If you want to get stronger or build muscle, at some point you’re going to need to lift heavier weights.
After all, strength results hinge on your ability to progressively overload your muscles, meaning you need to gradually increase the physical stress you put on a muscle to keep challenging it so that it can always be adapting and getting stronger.
In strength training, there are myriad ways to make that happen. “You can achieve progressive overload by adding sets and reps, taking less rest, using better form, or performing more challenging exercise variations,” certified personal trainer Caroline Juster, elite trainer at Fitness Formula Clubs Union Station in Chicago and online coach, tells SELF. “The most effective way to achieve progressive overload, however, is just to lift heavier weights.”
It just so happens that lifting heavier weights is also the easiest way to see and track your own progress over the weeks and months, and arguably the greatest way to get that “Damn, I’m strong!” confidence boost that comes with strength training.
Progressive overload is built into any professional training plan, but if you aren’t following one or working with a trainer closely who’s telling you “here’s how much more you need to lift today,” and figuring out exactly which weights to lift (along with when and exactly how to up the poundage over time), it can be difficult to know exactly how to do it. Knowing what to expect and how to increase weight safely, though, is extremely important for reaching your goals and staying injury-free.
Here, we lay out everything you need to know about choosing a starting weight, how to know when you’re ready for a heavier load, and exactly how to go about lifting heavier weights.
How to choose the right starting weight
“Let the reps dictate the load,” certified personal trainer Hayden Steele, C.S.C.S., an Oklahoma City–based strength coach and creator of the Shock training app, tells SELF. Translation: Decide how many reps you want to perform per set, and then home in on the amount of weight that challenges you but lets you perform all of your reps with picture-perfect form.
Your goals dictate the range of reps you should perform, and for how many sets you should do them: To develop maximal strength, lifting incredibly heavy for 2–6 sets of 6 or fewer reps is ideal, while lifting heavy-to-moderate weights for 3–6 sets of 8–12 reps is the way to go when it comes to building muscle size. Last, to improve muscular endurance, or how long a muscle can work before tuckering out, most experts recommend training with 2–3 sets of 12 or more reps.
Most training programs involve performing the bulk of 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, Erica Suter, C.S.C.S., a Baltimore-based strength coach, tells SELF.
At first, choose weights that you are positive you can lift, but might not be sure how many reps you can perform. If you tucker out after fewer than 8 reps or 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.
You’ve successfully tested and found your starting weight! The next time you perform the exercise—maybe in a few days or a week—use that same weight again, but for all sets. This will allow you to “build a base,” perfect your form, and gain confidence for weight increases to come.
How to safely lift heavier weights
“I want all my clients to increase their weights, no matter their goal,” says Juster, explaining that it’s a surefire way to improve both physical and mental strength. However, your goals ultimately dictate how heavy you need to go and exactly how you do it.
It’s best to look at weight increases in terms of a percentage of the weight you’ve been lifting, Suter says. 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 if you start using a heavier weight and then can’t 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 ready to once again increase the intensity.
Also, know that there are other ways to progress your workout if you’re not yet ready for more weight. “Don’t kill yourself to add weight every week,” Juster says. “If you’re stuck on an upper-body or isolation exercise, instead of bumping up the weights, focus on adding sets and reps, using better form, or achieving a better mind-muscle connection [really paying attention to which muscles should be working and consciously squeezing them].” Doing so can help get you over the hump to lifting heavier weights.