To get stronger, you work muscles against a resistance that progressively challenges them – without leading to injury. To build muscle size, training volume matters. For maximal muscle growth, you lift a weight that’s light enough to complete at least 6 to 8 reps before the muscle is exhausted. That’s because volume load (total number of reps multiplied by the resistance used per exercise across sets) is a factor in building muscle size. You need sufficient volume to create enough metabolic stress for growth to take place.
But, to build strength, the resistance, rather than volume, matters most, so you ideally lift a high percentage of your one-rep max. Lifting that heavy might seem a bit intimidating at first. Plus, the risk of injury is higher when you’re working with heavy weights. Here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid when lifting heavy weights to build strength.
Lifting Heavy Mistake #1: Not Training Consistent with Your Goals
For optimal strength development, experts recommend lifting at 80 to 90% off one rep max, a weight that allows you to complete 2 to 5 reps before the muscle exhausts or fails. If you can easily polish off 10 or 12 reps, you’re not lifting heavy enough to optimize strength development. You will likely increase muscle size using this approach as well as build some strength, but you won’t maximize strength gains.
Strength training is about high resistance and low reps. So, consider what your objectives are, and if you’re trying to get stronger, focus more on resistance than volume. By lifting heavy, you recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers designed for strength and train your nervous system to more efficiently activate the muscles you’re working.
What does science say? In a study involving resistance-trained men, high-resistance, low-volume training with longer rest intervals of around 3 minutes were more effective than a higher volume, moderate-resistance program with shorter rest intervals (1 minute) for building upper body strength. The study took place over an 8-week training period. So, high resistance, low volume, longer rest periods maximize strength gains.
Lifting Heavy Mistake #2: Focusing TOO Much on Weight & Not Enough on Form
The objective with strength building is to lift heavy, but form still matters. When you’re dealing with heavy resistance, proper form is critical for avoiding injury. Master proper form using lighter weights before grabbing weights and lifting at a high percentage of your one-rep max.
Lifting Heavy Mistake #3: Not Taking a Balanced Approach to Training
How balanced is your strength training agenda? The goal should be to avoid muscle imbalances. If you’re doing exercises for one muscle group, even it out with exercises that work the opposing muscle group. Example: After training your quads, do exercises that work the opposing muscles in the back of your thighs, the hamstrings. Common exercises, like squats, are more quad than hamstring focused. So, choose hamstring-focused exercises for balanced strength development.
Likewise, when you do biceps strengthening exercises, give your triceps the focused attention they deserve as well. Remember, strength imbalances increase the risk of injury and contribute to poor body alignment and posture. For example, weak hamstrings and glutes destabilize the lower back and can lead to back pain. Also, weak hammies and glutes can also lead to an anterior pelvic tilt that destroys your body’s natural alignment.
Lifting Heavy Mistake #4: Not Giving Muscles Enough Rest and Recovery Time
Training heavy is demanding on your muscles. When you lift heavy, you create microscopic tears in the muscle fibers you worked. This stress and damage elicit a series of physiological changes that help the muscles repair and, ultimately, grow in size, and become stronger. As you’ve heard, muscles adapt and become stronger during the recovery and rest phases of training, although strength training provides the impetus for these adaptations to take place. But, without enough recovery time, muscle growth and strength gains will be limited. Remember, your muscles aren’t actually resting when you are. Behind the scenes, a carefully orchestrated chain of events is taking place that allows the muscle to adapt and become stronger. If you train again while this process is going on, you interfere with these positive adaptations and with strength gains.
How long you should rest after a training session depends on how you structure your routine. If you do a split routine and work only a few muscle groups at a time, you might train as often as five or six days per week. Some muscles are resting while others are working. However, if you do a whole-body routine, you might strength train only two days per week. So, follow the golden rule. Give the muscles you worked at least a 48-hour break. This is especially important if you’re lifting heavy. Also, listen to your body. If you’re still quite sore after a 48-hour session, wait another day or two before working those muscles again.
Lifting Heavy Mistake #5: Too Many Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises work only a single muscle group or involve movement around only one joint. Classic examples are biceps curls, triceps extensions, and leg extensions. Although you can build strength with isolation exercises, assuming you use enough resistance and progressive overload, these exercises aren’t as effective for building functional strength. It’s functional strength that helps you safely and efficiently do the movements you do every day. Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups simultaneously. These include the workhorse exercises we’re most familiar – deadlifts, squats, lunges, pull-ups, shoulder presses, etc. These exercises also burn more calories as you’re working multiple muscle groups.
Does science show compound exercises are better for strength building? A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found compound exercises were more effective for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles than isolation exercises. However, not all studies show compound exercises are superior. But, they are better at teaching muscles to work together as a functional unit and are a more time efficient way to train. So, it makes sense to include more compound exercises in your routine relative to isolation exercises for more efficient use of time and for enhancing functional strength.
The Bottom Line
Know your objectives and train for those objectives. If you’re trying to develop strength by lifting heavy make sure your workout is structured around that goal. But, give your body enough rest time as well. As with anything, training is a balancing act. You want to avoid injury at all costs.
J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Feb;18(1):144-8.
Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug; 3(8): e12472.
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