Strength training offers up a ton of benefits beyond big biceps—like preventing injury and improving overall body composition. But just going to the gym and picking up the heaviest thing you can find day in and day out isn’t going to help you maximize your potential, according to Brian Neale, C.S.C.S., performance coach and owner of Brian Neale Personal Coaching in Westchester, New York. It’s a little more complicated than that.
First Off, What Qualifies As ‘Lifting Heavy’?
If you’re lifting hard for serious strength, you’ll want to use a weight that’s 80 percent of your predicted 1RM, or one-rep max (how much you think you can lift for just one rep of an exercise) for just one to six reps per set for a total of four sets, says Neale.
How To Find Your One-Rep Max
Testing your 1RM without the supervision of a coach can be a fast track to injury, but that doesn’t mean you’re outta luck if you don’t have a trainer. To find out, use the National Strength and Conditioning Association-approved method to estimate that max weight. It may not be exact, but it’ll get you pretty close!
For the exercise(s) you want to test, find a weight you can lift five times. (That fifth rep should be tough.) Let’s say, for the back squat, you perform five reps at 175 pounds. Multiply 175 pounds by 1.15 to get your predicted 1RM: 201.25 pounds, or about 200 pounds.
The Prerequisite You Need Before Lifting Heavy
Once you’ve figured out your 1RM, you’ll want to make sure you have a solid strength-training base before focusing your entire routine on going heavy.
Your body gradually adapts to be able to withstand large amounts of weight as a whole. Lifts like the back squat require core strength, strong quads and glutes, and joints that are accustomed to heavy loads,so taking time to build overall strength and condition your body to lifting will prepare you to go hard later.
Neale recommends gradually building your foundation for eight to 12 weeks before hitting the heavy loads. For the first four to six weeks, use a weight that’s about 60 percent of your 1RM for three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps. Then, for the following four to six weeks, progress to a weight that’s 70 to 75 percent of your 1RM for 3-5 sets of six to eight reps.
Time For The Big Weights
When you’re ready to focus on heavy lifting, it’s important to vary your workouts from week to week using a method called periodization. “It helps ensure that you’re maximizing your muscle-building by pushing your body without overdoing it,” says Neale.
Neale recommends adjusting your reps week-to-week as follows:
Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps (83% of one-rep max)
Week 2: 4 sets of 3 reps (90% of one-rep max)
Week 3: 4 sets of 4 reps (86% of one-rep max)
Week 4: 4 sets of 2 reps (93% of one-rep max)
So, if your predicted 1RM squat is 200 pounds, you’d use the following weights each week:
Week 1: 166 pounds (83%)
Week 2: 180 pounds (90%)
Week 3: 174 pounds (86%)
Week 4: 186 pounds (93%)
Calculate the appropriate weights for every exercise in your workouts, and voila, you’ve got a four-week periodization plan. After you finish week four, recalculate your 1RM and reset at week one, adjusting your weights accordingly. The weights you use will gradually increase month to month as you build strength, but your strategy remains the same, says Neale. Repeating this for a few months should help you see some serious strength gains.
How Much Is Too Much?
To avoid overdoing it, Neale recommends having just one heavy day per muscle group per week. But that doesn’t mean you can only squat once per week and that’s it. If you hit a muscle group a second time within a week, just use higher-rep sets of lighter weights—say three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps. You’ll hit your muscles with a slightly different strength-building stimulus and practice good technique under lighter loads.
Even if you do stick to a once-per-week schedule and keep the weights heavy, working out at this intensity may call for extra rest. “Training heavy puts a huge load on your central nervous system, so your fatigue extends beyond just the muscles you’re using,” says Neale.
That’s why it’s important to get adequate recovery time between intense workouts. If you’re feeling tired, sluggish, or extremely sore, it’s better to wait a day or two before lifting heavy again, even if you’re going from leg day to back day.
Eating ample protein (figure out just how much you need here) and banking at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night will help promote recovery and keep you going for those heavy weights, Neale adds.