Remember when women used to lift those tiny pink dumbbells out of fear of “bulking up”? Groan. Thankfully, times have changed (mostly). These days, more and more women are discovering the sheer joy of heavy weight lifting—and getting stronger in the process.
Increasing the amount of weight you lift is one of the simplest ways to continue challenging your muscles, which is essential if you want to keep improving. If you never change your routine, you’ll stay at the same fitness level without making progress. Plus it just feels awesome when you add more weight to a barbell or reach for the bigger kettlebell.
How do you know when it’s time to increase the weight you lift, though? Carefully deciding the right time to add more weight can prevent aches and injuries and maximize your results. Before you get carried away with the excitement of picking up those heavier dumbbells or loading up the bar with bigger plates, there are a few things you should consider first.
1. How is Your Form?
Before you reach for a heavier set of dumbbells, your first priority should be making sure your weight lifting technique is on-point, says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean.
Ideally, you’ll find a coach or trainer who can give you real-time feedback on your form. Many gyms offer one free session of personal training, so ask about that if you didn’t use it when you joined. If you can’t afford a full personal training package, a coach should be able to quote you a rate for a one-hour session to work on your form. If that’s not an option, there are still ways to figure it out on your own.
An easy way to determine if your technique gets a pass or a fail is to pay attention to any aches, pains, or mobility issues. For example, if you feel your knee tweak every time you squat, chances are your knees and ankles are misaligned. “If you don’t correct that and you add more weight, all you’re doing is reinforcing your misalignments,” Perkins says. And eventually, that knee tweak will become a full-blown injury.
To dial-in on proper technique, Kate Gallagher, RKC, strength coach at The Movement Minneapolis, suggests finding at least five video tutorials for the exercise you’re working on so you can familiarize yourself with the movement patterns. “You’ll get an idea overall of a solid technique for that movement because there’d be commonalities across all of [the tutorials],” she says. Later, film yourself performing the exercise at a challenging weight so you can pinpoint any weak spots. (You can also just look in a mirror as you’re doing it, of course, but a video is the really best way to get an accurate view of your form.)
2. How are You Feeling?
Once your technique is solid, it’s time to note your energy level, because going heavier on a day when you’re overly stressed or tired is the perfect set-up for injury. “You want to go up [in weight] when you’re feeling strong and resilient and amazing,” Perkins says.
To gauge whether you’re too drained to go heavier, Gallagher recommends testing your range of motion both before and after a slight increase in weight. How to do it: Perform a few repetitions of an exercise with your normal weight and then try to touch your toes, making sure to stop when you feel tightness in your hamstrings. For your next set, increase the weight five to 10 pounds and then do another toe-touch. If you’re able to reach as far or even further than you did on your first toe-touch, your body is giving you the green light to proceed with that heavier weight. On the other hand, if your range of motion decreases, it’s time to lighten up.
3. What’s Your Goal?
If and how much you increase your weight will also depend on your goals. There are many ways to continue challenging your body other than adding more weight, such as increasing the number of reps you do.
According to Perkins, your goals will determine whether you need to increase your reps, decrease your rest, or move up to the next weight level. “Before you blindly try to go for heavier weights, ask ‘Why am I in the gym?’” she says. “Because your goal might not include increasing the weight load.”
In general, for a pure strength-building goal, you’ll want to reach five to eight reps before you increase your weight. For hypertrophy (building muscle size) aim for 12 to 15 reps. (Note that these are very general ranges and differ depending on lots of factors, like your fitness level and how long you’ve been lifting weights.)
4. How Easy or Hard are those Last Few Reps in a Set?
Once you’ve cleared the questions above and you’ve been lifting the same weight comfortably for all your sets, it’s time to move up. Perkins recommends increasing in increments of 10 to 20 pounds for lower body exercises, and five to 10 pounds for upper body moves. “That’s the exact amount that your body should be able to tackle,” she says.
You’ll know you’ve hit the sweet spot when the last couple of reps become challenging and you wouldn’t be able to eke out another without compromising your form. On the other hand, if you struggle to finish your set, go lighter.
Gallagher finds that clients sometimes get stuck in between weight levels—say, your gym only has 10-pound and 15-pound dumbbells, but the 10s are too light and the 15s are too hard. If you can complete the prescribed reps with a heavier weight, but only for one or two sets, finish as many sets as possible with good form using the heavier weight. Then, scale back to your original weight for the remaining sets, Gallagher says. Eventually, you’ll be able to do all your sets with that heavier weight.