Figuring out the optimal way to make progress in the gym can be tough. This post will help.
We’ll get you to understand the basics of how muscle growth works, and whether or not it’s important to be consistently lifting heavier weights. When done, you’ll be armed with the knowledge you need to hit new personal bests and reach your fitness goals.
Define Your Goals First
Before moving forward and taking any kind of workout advice, you need to know what your goals are.
You’ll want to train in different ways depending on your goals.
For example, the workout plan for someone looking to put on as much muscle as possible is going to be different from that of someone trying to get lean and shredded.
Are You Going for Body Composition?
A lot of peoples’ goal is to reshape their body composition. This usually means increasing lean muscle mass while reducing fat, to morph your body into a more lean, muscular and sculpted figure.
If this is your goal, you’ll mostly want to be training for hypertrophy, which basically just means muscle growth, particularly the physical size of the muscles.
Is Gaining Strength Your Priority?
The other common goal people have when lifting weights is training for strength.
This is different to hypertrophy, because you’re not specifically training to get bigger muscles, you’re training to increase how much power your muscles can exert.
Training for strength is more common for athletes, or for people who want functional benefits from their training, more so than aesthetic improvements.
How Does Muscle Gain Work?
Another key thing to understand is how the process of gaining muscle actually works.
It can be simplified to three major factors: resistance training, recovery and nutrition.
The most important part of muscle growth is training. You need to train the muscles to induce a response where the muscle cells increase in size.
Usually this is done by lifting weights. Lifting dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells or machines, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you put your muscles under stress, causing an adaptation when the muscle fibers tear and are subsequently repaired to be bigger and stronger.
The second part of the equation is recovery. This is when muscle growth actually occurs.
The recovery process is when the temporary damage done to the muscles in training is repaired. Each time the body repairs these damaged muscle fibers there are incremental increases in size, leading to big gains over an extended period of time.
However, if you’re not getting enough time to recover, this process won’t be completed, and you won’t see the gains you’re capable of. That’s why it’s almost as important to focus on recovery as it is your actual training routine.
Finally we come to nutrition.
The body needs protein in order to rebuild and repair the muscles. Protein molecules are the building blocks for muscles - kind of like the cement you’d use to build or repair a brick wall.
Protein is essential to complete the muscle growth process. You need to stretch and tear the muscles in training, give the body enough time to repair the muscles, and also give your body the components it needs to build new and bigger muscle fibers.
How Heavy Should I Lift?
Now on to what kind of weight you should be lifting.
It’s impossible to give an exact figure for this, as each person will be at a different level with different capabilities. But we can give a general range that you can adapt for your own body.
Again, you want to take this advice according to your goals, and whether you’re looking to train for muscle growth or to increase strength.
You can achieve muscular hypertrophy many different ways. Many say you should aim for around 60-80% of your 1 rep maximum (the most you can lift in a single rep), for between 8 to 12 reps per set.
Yet research seems to disprove this, instead indicating that similar hypertrophy gains can be achieved for anything above 30% of your 1RM. The key instead is training volume, as we’ll explain shortly.
For strength it’s more clear-cut. You need to train your muscles to be able to handle heavier loads and put out more force, which means you need to lift heavy weights.
Ideally this should be somewhere between 80-100% of your 1RM, for 1-5 reps per set, aiming to hit each muscle group once a week.
What is Training Volume?
The numbers on the plates are great for bragging, but more important (particularly for hypertrophy) is your overall training volume.
This means the overall amount you lift, with all your reps, sets and workout sessions put together.
A sufficient training volume could be one workout with low reps, few sets but heavy weights close to your 1RM, or it could be achieved by several workouts, lifting 30% of your 1RM for a high rep range, set after set.
The key principle is that you can achieve results either by lifting heavier, or lifting more. For hypertrophy, both work.
Should I Increase Weight Each Week?
Continual increase in your training volume is key for progress. Yet that doesn’t always mean lifting heavier weights.
When training for muscle gain, you can increase the weight you lift, or you can lift for more reps, more sets, or even with less rest in between sets.
For strength training, increasing weight is a lot more important. Generally, look to add on 5-10% weight each week.
Should I Increase Reps and Sets Instead of Weights?
There are some cases when it makes more sense to increase reps and sets than increasing weight.
Increasing reps and sets is generally safer, as there’s less risk on each rep as there is if you’re under a heavy weight. This makes it a good option if you’re rehabbing from an injury, or you’re not yet fully comfortable with your form.
Increasing reps also has more benefit for muscular endurance, so if you’re training for something where endurance is important (e.g. specific sports, or if you work in a physical job), this might be the best way to go.
Or maybe you’re in a smaller gym with fewer options, and you can’t add on any more weight, so all you can do is lift the same weight more times, which is absolutely fine.
Tips to Lift Heavier & Progress Faster
Let’s finish with a few more tips on how to lift heavier weights, and make faster progress towards your fitness goals.
Nutrition is always important, and often neglected.
Along with getting enough protein to support muscle growth and recovery, you need to have enough energy to go out and crush it in the gym.
This energy comes from your nutrition. You want to get enough beneficial vitamins, minerals and nutrients in your diet. Additionally, eat enough carbs around your training sessions (approx. 2 hours before training, as well as within 2 hours after training) to support your body’s energy requirements.
Supplements are another thing that can help support energy production, power output, recovery and muscle growth.
You might also benefit from pre-workout supplements or caffeine if you need an energy boost prior to training.
Finally, consider how you can get quicker and more complete recovery between workouts.
Tools for recovery include sauna, massage and cold exposure (though avoid cold exposure in the few hours after working out if your goal is hypertrophy).
This also includes the most powerful recovery tool - sleep. Make sure you’re getting a deep, consistent, restful sleep every night. Great sleep will help your body recover faster, and give you the energy you need to increase your training volume with consistency.