The point of lifting weights is to challenge your body, such that your body rises to the challenge by building muscle. The more you lift, the stronger you get. And yet, too many people get talked out of ever putting some fucking weight on the bar.
This pervasive message — that light weights are good enough and heavy weights aren’t that important — seems friendly at first but sets people up to fail. Internalizing this message can take the form of perfecting your technique until you feel like you’ve “earned” your right to add weight, or of overthinking your choice of accessories, the specific foods you eat, or the supplements you take.
This shyness about heavy weight is especially pervasive among women, although people of all genders can be susceptible to it. Many gimmicky fitness products perpetuate this message, convincing us with their marketing that their cheap, lightweight product is just as good as a whole gym full of barbells. Heavy weights can be scary; it’s no wonder people hesitate to actually lift them.
You can do better than air squats
This particular rant was inspired by a Shape article I saw the other day, although I want to be clear this is a phenomenon larger than any one article. The article’s tweet promises readers will get “more booty-boosting, thigh-tightening benefits out of every squat” and the headline aims to tell you six ways you’re “squatting wrong.” The article is illustrated with an image of a woman doing a squat without any added weight.
Six tips, and none of them are "put some fucking weight on the bar" https://t.co/BbTBxAiOt6
— Beth Skwarecki (@BethSkw) June 24, 2021
The truth is, if somebody is squatting without weight, and they want to get more out of each squat, they need to use some goddamn weight. Air squats are a fine way for beginners to get started, but once you can do ten or so, it’s time to move on. Past that point, air squats are giving you a mild stimulus to improve muscular endurance and possibly cardio endurance, but they’re doing very little for your overall strength. You’ll still feel tired at the end of your workout, but you won’t have done much to improve your strength for next time. Or to put it another way: Sticking with a too-light variation is setting yourself up to fail.
The tips in the article are all minor tweaks to technique. While they’re not all bad advice, none of these are going to have nearly the same impact on your thighs and booty as loading up the bar.
(And while we’re at it, why do articles aimed at women assume we want to “tighten” our muscles, which is not even a thing? Why can’t they be about getting stronger or building muscle, which is what strength training actually does?)
People tend to select weights that are too light
Anecdotally, I’ve seen this a lot: A person, often a woman, gets the idea they want to strength train. So far, so good. They pick up a light weight, and lift it. Great! But then, instead of trying the next heavier weight to see if they can lift that too, they stick with the lighter one.
I’ve casually coached some friends and acquaintances (plus my own kids), and often I need to ask the person, “Can you do more?” And often, somebody who thought they had done a challenging workout is able to add substantially more weight when they know somebody expects them to be able to. Two hundred pounds instead of 100 on the leg press, for example.
There have been several studies that ask people to choose a weight to exercise with, and then test people’s strength to see whether that weight was actually a good pick. In this study, women chose weights that were between 42% and 51% of their one rep max when they were asked to select a weight for a set of 10 — an actual 10-rep max is usually 75%. This study with both men and women still found that people’s average pick was under 60%. We’re sandbagging ourselves.
Stop overthinking it
It’s fascinating to watch the question-and-answer threads in fitness-related subreddits. I saw somebody recently complain that they weren’t getting results from weight training, so what supplements should they take? I saw another person, a beginner who was probably using too-light weights in the first place, get the advice to lift even less so they could focus on their “mind muscle connection.” Every day, there are countless form checks posted by people using weight that is far too light, and countless questions about exactly which type of curl is best for the biceps, or whether it’s ok to split up your workouts in X number of days.
These are all details. Mind-muscle connection doesn’t make a difference in muscle activation if you’re lifting heavy enough weights. Even the best supplements aren’t going to make a significant difference in muscle growth if you don’t lift enough weights.
So if you want to focus on these things, that’s great — just do it it while you are lifting heavy enough weights. If you want to perfect your deadlift form, that’s great! Work on it while you are lifting appropriately heavy weight. Want to try a different curl variation? Cool, as long as you know that all the curls will build muscle if you do them heavy enough and you do enough of them.
You bust a plateau by lifting more
Another aspect of this hesitation to lift heavy is to be constantly afraid of injury and overtraining. Actual overtraining is a medical condition that has been studied in endurance sports; it’s not the same thing as feeling a bit tired or sore after lifting. Injury is also overblown in many people’s minds, and doesn’t happen just because your form is slightly imperfect or your weights are a bit heavier than last time. Sure, if you’ve never squatted more than 45 kg, walking 315 out of the rack might be a bad idea. But if you work up to heavier weight over time, it’s not dangerous.
And another word on how to lift more: you can do more sets of an exercise. Minimalist programs are popular with beginners and with busy people, but if you have time to do more than the bare minimum, it will pay off. And if you only do the bare minimum, it might not work for you for very long. As Greg Nuckols points out in an article appropriately titled “More Is More”:
If you’re not making progress, your default thought shouldn’t simply be, “time to find an exciting new program!” It should be either “time to add more work to my current program” or “time to seek out a new program that employs more volume than my current one.”
So please don’t be afraid to lift more. Especially if you’ve been working out and haven’t seen results, or if your newbie gains have tailed off, ask yourself if you can lift more — and if you don’t want to, do you have a good reason, or are you just nervous about it?