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Do You Need to Lift Heavy to Get Big?

In this post, I want to help you cut down on time spent in the gym. In order to do so, we must first look at how our workouts are structured and what is required of us during a typical bodybuilding workout. 

The main goal of any weightlifting program is to increase strength or build muscle mass. This can be achieved through many different exercises that target specific muscles groups for high repetitions with lighter weights (3 sets x 12 reps). These types of exercises are often referred to as “bodybuilding” because they focus on building up the muscles without targeting conditioning or power development.

If you want to get stronger or build muscle, at some point you’re going to need to lift heavier weights.

After all, strength results hinge on your ability to progressively overload your muscles, meaning you need to gradually increase the physical stress you put on a muscle to keep challenging it so that it can always be adapting and getting stronger.

In strength training, there are myriad ways to make that happen. “You can achieve progressive overload by adding sets and reps, taking less rest, using a better form, or performing more challenging exercise variations,” certified personal trainer Caroline Juster, elite trainer at Fitness Formula Clubs Union Station in Chicago and online coach, tells SELF. “The most effective way to achieve progressive overload, however, is just to lift heavier weights.”

It just so happens that lifting heavier weights is also the easiest way to see and track your own progress over the weeks and months, and arguably the greatest way to get that “Damn, I’m strong!” confidence boost that comes with strength training.

Progressive overload is built into any professional training plan, but if you aren’t following one or working with a trainer closely who’s telling you “here’s how much more you need to lift today,” and figuring out exactly which weights to lift (along with when and exactly how to up the poundage over time), it can be difficult to know exactly how to do it. Knowing what to expect and how to increase weight safely, though, is extremely important for reaching your goals and staying injury-free.

Here, we lay out everything you need to know about choosing a starting weight, how to know when you’re ready for a heavier load, and exactly how to go about lifting heavier weights.

How heavy should dumbbells be?

Do 14-22 bicep curls. If you can’t even get up to 14 reps before your arms give out, start with dumbbells that are 5 pounds (2.3 kg) lighter than what you’re currently using. If you get to 22 reps and you aren’t feeling a burn, add 5 pounds (2.3 kg) and repeat the test. When you find a weight where your muscles are strained between 14 and 22 reps, you’ve found your starting weight.[3]

  • Periodically add 5–10 pounds (2.3–4.5 kg) to each dumbbell as you start having an easier time completing exercises. For most folks, this should start happening after 2-3 weeks of working out. If you aren’t even breaking a sweat, you won’t make any progress.

Muscle Fibers And Types – Slow Oxidative Fibers

Slow oxidative fibers are commonly referred to as Type I muscle fibers. These muscle fibers are recruited first during activity, contracting slowly due to slow Myosin ATPase activity. Although Type I fibers have a high Myoglobin content, they contain low glycogen levels, using aerobic glycolysis for Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) (i.e. energy) synthesis.

A high oxidative capacity, due to the many capillaries and mitochondria that they contain, allows them to have a slow rate of fatigue, therefore making them best suited for endurance activities such as distance running (Marieb, 2004).

Fast Oxidative Fibers

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Fast oxidative fibers, also called Type IIa muscle fibers, are recruited second during exercise. Like Type I fibers Type IIa fibers have high Myoglobin content and many capillaries and mitochondria. However, instead of low glycogen stores, their glycogen content is moderate, causing them to be moderately fatigue resistant.

Alongside this, they have fast contractile speeds and Myosin ATPase activity, therefore making them best suited for activities that use both the anaerobic Glycolysis and aerobic Glycolysis energy systems, such as sprinting (Marieb, 2004).

Fast Glycolytic Fibers

Fast glycolytic fibers, the Type IIb muscle fibers, do not use oxygen for fuel and are recruited third during activity. 

Type IIb fibers have few capillaries and mitochondria and low Myoglobin content. Although Type IIb fibers depend entirely on glycogen for fuel, despite having high glycogen stores, they fatigue quickly. This coupled with their powerful contractile ability and fast Myosin ATPase activity make them best suited for short-term intense or powerful movements, such as used in resistance training.

How do you get big with just dumbbells?

Doing 30 reps with 10 pounds (4.5 kg) and 3 reps with 100 pounds (45 kg) should theoretically be the same amount of work, right? Not quite. Low-weight and high-rep resistance training will make you tone, but you need to keep the weight heavy enough to exhaust your muscles after 6-10 reps or so if you’re going to bulk up.[5]

When you get strong enough where your muscles aren’t exhausted after a shorter number of reps, add weight. By continuously increasing the weight you’re lifting over time, you’ll keep getting bigger and bigger muscles.

How to choose the right starting weight

“Let the reps dictate the load,” certified personal trainer Hayden Steele, C.S.C.S., an Oklahoma City–based strength coach and creator of the Shock training app, tells SELF. Translation: Decide how many reps you want to perform per set, and then home in on the amount of weight that challenges you but lets you perform all of your reps with picture-perfect form.

Your goals dictate the range of reps you should perform, and for how many sets you should do them: To develop maximal strength, lifting incredibly heavy for 2–6 sets of 6 or fewer reps is ideal, while lifting heavy-to-moderate weights for 3–6 sets of 8–12 reps is the way to go when it comes to building muscle size. Last, to improve muscular endurance, or how long a muscle can work before tuckering out, most experts recommend training with 2–3 sets of 12 or more reps.

Most training programs involve performing the bulk of exercises in that 8–12 rep sweet spot for a few reasons. First, it’s important to build a solid foundation in this range before working max strength with incredibly heavy loads. In this range, you’ll lift moderate loads—weights that are probably heavier than you’ve tried lifting before, but not so heavy that anything is going to give out two seconds into your set. 

Second, training in this range is time-efficient and allows you to get a lot of work done without each workout taking forever. Third, this rep range is middle-of-the-road enough that even if it’s mostly for muscle growth, it still does a bit of everything, improving strength and endurance as well. 

Last but not least, most exercises are generally safe to perform in this range, whereas experts generally recommend avoiding low-rep high-weight lifts for single-joint exercises such as biceps curls and triceps extensions because such heavy weights could overstress the joint, Erica Suter, C.S.C.S., a Baltimore-based strength coach, tells SELF.

At first, choose weights that you are positive you can lift, but might not be sure how many reps you can perform. If you tucker out after fewer than 8 reps or have a ton of energy left after 12 reps, rest for a couple of minutes and repeat with a different weight (lighter or heavier, depending on how your last set went). Repeat this until the weight feels right—it should be challenging, but doable.

You’ve successfully tested and found your starting weight! The next time you perform the exercise—maybe in a few days or a week—use that same weight again, but for all sets. This will allow you to “build a base,” perfect your form and gain confidence for weight increases to come.

Physiology Of Muscle Growth

When muscles are used they adapt and change. Changes are dependent on the type of activity and muscle fiber types used, the load exerted on the muscle and the velocity and duration of the contraction.

Muscle growth also referred to as muscle hypertrophy, is an example of muscular adaptations and changes.

Muscle hypertrophy occurs primarily through chronic anaerobic, high-intensity resistance activity, like that which happens during resistance training lifting weights.

Resistance training causes neural adaptations, which result in changes in muscular endurance and muscular strength, and eventually, the size of the muscles.

Resistance training causes an increase in the cross-sectional area (CSA) of all muscle fiber types, without an increase in muscle fiber numbers.

How to safely lift heavier weights

“I want all my clients to increase their weights, no matter their goal,” says Juster, explaining that it’s a surefire way to improve both physical and mental strength. However, your goals ultimately dictate how heavy you need to go and exactly how you do it.

It’s best to look at weight increases in terms of a percentage of the weight you’ve been lifting, Suter says. For example, going from 5 to 10 pounds with shoulder raises might be the same jump in poundage as going from 100 to 105 pounds with deadlifts, but one requires doubling the weight while the other accounts for a 5 percent increase in weight. Generally, you should limit week-to-week weight increases for any given lift to no more than 10 percent.

Sometimes the weights available to you might mean you have to make a larger increase if you want to increase at all. In that case, always listen to your body, pay attention to your form, and cut your reps accordingly so that you can get through them all without breaking form.

In fact, it’s totally normal if you start using a heavier weight and then can’t quite hit the top of your rep scheme at first. In a few weeks, you will be able to and then you can up your weights again. For example, if you were doing 3 sets of 12 reps of overhead presses, you may only be able to handle 3 sets of 10 reps when you bump up the weight. If you’re still in that 8–12 rep range, that’s totally fine, and in time you’ll be back to feeling like 12 reps is easy and ready to once again increase the intensity.

Also, know that there are other ways to progress your workout if you’re not yet ready for more weight. “Don’t kill yourself to add weight every week,” Juster says. “If you’re stuck on an upper-body or isolation exercise, instead of bumping up the weights, focus on adding sets and reps, using a better form, or achieving a better mind-muscle connection [really paying attention to which muscles should be working and consciously squeezing them].” Doing so can help get you over the hump to lifting heavier weights.

Training Splits

Current training status (beginner, intermediate, advanced) will determine what type of training split you should use. 

For example, a beginner or novice to resistance training would be best served with 2-3 resistance training sessions a week, working the FULL body each session, as working the full body produces more anabolic hormone than just doing the upper or lower body alone.

Although the more muscle fibers activated during a session the better hypertrophy occurs, for the experienced or veteran trainee 3-6 day body-part splits would be recommended, as they need something more than 2-3 sessions a week or just full-body to stimulate further muscle growth, and can better adapt their training sessions for higher muscle recruitment and focus on a specific muscle or muscle groups.

Resistance Training Exercises

Exercises that build muscle the best are compound, multijoint exercises, as they recruit more of the body to perform the exercise and thus recruit and activate more muscle fibers.

The best compound exercises for hypertrophy are the squat and the deadlift, as they use pretty much every muscle in your body. Other compound exercises that are good to include are the power clean, bench press, shoulder press, pull-ups, and dips.

How do I bulk my arms up with dumbbells?

Do bicep curls to build bicep muscles

Stand with a straight back and hold both dumbbells in your hands. To do a standard curl, raise the dumbbell in each arm slowly up to your shoulder. Focus on keeping your entire body still while your arms are moving. Once you’ve raised each dumbbell up and lowered it to the original position, count 1 rep.

Do lateral raises to build your shoulder muscles.

Stand up straight and let the dumbbells hang at your sides. Then, flex your core and slowly raise the weights out to your side. Hold the weights at shoulder level and slowly lower them down to count 1 rep. Keep your back and legs as straight as possible.

Use overhead extensions to bulk your triceps up.

Sit down in a chair and hold one dumbbell behind your head with both hands. Keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Breathe in as you slowly lower the weight a few inches behind you. Then, breathe out as you lift the dumbbell straight up and extend your elbows to count 1 rep.

How to know if you’re lifting too heavy

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Lifting more weight can be awesome, but it comes with some unwelcome side effects. The big one is delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS

Each time you increase the amount of stress you put on a muscle, more microscopic damage occurs within the muscle cells, leading to an uptick in pain during the 24 to 72 hours following your workout as the muscle repairs itself, Suter says. However, just becoming DOMS hurts doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. 

It’s a normal part of your body rising to the occasion. But it’s important to differentiate between DOMS and potential overuse injuries. If a muscle hurts for more than three days after a workout or if the pain comes on suddenly during training, rather than gradually afterward, you may need to ease up on the weights.

Also, beware of the dangers of “ego-lifting.” It can be tempting to get so caught up in moving more weight that you start to get loosey-goosey on the form. “Never sacrifice technique to lift more weight,” says Juster, explaining that doing so is what puts you at risk for injury. (Wondering if your form is right? Using your phone to record yourself is a great way to double-check and spot errors that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.)

One thing that will help keep your form in check—and reduce your risk of injury—as you lift heavier weights is giving yourself the right amount of rest, both between workouts and between reps. 

“Most people think rest and work are opposites when they’re synergists,” says Steele, emphasizing the importance of increasing rest and recovery as you push the intensity. “The more you rest, the harder you can work. The harder you work, the more essential rest becomes.

Juster advises giving yourself at least 45 to 60 seconds of rest between all sets, and 90 to 120 seconds when performing challenging exercises or any sets that are shorter than 8 reps each (and hence, very heavy). 

And if you are so tired or sore going into a given workout that your technique or strength is off, back off the weights and consider upping your recovery efforts in terms of sleep, nutrition, stress management, and active recovery work like foam rolling, Steele says.

“Increasing weights in the gym is only beneficial to the point where it’s possible to recover from it,” he says. “On higher intensity training days, rest more. Pay attention to the common signs of overtraining: feeling drained, lack of energy, constant soreness, sudden drop in performance, and lack of motivation.”

Each time you approach the weights, it’s important to feel like you are ready to give your all. Sure, you’ll always have great workouts and “meh” workouts, but the goal is that in the grand scheme of things your training, energy, confidence, and strength will point up, up, up. Listen to your body. And know that whenever things start feeling easy, you can up the challenge once more.

At Last, Can I workout everyday?

No, you need to take a day off after heavy lifting to recover.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do anything physical, though. After every day of dumbbell training, take a day off to stretch, use a foam roller, or get your cardio in by running, swimming, or riding a bike. Staying active on your off days will keep your metabolism up which will also help you get that cut, muscular look you’re going for.

You can lift every day so long as you’re working out alternative muscle groups. For example, if you work your arms out one day, do your legs the next.

It’s especially important to take rest days if you’re lifting heavier weights. Overdoing it and working out every day can increase your risk of injury, harm your performance, and contribute to poor sleep and mood swings.

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