Weight training has a sweet spot, a point where the load is heavy enough to make gains but not so heavy as to cause injury. Your muscles need enough of a challenge to grow, but you don’t want to grab a weight you can’t handle, pump out reps using bad form, and injure yourself. It happens all the time! Whether due to vanity or lack of knowledge, men and women sometimes take on more than they’re ready when they strength train. Some end up with a lingering injury. Don’t become a statistic!
When you first start weight training, you don’t have to worry about increasing the weight. Any resistance is novel to your muscles. At this stage, the focus should be on mastering the mechanics of the exercise. In fact, it’s best to master a new exercise first using only your own body weight. When you aren’t distracted by dumbbells or a barbell, you can focus on getting your form right. Once you can execute the movement perfectly, you can introduce another variable like dumbbells or barbells, based on the principle of progressive overload. Too often, people hit the ground running by grabbing weights from the get-go and push through the exercise without proper preparation. But you should only add barbells or dumbbells once you’ve mastered the movement without weights.
During the body weight stage, you also can watch yourself in the mirror or have someone assess your form and ensure you’re not “cheating” by using momentum or doing potentially damaging things like arching your back. If you fail to do this, you may develop habits that will be hard to correct later on. Get it right the first time!
How Much Weight Should You Add?
Once you’ve mastered an exercise without weights, how much resistance should you add when you first start out? Choose a weight that you can lift 10 times. At the end of 10 reps, your muscles should be fatigued, and it should be hard to do another rep using good form. In the beginning, that weight will work well for you as it’s challenging enough to thoroughly fatigue the muscles.
As time passes, you’ll reach a point that the tenth rep no longer feels hard. No longer do you feel the burn when you approach that tenth rep and you feel like you could do another rep or two. If you tack another rep or two on to the end of a set and thoroughly fatigue the muscles, you ARE using progressive overload. You haven’t increased the resistance, but you’ve added more volume. The added volume is a novel stimulus that will cause your muscles to grow. But, if you’re trying to get stronger, you’ll make greater strength gains if you force the muscles to work against a heavier load. That means increasing the weight over time.
How much should you increase the weight to add progressive overload? It depends on the type of exercise you’re doing. If it’s a compound lift where you’re working multiple muscle groups at the same time, you can comfortably increase the resistance more than for an isolation exercise where you’re working a single muscle group.
For isolation exercises, like biceps curls and triceps extensions, an increase of 2.5 pounds is appropriate. But, if it’s a compound exercise, you can double that amount or more. You might up the weight by 5 to 10 pounds. For a lower body exercise, you might even go up by 15 pounds since the lower body can tolerate more weight. Again, you shouldn’t be able to do more than 10 reps and the last rep should be difficult to complete with good form.
How do you know if you’re increasing the weight too quickly? If your form suffers, you start using momentum or start arching your back, you’re moving too quickly. Step back to your previous weight and stay there until you’re using correct form.
You might modify the weight based on your goals too. For pure strength gains, lifting heavier and doing fewer reps maximizes results. In this case, you would choose heavier weights you can only lift 4 to 6 times before your muscles are exhausted. But for muscle hypertrophy, performing a higher volume and keeping the working muscles under tension longer maximizes gains. Using a weight you can complete between 8 to 10 reps is appropriate. Aim for 3 sets total.
Also, be patient when you feel you aren’t progressing as fast as you’d like to be. Progress doesn’t always occur in a straight line. You may even have setbacks where you’re able to lift a heavier weight one day for 10 reps and the next session you can only eke 7 or 8. A number of factors, including hydration, nutrition, hours of sleep, and stress, can impact your performance on a given day. Gains don’t always occur in a straight line. So, don’t revamp your training based on a few sessions of poor performance. You’re a work in progress, and progress occurs at varying rates and time tables based on a variety of factors.
The Bottom Line
It’s better to advance your training slower than to risk injury. Remember, there’s no deadline for getting stronger. Listen to your body! When that last few reps no longer fatigues your muscles, add a little more challenge. Test a higher weight and see how many reps you can comfortably do. Don’t be afraid to scale back if causes discomfort or your form falls apart. You should be able to maintain proper form throughout the set. Be conservative with how quickly you increase the weight, but don’t sell yourself short. You won’t continue to make gains unless you use progressive overload. There are other ways to do that, including increasing training volume, but at some point, you’ll need to increase the weight if you want to get stronger. Now, you can have a better idea of how to do that!
· Medscape.com. “Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults” (2010)
· EMedicine Health. “Resistance Training”