If you’ve been lifting for a while, you’re probably ready to take things up a notch. But, like cardio machines, weights can be dangerous if you’re not prepared or are using them incorrectly. Plus, going from lighter to heavier weights can be quite the adjustment. Whether you’re lifting free weights or using machines, it’s paramount that you know how (and when) to take on heavier loads. Banish bad habits and prevent injuries with these need-to-knows on lifting heavy.
1. Know when to go heavy.
Let’s be clear: If you jump straight into heavy lifting, your chances of coming out confident, happy with your workout, and safe are slim to none. Before you pick up or load on heavier weights it’s critical that your body is prepared to handle them. This doesn’t just refer to your muscular strength, though, as your tendons and ligaments need time to adjust, too. Due to less blood flow and a lack of recovery cells, it takes longer for tissues and tendons to recover from working out. Therefore, it takes more time for them to rebuild and become stronger.
If you try to go straight for heavy weights without experience lifting lighter, you could easily end up with pulls, strains, and injuries. It’s crucial that you start off small. “Start with light weights to learn the correct form and to get comfortable with the movement,” says Aaptiv Trainer Amanda Butler. “When you feel confident, up the weight gradually—and keep upping the weight as you progress.” The key word here is gradually. Ideally, you’ll have trained with weights for at least three to six months before making the switch to go heavy.
2. Prepare with proper warm-ups.
We couldn’t talk about workout preparedness without mentioning warming up. Going through the right type of warm-up before doing any workout helps you prepare both physically and mentally, improve your workout, and prevent injury. It gives your body the time to begin increasing blood flow, getting oxygen to your muscles, and preparing for upcoming movements.
“Proper warm-ups should be performed before the actual workout and should follow the same movement patterns of the main workout. It’s important to promote blood flow and joint lubrication for the muscles and joints,” explains Aaptiv Trainer Sultan Malik. For lifting heavy, this looks like three to five minutes of dynamic stretching. This should be followed by bodyweight moves that resemble the movements you’ll be doing in your weighted workout. (For example, lunges prior to a leg workout, like the leg press).
3. Focus on form.
We can’t stress enough the importance of learning and perfecting your form. Having the right form for the workout or moves that you perform is the difference between a healthy, productive workout and a dangerous one. This is especially true with heavy weights. Dropping one or putting that much stress in the wrong places can lead to bruising, pulling, spraining, and injury.
This might mean that the first time you approach a barbell or weight machine, you’re not loading any weight onto it at all. Learn how to properly position yourself and use the equipment prior to loading them with more intense weight. Then, once you feel comfortable with heavier weights, continuously check your form. “If you’re able to, hire a trainer for a session or two to help you learn proper form and how to execute a workout program,” Butler recommends.
If you don’t have access to an in-person trainer you can still actively check your form. We suggest checking yourself in front of a mirror, recording yourself to review later, or asking a fellow gym-goer to take a look.
4. Don’t neglect your core.
A strong, stable core is essential to heavy lifting. Your core (which consists of 29 muscles around your abdominals, obliques, lower back, buttocks, and hips) supports and stabilizes your spine, like the trunk of a tree, allowing your limbs to move efficiently. Without enough strength in this area, you’ll be unable to exert enough force or perform lifts properly. A strong core and locked spine are also crucial to heavy lifts like squats, deadlifts, presses, and curls. Because of this, it’s critical that you don’t neglect exercising it. While you may be focused on other major muscle groups during the rest of the week, be sure to take at least one day to focus on your core (or include moves that target it in your daily workouts).
5. Master movement patterns.
For those new to heavy weight lifting, Malik strongly advises choosing the correct ideology of training. Meaning, rather than going in with a strong focus on certain muscles, go into training with the intent of performing specific movement patterns. By performing these patterns you’ll not only target those large muscle groups but also become more versed and efficient in your workouts.
“Most lifters go into training with the idea of training muscles, as opposed to performing movement patterns,” Malik explains. “The idea is, when training and performing movement patterns, the targeted muscle groups of desired development will produce growth. Thus, stronger muscles and stronger pushes and pulls.” Redirecting your focus to this process, rather than the vague notion of strengthening any given muscle, will greatly help you improve your muscle memory and strength. Every so often, to continue nailing your movements, dedicate an active recovery day to going over basic lifts and exercises.
6. Perform fewer reps.
When your goal is to get stronger, try lifting heavy weights for a low number of repetitions. Lifting in this way will, in time, increase the amount of weight you can lift one time. This is known as your one rep max, or 1RM. The longer you perform sets like this, the stronger you’ll get and the more weight you’ll be able to work out with overall. “Your selected movement patterns (lifts, pulls, [and] pushes) should be gradual with sets of regressive reps,” notes Malik, also affirming that the heavier the weight, the fewer reps you should do with it.
7. Work out with a buddy.
When any style of workout is new to you, it’s ideal that you work out with a partner or spot. Having someone else there to watch you can be highly beneficial from both an improvement and safety standpoint. On one hand, you have someone who can keep you accountable, check your form, and encourage you to keep going. On the other, working out with a partner ensures that someone is there to help you out of a tough spot or even prevent you from getting hurt. They have your back—as well as your head, chest, and arms.
Even if you don’t show up at the gym with a partner, Butler recommends asking another gym-goer. “Don’t be afraid to ask someone at the gym to spot you when lifting heavy weights,” she says. As always, you’re better safe than sorry.
8. Have a schedule.
We’re all about having a plan and scheduling your workout. Not only does it keep you accountable, but it ensures that you have a balanced regimen throughout the week. This is especially helpful where heavy lifting is concerned. You may feel satisfied performing deadlifts, bench presses, or other moves that you’re familiar with. But that doesn’t mean that you should be doing that every single day. Make sure that each move is always a part of a bigger plan.
Organize your workouts ahead of the week so that you’re hitting different muscle groups each day. Split your days between arms, chest, legs, and similar groups, always allowing a muscle group 48 hours to recover before targeting it again. Recovery and a balanced schedule are just as important as the literal weights when it comes to building strength.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
All of this considered, one of the most important things to remember when adjusting to heavier weights is to never hesitate to ask for help. Whether that’s asking gym staff how to execute something or asking someone to spot your lifts. It may even mean turning to the internet to learn new information or ask for other’s experiences. “Be proactive, ask for help, watch videos of the exercises you’d like to do. The internet is a great source,” notes Butler. You can even reach out directly to your Aaptiv coaches or community.
Going from light to heavy weights is an adjustment. But, with the right information, attentiveness, and consistency you can achieve even more than you think.