LEVELLING UP: WHEN TO PUSH AND WHEN TO PACE YOURSELF
Weightlifting is a matter of science. Simply put, you need to strain your muscles to produce the conditions for muscle growth. Most people find this easy to do when they first begin training because their range of weights is relatively limited.
As time goes on, however, it can be difficult to know which weights are fit for purpose and whether your workout is as effective as it could be. In this post, we’ll explain how to tell when it’s time to change your weights and guide you on the best ways of doing so.
When should you increase the amount you’re lifting?
There are two ways to increase the intensity of your weightlifting session. The first is to go for a heavier weight and the second is to do more reps and/or sets of the same weight.
Decide whether you’re going for bulk, or lean mass
If you want to build bulky muscle mass and increase your size, then you should opt for the former. If your goal is to build strength endurance then you should be focussing on the latter. For more guidance on this, see [our previous post]. Your personal fitness goals will determine which is the right choice, but a good long-term programme will inevitably involve both.
Hitting a plateux doesn’t mean it’s time to increase weights
It’s a mistake to think that a plateau is a sign that you need to increase your weights. Your body isn’t a machine that makes X% progress with every workout. Change happens in waves and so a plateau is natural. The true indicator of when it’s time to increase your weights is comfort. Quite obviously, if you’re going to the gym and smashing out reps without too much effort then it’s time to level up. However, this isn’t all we mean by comfort.
Try the 2 for 2 test to see if it’s time to lift more
A popular and useful test is the ‘2 for 2’ test. If you can do 2 more reps with a weight than you could when you first began lifting it, for 2 workouts in a row, then it’s time to increase your weight size or change your reps (e.g. if you’re only doing 4 reps then add reps, not weight; if you’re doing 8-10 reps, add weight).
This is where keeping a gym diary becomes really useful. Having accurate stats from each workout and being able to compare them makes for a more measured approach to training that can garner better results.
How to increase your weights
Haphazardly increasing the intensity of your weights is a recipe for an injury. To keep yourself safe, there’s a structure to follow when levelling up your weightlifting sessions. As already mentioned, heavier weights build bulk and increased reps build strength endurance.
When training your upper body, which is anything above your waist, a rule of thumb is to add on about 5% of what you were lifting when you satisfied the ‘2 for 2’ test. For your lower body, this changes to 10%.
We say about 5% or 10% because it all depends on where you are in your training. Obviously, if you’re already on heavy weights adding 5% or 10% is going to be a bigger increase than if you were on lighter ones. This increases the risk of injury. The body isn’t a machine and there’s no guarantee it can handle X% extra each time.
Keeping track of how you feel during and after a workout in your gym diary will help you spot the signs of over-exertion. Remember, just because you can lift it doesn’t mean you should.
Should you increase the weight, or the reps?
In terms of increasing reps to build endurance, there’s a balance to be struck between the number of reps per set, the time between sets, and the total number of sets.
A decent number of reps ranges between 15-20 and rest time should be kept to 30-60 seconds. Play around with your reps and rest time, adding more and taking away until you can do longer sets with little break time. If you’re doing more than 3 or 4 sets, it’s probably time to move up in weight (by following the 5%/10% guidance).
The gym diary
We’ve already said it but it’s worth repeating, keep a gym diary! A lot of people start recording their workouts when they first begin training but stop once they’ve become comfortable with their gym routine.
The point of a diary isn’t just to plan and tick off exercises, it’s a vault of personal data that can be used to set sensible goals and progress towards them. Moreover, if you strain or injure yourself, analysing the data can reveal the signs you need to watch out for to avoid future recurrences.
Get into the good habit of planning your workouts, not just scheduling them, and recording how you performed in the gym and how you felt afterwards. Using your gym diary as a reference, deciding whether to level up your weightlifting should be crystal clear.
References & Further Reading
- How To Build Biceps At Home Fast
- Medical News Today – Study finds varying the amount lifted can increase muscle strength
- NCBI – Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training
- TheLancet.com – Increased weight loading reduces body weight and body fat in obese subjects – A proof of concept randomized clinical trial
- NHS – How to improve your strength and flexibility