Progressive Resistance: How to Choose and Progress Your Weights to Achieve Your Goals

When you’re first getting started in resistance training, it can be hard to know what weights to start with to achieve your goals. You don’t want to start with weights that are too heavy because you might hurt yourself. On the other hand, you might think to yourself, you don’t want to start with weights that are too light because you don’t want to waste your time.

At the same time, with all the different exercises out there, how do you know what weights to use for different movements? Do you use the same weights for upper body and lower body exercises? Or should one area be stronger than the other? Also, what about the reps? How do you adjust your weights if you have higher reps VS lower reps? And when is a good time to go up in weight if a weight is getting too light?

Understandably, this can be a confusing topic for anybody new to the weight lifting world. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be terribly complicated. As a matter of fact, if you follow a few basic rules, you’ll be able to choose your weights and adjust them up and down with confidence. But before we get to the “how” of our scenario, as Simon Sinek would say, let’s Start With Why.

Why it’s Important to Incorporate Progressive Resistance Training into Your Life

Resistance training is an exercise modality that’s been around for decades. Other than Yoga (which has been around for thousands of years, although in a much different form than it is today), resistance training is the most lasting of exercise techniques utilized. It has it’s roots in the early 1800s when a group of individuals who called themselves Physical Culturists used weights to enhance their physical abilities, improve their health and increase their physiques.

The term “resistance training” is nothing fancy. It simply means using external resistance, or weight, in your training program. That can be any type of resistance, from dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, to bands, medicine balls, and battle ropes. If you’re using resistance to perform an exercise, you’re doing resistance training.

When you add the term “progressive” in front of resistance training, the idea takes on a whole new meaning. For many people, using weights means using the same weight over and over again, for the same number of repetitions (reps for short) and the same number of sets. However, if you’re constantly using the same weight, you will never move toward your goal. That’s because your body will adapt to the weight you’re using in a process called Specific Adaptation to Implied Demands (or SAID for short). And once it adapts to the weight, it does not make any more progress.

Which is why it’s important to progress your weights. This is where the term “progressive” comes from. The idea is to progress your weights in a purposeful way so that your body has to adapt and change to the demands that you’re putting upon it. There are many different reasons as to why progressive resistance is important, but most of them can be narrowed down to 3 main areas:

#1) Getting Stronger

After the age of 30, the body starts shutting down. It’s a natural process that all body’s go through. However, some body’s shut down quicker than other body’s. And one of the main determinants of how fast your body will shut down is the physical stress you put upon it. This is one reason why you should progress your weights in your training program. Since your body will naturally become weaker over time, if you feed it with a steady dose of progressive external resistance, you’ll have a much higher likelihood of living a strong, healthy life.

#2) Muscle Hypertrophy

Another effect of typical aging is what it is called muscular atrophy. This basically means that your body eats your muscle. That’s because muscle requires energy to keep on your body. And your body wants to kill those things that require energy and store the things that can give you energy later (we call that “fat”).

When you use progressive resistance training, you put a mechanical load on the body. When the body adapts to mechanical load, it builds itself stronger and stronger over time. Part of that building is through muscle hypertrophy, or, simply, putting on muscle. Now, many women are scared of weight training because they don’t want to be “big and bulky like those bodybuilders”. Which is understandable. However, women, especially those past their child-bearing years, don’t produce the necessary hormones, most notably testosterone, to build big, bulky muscles. So this is essentially a non-factor. The goal is to build a strong muscular base so that your body is resistant to the physical demands of everyday life.

#3) Losing Weight

When it comes to exercise and weight loss, the goal, of course, is to burn calories. Now, calories are not the only important factor in the weight loss equation (one calorie does not equal another calorie, after all). However, for our purposes and exercise, the more calories you burn, the better.

Going back to the SAID principle I introduced earlier, when you put an external demand on your body, it will adapt to it. As it is adapting, it will have to burn a significant number of calories to get there. However, once the body has adapted to the stressor, in our case weight, it will require fewer calories to perform the same exercise with the same weight. Which, of course, is why it makes sense to adjust your weights over time if you want to burn the maximal number of calories to assist you in achieving your weight loss goals.

These are the basic reasons why it’s important to continually progress your weights. That doesn’t mean you have to shoot to be the hulk and deadlift 500lbs. The weights you are using are relative to your body and your current point in your fitness journey. 30lbs may be a heavy deadlift for you. And if that’s the case, then you need to be comfortable progressing from there.

How to Choose Your Weights Properly

Which brings us to the meat and potatoes of this article, if you will. As I’ve mentioned, progressing your weights causes your body to adapt the stress you’re putting on, which leads to a stronger body and better life. However, if you don’t choose the right starting weight, to begin with, your body may not adapt the way you would like it to. To help you understand this better, let’s consider 3 rules to use when choosing your weights in your next workout:

#1) When in doubt, start light

One of the issues we run into at Thriveology with new Pack Members is keeping their ambition under control. Not that ambition to get better is a bad thing. On the contrary, many people struggle more with motivation issues than with having too much ambition to get results. What I mean is the ambition to get results NOW!

We’ve all been taught over the years that we need to get results quick. And, when it comes to resistance training, most people relate “getting fast results” to “using heavier weights”. However, this is rarely the case. Results are earned one workout at a time. But you have to make it to the next workout in order to continue getting results. Which is why you must first start with a proper weight so that you’re not hurting yourself. And, if you’re trying to choose between 2 weights when in doubt, start light. You can always go up next time if the weight was too easy.

#2) Consider the exercise

Different muscle groups tend to be stronger or weaker, depending on their purpose and function. For instance, the hip muscles are naturally the most powerful muscles in the body. Inch for Inch, they can create more power than any other muscle group. On the other end of the spectrum, the arm muscles tend to have much less power and much less strength than the muscles in the hips and legs.

So, it’s important to take into account the type of exercise you’re doing and what body part that exercise is primarily using. To help guide your decision making, here’s a general break down of the 6 basic human movements, their related body parts, and the weight-intensity you should consider:

Push – Chest, shoulders, arms

            Lighter weights for overhead exercises

            Moderate weights for pressing exercises on your back

Pull – Lats (back muscles), rear shoulders, arms

            Moderate weights overall

Hinge – Glutes (fountain of youth), hamstrings, calves

            Moderate weights for single-leg variations

            Heavier weights for double-leg variations

Squat – Quads, glutes

            Moderate weights for single-leg variations

            Heavier weights for double-leg variations

Carry – Everything

            Moderate to heavy weights for anything below the waist

            Light to moderate weights for anything above the waist

Everything else – Depends

            Typically “everything else” type of exercises use lighter weights

#3) Know the reps/duration

The final area to consider when choosing your weight is the reps/duration for the given exercise. Different exercise reps call for different weight-intensities. The easiest way to think about this area is through a continuum.

On the left side of the continuum is 1 rep and on the right side of the continuum is infinite reps. The further down the left side of the continuum you go, the heavier weight you want to choose. That’s because you are doing fewer reps. On the other hand, the further down the right side of the continuum you go, the lighter the weight you want to use since you will be doing more reps. This is a very basic, very simple way of looking at reps VS weights, but, for our purposes, this is all we really need.

How to Progress Your Weights for Best Results

The final part of this equation is the “progressive” part of progressive resistance training. Once you’ve chosen a weight, how do you progress it so that you’re getting the best results without getting injured (at Thriveology, for our Coaches, the #1 rule is don’t hurt the Members). Let’s first start with how to know when it’s time to progress.

The best way for you to know when it’s time to go up in weight is to use the change scale. Simply put, ask yourself after every set, on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 meaning “no effort at all” and 10 meaning “maximal effort”, how much effort did you have to put into that set to complete the given amount of reps. As a general rule, you should rarely be at a “10”. Usually, you want to be in the 8 or 9 range. However, once a weight starts to creep into the 7, 6 and, especially, 5 range, you should think about adjusting your weight up.

The change scale is a great way to gauge your effort, so be sure to utilize it often. Don’t allow yourself to get complacent with your progress. Check-in every once and a while and see if you’re pushing yourself hard enough.

Finally, let’s take a look at how to choose what weight to progress to once you’ve decided to go up. In the sport performance world, there are fancy calculations and graphs that you can use to know which weights to use based your 1 rep max. Luckily, we don’t have to be that fancy to get the results we’re looking for.

The simplest way to get up in weight is to pick the next heaviest weight. Don’t worry about jumping by 10 pounds or 20 pounds at a time. Simply choose the next highest weight. Once you’ve completed a workout with your new weight, use the change ruler to find out how heavy that was for you. If it was a 7 or below, then you can decide to get up again if you choose.

Now that we’ve reached the end of our journey, hopefully, you have a stronger grasp on what it means to use progressive resistance training and how you can go up in weights confidently. Remember to use the change ruler often and always push yourself when you feel complacency setting in.

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