The longer you’ve been lifting weights, the heavier the weights need to be in order for you to see results. On one hand, it’s a stupidly obvious point — of course you use bigger weights as you become stronger. But it’s easier than you think to mess this up.
When you were a beginner, you could gain size and strength as long as the weight you used on any given exercise was at least 60 percent of the amount you could lift for a single max-effort repetition. It’s a weight you could lift 15 to 20 times in a single set. By any definition, that’s pretty light.
That percentage, though, increases with experience. Most gym regulars need to use at least 80 percent of their 1-rep max to grow bigger and stronger. Now, we’re talking about a weight you could probably lift about 8 times in an all-out set before there’s nothing left in your tank.
Be honest: Do you really use weights heavy enough to fall into that range? If you typically perform multiple sets of 8 to 10 repetitions for each exercise, you don’t. To use 80 percent of your max for 3 or 4 sets, each set would probably consist of 5 or 6 repetitions.
It becomes even harder from there. If you’re beyond the intermediate stage — if you’re a serious gym rat and have been lifting consistently for much of your adult life, you might need 85 to 90 percent of your 1-rep max to see genuine progress. In a normal workout with multiple sets of each exercise, we’re talking about 2, 3, or 4 repetitions per set. You should be failing to finish at least some of those sets, within reason — lifting a weight until you physically can’t any more helps to lay the bedrock for success on your next attempt.
You can see the problem: Nobody can lift near-max weights on every exercise of every workout. You’d either burn out or hurt yourself, and it wouldn’t take long.
Fortunately, there is one loophole.
You know you’re supposed to lift weights slowly and deliberately and under control. Yes, you should stay “under control” — good form requires it. But there’s a serious issue with “slowly and deliberately.”
The faster you lift, the better the results. If you’re trying to increase size, fast lifts activate more of the muscle fibers that have the most potential to grow. If you’re trying to become leaner, fast lifts do more to crank up your heart rate — and by extension your metabolism — than anything else. And if you’re trying to grow stronger . . . well, how many feats of strength can you list that are performed slowly and deliberately? Even if something looks slow from the outside, you can bet that the guy performing the feat is trying like hell to get it done as fast as possible.
Anything worth lifting is worth lifting fast, as long as you control the weight and don’t let it control you. That means you’ll lower the weight a bit more slowly than you lifted it.