If you’ve picked up a pair of dumbbells, sank into a bodyweight squat, or held a plank at some point recently, give yourself a pat on the back: You’re engaging in an activity that simultaneously strengthens your bones, boosts your brain health, and could even stave off obesity. (It’s also something only one-third of the country’s adults do on a regular basis!)
And while slotting time for strength training is a definite accomplishment on its own, if you’re not putting much thought into your routine and instead just go through the motions without really challenging yourself with a heavy weight when lifting, you could be seriously short-changing yourself, says Danyele Wilson, C.P.T., a trainer for the app Tone & Sculpt.
That’s because in order to reap the benefits of strength training (including those listed above!), you have to push your muscles hard enough that they respond by adapting and growing. So, if the weight you’re using isn’t pushing you—you’re kiiiinda wasting your time.
The simple solution? Pile on the pounds. Here’s the lowdown on the major benefits associated with heavy lifting, plus the tell-tale signs you might not be lifting heavy enough and how to get your results back on track.
3 Benefits Of Heavy Lifting
Whatever your reason for being skeptical about lifting heavier weights, don’t let it stop you from getting in on the muscle- and mind-building action. Whether you’re concerned about looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger (ladies, we promise it’s impossible) or just doubt the effort is really worth it, allow these major perks of heavy resistance training to convince you to pick up that weight:
1. Your muscle strength and tone will improve
This one might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but the strength you gain with heavy resistance training is also what directly contributes to enhanced joint function, bone density, and ligament strength and flexibility, Wilson says.
2. You’ll move through life more powerfully (and gracefully)
“Using maximal loads for compound (or multi-joint) movements improves intermuscular coordination,” says Wilson. Basically: Big, heavy lifts help your entire body move more efficiently as a unit.
3. You’ll feel like a badass
“Heavy resistance training can help boost your self-confidence and sense of independence while improving your body image and mood,” explains Wilson. Seriously, it’s a straight shot to feeling accomplished, capable, and downright impressed by what your body can do.
5 Signs You’re Not Lifting Heavy Enough
Whether you’re still getting your feet wet with resistance training or are an experienced lifter, challenging your muscles with ample weight is an absolute requirement for making gains—but it’s not always as clear as day that you need to up the ante.
Here are five tell-tale signs that typically mean you can, and should, go harder with the weights.
1. You can get through all of your reps pretty easily
“Generally speaking, if you’re easily able to complete the final few repetitions of your final set of any given exercise, you’re probably not lifting heavy enough,” explains exercise physiologist Jacque Crockford, CPT, a personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
That said, just how many reps per set you do depends on your goals, so keep the following ranges in mind:
- General muscular strength: 8 to 15 reps
- Muscular endurance: 12 reps or more
- Muscular hypertrophy: 6 to 12 reps
- Muscular strength: 6 reps or less
- Power (think explosive barbell lifts): 1 to 2 reps
“For example, if your goal is muscular strength and the weight you select is light enough that you can easily complete all six reps each time, you’ve selected the wrong weight and won’t reach your strength goals,” Crockford explains.
2. You’ve been lifting the same weight for months
Listen, we’ve all been there: You close out a particularly stressful day at the gym, hoping to retreat and zone out entirely into your lifting space, so you put your brain (and routine) on autopilot.
While there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to leave the world behind come workout time, you need to stay present—and challenged—in order to reap the benefits of strength training. “Your muscles adapt over time, which is why progressive overload is so important to avoid a strength plateau,” Wilson says.
So, what’s progressive overload, then? Basically, it’s the principle of “progressively” tacking on more difficulty to your workouts in order to keep seeing results. You can up the overall difficulty of your routine by working out more frequently, changing the tempo at which you move through reps, and switching up exercises (or modalities) entirely, according to ACE. When it comes to strength training, in particular, incrementally increasing your resistance reigns supreme.
If you can complete all the reps and sets of a given exercise without tapping into some serious willpower toward the end of each set, add roughly five percent to your load, Crockford recommends.
3. You can ponder the meaning of Life while working out
Maybe save the zone-out for the elliptical. “If you are able to mindlessly move through your [strength] workouts with no need to concentrate on what you’re doing, then you may need to increase your weights,” suggests Wilson. When the weight you use provides an ample challenge, you’ll need to really focus on pumping out those remaining reps before the fatigue really settles in.
4. You never feel sore
Delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) often sinks in anywhere between 24 hours and 48 hours after a strength training session—and indicates that you’ve put enough stress on your muscles to create micro-tears within them, explains Crockford.
While feeling super-sore after your workouts might seem like a sure sign of a solid session, you don’t have to experience DOMS in order to have benefited from your training, Crockford notes. In fact, if you get really sore after every workout, you may actually be putting too much stress on your body.
That being said, if you never feel a little bit sore in the days following your strength-training session, it could indicate that you need to up your intensity—especially if you’ve been lifting consistently for a few weeks or more, she says.
5. You haven’t seen any sign of gains outside of the gym
Muscle size isn’t always synonymous with strength, but if you’ve focused your resistance training on hypertrophy (that’s sets of six to 12 reps), you should see some difference in your muscles after roughly a month or so of (challenging) strength training, says Wilson. If that time comes and goes without any sign of bigger guns, you may not be lifting heavy enough to really stimulate growth.
The same goes for the progress you can’t see in the mirror. “If you’re less fatigued after climbing a flight of stairs you go up and down every day, for example, you might have increased your muscular strength or endurance,” Crockford notes. But if everyday tasks and activities like climbing stairs, lifting heavy grocery bags, or carrying your kid around don’t feel any easier, consider it a sign that you can kick things up in the gym.
How To Start Lifting Heavier (And Maximize Your Results)
If you’ve realized you need to step it up in the weights department, don’t beat yourself up over any progress you’ve missed out on—but don’t just go reaching for the next set of dumbbells, either.
Before you do anything, get clear on your specific training goal first (see those rep ranges above) to determine the number of reps you should tap out at during your workouts. Then, during your next workout, choose a weight you think will make it challenging—but not impossible—to make it through all of your sets and reps, Crockford says. (Remember, don’t sacrifice form for the sake of going heavier!)
If you finish each set with relative ease, up your total load by about five percent. That means grabbing the 12-pounders when you typically use 10s. Just this slight increase in intensity will move the needle on your progress.