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?

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NEPTUNE1939 9/18/2020
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Thankfully my crossfit coach helps me decide Report
Thanks. Report
Thanks you Report
Good to know! Thanks. Report
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Thanks for the great information! :) Report
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thank you Report
Thank you Report
For me, this was a really, really helpful article. Thanks Nicole! Report
I increase my weight when the weight I am lifting feels too easy. I like your plan of how and when to increase; this is great for someone like me who likes routine and structure. What I am trying to find out is, is there a time when we should stop increasing weight? I know I have limited strength but when will I know that I have reached it? Report
Interesting post that begs yet another question. Obviously, we can't keep increasing weight forever. To make it really absurd say bicep curls with 200 pound weights. Even Hulk Hogan would have trouble with that. So when is enough, enough? What is a good criteria to figure out topping out? Report
I usually increase the weight I lift by five pounds at each session. Report
BTVAD why not raise the number or reps by 15 percent, the again til you're working 50 percent or even a hundred percent harder, then maybe the 50 percent higher weight will be not such a big deal as long as you work only the number of reps that you are able to do well. Report
Thanks for the info, but what about those of us who don't use weight machines? I use all free weights now, but my gym only carries weights in 5lb increments. It is a LOT harder to add weight when the only option is to go from 10 pounds to 15 for my triceps, or from 15 to 20 for my shoulders, and it seems like a great way to get injured. How do I transition from one weight to another when it means adding 33% instead of 10 or 15? Report
I go to Curves. While their program is great and I like the idea of no men in the gym, there isn't much change in the resistance of the machines. They depend on varying the intensity of the workout, which works to a point but after a while the whole thing just gets kinda boring with the same machines, the same music, and the same "change stations now" every 30 seconds.

Wouldn't it be nice if they could make their program more personalized? Report
This is helpful. My question is how do you know when have you reached enough weight for maintenance? Report
I start increasing the weight when the reps start getting easier. I may not be able to do as many reps but I sure start feeling stronger. At 52, I know I have to push, push, push myself. In the long run, it sure is worth it! It makes me feel great when friends at the gym will even comment on how I look. Don't give up fellow Sparkstars!! Report
Thanks for the great info! I have asked the question to the trainers at the gym numerous times, but never got a real answer! I appreciate the clarification on the subject! Report
Sometimes I use light weight and do more reps and sometimes I use heavier and do less. It depends on how I feel at the time. I do always try to work to my limit without getting out of good form. Report
I do periodically increase the amount of weight I lift because I need the challenge, but I don't do it uniformly. I may increase the weight for one exercise, say shoulder press, but increase the weight for chest press. Once my body adapts to that change, then I increase the weight of a different exercise. That's worked for me. Report
Very timely article, Coach Nicole! Thank you for clarifying this question.

I use the "Nautilus" machines at my office gym twice a week. I'm more interested in doing cardio to maintain my weight, but I recognize that I need the strength training to keep my shape and strengthen the muscles to keep my bones strong, too! I do 3 sets of 15 reps (or try to, at least); once I get to 3 sets of 15 on one weight, I increase the weight. Then I work up to 3 sets of 15 again. I always do 3 sets, wait 30-60 seconds between sets, and focus on form while performing the rep. If I "break form," then I know I've fatigued the muscles enough to stop the reps. I always warm up before lifting by walking 10-15 minutes on the treadmill or recumbent bike (I start reps on my legs first), and after finishing my sets, I'll walk 10-15 minutes to cool down. I also make sure to stretch (especially my arms) after the strength training, so that I'm not too sore the next day for my cardio workout. I generally don't do cardio on the days I strength train, other than the warm-up and cool-down on the treadmill or recumbent bike. Report
Great info - thanks! Report
I understand. Report
I don't really lift ... not because I'm afraid of getting big & bulky, I just spend more time running & doing non-weight lifting strength training. Report
I am currently lifting 7 pound and 10 pound weights. I also lift a 15 pound weight. This article was helpful. When I first started lifting weights I didn't think I'd like it so much but I do. I also use Tony Litttle's easy shaper. It's a 1 pound pole with stretch bands attached to it. You can tighten up the bands for more resistance. I love using it. And I use it 2 times a week. Report
You might be surprised to hear that I increase the weight I lift every single I time I go to the gym; three times a week.

I expect to continue this way for some time. Once I plateau I'll switch to a periodization model where I lift medium one workout, light the next and heavy the next. In this way we can continue to grow stronger and stronger for years.

This may not be your goal and that's fine. But to those who think you have to take this very slowly, there's nothing in your DNA to support that belief. As long as you use good form every time you lift a weight and you don't have big lapses in your workouts, you can add a bit every time just as I do... young/old, man/woman, strong/weak. We all react basically the same way to the resistance.

We all reach a point where we just can't improve as quickly anymore - in other words the strength gains will slow as we get closer to our genetic potential. But in my experience, most people aren't anywhere near that level and never realize how much they can achieve with discipline and hard work. Report
When I started SparkPeople a year and a half ago I was using 1 lb. weights or soup cans. Now I am ready to go on the 5 lb. weights because my 3 lb. weights are feeling like they aren't difficult enough. I am excited about this. I use a stretchy band more than weights and think that has made a lot of difference in my arm muscles.

SparkPeople bootcamps like the 28 Day Bootcamp and the Sweatsuit to Swimsuit Bootcamp are good for me because they have me lifting weights and doing other strength exercises. Report
excellent advice, thank you Report
This article has been very helpful and timely. Report
This is the impetus I needed to increase the amount of weight I lift. Some of my sets are way too easy and it's definitely time for a change. No more than 10% though. Thanks for a great blog. Very timely for me! Report
Thanks for the article Nicole, I know I've read this many times, but my one question is, do you ever reach a weight and not be able to move beyond it? I know we all have our limits. I've been lifting weights now for about eight years and have moved between different machines (the gym, bowflex and now my own home gym), so I've been able to start where I'm comfortable and add from there. I do have some that I seem to stay the same at. Does that mean I need to find another strength training move for that muscle for a while or have I reached my limit? Also, I of course am getting older, so do you eventually start to lose strength? Report
Perfect timing! I was wondering about that. Another question - where should I start if I've been sick and haven't been lifting for a week or two? With cold and flu season here, I'm sure there are others wondering the same. Report
Thanks so much for the article Nicole, I was just begining to wonder, when should I start thinking about increasing the weight. But I am glad you suggested increasing the reps first & then go up in weight. Good article! Report