I am often asked how to know what weight someone should be lifting, and how often it should be increased. I have to remind myself how I felt when I first started lifting and how I was not really pushing myself to the limit, despite what I thought.
When you start lifting weights, pick a repetition range such as 8 to 10 for the main lifts including the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press. For other accessory exercises try a range of 10 to 12 repetitions.
First and foremost, you must record all of your workouts. Write down the exercises, the weight you used, and the number of sets and repetitions you completed. Take note of how the weight felt. I don’t expect you to take pages of notes in the gym – a simple trick I use is to draw a star to the right of the weight if I felt like I could increase the weight next time, or draw a star to the left of the number if I felt the weight was too heavy and I need to regress. If the weight was perfect, I draw a dash.
When you are confident, increase the weight by the smallest increment possible – an extra plate on either side of the barbell, the next heaviest set of dumbbells or the next plate on a machine. The last two to three repetitions of a lift should be challenging, without sacrificing form. If you are truly pushing yourself, you should be breathing hard, grunting and doubting that the weight will get back up. If you can bang out 15 reps without batting an eyelid, you’re doing it wrong (and it is for this reason I don’t like being limited by a certain number of reps).
If you are nervous about blindly increasing the weight, a helpful alternative method is to aim to beat your previous number of repetitions. For example, I can squat 70kg (154lbs) for five repetitions. If I try to perform one extra repetition every couple of weeks, I should be able to complete eight repetitions at 70kg in 8-10 weeks. Once I have reached that stage, I would increase the weight to 72.5kg and start again with five repetitions.
By increasing the number of repetitions before increasing the weight, you also reduce the impact of what feels like a huge jump in weights. Many women have weak shoulder muscles and would struggle to press 8kg (17lb) dumbbells. Most gyms have dumbbells that increase by 2kg (or worse – at my gym, the increments are in 2.5kg and 5kg as they get heavier!), which means a 4kg total increase. If a woman can press 8kg dumbbells 10 times, she could probably only press 10kg dumbbells five or six times. Most seem to try it once and then go back to their ‘safe’ weight, because they feel like a failure for lifting in a lower rep range. By aiming to increase the number of repetitions first, you will be able to press the heavier weights for a higher number of reps.
There is no right time to increase the weight you are lifting. Most beginners (those with less than a year of lifting experience) can easily increase their weights every 2-3 weeks, but those who are more advanced are more likely to only increase their weights every couple of months.
Make sure you are focusing your efforts on the right type of exercises. Unfortunately, all too often I see people stall on their squats and deadlifts – usually because they are afraid of lifting more or because they have convinced themselves they have reached their limit – only to be trying to hit PRs on tricep pushdowns and bicep curls. I cringe every time I see someone bragging about curling 25 dumbbells. Yes, I can curl 25s, and I have been able to for a long time, but my bicep strength has come from doing exercises such as chin ups and rows – not preacher curls.
Finally, make sure you are not underestimating yourself. Men tend to go into the gym and throw around as much weight as possible in a show of pride, but women are often afraid of truly pushing their limits. When I first started lifting, Rob used to fight with me in the gym (in a nice way, I swear!) because he didn’t think I was pushing myself hard enough. When he told me to try the heavier weight, I usually responded with “I can’t”. I’m pleased to say that I never utter those words anymore. I’ve learnt that there are only two outcomes: I try and I succeed; or I try and I fail, knowing that I will soon succeed.
I usually encourage people to start maxing out on deadlifts first as, assuming their form is correct, the worst that can happen is the bar won’t budge. You don’t have to worry about the weight crashing down on you or pinning you to a bench. Once you become comfortable with that, try pushing failure on the other main lifts. It becomes addictive!
Ultimately, if you have to ask whether you’re lifting heavy enough, you probably aren’t. Your body will constantly adapt to the load you place it under so in order to continually see results, you must constantly challenge it.
How often do you increase your weights?