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Lifting Heavy Weights: How Frequently is it Truly Required?

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Weightlifting appears to have experienced a surge in popularity, and the excitement surrounding it shows no signs of fading. This is advantageous because there are numerous health benefits to engaging in strength training, not to mention the mental satisfaction of feeling like a complete badass who can effortlessly handle a barbell.

However, with the increasing interest in lifting, particularly heavy lifting, and the constant sight of people lifting weights on your Instagram feed, you might question whether it is truly healthy to always push yourself to the limits.

It is important to understand what constitutes heavy lifting before contemplating how frequently you should engage in this activity. Like many topics in the realm of health and wellness, it is not a straightforward matter and varies for each individual.

According to James M. Smoliga, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an associate professor of physiology at High Point University, the maximum amount of weight that an individual can lift for a single repetition, known as their one repetition maximum (one rep max or 1RM), defines “lifting heavy.” This implies lifting as much weight as humanly possible for you, but only for one repetition. It is worth noting that one rep maxes are occasionally done in programming for CrossFit, for instance, but they should not be incorporated into your regular workout routine unless you are a competitive powerlifter or training specifically for muscular strength.

Smoliga explains that if you lower the weight slightly so that you can perform two to three repetitions, that would also be considered a ‘heavy’ weight by most standards. However, the average person does not have a need to train with such heavy loads. The exception to this is powerlifters, who may utilize these heavy lifts to train their nervous system to gradually handle even heavier weights.

Lastly, there is “heavy lifting” for individuals who are working out to build general strength and fitness. Smoliga suggests that performing sets of four to six repetitions is the absolute minimum that the average person should aim for in a workout. On the other hand, sets of eight to twelve repetitions are generally considered an optimal range for simultaneously building strength and muscle size. Therefore, for most people, the maximum weight they can lift for eight to twelve reps of an exercise can be considered as lifting “heavy.”

In terms of the benefits of lifting heavy, whether you are exercising for health reasons or aesthetic goals, incorporating weightlifting into your routine is crucial. Stephanie Paplinskie, C.S.C.S., the founder of StrongHer Fitness, explains that studies have demonstrated a multitude of benefits for women who engage in strength training. These benefits include improved body composition, increased lean muscle mass, decreased body fat, enhanced flexibility, and increased bone density, which can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

However, you do not necessarily have to be lifting immensely heavy to acquire these advantages.

Incorporate a Variety of Strength Training

In reality, it’s actually preferable if you include a blend of different forms of strength training, ranging from lighter weights with higher repetitions to heavier weights with lower repetitions. “You should aim to incorporate a mix of intensities in your resistance training programs to ensure diversity, prevent plateaus, and reduce the risk of injury,” says Paplinskie. (See: The Distinction Between Muscular Endurance and Muscular Strength, Elaborated)

Adding some intense weight training can definitely help spice things up, though. “I believe that including some heavy lifting can be advantageous for the average individual, merely for some cognitive stimulation as a change of pace from the usual workout,” says Smoliga. “It can also be beneficial when individuals have reached a ‘plateau’ in their training,” he adds. To continue seeing results after you’ve been exercising for a while — whether you’re aiming for fat loss, strength gains, or increased lean muscle mass — incorporating some heavy lifting is a wise decision.

…But Don’t Excessively Engage in it

While your trainer and the fitness influencers you follow on IG might be getting under the barbell five or six times per week, experts say that level of frequency isn’t necessary for the average exerciser, and could even impede your progress if you are indeed pushing yourself too hard. “By pushing too hard, too frequently, the muscles and connective tissue cannot fully adapt to the training session. This may simply mean that you are enhancing your fitness, but not as efficiently as possible,” explains Smoliga.

Working out at a high intensity too often also increases your risk of developing overuse injuries (which tend to occur gradually), or overtraining syndrome. “This manifests itself in different ways, but can cause negative changes in your moods, emotions, sleep patterns, and metabolism,” says Smoliga. To avoid overtraining, here’s his general advice: Don’t focus on a specific muscle group until the soreness from the previous workout dissipates. Though the science behind recovery is a little more intricate (your muscles are still recovering even after they’re no longer sore), this is a good guideline to follow, he says.

So, how can influencers and athletes lift so frequently and still observe progress? Their lifestyle allows them more time to recuperate. “A professional athlete who exercises intensely and can then spend the remainder of the day recovering and consuming proper nutrients will be ready for the next workout much faster than a busy person working 60 hours a week for her career while also sacrificing sleep,” notes Smoliga. True that.

How Often You Should Engage in Heavy Weightlifting

Experts concur that approximately two to three days per week of heavy lifting is sufficient for the average individual. “Beginning lifters should be fine training three days per week with higher volume — at least 20 repetitions per day of each exercise,” says Melody Schoenfeld, C.S.C.S., the founder of Flawless Fitness in Pasadena, California.

To divide that into collections, for instance, you could perform three collections of eight repetitions per exercise.

And while some more experienced lifters and bodybuilders prefer to work specific muscle groups on specific days, most individuals can see advantages from doing a few total-body lifting workouts per week that incorporate the primary functional movement patterns, states Schoenfeld. “I’d recommend some kind of hip hinge movement (such as deadlifts or kettlebell swings), some form of press (such as push-ups or overhead press), some form of pull (such as rows or pull-ups), and some kind of squat or lunge,” she says.

It’s also crucial to note that intensity plays a role in gauging weightlifting workouts, and that’s a different measure than “heavy.” “You will get the most out of the workout if you put the muscle under a lot of stress,” says Smoliga. “So, if you are aiming to do three sets of 10 repetitions, that eighth, ninth, and tenth repetition of each set should start to feel very intense. I often ask the athletes I work with how many more repetitions they could have done at the end of the set. If they say more than one or two more repetitions, I definitely know they’re not using a heavy enough weight.”

So, irrespective of the number of repetitions you’re doing or what weight you’re using, you should feel like the last few repetitions are challenging, and any weight should feel “heavy” at that point.

Strategies for Heavy Lifting Beginners

Ready to get started? Here are a few final suggestions to keep in mind before you go all out. (And also check out the complete novice’s guide to lifting heavy for more guidance.)

Pain doesn’t necessarily equal gain.

Your lifting workouts should be difficult — but not excessively difficult. “You don’t need to feel like you’re on the brink of death in order to get results!” says Schoenfeld. “The key is to move really well within your training. The more fatigued you are, the more your form will deteriorate, and the higher your risk of injury will be,” she explains.

Technique takes priority.

“Mastering proper form is essential before one commences lifting heavy,” says Smoliga. “Much like a person can improve at any movement through regular practice, the same holds true for weight training. If you have practiced the movements with good form using light weights, as you progress to heavier weights, you will be more likely to continue using good form. This helps you derive the most benefit from your workout while also reducing the risk of injury,” he notes. Keep in mind that you should be wearing strength training shoes, as they provide stability and ankle support to help promote proper form while lifting.

Stick with what works.

There’s a reason why fundamental exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are present in most lifting programs.

You also don’t require as much variety as you might assume you do: Just because an exercise is novel and appealing doesn’t mean it’s necessary or particularly advantageous to your objectives. You don’t need to perform 12 different triceps exercises per workout; one will suffice,” says Schoenfeld.

Now that that’s covered, take a look at these barbell exercises everyone should master, and start lifting.

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