We all know lifting weights is good for us, but how heavy should we go – and how do we know? Anna Bartter asks the experts
Last Christmas, one of the best presents I gifted myself was a set of adjustable dumbbells. In the past year, I’ve gone from squatting with 5kgs to using 10kgs in my snatches, but something is telling me it’s time to go heavier. I’m reluctant to fork out on a new set of weights that I might not be strong enough for, but lifting the same old set isn’t going to yield results.
So how can we tell when it’s time to go heavier, and how can we achieve this safely?
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How to start lifting heavy
Let’s start at the beginning. The benefits of strength training are well documented and it’s vital to overall fitness as an integral part of any balanced exercise regime. But if you’re not already lifting weights, it can be daunting to know where to begin.
“When you’re new to weight training, take some time to formulate a structure and a plan,” advises Stef Williams, trainer and founder of WeGLOW. “Have an idea of what exercises you’re going to do, in roughly what order and for how many reps and sets. Start by simply adding some light weights such as dumbbells to bodyweight movements you’re familiar with, like squats or lunges.
“Start off with a weight you are comfortable with and, most importantly, that allows you to maintain proper form for an exercise throughout the movement,” advises Williams. “Even if you think it might be too light, it’s better to start there, gain some confidence and build up over time.”
How to know when to lift more
“Once you’ve started with a weight and can lift that, you’ll need to increase your reps and then move up to a heavier weight and see how many reps you can do. Once your body gets used to lifting a particular weight, you need to switch to a heavier one,” advises trainer and founder of MADE, Penny Weston.
So if a set of weighted squats is leaving you more bored than breathless, it’s time to switch up. “If you can complete all of your reps fairly easily and while maintaining proper form throughout, this means you can definitely up the ante and look to use a heavier weight next time you perform that exercise,” says Williams. “Ideally you should start to really feel the challenge half to two thirds of the way through your set. Your last few reps should feel tough to the point you feel like you couldn’t do another.”
How to increase weight safely
The key piece of advice here is to go slowly. “When you feel you can increase the weight, go up in small increments such as between 1-2.5kg and make sure to keep your focus on proper form throughout the movement,” stresses Williams. “Once you’re confident with your form, you can start adding on – don’t rush the process,” she warns.
Focus on form
It’s easy to think that a weight feels too easy when, actually, a small tweak to form can make all the difference. If you’re swinging the weight to complete a move, it’s a sign that it’s too heavy for you, and while it may feel easy, you’re risking injury and not doing yourself any favours. Williams explains: “The key to lifting heavier or altering any aspect of your workout routine is ensuring you’re performing all your exercises with good form, control and tempo. Never sacrifice form for weight. This not only helps reduce any risk of injury but also ensures you’re actually working the muscle you’re trying to target.”
Increase reps, not weight
Once you’ve perfected your form with some lighter weights, it’s time to look at reps and sets. “I recommend starting with a weight that you can properly lift 10 to 15 times,” advises Weston. “Begin with one or two sets of 10 to 15 reps and then slowly progress so you can do three sets. Once you can easily do that number of sets and reps, gradually increase the weight by 5 or 10%.”
She says: “A good indicator of whether to increase your weights is how you feel at the end. If you feel you could have performed more reps easily, it’s time to think about adding more weight – you should be struggling to finish the last few reps and wanting to finish.”
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Log your progress
If you’re still unsure whether you need to switch things up, Weston recommends keeping a record of your progress. “I always advise people to keep a log of what weights they are using for different exercises,” she says. “It makes it easier to track how you are getting on and work out areas you might need to work on.”
Williams agrees that taking stock of your achievement is vital. “Remember to reflect on your progress, where the weight you once found heavy now feels lighter,” she stresses, “because the workouts don’t get easier, you get stronger.”
Don’t forget to look after yourself
Once you’re settled into a routine where you’re confident you’re challenging yourself, it’s easy to lose focus and forget the basics, but it’s important to listen to your body.
“Remember that strength is a journey and there is no timeline on your health and fitness,” advises Williams. “Don’t feel the pressure to lift heavier if your body or mind aren’t ready. Start light, focus on good form and control and make sure you pay attention to your nutrition. Our bodies need nutritious and sufficient fuel to ensure we can both get the most out of and recover properly from our workouts.”
So go ahead and add an extra plate to your barbell, just be sure to do it safely and sensibly.
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