Nothing worth having ever came easily. That goes for your weightlifting and muscle-building goals, too. If your workouts have become too easy, it's time to challenge yourself so that you progressing toward your goals.
One of the ways you can do that is going up couple of pounds with your dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells, so that each rep feels harder and more uncomfortable. (Though, you don't want to feel pain, as that can set you up for injury or overuse.) Consider these signs that lifting heavier could be the solution you've been looking for.
1. Your Form Is Flawless and Effortless
If you're doing squat presses with dumbbells like a champ, with correct form and little effort, it's time to go up in weights. Just double check that your form really is as perfect as you think it is. Because if your form is off, additional weight can lead to injury. Ask a trainer for advice or look up videos online for examples if you're unsure.
"Once you've perfected your form and your sets aren't feeling as challenging, start by adding up to five pounds to start," says Matt Kite, CSCS, director of education at D1 Training. Beginners should start on the lower end of that range, adding only a couple pounds, depending on what you're already lifting. But not to worry, you'll definitely feel a difference with those couple extra pounds.
Don't add too much weight too quickly, though. "You form can start to suffer if you take on too much weight, [so] if that's the case, dial it back until you feel as though you can complete your reps in good form," Kite says. You shouldn't compromise good form in order to lift heavier.
You might also need a spotter, especially for the upper body work. "A good rule of thumb for any exercises with weight over your head (ex. bench press) is to have a spotter," says certified personal trainer Breanne Celiberti. "Don't try increasing weights in lifts such as these without a buddy."
2. You're Not Getting Stronger
"If it has been a couple months and you're not noticing muscle or strength gains, then you may not be pushing yourself hard enough, and it's time to increase your weight," says certified personal trainer Jamie Hickey.
Does the scale not budge? Do you not feel out of breath or lightly sore after workouts? It's time to step it up. You may also want to keep a log of your workouts to track how much you're lifting and if it's improving over time.
3. Your Final Reps Are Easy
If your program calls for 10 reps of an exercise, but if you get to the end of the set and feel like you can bust out more reps, you're in need of a weight upgrade. A good rule of thumb is that the last two reps of each set should be hard and feel a bit shaky (but still with good form), according to Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean.
Keep in mind, though, that you'll likely need to decrease the total number of reps with each set, she says. Decreasing your reps allows your muscles to adjust to the weight change. So if you usually perform three and six sets of 12 to 15 reps, you'll want to start out with three sets of 8 to 10 and see how that feels.
4. You Can Keep Going After the Last Set
Just like the last rep in each set, the last set should be hard, where you can't possibly do one more rep. "If you're able to have a conversation with your buddy while completing your last set, it's time to prepare to go up in weight as your current weight isn't challenging enough," Hickey says.
What's more, if you're flying through your sets, you're going too fast and need to go up in weight. "Focus on the speed of the lift," says Hickey. "If you're struggling the speed in which you bring the weight up will be slower, but as you gain muscle you'll be able to lift the same weight faster."
How to Safely Increase the Weights You're Lifting
Ready to go up in weights? Here are a few tips to make sure your body can take on the extra challenge, stay safe, and maximize results.
Start by Adding Reps or Sets
Before you add more weight, you can start by adding more reps or sets to your current training session to make it more challenging, Hickey says. Then, at your next training session, try the new weight and see how those sets go. It should be challenging enough that you can't fully complete your reps and sets with the number you were used to.
Use the Rule of 5
More advanced lifters can move up in increments of five pounds (as mentioned above, beginners may want to experiment with one- to two-pound increases). "Starting small allows you to focus on form and increase slowly, which is a safe method, especially if you don't have someone spotting you during your work out," Kite says.
And it's smart because you won't overwhelm your muscles. "Once you're getting really high in weights, 10 pounds can seem a lot heavier than five pounds. The more adapted you are to lifting, the harder it is for you to make jumps up to the next weight level," says Celiberti.
Or Increase Weight by Percentage
Move up in small percentages, though. "It's better to look at weight increases in terms of a percentage of the weight you've been lifting," says Hickey. "For example, going from 5 to 10 pounds on a shoulder raise 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." Try not to increase more than 10 percent week to week to keep your body safe and injury-free.
Experiment With the Amount of Weight
It's okay to do a little trial and error to find your perfect upgrade. "It may take a few tries to land on the perfect weight," Kite says. "Just because you chose one weight for your first set doesn't mean you have to stick with it for the rest of them." Dial it back or add more weight if necessary.
"A good rule of thumb for beginners is to choose a weight that you know you can lift with good form, but are just unsure of how many reps you can complete," he says. Then test the weights. "If you can blow past 12 reps with this weight, you need to increase. If you are struggling to complete just six reps, switch this weight for something lighter," he says.
Adjust for Different Muscle Groups
The area you're targeting also affects how quickly you can go up in weight. "You might be able to increase by more weight for a lower body exercise, while an upper body exercise may require you to increase at a slower rate," Celiberti says.
Eat Enough Protein and Carbs
You should also make sure you're eating enough protein and carbs, especially post-workout to repair muscle damage and aid recovery. "When you up your weight, you should experience muscle failure, which is when you can no longer perform the exercise with perfect form at the set amount of weight," says Kite.
That creates micro tears in muscle, which must be repaired with amino acids from protein. And post-workout carbohydrates can help decrease muscle soreness, according to small 2019 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics.
"The majority of people trying to build muscle [and gain weight] follow the rule of one gram of protein per pound of body weight," Hickey says. (Though exact recommendations may vary based on your goals and preferences.) This is to give your muscle and body the proper fuel to help them grow in size and strength.