As a trainer I often get the question (in some way, shape, or form) “How much weight should I use?” Now, I’m the first to keep the weight low for a novice lifter, someone who’s injured/not feeling well, or for someone who just plain needs to work on form. However, if someone’s been working at a comfortable “working weight” for a while, then I’m also the first to suggest going a little heavier. Now, before getting into how much “a little heavier” is, let’s first understand the general premise why.
We presume that, with proper recovery, strength training makes us stronger. From a “Paleo” perspective one could liken this structural adaptation to a form of hormesis. Hormesis being a biological process whereby a beneficial effect (in this case strength gain via muscle growth/development) results from exposure to lower doses of an stressor or stimulus that is otherwise detrimental at higher doses (weight). So we introduce a stressor (weight), and the body adapts (gets stronger)? Yes, and No. The body “adapts”, meaning the same stimulus repeated over time will produce less adaptation each time. Enter the Principle of Progressive Overload.
The principle of progressive overload states that in order to achieve new results, as opposed to maintaining current strength capacity (this also goes for development of stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage), the muscles need to be “overloaded”, which stimulates the natural adaptive processes of coping with the demands placed upon it. So, in other words, you need to be increasing the “working weight” consistently to obtain consistent gains… and here comes that pesky question, again. How much weight do I use?
Now, there are many different methods, strategies, theories, etc… on how to continuously improve one’s strength development. Periodization, different strategies for linear progression, specific strength gaining programs, etc… If your goal is strength gains, then they’ll all work. However, they can be a bit detail oriented. A certain number of sets and reps at a certain percent. More, and more math. Let’s just say, for arguments sake, you’re not ready for that level of commitment, but you enjoy working out and want to just “keep improving” (We trainers hear that a lot too). How about just going up a pound or two consistently over time?
Seriously, only that much? Yep, that little, but think about it. If you go up 2 pounds a month for a year on the Dead lift, for example. That’s 25lbs total (rounding up). So, 5 reps at 95lbs would be a calculated 1 rep max of about 110lbs, and in a year it would would be 5 reps at 120lbs for a calculated 1 rep max of about 140lbs. No calculator necessary, no percentages, just 1+1=2. Simple math, small, but consistent increase in stimulus, and most importantly a constant improvement.
Truthfully, some lifts you might not be able to go up a pound a month (like the Press), but some you could possibly do 5-10lb increases for a year or so (like the Dead lift). In the end, like a Starbucks a day coffee habit, it’ll add up.