One of the more common questions I’m asked is when to increase the weight for an exercise.
This is an important topic, since using the right amount of weight determines whether or not you’ll get the results you’re looking for.
There’s no exact rule for how and when to add weight to your exercises. If you’re just starting out though, here are two simple guidelines to remember:
- Push the weight a little each session
- Small increases work best
You’re not trying to use as much weight as possible every time you step in the gym. We want quality reps every time we attempt an exercise, no matter what.
If the weight is too heavy, your technique breaks down, you won’t get enough reps for the intended training effect, and an injury is more likely.
You’ll also run into problems by using too little resistance. You might get a lot of reps and “feel the burn”, but there won’t be enough of a stimulus for the body to adapt and grow.
Like a hungry Goldilocks searching for the right bowl of porridge, we have to find a weight that’s “just right”.
What is a weight that’s “just right”?
You want to find a weight that is “challenging, but doable” for the target number of reps.
You should be able to maintain good form throughout the set, struggling or “grinding” for maybe the last rep or two. If your form breaks down, the set is done.
If you come up a rep or two short, that’s fine. Stay with this weight until you can complete the set.
“Ok, that’s helpful and all, but how do I know when to increase?”
If you get all reps with no break in exercise technique…
When the set is done and you feel like you could’ve done 3 or more additional reps…
Increase the weight for that exercise.
Small increases work best. You can always add on the next set if you feel you can do more.
I recommend small increases because if you add too much weight your reps will drop too low and you won’t get the intended effect. You also risk exhausting yourself too soon and a possible injury by adding too much weight.
What is a small increase?
Add enough to make the exercise “challenging, but doable” as I mentioned above.
Once you get some strength and confidence under your belt, you’ll have a better idea of how much weight to add for each exercise.
Typically, larger muscle groups and multi-joint exercises allow you to make bigger increases. You might be able to add 20 or 30 pounds between sets of squats, while you might only add 5-10 pounds on a biceps curl.
Don’t worry too much about the numbers right now.
You’ll see more progress with consistent training and by developing good technique than obsessing over a using certain amount of weight. Strength will come in time so learn the ropes, develop a good foundation, and enjoy your time in the gym!
Form comes first
Get your technique as tight as possible before you add a lot of weight to an exercise. It should be pretty much the same with a heavy weight as it would with lighter weights.
If you’re progressing on an exercise and notice a breakdown at a certain weight, back down and work at a slightly lighter weight longer to fix your technique.
This may sound boring, but your lifting technique matters! Not only to ensure the correct muscles are working, but also for when things get heavy later on.
At some point you’re going to have an “Oh s#*!” moment where you panic and feel like you’re going to lose control during a hard set.
Build your technique and ability to control the weight and yourself during lighter sets. Trust me, you do not want to wait until you have something heavy in your hands, on your back, or over your face to learn how to concentrate!
Never sacrifice form for adding more weight to the bar.
It may sound like I’m repeating myself, but it really is that important. Lifting for “bragging rights” is a fast way to get injured and watch all your progress fly away while you take time off to recover. It is good to push yourself, but be smart about it. If you want to test your strength, plan for it in advance so you can come at it fresh physically and mentally prepared.
Leave some gas in the tank, and don’t burn yourself out trying to lift as much as possible or doing reps to failure all the time.