No matter what your motive for lifting weights is, your goal is the same as mine or that person's next to you taking selfies: to progress. Your first instinct might be to just add more weight and lift heavier, but increasing your reps is another option. Let's tease out when each option is best.
Illustration by Nick Criscuolo.
By the time you need to think about adding more weight or the number of reps, you've figured out that your body has adapted to what those in fitness circles call your current "training stimulus" — in other words, you've made progress! Unfortunately, as you know, the journey to strength isn't a nonstop flight to funky town.
Why Your Training Progress Stalls
Before addressing the "weights or reps first" question, we need to face the elephant-sized arch-nemesis in the weight room: the lack of progress, or that no-man's land where your workouts feel easy enough, yet you're not getting any better, or feeling stronger, after a period of time. In fancy fitness lingo, you've hit a plateau.
In essence, a plateau happens when the stimulus that made you fitter and stronger the last time just isn't good enough anymore. Of course, this usually goes away when you add more weight, more reps, or both — very easily, in fact, if you've never picked up weights before. But our nemesis is a worthy opponent, and eventually, doing the same thing that worked before does jack squat…and then you plateau again.
Plateaus happen for a variety of reasons, many of which we've outlined before. Basically, you can blame your body for being so damn smart. Let's assume that the other key drivers for continual progress — sleep, general stress, and nutrition — are all copacetic and under control. That leaves these relevant possibilities for hitting plateaus:
- You're not training enough: Barring effort and intensity, your training volume, or the overall amount of "work" done, is another factor that may be holding you back. Most novice lifting programs aim to build your base slowly, mainly with fewer exercises and total sets and reps. As a newbie you lack the ability to do more, which as this study from Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research suggests helps you gain more strength and muscle, while adequately be able to recover from and handle the workload. Uber strength athletes have taken years to develop this high capacity for work. As regular Lifehacker contributor and strength coach Greg Nuckols says in an article on Ripped Body: "You can handle more work, so you can do more work, so you can reap the benefits (more size and strength) from more work."
- You're training too much: On the flip side, you might be doing way too much for your body to recover from. Wait…what? Greg explains: "As you get stronger, training simply becomes more metabolically costly. This can cause fatigue to build up during the training session itself, causing you to have issues making it through your workouts, and decreasing the quality of your training later in your workout. This directly impacts recovery, as well — it's simply harder to recover from multiple work sets where your form breaks down and you have to dig deep to grind out the last couple of reps, week in and week out."
- Your training program is too advanced for you: This reason sounds almost counterintuitive, doesn't it? The general thinking goes that the more advanced the workout, the greater the progress. ("Hell, if Arnold trained like that, I should too, to look like him!") But the pickle is that if you haven't trained very long, your body is not yet proficient enough at the exercises to truly benefit. What's more, if you use advanced methods right out of the gate, you have more limited options for changing things when the time comes to ninja out of a plateau.
You can see that making continual progress isn't as easy as saying "add more weight" or "add more reps."
So, Which Is It: Weights or Reps First?
Now to answer the very question of: should I change weight or reps first? Actually, it's form first.
No, that's not a cop-out.
Here's the thing: Maintaining proper exercise form is of chief importance if you want to make sure your muscles are actually being worked, keep your workout productive, and keep your injury risk minimal. However, those quickly fly out the window when you introduce heavy-arse weights that you're not used to. Depending on the load, your form collapses, causing you to move with the grace of a Silverback gorilla tap dancing on ice. After all, it's one thing to learn to move well with light weights (or body weight), but it's another thing entirely to move just as well with extra weight.
So, if keeping your form is your first priority, and a weight that is beyond your normal capacity breaks it down, then you should focus on changing the number of reps, or rep scheme, first in an attempt to move progress along (finally, an answer!).
So reps first, then weight. The same guideline holds true for this hypothetical situation, in which your workout program calls for 6-8 reps of squats. Here you would aim to hit the higher end of the rep range (8 reps) with good form before moving onto higher weight. Conversely, if you can bang out 8 reps while checking Twitter in-between, then yeah, you could add more weight (called a double progression).
This all ties back into the idea of increasing your training volume and doing more work in order to handle more work. Greg adds:
Increasing weight as long as you're able to is generally a good call. But when you plateau, you generally need to decrease weight and increase sets, reps, or both. This is a bit of a catch-all. If you'd plateaued because you weren't training hard enough before, doing that (increasing volume) will inherently provide a larger stimulus. If you'd plateaued because the training was too demanding to recover from, the higher volume will improve your work capacity (ability to recover from training), setting you up for more progress when you go back to adding weight again later. This isn't always fun. While you're building up your work capacity, you'll probably feel worn down, and you likely won't be making noticeable strength gains due to accumulated fatigue, but it will be worth it when you pull through on the other side.
This probably means you have to take some weight off your exercise to be able to do more reps or sets, and that's ok because that's the idea.
Both solutions help prepare your body to handle these new stressors, yes, but what'll happen a couple months or years from now? Be careful about changing too much, too soon at once.
Changing a Little Is Better Than Changing A Lot
I'm not a betting person, but I'd wager that you'd like to be able to lift weights and enjoy your strength and mobility way into your later years. If that's true, chasing that numbers high is a dangerous game. Not only does it make you prone to injury, but it hurts long-term progress.
As fitness coach and author Lyle McDonald of Body Recomposition notes in this excellent article for beginner trainees:
If someone jumps into high volumes or advanced training methods right out of the gate, they run into problems later on when they actually need to increase something. If volume is already high, increasing it further is difficult if not impossible. And if advanced methods are being used too early, there's nothing left to break plateaus when they occur later on.
Put a little bit differently, one goal of all training should always be to get the most adaptations/gains in performance with the least amount of training.
In other words, you're better off changing things slowly, bit-by-bit, rather than pulling out all the stops and running out of wiggle room too fast, too soon. That means, if you do fiddle with something, do so conservatively or change only one thing at a time. In the context of this article, that means you would focus on changing either the number of reps or weight first, and in smaller amounts. Capiche?
Putting It All Together
So, what do proper adjustments look like in a workout that has gotten stale?
Greg outlines some pointers in his article here, and adds that essentially you try changing your reps first. When you're no longer making measurable progress, try the other way — add weight. Then back to reps to keep repeating the cycle. Note that you don't have to do the same number of reps and sets every session either. You can opt to follow a sort of periodization technique, or alternate between periods of low and high reps of the same exercise.
Remember: Our primary aim is to make progress and get stronger, fitter, and faster over a period of time (can be weeks, months, or years). The other benefit to changing reps first, as Lyle points out, is that you avoid being overwhelmed and do what's achievable, helping you keep coming back to the gym long enough to make it a habit. And that's more important than anything.
Stephanie Lee is a health and fitness writer with a Sriracha problem. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter or on her YouTube channel.