You’re Probably Lifting Half As Much As You Should

You’re Probably Lifting Half As Much As You Should

It won’t be news to longtime Lifehacker readers, but a recent study confirms that a lot of us are likely training with weights that are too light. Coach and author Greg Nuckols wrote a commentary about this study, sparking a flurry of discussion online. My biggest takeaway from the reactions: Lots of people are worried that lifting heavy means they will get hurt.

In the study, which was a meta-analysis of other studies that had asked people to choose their own weights for at least one exercise, people tended to pick up a weight that was about half as much as it turned out they could actually lift. Certainly there are good reasons to use lighter weights; for example, if you’re going to do 25 reps of bench press, you’d want to use a lighter weight than if you were aiming for five reps. But the study found that even when you take that into consideration, people were still usually choosing weights that were too light even for what they were asked to do.

This doesn’t mean that everybody needs to lift heavier, but probably a lot of people should. Consider picking up heavier weights next time you’re at the gym if you:

  • Are no longer a beginner (light weights are fine to get started, but after a while, you need more stimulus)
  • Feel like you haven’t been getting stronger
  • Feel like you haven’t been gaining as much muscle mass as you’d like

What if you fall into one or more of those categories but you’re still worried about getting hurt, or you’re just intimidated by the idea of grabbing weights you’ve literally never lifted before?

It’s important to understand that heavier weights aren’t necessarily more dangerous. Injuries in the gym are not very common, and they tend to either creep up on you over time (which can happen with light weights as well as heavy ones) or they come from doing something stupid. Adding a few pounds to a lift doesn’t count as doing something stupid.

So if you’re ready to give heavier weights a try, how can you get over your fear and get ready to take on more of a challenge? Try these tips.

Set up those safeties

When people talk about how they’re afraid of going heavy, bench press is often the focus of those fears. You’re lifting a barbell over your chest, so you worry that if you can’t lift it you’ll get crushed.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to bench press safely. One is to ask somebody to stand behind you, and help you rack the bar if you aren’t able to complete the last rep by yourself. (This person is called a “spotter.”) Another is to bench in a squat cage, so that you can set the bar on the safeties and wiggle out from underneath.

And if you ever forget to set the safeties and didn’t ask for a spot, it’s actually totally fine to set the bar down on your chest (with core braced), roll the bar toward your hips, and then sit up. This is not exactly fun or comfortable, but you’ll absolutely live to tell the tale.

We describe the above manoeuvre — sometimes jokingly called the “roll of shame” — in our complete guide to failing lifts. You can also use that squat cage for squats, as it was intended. Take it from a dumdum who has failed a great many lifts over the years: anything you can do in the gym, you can fail to do safely.

Try some heavy holds and walkouts

Before we even get to lifting the heavy weights, let’s consider another way of getting comfortable: the heavy hold. This is where you take a weight you can’t bench press yet, and just hold it in your hands for a minute, then put it back on the rack. (You’ll want a spotter for this one.) Here is bench GOAT Jen Thompson explaining how to use these in training:

You can also do heavy holds for overhead press: set the safeties above head height, set the bar directly on the safeties, and load it with weight plates. Then get under the bar with straight arms, and stand it up. You can even march in place for an extra core challenge. If you have trouble, no problem — the safeties are right there, so there’s no way for the bar to fall on your head.

The equivalent for squats is the walkout: you put the bar on your back, take a few steps backward as if you were going to squat it, but then after standing there for a few seconds you walk it back in.

These exercises are great for building confidence. 91 kg isn’t going to feel like a heavy squat anymore, after you’ve had 225 on your back. You’re also still working on strength in your core and your stabilizing muscles, even if you aren’t doing the full lift.

Besides holds, you can also do partial versions of a lift. For example, a quarter squat (just bending the knees slightly) lets you work with more weight than a full squat. It’s both a confidence builder and a strength builder. The same could be said of block pulls or rack pulls, where you’re doing just the top portion of a deadlift. (Pro tip on those: use straps if your grip starts slipping.)

End with an AMRAP

AMRAP means “as many reps as possible.” Let’s say you’re doing an exercise for three sets of 10 reps. Do the first two sets at 10 reps, as usual, and then do the last set AMRAP. If you’re using an appropriate weight, you might only get 10-12 reps for that last one. But if you were able to keep going and knock out, say, 20, that’s a sign you should add at least a few pounds next time.

Some programs have AMRAPs built in, for exactly this reason. You can train with lighter weights and still be able to test yourself with that last set. Doing the AMRAP also teaches you what it feels like to hit true failure, and thus what it actually feels like to be, say, two reps away from failure. With that calibration, you’ll have an easier time choosing weights in the future, since you’ll know what a set that gets close to failure should actually feel like.


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