one of the key ways to build muscle without lifting heavier weights is to keep your muscles guessing, according to research. Avoid stagnancy with your workouts by switching up your exercises. For example, try hitting the same muscle groups from different angles. If you do a barbell bench press to sculpt your chest on chest day, try a dumbbell bench press in your next chest workout.

"The basis of building muscles is continually challenging them, and muscles are great at adapting to what we throw at them," says Meier. "The simplest way to shake things up is to incorporate new exercises that challenge your muscles differently every few weeks. For example, if you love lunges, try Bulgarian split squats instead. If pushups are a favorite, try staggered pushups. There are endless possibilities!"

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Do muscle-building cardio.

fit woman rowing at gym to build muscle without heavy weights

It may seem counterintuitive to use cardio to build muscle since doing so requires you to be in a caloric surplus. But doing suitable types of cardio for the appropriate length can promote muscle growth by improving blood flow, cardiorespiratory health, and aerobic capacity, according to one study.

"Cardio sprints, including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, lend themselves to muscle building even without weights," says Meier. "Different cardio machines also target specific muscles. The rowing machine, for example, is essentially a seated power clean—you generate power through the legs, glutes, and core, then finish with the upper body. Likewise, the stair climber or incline treadmills are great leg-and glute-building tools."

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Master basic movements.

woman doing pushups to build muscle without heavy weights

When building muscle mass, form is more critical than weight. The better your form, the better your results—and the less likely you are to sustain an injury, according to the Mayo Clinic. If a weight is too heavy for you to perform with proper form, then decrease the weight or number of reps.

"Some of the most essential movements are also the ones people find the most challenging. These include pushups, pull-ups, planks, and squats, to name a few," states Meier. "These exercises have incredible muscle-building potential when done correctly and have countless variations, but each has technical nuances many individuals overlook."

Whether you do assisted or standard versions of these moves, consider video recording yourself to check your form, or ask a trainer to watch you perform a set to ensure your form is on point.

Pay attention to your nutrition.

cutting board with different protein foods on it in the kitchen

Your muscle gains are likely to improve with a sufficient intake of calories, protein, carbs, and other essential nutrients for muscle growth and function. Getting your fill of just the right kind and amount of protein is especially important in preserving and sculpting muscle, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

"Even if you aren't lifting heavy, ensure you get enough nutrients for your muscles to grow. This especially goes for protein, which your muscles need to repair themselves," says Meier. "Carbohydrates are also a crucial fuel source during and right after workouts, so plan meals accordingly to ensure your muscles don't get too worn down when you work out. An online calculator can be a helpful tool to figure out exactly how much you need to eat to fuel your body."

Adam Meyer
Adam is a health writer, certified holistic nutritionist, and 100% plant-based athlete. Read more about Adam