Put Some Fucking Weight on the Barbell

The point of lifting weights is to challenge your body so that your body can handle the task by building muscle. The more you lift, the stronger you become. Yet too many people are discouraged from gaining weight on the barbell at least once.

This widespread message that light is good enough and heavy is not so important seems friendly at first, but sets people up for failure. Internalizing this message can take the form of improving your technique until you feel you “deserve” your right to gain weight, or over-thinking about the choice of accessories, the specific foods you eat, or the supplements you take.

This shyness about being overweight is especially common among women, although people of either gender can be affected by it. Many ingenious fitness products perpetuate this message by convincing us with their marketing that their cheap, lightweight product is as good as a barbell gym . Heavy weights can be intimidating; no wonder people are hesitant to pick them up.

You Can Do Better Than Air Squats

This particular rant was inspired by an article on Shape that I saw recently, although I want to make it clear that this phenomenon is broader than any single article. The article’s tweet promises that readers will get “more buttock and hip lift benefit from every squat,” and the headline aims to tell you six reasons why you “squat wrong.” The article is illustrated with a picture of a woman squatting without excess weight.

In fact, if someone squats without weight and wants to get more out of each squat, they need to use some damn weight . Air squats are great for beginners, but once you can do ten or so, it’s time to move on. After that, air squats give you a slight boost to improve muscle endurance and possibly cardio endurance, but they have very little effect on your overall strength . You will still feel tired at the end of your workout, but next time you will do little to improve your strength. Or, in other words: sticking to a variation that is too light is doomed to failure.

All of the tips in this article are minor technique adjustments. While these aren’t all bad advice, none of them will have nearly the same effect on your hips and glutes as loading a barbell.

(And while we’re at it, why articles for women suggest we want to “tighten” our muscles, and that’s not even a question? Why can’t they be about getting stronger or building muscle, these are strength training in fact?)

People tend to choose weights that are too light.

Oddly enough, I’ve seen this many times: a man, often a woman, comes to the conclusion that he wants to do strength training. So far, so good. They lift a light load and lift it. Great! But then, instead of trying the next heavier weight to see if they can lift that too, they stick to the lighter one.

I have occasionally coached some friends and acquaintances (plus my kids), and often I need to ask a person, “Can you do more?” And often, someone who thought they had done a tough workout can gain significant weight when they know that someone is expecting such an opportunity from them. For example, two hundred pounds instead of 100 in the leg press.

There have been several studies in which people were asked to choose a weight for exercise and then test their strength to see if that weight was actually a good choice. In this study, women selected weights that ranged from 42% to 51% of their one rep max when asked to select a weight for a 10 rep set – the actual 10 rep max is usually 75%. This study of men and women still found that the average choice of people was below 60%. We imagine sandbags.

Stop thinking about it

It’s interesting to watch the Q&A topics in the fitness-related subreddits. I saw someone complain recently that they are not getting results from strength training, so what supplements should they be taking? I saw another person, a newbie who probably used too light weights to begin with, was advised to lift even less so that they could focus on their “mind muscles” connection. Every day, people who use weights that are too light send countless form checks and countless questions about which type of curl is best for their biceps or whether the workout can be divided into X days.

These are all details. The mind-muscle connection does not affect muscle activation as long as you lift heavy enough weights . Even the best supplements won’t have a significant effect on muscle growth if you don’t lift enough weight.

So if you want to focus on these things, that’s great – just do it while you’re lifting heavy enough . If you want to improve your deadlift technique, that’s great! Work on it by lifting appropriately heavy weights . Want to try a different curling option? Cool if you know that all curls will build muscle if you make them heavy enough and do them enough .

You break down the plateau by picking up more

Another aspect of indecision when lifting weights is the constant fear of injury and overtraining. De facto overtraining is a medical condition that has been studied in endurance sports ; it is not the same as feeling a little tired or sore after lifting. Injuries are also exaggerated in the minds of many people , and they happen not only because your shape is a little imperfect or your weight is a little heavier than last time. Of course, if you’ve never squatted over 100 pounds, getting out of 315 pounds might be a bad idea. But if you increase weight over time, it is not dangerous.

And a few more words about how to lift more: you can do more sets in the exercise. Minimalist programs are popular with newbies and busy people, but if you have time to do more than the minimum it will pay off. And if you only do the bare minimum, it may not work for you for a long time. As Greg Knuckles points out in the appropriately titled “More is More” article :

If you are not making progress, your default thought should not be just “Time to find an exciting new program!” It should be either “time to add more work to my current program” or “time to find a new program that has more volume than my current program.”

So please don’t be afraid to raise more. Especially if you have been training and have not seen results, or if your beginner’s progress has dropped, ask yourself if you can lift more – and if you don’t want to, do you have a good reason or are you just nervous about it?

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