Originally published 4 Oct 2019. Last updated 6 November 2020.
QUESTION: “Hi, I struggle with weight training. I’m relatively new to doing it properly (as in I just started in January this year). I only have my husband’s weight blocks to use and have been trying to lift twice a week splitting upper body and lower body. My problem is I can’t lift heavy enough to work the muscle enough I don’t think. Hope that makes sense!”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. I am thrilled that you’ve been so consistent with resistance training.
I understand your question. It sounds like increasing your strength is a goal you would like to achieve.
But you’re concerned that your current routine may not be intense enough to lead to real strength gains. You’re worried that in order to increase your muscular strength, you may not be performing the right types and volume of exercise to promote this.
Lifting Heavier Weights: Out of Reach?
As someone who’s not very physically imposing (I’m only 5’6… and a 1/2), I can understand how lifting heavier weights can seem a bit out of reach. I have small wrists — so small that most adult watches don’t fit. But I’ll tell you right now, that it IS possible to lift heavier weights no matter your size.
I completely understand that some of what I’m going to share with you is from my perspective, which may be very different if you're a reader or podcast listener who identifies as female. Luckily, many of the tried and true foundational exercise physiology concepts work for most, regardless of gender.
Since you’ve been at this for several months, and haven’t achieved the goals you’ve set, it sounds like it’s time for a change.
Strength Training Guidelines
The American College of Sports Medicine is considered one of the most respected organizations when it comes to evidence-based exercise recommendations. And, luckily, they have created some strength training guidelines that we can use.
I created a chart to represent these tips and will be sure it is posted on our social media, but I will discuss them here as well.
Since your goal is to build strength, the American College of Sports Medicine says to aim for only 3-5 repetitions per set. This means, that the weight should be heavy enough so that you can only lift it 5 times maximum. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be so heavy that you can only lift it 1 time. If you’re not very experienced, trying to lift a heavy weight only 1 time (what we often refer to as your 1-rep max) can lead to injury.
You can perform multiple sets of this same exercise with the goal of getting 3-5 repetitions per set. Just know that when you lift heavy, you need a longer break in between sets to recover and regain your strength. Before picking up the weight again and trying to lift it another 3-5 times, rest those muscles for 2-3 minutes.
Finding how much weight you can lift 3-5 times will take a little bit of trial and error. So, pick up the weight, make sure your form is perfect as you perform the moves, and if you’re finding you could easily lift that weight more than 5 times, it’s time to find a heavier weight.
When it comes to adding weight, a good rule of thumb is to add no more than 5 lbs. at a time for upper body exercises and 20 lbs. for lower body exercises.
Building A Strong Physique
Is your goal to build strong muscles for a stronger physique?
You can learn more about reps to build strength and tone in my article, How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
“Why Aren't My Biceps Growing?”
For the longest time, I was not able to do a single pull-up. I also couldn’t seem to put any mass on my biceps and forearms.
My workout buddy would be adding weight like crazy to his bicep curls and brag about how tight his sleeves are getting — but it seemed no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my biceps and forearms to grow.
Have you heard the saying. “Sun’s out, gun’s out?”
Well, for me, if the sun was out, my biceps were tucked in safely into a long sleeve shirt.
Between my small biceps and my already small shoulders, tank tops were not something I could comfortably sport. I was super jealous and frustrated. I started saying things like, “Welp, I guess it’s just not in my genes to have bigger arms.”
I even started eating more thinking that was holding me back. Oh, how wrong I was. I ended up gaining 30 lbs. and my arms still looked the same.
Discovering High Intensity Weight Training – for Muscle Gain
Here was the problem: my buddy and I weren’t training at the level my body needed. How did I know what my body needed? I didn’t… at the time. But I eventually found out by trying different routines.
Back then, we were using some of the workouts prescribed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Now, don’t get me wrong, that book was very influential for me and so much of what’s written there rings true to this day. Looking back, I see that my buddy and I weren’t lifting in a way to help stimulate my muscles to grow. Much of what we were doing called for 6-10 repetitions of a bunch of movements that targeted the biceps and forearms with 3-minute rests in between lifts. We’d spend over an hour in the gym working these muscles and I had nothing to show for it.
What I ended up doing is essentially starting over. I left the old routines behind and tried something different. I finally gave in to some co-workers of mine that pushed me to try high-intensity, volumetric training. Basically, you end up doing a bunch of movements at a lighter weight with very little rest in between. This new routine woke my body up. I didn’t notice anything at first, but I kept at it because I liked how I felt after this type of training. But soon, my shirt sleeves DID start to feel a little tight. And as a bonus, my shoulders started to grow!
Here’s the point of that long, drawn-out story. Mix things up.
And don’t worry — I won’t leave you hanging like that.
How Do I Mix Up My Weight Training Routine?
If you are consistent with your exercise and incorporate strength training into your routine, it may be time to mix things up.
You don’t want to lift heavy weight in the 3-5 repetition range forever. You will want to give your body a break and perform more repetitions with lighter weights, too.
Let me give you an example: let’s say for the last 3 weeks, you’ve been performing your upper-/lower-body split and have been following this 3-5 repetition range. It may now be time to change things up, give your body a break from lifting this heavy weight and use a lighter weight instead.
Now, because you’ll be lifting lighter weights, you’ll find that you can perform more repetitions. That’s perfectly fine! When lifting lighter weights, you can aim to lift the weight 12-15 times instead of just 3-5 times. You’ll find that this feels a lot different, and that’s a good thing!
What I like to do is incorporate both styles in my workouts. Some days I lift heavy, other days, I lift lighter weights. By doing this, it will force your muscles to adapt in different ways which is important for their growth and building strength.
How Do I Mix Up the Reps?
Let me give you more specifics. For those that are experienced, The American College of Sports of Medicine says if you want to build more muscle, aim to lift 80 to 100% of your 1-rep. Lift this weight 1 to 8 times with a 3 to 5-minute rest in between each set. Then, repeat these lifts for 3 to 5 sets. The issue here is that you have to find out what your 1-repetition max is. That can be dangerous, depending on the lift.
In order to find your 1-rep max, you have to basically continue adding more weight until you can’t lift it anymore. You can see why this could be dangerous.
But there’s a workaround. The American College of Sports Medicine says an alternative is to lift lighter instead of heavier weights but for more reps. Instead of always trying to lift super-heavy, incorporate higher repetitions but at a lighter weight.
Say you normally lift 15 lbs. 8 times. Try decreasing the weight, like lifting 10 lbs., more times — say 25 reps. Then at the very end, on that 25th repetition, you don’t just drop the weight — you hold it in a flexed position for as long as you can. THEN put the weight down. Repeat that one more time, then move on to a different exercise using that same structure.
However, you can’t do that form of training forever. The muscles ill adapt (and therefore, stop growing). And frankly, it’s exhausting. You can mix it up by throwing in some weeks where you do a 5×5. This I stole from Dan John, author of the book, Never Let Go. A 5×5 means you choose a weight that you can only lift 5 times. Then you perform 5 sets of these 5 repetitions.
Are Pyramids Good for Building Muscle?
I have also found using “pyramids” works well for me.
A pyramid using the example of biceps curls would be you performing 10 reps, then 9 reps, then 8 and so on. Increase the weight by a little bit as you decrease the number of reps. Rest only 30 seconds between sets. If you perform these correctly, you would have completed 55 repetitions total of just biceps curls (10+9+8… you get the idea). Then you can go back down the pyramid, by performing 1 rep, then 2, then 3 decreasing the weight as the repetitions increase.
A ladder uses the same idea, but you don’t change the weight. You can perform 1 rep, then 2 reps, then 3, and so on but you keep the weight you lift the same.
Using these types of training methods, and provided your form is perfect, you CAN lift heavier weights. I have met women who are under 5 feet, 3 inches and can deadlift more than me. Please don’t feel that your height or frame is holding you back. As I mentioned, I am what many would classify as “short” with a small frame but can lift heavier weights than some guys that are over 6 feet tall.
For most, I wouldn’t say you need to concern yourself with eating more (although consuming some proteins and carbs after strength training is beneficial). Instead, it’s probably going to come down to trying something new and giving these new methods a chance.