When it comes to resistance training, there are several different types of strength you could be trying to build: muscular endurance, max strength, or power, just to name a few. But the one thing they all have in common is that, in order to continue seeing improvement and gains, you’ve got to apply a concept called “progressive overload” to your workout plans. A big part of that is figuring out when it’s time to start lifting heavier weights.
“Basically, progressive overload is when you are going to gradually increase your weight, your frequency, and/or your reps in a strength routine,” says personal trainer Bianca Vesco. If you don’t continually kick things up a notch, your muscles will get used to exerting a certain amount of strength or force, but no more than that. “Over time, our muscles are gonna adapt to whatever stress we put them under, and we must once again increase the weight or the intensity,” Vesco says, “and that is the marker of progress.”
Progressive overload will look different for everyone, depending on their fitness level and goals. “Strength training is never gonna be a one size fits all, which is an awesome thing,” Vesco says. But there are some universal signs that it’s time to start lifting heavier weights.
How to tell when the load you’re lifting is too light
If you’re new to lifting weights, the best way to figure out how to progress your practice is by working with a trainer, who can assess your form and help you figure out what a realistic next step is for you. But if you’re flying solo, Vesco recently shared a few easy ways to tell whether it’s time to start lifting heavier weights on her Instagram.
You can get through all of your reps pretty easily.
You’ve been using the same weights for months.
You have no problem zoning out during your sets.
You’re never sore or fatigued.
What the right weights will feel like
No matter where you are on your weight-lifting journey, the way trainers are taught to recommend weight is by suggesting something that feels challenging by your last two to three reps of a set. “If you’re, like, really rocking on progressive overload, that last rep, you struggle a little bit,” Vesco says.
Settling on the right weight takes some guesswork, and often, when you’re figuring it out, you may incrementally go up from one set to the next if the weight you used the first go-round felt too easy toward the end. Generally speaking though, the higher the reps, the lower the weight, and vice versa—but it should always feel challenging toward the end of your set regardless.
Keep in mind that progress isn’t linear
As a personal trainer, Vesco says she gives about 30 sessions per week and 80 percent of her clients are females. Every one of them is on their own, personalized training program following the principle of progressive overload. But that doesn’t mean that every time she sees them, they’re necessarily adding more weight or reps to their workouts.
Before each session, Vesco says she checks with her client to see how they’re feeling and takes that intel into account when making their training plan for that day. “It’s based on their energy levels,” she says. “Do they feel like they have the energy to push through three to five really, really heavy reps, or do they wanna stay in the six to 12 rep range and push a little bit lighter.”
She uses this feedback to tweak their fitness routines to what’s going to be most effective, and suggests you do the same. It’s always important to go into a workout with a plan, but it’s equally important to understand that plans can change—and to adapt accordingly. There are so many ways to get better, faster, stronger. By listening to your body, you’re more likely to achieve those goals, without overdoing it.