Why You Shouldn’t Always Focus on Lifting Heavy Weights

When it comes to strength training, the goal is pretty straight forward. Use good technique, hit the number of reps assigned, and when it gets too easy, add weight and repeat. That’s what makes gains happen in terms of strength and muscle.

But things aren’t always quite that linear. (If they were, everyone would eventually wind up benching 300 pounds). And sometimes, it’s critical to break away from the add-weight-and-repeat narrative. That may be because you don’t have big weights at your disposal. Or it may be because a lift simply isn’t meant for big weights.

This is the key thing to understand because not all lifts can be progressed at light speed.

Stop Going Heavy in the Assistance Exercises

The truth of the matter is this: When it comes to big stuff – deadlifts and squats, for example – a real argument can be made that doing low-rep sets and continually piling on weight has its place. It’s worth challenging yourself on these lifts, partly because you’re challenging your entire body, and your entire body can respond to the heavy weight you’re trying to push.

But then there are so-called “accessory” lifts. These exercises don’t always let you capitalize on your full-body strength as much. Sometimes, you’re isolating muscles, as you do on dumbbell curls, or, say, cable crossover chest flies. On other occasions, you’re challenging your stability while training other muscles, as you might do on, say, a Bulgarian split squat or a Turkish Getup.

And these lifts aren’t built for you to pack on the poundage. On those classic big lifts, like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, you may generally go heavy. But these other exercises either carve details into muscles or they’re meant to supplement those heavier-weight moves. You may not get as much from a three-rep set of Bulgarian split squats as you would from a three-rep set of classic back or front squats.

Strength Isn’t the Goal of Every Lift

As much as you may put emphasis on the importance of adding load, for accessory moves, you should be putting just as much emphasis on their patterning, mobility benefits, and just how they can aid the big stuff. Most accessory lifts are meant to zero in on target muscles and “weak links” in a way a big deadlift or squat can’t. Respect that quality and use these moves accordingly, so they can help. A split squat, for example will eventually aid in your overall squatting ability, but in the moment, it’s challenging balance in a new way.

It shouldn’t be our goal to conquer the entire cable stack when we do our face pulls. Save that for barbell rows or landmine rows.

One way to organize all of this: Think about doing one heavy weight lift every workout, whether that’s a squat, deadlift, or bench press. Follow with lighter-weight accessory motions, like biceps curls, skullcrushers, and lunges, and keep the reps on these motions higher. They’re meant to support that big lift and make it better, not be trained the same way you’d hit that big lift.

Reserve really heavy weight for the bigger lifts, and focus more on reps and quality contractions for the accessory work. That’s the real way to have a healthy, strong, muscular physique that will serve you well through the test of time.

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