How heavy should you lift when you strength train? It depends on your fitness goals, whether you’re trying to build strength and size or simply boost muscle endurance. If you’re trying to increase muscle endurance, you can do so by lifting lighter weights and doing a higher number of reps.
However, if your goal is to develop strength, lifting at a higher percentage of your one-rep max helps you get there. Hypertrophy gains, or an increase in muscle size, falls somewhere in between. You want to use a heavier weight than you would use strictly for endurance but lighter than for raw strength gains. Muscle hypertrophy occurs best with moderate weights and moderate training volume.
A good rule of thumb is to select a weight that allows you to do 6 to 12 reps before your muscles are spent. Also, to see muscles grow and change, you must use progressive overload by incrementally increasing the stress you place on the muscles you’re working. Are you doing that?
Muscles adapt and change in response to the stress you place on them. Without a progressive challenge, muscles stay the same. Are YOU lifting heavy enough to achieve your goals? Here are some signs that you need to increase the resistance if you’re trying to hypertrophy the muscles you’re working.
You Never Feel Sore
Lack of frequent muscle soreness isn’t necessarily an indicator that you’re not lifting heavy enough. However, NEVER feeling sore suggests that your muscles probably aren’t feeling the challenge. Muscles develop delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS when you introduce a novel training stimulus. This usually happens when you increase the resistance or volume or challenge your muscles in a unique way. If you never feel sore, your muscles have adapted to the stimulus you’re placing on them. Therefore, you need to modify your training in a way that forces them to work a little harder. Increasing the weight isn’t the only way to challenge your muscles more, you can manipulate a number of variables, including training volume, resistance, the exercises you do, workout frequency, the order of your exercises, rep tempo, and more. Also, making small changes can jumpstart muscle growth when you’ve reached a plateau.
You Can Easily Do Lots of Reps
If the weight you’re using on an exercise allows you to easily do 12 or more reps, you’re lifting too light, unless your goal is to build muscle endurance. Even then, you should do enough reps to fatigue the muscles you’re working. To build muscle size, the ideal weight is one you can complete 8 to 12 reps and the last rep or two is a struggle. For building strength, an even heavier weight is ideal, one you can complete fewer than 5 reps using good form. Being able to do 15 or more reps with good form is a sign you need to up the weight if your goal is muscle hypertrophy. You might enjoy the fact that you can do so many reps, but don’t expect to see a lot of change in the size or strength of your muscles. It is possible to get some muscle growth if you lift lighter weights to failure but that’s not a time-expedient way to train.
You Aren’t Feeling It When You Lift
Each time you do a rep, you should feel it in the muscles you’re working. If you feel little or no burn even toward the end of the exercise, it’s time to move the weight up. The last few reps of a set should be hard and the final one should be difficult to eke out with good form. Once you can complete 10 or so reps without a struggle, adjust the weight up. Tune in to the muscles you’re working so you know how much challenge they’re experiencing. When you no longer feel the burn or you can comfortably do 10 reps, increase the weight. Stay in tune with what your muscles are telling you!
You Haven’t Increased the Resistance in Weeks
When you’re training, the weight you’re lifting should feel easier after a few weeks and you should be able to do more reps. Your muscles are getting stronger and have more endurance! But, it’s also a signal that you need to add more weight. Believe it or not, some people never increase resistance, even when the exercise becomes easier. In fact, they just go through the motions of doing the same workout every time they train. Doing this takes progressive overload out of the equation and you won’t see steady gains. Keep a workout journal and record the weight and the number of reps. Make sure you’re seeing progress! If not, make your muscles work a little harder.
You Aren’t Making Gains
Lack of progress is one of the surest signs you’re not lifting heavy enough. If you’ve trained for months and aren’t becoming stronger or seeing signs of muscle growth, your workout is likely stagnant. If you regularly increase the weight as your muscles adapt but the gains still aren’t forthcoming, scrutinize your diet too. You need a slight calorie excess to get significant muscle growth. Calorie restriction and building muscle are in conflict with one another as one is catabolic and the other anabolic. Make sure you’re getting enough protein and are eating enough nutrient-dense foods. Keep a food journal so you REALLY know the composition of your diet and how much you’re eating.
Word of Warning
Don’t sacrifice form for weight. Increasing the weight and using sloppy form increases the risk of injury. But, don’t get stuck in a rut. Being complacent will stall your hypertrophy gains. Don’t be afraid to go heavier due to fears of bulking up. Most women don’t have the hormonal make-up to become big and bulky. By increasing the weight and pushing your body a bit harder, you’ll enjoy improvements in your physique, a lower body fat percentage, and get those beautiful curves you’re aiming for! Not to mention, the strength you gain will translate over into other aspects of your life. So, be aware of signs that you’re not lifting heavy enough and up the challenge. It’ll pay off with a fitter, healthier physique and greater functional strength.
· Active.com. “When To Increase Your Weightlifting Resistance”
· Pearson D, Faigenbaum A, Conley M, Kraemer WJ. (2000). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 22(4): 14 – 27.
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