You Asked: When Should I Increase the Weight I Lift?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
A few weeks ago, I answered explained how to pick the right weight for strength training. While it seemed to answer a lot of people's questions, it also brought up new ones—like when to increase the amount of weight you lift. No need to worry! I am going to answer that question—plus let you know exactly HOW MUCH to increase your weight by—in today's You Asked post.

How do you know when it's time to lift more weight?

Great question! But let me back up first. Why increase the weight at all? Many people are content to lift the same amount of weight for months or years, never going any higher or always stopping at their prescribed number of reps, even if it is no longer challenging. Others fear that lifting heavier weights will make them big and bulky. While the latter isn't necessarily true, especially for women (here's a prime example), the reason you should increase your weight is based on the overload principle of strength training.

In order to build strength, your muscles must work harder than they are accustomed to. This "overload" will result in increased strength as the body adapts to the stress placed upon it. Everyone begins at a certain level of strength. To become stronger, you must regularly increase the tension (weight or resistance) that your muscles work against, causing them to adapt to a new level. As the muscles respond to an overload, they will get stronger. It's kind of the whole point of strength training anyway—to get stronger and adapt to new levels of challenge. Plus doing the same thing for too long is not only boring, but it also can hinder your weight-loss and fitness results.

Now back to the main question: when do you know it's time to increase the weight. After you've selected the proper weight, continue lifting that weight until you can perform all of the designated reps in your set in good form. If you prefer lifting 8 reps in a set, aim for that. If you like to do more, like 10-12, go for it. That number of reps you perform should be based on your fitness goals or personal preference, but in general any number of reps—low, such as 6-8 or high, such as 15—will help build muscular strength as long as you are working to fatigue (another word for "overload").

When you reach your last rep, assess how you feel. Can you do one or two more? Can you do a lot more? Can you barely finish your last rep? If you can barely finish it or struggle to complete your set with good form and control, it is NOT time to increase the weight. Keep at it until that final rep starts to feel a little easier.

When you can do more reps than your prescribed goal—meaning you are no longer fatigued or overloaded by the end of your set—it's time to increase your weight. At that time, you can lift the next level on the machine or choose the next heaviest set of dumbbells you have available. At the gym, you may see those small 1/2 and 1-pound weights that can be added to weight stacks or even attached with magnets to dumbbells, and that is what they're for in many cases. Try the next set up, but aim to never increase your weight by more than 10% at a time. (So if you were lifting 50 pounds on your bench press, don't add more than 5 pounds—10%—when you're ready for more.) Do as many reps as you can with your new weight, even thought you might not be able to finish a full set like you could previously. Over time, continue adding one or two reps at a time until you can once again do your full set of repetitions in good form. Then it would be time to increase the weight again. Here's an example.

When I strength training, I like to work up to 15 reps. After I've been lifting a certain weight for awhile and feel like I can do one or two more reps before reaching fatigue, I'll do them (that totals 16 or 17 reps). Once I have been able to do a couple extra reps for two or three workout sessions, then I increase the weight by choosing the next higher weight available. I usually won't be able to reach my goal of 15 reps right off the bat with the now-heavier weight, but I'll do as many as I can—5, 7, 10, or whatever it is—until I gradually work my way up to 15 reps again. Then, as I get stronger, I'll slowly push to add one or two more reps until I reach 16 or 17, which is a sign that it's time to increase the weight again. Even if you don't do 15 reps (and I'm not suggesting for any reason that you do the same number that I do), this overall concept should still work for you. Just remember, most fitness professionals advise that you limit your increases in weight to no more than 10% at a time for safety reasons. And you're right, a weight that is exactly 10% higher is not always available; just try to stay as close to that guideline as you can.

So here is the quick and dirty summary. When it's time to lift more weight:
  • Your muscles will no longer be fatigued by lifting the number of reps you're currently doing.
  • You may feel like you could do (or will be able to do) a few more reps above and beyond your goal.
  • You should choose the next highest weight available, or about 10% more weight than what you're currently using.
When was the last time you increased the amount of weight you lift? Do you better understand when it's time to lift more weight or do you still have questions?