Not as often as you might think, experts say.
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More women are lifting weights than ever, and we are ~psyched~ about it. There are so many health benefits to pumping iron, not to mention the mental perk of feeling like a total badass who can toss around a barbell like it's NBD.
But as the interest in lifting—and lifting heavy—has skyrocketed, and you see people picking up plates every day on your Instagram feed, you might wonder: Is it really healthy to go all out all the time?
Here's what you need to know about lifting heavy, including how often you should really be doing it.
What counts as lifting heavy?
First up: Before you can think about how often you should be lifting heavy weights, you should know what "lifting heavy" really means. As with many things in health and wellness, it's not so straightforward.
"The most an individual can lift is known as their one repetition maximum (one rep max or 1RM)," notes James M. Smoliga, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an associate professor of physiology in the department of physical therapy at High Point University. "This means it's the most weight that a person can lift for one repetition, but not for a second one." So, basically, lifting as heavy as humanly possible (for you). And while 1RMs are an occasional part of programming in CrossFit, for example, they're not something you should be incorporating into your regular workout routine unless you're a competitive powerlifter or training specifically for muscular strength.
"If you decrease the weight slightly so that you can do two to three repetitions, that would also be considered a 'heavy' weight by most. The average person does not have a need to train at this heavy of a load," says Smoliga. The one exception? "Powerlifters may use these heavy lifts because they train the nervous system to be able to lift even heavier weights over time."
Finally, there's "heavy lifting" for the person who is working out just for general strength and fitness: Performing sets of four to six repetitions is pretty much the absolute lowest the average person should aim to do during a workout, according to Smoliga. "However, sets of eight to 12 repetitions are generally considered a good range that helps people to build a combination of strength and muscle size." So, for most people, the heaviest weight you can lift for eight to 12 reps of an exercise can be considered lifting "heavy."
Why should you lift heavy?
Plain and simple, whether you're working out for health purposes or aesthetic goals, lifting weights should be part of your routine. "Studies have shown that participating in strength training can have a number of benefits for women, including improving body composition, building lean muscle, decreasing fat mass, improving flexibility, and increasing bone density, which can help decrease the risk of osteoporosis later in life," explains Stephanie Paplinskie, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Ontario, Canada. But you don't necessarily have to be lifting crazy heavy to reap these benefits.
In fact, it's better if you incorporate a mix of different types of strength training, from lighter weights with higher reps to heavier weights with lower reps. "You should seek to include a combination of intensities in your resistance training programs to ensure variety, prevent plateaus, and decrease the risk of injury," says Paplinskie. (See: The Difference Between Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance and Why You Need Both)
Adding in some heavy weight training can definitely help mix things up, though. "I believe that incorporating some heavy lifting can be beneficial for the average person, just for some mental stimulation as a change of pace from the usual workout," says Smoliga. "It can also be good for when individuals have hit a 'plateau' in their training." To keep seeing results after you've been working out for a while—whether you're after fat loss, strength gains, or more lean muscle mass—some heavy lifting is a good idea. (BTW, here's why more women are trying to gain weight through diet and exercise.)
But you shouldn't overdo it.
While your trainer and fitness influencers might be getting under the barbell five or six times per week, experts say that level of frequency isn't necessary for the average exerciser, and could even harm your progress if you are in fact pushing yourself too hard.
"By going too hard, too often, the muscles and connective tissue cannot fully adapt to the training session," explains Smoliga. "This may simply mean that you are improving your fitness, but not as efficiently as possible."
Working out at a high intensity too frequently also ups your risk of developing overuse injuries (which tend to happen gradually), or overtraining syndrome. "This manifests itself in different ways, but can cause negative changes in your moods, emotions, sleep patterns, and metabolism," says Smoliga. To avoid overtraining, here's his general advice: Don't target a specific muscle group until the soreness from the previous workout goes away. Though the science behind recovery is a little more complex (your muscles are still recovering even after they're no longer sore), this is a good rule of thumb, he says.
So how can influencers and athletes lift so often and still see progress? Their lifestyle allows them more time to recover. "A professional athlete who works out extremely hard and can then spend the rest of the day recovering and taking in proper nutrients will be ready for the next workout a lot quicker than a busy person working 60 hours a week for her career while also sacrificing sleep," Smoliga points out. True that.
Okay, so how often should you lift heavy weights?
Experts agree that somewhere around two to three days per week of heavy lifting is enough for the average person.
"Beginning lifters should be fine training three days per week with higher volume—at least 20 repetitions per day of each exercise," says Melody Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Southern California. For example, you could do three sets of eight reps per exercise.
And while some more experienced lifters and bodybuilders like to work specific muscle groups on specific days, Schoenfeld says most people can see benefits from doing a few total-body lifting workouts per week that incorporate the main functional movement patterns. "I'd recommend some kind of hip hinge movement (like deadlifts or kettlebell swings), some kind of press (like push-ups or overhead press), some kind of pull (like rows or pull-ups), and some kind of squat or lunge," she says.
It's also important to note that intensity plays a role in gauging weightlifting workouts, and that's a different measure than "heavy."
"You will get the most out of the workout if you put the muscle under a lot of stress," says Smoliga. "So, if you are aiming to do three sets of 10 repetitions, that eighth, ninth, and tenth rep of each set should start to feel very intense. I often ask the athletes I work with how many more repetitions they could have done at the end of the set. If they say more than one or two more repetitions, I definitely know they're not using a heavy enough weight." (Here's more on the science behind building muscle and burning fat.)
So no matter how many repetitions you're doing or what weight you're using, you should feel like the last few reps are HARD, and any weight should feel "heavy" at that point.
Use these tips if you're new to heavy lifting.
Ready to get started? Here are a few final things to keep in mind. (Then check out the complete beginner's guide to lifting heavy.)
Pain doesn't necessarily equal gain. Your lifting workouts should be hard—but not too hard. "You don't need to feel like you're dying in order to get results!" says Schoenfeld. "The key is to move really well within your training. The more exhausted you are, the more your form will break down, and the higher your risk of injury will be."
Form comes first. "Mastering proper technique is essential before one begins to lift heavy," says Smoliga. "Much like a person can get better at any movement through regular practice, the same holds true for weight training. If you have practiced the movements with good technique using light weights, as you move to heavier and heavier weights, you will be more likely to continue using good technique. This helps you get the most from your workout while also reducing the risk of injury."
Stick with what works. There's a reason why staple exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are present in most lifting programs. "You also don't need as much variety as you might think you do," says Schoenfeld. "Just because an exercise is new and sexy doesn't mean it's necessary or particularly beneficial to your goals. You don't need to do 12 different triceps exercises per workout; one will do just fine."