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November 1, 2021

How To Safely Increase The Weight Of Your Lifts In The Gym

In this blog, Dr. John explains how to lift heavier weight without injury.

So you're killing it in the gym! Maybe you found a great CrossFit gym, or you are weightlifiting on your own. You are consistently hitting 2-5 workout days each week. You make sure to have rest days to allow your muscles to recover. Now you're ready to start increasing your weights. But, how? Increase reps, increase sets, go heavier?! There are so many options.

I recommend letting your goals show you the way. Your goals can dictate the path that's best for you:

  • If your goals are to develop maximal strength, lifting very heavy weight for 2–6 sets of 6 or fewer reps is what you want.
  • If your goal is pure muscle growth (hypertrophy), then lifting heavy-to-moderate weights for 3–6 sets of 8–12 reps is the way to go.
  • If endurance is your goal, most experts recommend training with 2–3 sets of 12 or more reps.

Most training programs involve performing the bulk of your exercises in that 8–12 rep sweet spot for a few reasons.

  • First, it’s important to build a solid foundation in this range before working max strength with incredibly heavy loads. In this range, you’ll lift moderate loads—weights that are probably heavier than you’ve tried lifting before, but not so heavy that anything is going to give out, two seconds into your set.
  • Second, training in this range is time-efficient and allows you to get a lot of work done without each workout taking forever. Third, this rep range is middle-of-the-road enough that even if it’s mostly for muscle growth, it still does a bit of everything, improving strength and endurance as well.
  • Last but not least, most exercises are generally safe to perform in this range, whereas experts generally recommend avoiding low-rep high-weight lifts for single-joint exercises such as biceps curls and triceps extensions because such heavy weights could overstress the joint.

When trying to find your starting weight, follow this program.

  • First, choose weights that you are positive you can lift, but you might not be sure how many reps you can do before tiring. If your form falls apart after fewer than 8 reps, or if you have a ton of energy left after 12 reps, rest for a couple of minutes and repeat with a different weight (lighter or heavier, depending on how your last set went).
  • Repeat this until the weight feels right—it should be challenging, but doable. One rule I use is the 0-5 intensity scale. 0 is the easiest thing you have ever done, and 5 is the hardest. In the beginning, you want your sets to be around a 3. They should be difficult but you should still have some gas in the tank when you finish your set.

Using this method, you will be able to find your ideal starting weight! This will allow you to “build a base,” perfect your form, and gain confidence for weight increases to come.

How to know when you’re ready for a weight increase

Be aware of newbie gains! When you first start strength training, you’ll likely notice a more dramatic increase in strength than you will at any other point in your strength-training journey. That’s largely because during the first couple of weeks of any strength program, the bulk of your strength gains don’t come from putting on actual muscle. Those early strength gains are due to a combination of neurological changes—basically, your brain and muscles learning to work efficiently together so that the muscle cells fire and contract with more force.

What’s more, each person has a different upper limit to how much strength their bodies can gain.

  • The farther you are from that upper limit, or the more inexperienced you are, the more apt your muscles will be to grow.
  • As you get stronger and more experienced, it's normal for progress to slow down. At this point, most of your neurological wiring is already laid down.

So no matter what your training experience is, knowing when you’re ready to increase weight is as simple as counting reps and watching form. If you are finishing your sets and feel like you could have done 3-4 more reps with no problem, it's probably time to start thinking about an increase.

If you are ready to increase, then your goals will again tell you how.

  • If pure strength is what you're after, increase the weight by 10% and reduce your reps to 6-8 reps per set.
  • If muscle growth is your goal then increase your weight and stay at the 8-12 reps per set.
  • For endurance, don't increase the weight, just increase your reps to 12-15 per set.

One important note: If you feel like you are ready to make weight increases with deadlifts and squats before you’re ready to make weight increases with triceps extensions or biceps curls, don’t worry. That’s natural. Many people tend to be stronger on lower-body exercises, at least initially. You will likely see faster weight increases with compound, multi-joint lifts such as squats, bench presses, rows, and deadlifts than with single-joint isolation ones such as leg extensions, triceps extensions, and hamstring curls.

How to lift heavier weights safely

It’s best to look at weight increases in terms of a percentage of the weight you’ve been lifting. For example, going from 5 to 10 pounds with shoulder raises might be the same jump in poundage as going from 100 to 105 pounds with deadlifts, but one requires doubling the weight while the other accounts for a 5 percent increase in weight. Generally, you should limit week-to-week weight increases for any given lift to no more than 10 percent.

Sometimes the weights available to you might mean you have to make a larger increase if you want to increase at all. In that case, always listen to your body, pay attention to your form, and cut your reps accordingly so that you can get through them all without breaking form.

In fact, it’s totally normal to start using a heavier weight and then not be able to quite hit the top of your rep scheme at first. In a few weeks, you will be able to, and then you can up your weights again. For example, if you were doing 3 sets of 12 reps of overhead presses, you may only be able to handle 3 sets of 10 reps when you bump up the weight. If you’re still in that 8–12 rep range, that’s totally fine, and in time you’ll be back to feeling like 12 reps is easy and you'll be ready to once again increase the intensity.

How to know if you're lifting too heavy

Lifting more weight can be awesome, but lifting too much increased weight comes with some unwelcome side effects. The big one is delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Each time you increase the amount of stress you put on a muscle, more microscopic damage occurs within the muscle cells, leading to an uptick in pain during the 24 to 72 hours following your workout as the muscle repairs itself. However, just because DOMS hurts - that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. It’s a normal part of your body recovering from the stress of lifting.

  • But it’s important to differentiate between DOMS and potential overuse injuries. If a muscle hurts for more than three days after a workout or if pain comes on suddenly during training, rather than gradually afterward, you may need to ease up on the weights.

Also, beware of the dangers of our human ego. It can be tempting to get so caught up in moving more weight that you start to break down in your form. Never sacrifice form to lift more weight. This is the quickest path to injury.

So there you have it. Follow these rules to safely increase those gains:

  • Remember your goals and let them guide you.
  • Follow the 10% rule when increasing weight.
  • And don't sacrifice form for higher weights or more reps.
  • Now go kill it!
Article written by Dr. John H. Keefe IV
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