Learn how to set your initial weights on any lifting exercise and how to get stronger safely using progressive overload. This is useful for the general fitness lifter who wants to tone up or the new lifter with goals to compete in a strength sport later. Watch or read below.
You’re excited to start lifting.
You know that this is your time.
You want to tone up and get stronger.
But you’re also a little nervous about using weights because you don’t want to get hurt.
I’ll teach you a method you can use to progress safely.
I’ll explain how you pick the weights to start with, know when it’s time to lift more, and how to make the same weight that you’re using now harder if you can’t lift a little bit more.
The first way you can increase the amount of work you do with the same amount of weight is to increase the number of reps that you do.
Let’s use the example of somebody who’s going to do 3 sets with 30 pounds on a leg press machine on a Monday.
If they do 3 sets of 5 reps with 30 pounds multiply those numbers…
3 x 5 x 30 = 450
The total amount of work done for that session is 450 pounds.
Now the next time they go into the gym, say Wednesday, they’re going to do this leg press with the same weight.
But now they add one rep to each set.
So it’s now…
3 x 6 x 30 = 540
Their total work done is now 540 pounds.
From Monday to Wednesday, the total amount of work done has changed by 90 pounds!
So let’s say they go into the gym again on Saturday and do the same movement – leg press with 30 pounds.
But on this day they were able to do 7 reps for each set.
3 x 7 x 30 = 630
That gives them a total work of 630 pounds.
So over the course of this week, this person has actually done an extra 180 pounds of work!
That’s like adding four 45 pound plates to the leg press!
Now granted, you’re not doing this all at one time.
If you’re safely starting with 30 pounds, you don’t just load up an addition 180 pounds on the machine.
But by simply adding reps, you still did that much extra work and you put that much extra load on your body and your muscles.
But you didn’t do it all at one time.
Think of it like moving a pile of dirt with a wheelbarrow.
If you need to move an entire pile, you don’t do it all at one time. You make several trips.
That’s similar to what you are doing here when you add reps to your sets.
The amount of work that you add when you add a set is even more dramatic.
For this example, we’re not going to change the weight or the movement so you can make the comparison back to the last example.
Still doing a leg press with 30 pounds.
On Monday we’re going to do 3 sets of 5 reps.
3 x 5 x 30 = 450
So we start with that 450 pounds of total work done.
Then on Wednesday, instead of doing 3 sets of 5 reps, we’ll do 4 sets of 5 reps.
4 x 5 x 30 = 600
Now we’ve increased our total work done by 150 pounds by just adding 1 set!
Then the next time you work out, let’s say you do 5 sets of 5 reps of 30 pounds.
5 x 5 x 30 = 750
Your total work done is 750 at this point.
Compare that to the first workout from the beginning of the week, you’ve actually done an extra 300 pounds of work!
You can see that adding sets increases the amount of work that you’re doing over time faster than adding reps.
(This is also why adding sets will make a workout a bit harder.)
The academic term for this is the progressive overload principle.
The progressive overload principle refers to gradually increasing the demand on a target muscle group in order to make it stronger.
How you can use this information in your program?
Use this same process for any movement and for any body part:
1) Pick a weight that you can lift 5-8 times using good form without using any momentum.
There’s a little trial and error to this. If you can easily do more than 8 reps then it’s too light. If you can’t do at least five, it’s too heavy. The last couple of reps should feel harder but you should still be able to do them with proper form.
Once you find that weight, record it somewhere so you know that that’s your initial working weight.
Now do your planned sets with that movement.
2) Using that same weight, add 1 to 2 reps next time until you can do 10-12 reps. Once you can do all of your planned sets in the 10-12 rep range, it’s time to increase weight.
If you can’t increase the load yet, increase the sets by 1.
3) Add weight and drop your reps back to the 5 to 8 range.
4) Repeat this process so that you can keep progressing.
The most important aspect of lifting that keeps you safe is proper form and technique, but this process using progressive overload is how you can make sure that you’re pushing yourself hard enough – but not too hard.
Have you been using progressive overload already? I would love to know if this is something that you knew about or if this is all new to you. Tell me in the comments.
If you are a new lifter, check out this video about the three things that you need to know…
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Hi! I'm Tammy! I was a busy, stressed, and unhealthy teacher until I decided to take control of my health. I did not become an athlete until I was in my 50's!
I earned personal training and fitness nutrition certifications, then retired from teaching to dedicate my work life to fitness education for other busy women over 40.
My results are obviously not typical because most people don't train to compete as a bodybuilder.
But I believe everyone can make positive changes with healthy habits! Each of us has a unique combination of strengths and challenges that need to be considered to customize a program that will work for us. Science-based principles, flexibility, and consistency make all the difference.