I was having breakfast at a coffee shop recently when I overheard a conversation between a man and woman at the next table talking about fitness and working out. They talked mostly about yoga and stretching (which is fine); then the guy started talking about his “big weightlifter friend,” and how all he ever did was lift heavy weights. They were both shaking their heads disapprovingly as the woman sadly predicted his weightlifting friend would be walking with a cane in 10 years.
This conversation proves to me there are a lot of misconceptions and negative attitudes out there toward strength training, especially toward heavy lifting. There seems to be a growing consensus among the general public that heavy lifting is dangerous, unnecessary, and for ego-driven meatheads only.
If strength training and heavy lifting is something you’ve shied away from, or if it’s just seemed unnecessary or unrelated to your fitness goals, I hope to change your mind. And assuming I succeed in convincing you, I’ve included some suggestions on how to begin.
WHAT IS STRENGTH TRAINING?
Strength training is a mode of training that uses heavy loads and fewer reps for short and intense bursts of maximal force production.
The important thing to understand about strength training is that you’re not just training your muscles to make them bigger, you’re also training the nervous system to produce maximal force and power on command. To do this, you’re going to have to shock the shit out of it with some heavy weights.
There are certainly people who should avoid training with heavy loads. Conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, and previous injury may prevent you from engaging in heavy training. If you are not sure, ask your doctor.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT HEAVY LIFTING
“Heavy lifting is dangerous. I’ll get injured.”
Heavy lifting is only dangerous if you do it without learning proper technique first. Poor form and heavy weights are a recipe for injury.
Strength training is not about jumping in unprepared and lifting weights beyond your ability. When training for strength, “lifting heavy” means working out with weights that are heavy for you, but within your safe limits. That is why having an estimate of your 1-Rep Max (1RM) is so useful. It determines where the upper limits of your lifting ability are, and from there you can safely push to develop greater strength. (See my article on THE 1-REP MAX.)
The improved strength and coordination that comes from heavy lifting actually reduces the risk of injury. It improves bone density and strengthens muscles, tendons and ligaments, which in turn protect your joints. Also, multi-joint compound lifts at the core of heavy lifting improve inter-muscular coordination (muscles working together) and core strength.
Let’s review: Stronger connective tissue, better protection for your joints, improved coordination and muscular control? Maybe you should be more worried about not lifting heavy.
“Heavy lifting is unnecessary. Why bother?”
If strength is not your primary goal, why bother lifting heavy?
The benefits of heavy lifting are not limited to strength alone. Improved sports performance, muscular endurance, weight loss, core strength, better health and wellbeing; strength training is one of the most beneficial and effective modes of training there is. Including even a modest amount of it into your gym routine will show impressive results.
Not convinced? Do a quick Internet search for “heavy lifting benefits”.
“Heavy lifting is for meatheads with big egos.”
Strength training does not require you to redirect all your workouts toward a single-minded goal of attaining demonic strength. You do not need to obsess over your max squat or brag about how much you can bench in order to benefit from heavy lifting.
Instead, enjoy the boost of confidence and self-esteem that comes from hard work and heavy training. Remind yourself that getting stronger is good for you and will help you achieve your goals. If along the way you catch the heavy lifting bug… well, I’ll see you at the squat rack my demonic friend.
HOW TO BUILD STRENGTH
There is a lot to love about training for strength. It’s straightforward and efficient. The goals are clear and progress is easy to see and measure.
The prescription for strength training is heavy weights, low reps. Follow these general guidelines for maximal strength benefits:
- Intensity (weight used): 85%-100% of your 1RM
- Volume (sets/reps): 1-6 reps per set / 10-24 total reps per exercise *
- Frequency: 1-2 strength exercises per workout – train every other day (3-4 days/week)
* Total volume (reps) for strength training varies greatly depending on intensity and ability level. See “Sets & Reps” below.
MULTI-JOINT COMPOUND LIFTS
Using a barbell, these lifts use the most muscles at once, allowing you to handle the most weight and trigger the nervous system for maximal force production.
For beginners, build your workouts around one or two strength exercises per workout. Fill out your routine with secondary or assistance exercises that complement the primary strength lifts. Here is how that might look in a 2 day split:
- Deadlifts – combined with 1-2 back/biceps exercises (back extensions, pull downs, dumbbell rows) / (ez-bar curls, isolation curls, hammer curls)
- Bench Press – combined with 1-2 chest/triceps exercises (incline bench, cable flies, push ups) / (dips, skull crushers, close grip press)
- Squats – combined with 1-2 legs/calves exercises (lunges, box jumps, lying leg curls) / (calf raises)
- Overhead Press – combined with 1-2 shoulders and traps exercises (dumbbell laterals, rear laterals, face pulls, shrugs)
Add core exercises to the end of any workout
To improve strength you have to subject the nervous system to progressively heavier loads and more demanding work.
As you cycle through your workouts, keep a log. Notate how easy or hard your sets are. If you are having an easy time, add weight each workout until you find it challenging to complete all your reps and sets. Soon enough you will be lifting at your limit. Take your time getting there.
Once you reach your limits, you will need to vary your intensity (weight) and volume (reps) in order to find strength gains where you can. Keep in mind that strength is not only improved by handling heavier and heavier weights. Increases in volume (reps) also indicate improved strength. Being able to complete even 1 additional rep at a given weight is an indication of greater strength.
SETS & REPS
For beginners I recommend sticking with a set and rep scheme that uses 5-6 reps per set. Rather than worry about weight intensity and your 1RM, start with weights that feel heavy but not too heavy to complete your sets. Your body and your nervous system will be learning the movements and laying the groundwork to handle increasingly heavier loads.
For Size & Strength – Sacrifice a small amount of weight in exchange for a little more overall volume. Shoot for a total of 24 reps using up to 80% of your 1RM. Sets should be in the 5-6 reps range.
For Maximal Strength – Go heavier and shoot for a total of 10-12 reps using 85%-100% of your 1RM. Do a couple sets at 3-5 reps, and then go even heavier for a set of 1-3 reps.
When training heavy, rest 2-3 minutes between sets, and up to 5 minutes for your heaviest sets. Muscles recover quickly, but your nervous system requires additional time to recover and prepare between bouts of heavy lifting.
WARM UP SETS
Warm-up sets are essential to allow your muscles and joints to prepare for the stress of heavy lifting. No matter how strong you are, always start with just the bar. Use as many warm-up sets as necessary to ramp up to your desired intensity.
It is recommended that you keep the reps low for warm-up sets, in order to avoid fatigue. In my experience, warm-up sets with 8-10 reps energizes me.
I usually do one “in between” set, where I do moderately heavy weight at higher reps, as a transition between my warm-up sets and my strength sets. This is a personal preference, I feel it wakes up my nervous system and gets me pumped up and psychologically ready to hit heavy weights. I encourage you to always take your time warming up and find what works for you.