When you first start strength training, strength gains come easily. In fact, you may notice you’re stronger after only a few weeks due to neurological adaptations. Who doesn’t love fast results? That’s because every exercise you do is new to your muscles and they are forced to adapt.
But, to keep making strength training gains, you need progressive overload and to lift heavy weights. Progressive overload is increasing the stress you place on your muscles in a controlled manner to force them to adapt. In turn, these adaptations lead to strength gains and muscle growth. But, over time, we don’t want muscle growth to become stagnant. With new challenge comes growth! That’s true of anything, including strength training.
The most common way to use progressive overload is to increase the resistance you use when train. If you have been doing biceps curls using 12-pound weights in each hand, grab two 15 pounders instead and do as many reps as you can. But, there are other techniques for creating progressive overload. Some other ways are:
- Increase the volume of an exercise by doing more reps
- Increase the number of sets
- Increase the training density by reducing the rest between sets
- Increase the frequency of your training (add an additional training session)
- Change the tempo of an exercise i.e. move the weight faster or slower through space
- Change the order of the exercises you do
- Increase the range-of-motion of the exercises you currently do
- Use better form on the exercises you currently do
- Change the exercises
- Use advanced training techniques, like forced reps or drop sets
All of these methods of applying progressive overload work, but in this article, we’ll focus on increasing the resistance. When you start training with heavy weights, your form needs to be spot on or your risk of injury will go up. Plus, the risk of overtraining is higher as you’re forcing your muscles to work with a weight they’re not accustomed to. Let’s look at some ways to work with heavy weights in a safe and effective manner.
Heavy Weights: Always Warm-Up Beforehand
It’s a good idea to warm up before any workout, but it’s critical if you’re using heavy weights. Warming up increases blood flow to the muscles you’ll be working and raises your core body temperature. Think of cold muscles as tight rubber bands that can more easily snap if you place sudden stress on them. Getting blood flow to your muscles and joints make your muscles more pliable and capable of moving a heavy weight through space safely.
What’s the best way to ease into a heavy resistance training workout? Begin with a dynamic warm-up by doing exercises like arms swings, kicks, jogging in place, jumping jacks, body weight squats, hip rotations, etc. to boost blood flow and raise your core temperature. Make sure you’re doing dynamic exercises that work your arms and legs.
Once you’re warm and breathing a little heavier, start your training session using light weights, around 50% of your one-rep max. Then, do a light set for every exercise in your routine to get your body acclimated to the movement.
Heavy Weights: Watch Your Form
It’s easy for form to break down when you’re using heavy weights. At best using sloppy form will limit your gains and, at worst, lead to a painful and inconvenient injury. When you do that first warm-up set using a light weight, watch yourself in the mirror to make sure your form is on par. Only when you’re convinced that you’re using proper form should you grab a heavier weight.
When you pick up a heavy weight, choose a resistance that you can complete at least 8 reps using good form. Once you’re more advanced and are familiar with the exercise, you can sometimes loosen up on your form a bit to eke out an additional rep or two. Doing this can provide the additional stimulus your muscles need to grow and gain additional strength. But, don’t try this in the beginning.
Heavy Weights: Watch the Momentum!
Avoiding momentum is an extension of using good form. If you’ve ever belonged to a gym, you’ve probably seen people using momentum to lift a weight that they really weren’t capable of lifting safely. Not only does this greatly increase the risk of injury, bouncing the weight shortens the time your muscles spend under tension, thereby reducing the benefits of the exercise. As mentioned, once you’re more advanced, you can cheat a bit in a controlled manner to force the muscles to work harder on the last rep or two. But, be judicious about cheating in the beginning to avoid injury.
Heavy Weights: Don’t Increase the Weight Too Quickly
Of course, you want to make progress, but an injury will set you back. One of the most common ways people get injured is by handling a weight they aren’t ready for or trying to increase the resistance too quickly. A good rule of thumb is to raise the resistance by 3-5% on a weekly basis and no more than that. Using this approach will ensure you’re progressively challenging your muscles without boosting your risk of injuring a muscle or overtraining. Also, increasing the weight isn’t the only way to challenge your muscles more. Refer back to the previous list of ways to use progressive overload to advance your training. Why not add an additional set or change the tempo to work your muscles in a different way.
Heavy Weights: Watch Your Breathing
How you breathe and being sure to breathe matters, especially when you’re working with heavy weights. The worst thing you can do is hold your breath, as many people do when they work with heavy resistance. Holding your breath while lifting is called the Valsalva maneuver.
Why is this risky? When you take a deep breath and hold it, your lungs expand with air and the pressure within your chest and abdomen increases. This reduces the return of blood back to the heart and can trigger a sharp increase in blood pressure. Avoid the Valsalva maneuver by exhaling during the lifting phase of the movement and inhaling as you lower the weight.
Heavy Weights: The Bottom Line
Working with heavy weights is rewarding and can lead to greater strength and muscle hypertrophy, but make sure you’re doing it safely and in a way that maximizes the benefits you get. When you began getting stronger and see more muscle definition, it’ll all be worth it.
Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug; 3(8): e12472.
Stack.com. “Holding Your Breath? It Could Be Harming Your Health and Weightlifting Form”
Baechle TR, Earle RW, eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd ed. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.
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