For about the past 6 months I’ve been posting workouts every Wednesday on my Facebook page because I want people to be confident in the gym and have access to intelligent, effective, and safe workouts.
This last week someone bravely asked if it would be OK to do the same workout with tiny weights. To which I replied, “Of course!”.
Every body is different, and adjusting your workouts to best serve you is what defines an amazing workout! Plus, I was really stoked to hear they wanted to try the workout!
This exchange got me thinking. What does “heavy” really mean. I’ve written tons of pieces trying to convince people that lifting heavy things with good movement can cure much of what ails you:
- Better Joint Health
- Increased Lean Body Mass
- Increased Muscle Definition
- More energy
- Better Mood
- Longer Lifespan
- Being a strong, confident badass who can open every pickle jar known to mankind.
That said, heavy means different things to different people. Exhibit A: The heaviest thing I’ve ever lifted is this guy’s warmup.
So I can understand and empathize with where this individual’s question was coming from.
Heavy is relative to your current strength levels.
What’s considered “heavy” also depends on how many reps you do. Squatting 50 lbs feels much heavier after 20 reps than it does after 3 reps.
My point is, you don’t need to lift as heavy as me or anyone else if that’s not where you’re at right now. You only need to lift as heavy as your body requires to cause strength and muscle growth without injury.
Today, I’m going to give you a simple strategy to know how heavy you need to lift every workout to see increases in strength, muscle definition, and resiliency. What I’m going to talk about is called “RPE”. But what the heezy is RPE?
RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion.
RPE is an easy system for listening to your body on any given day i.e. it’s an awesome addition to your training tool kit.
Factors like sleep, stress, and nutrition all play a complex role in how much you should lift on a given day. RPE simplifies all these complex nonsense and tells you how hard to train.
What is Rate of Perceived Exertion?
RPE is a difficulty scale from 0-10. After a client completes a set, I'll ask them, "How hard was that from 0-10 where:
0=I could do this in my sleep. Wait! I am sleeping! Get out of my head!
10=My face feels like it’s about to fall off Raiders of the Lost Arc Style. "
Because their answer plays a big part in whether we up or lower the weight.
Use the RPE scale to judge how difficult the set was as a whole — how hard it felt at the end of the set, not at the beginning.
Typically your work sets (as opposed to warm-ups) should float somewhere around the 7-9 range.
Using RPE in the real world
If your workout calls for 3 sets of 10 reps of dumbbell rows, grab a weight you can row for 8-12 reps per arm. The set should rank around 7-9. Very rarely (if ever) should you step into the “10” category, especially with “big” lifts like barbell squats and deadlifts.
Another option: you could also just pick a weight and keep doing reps until it gets difficult. That’ll work too.
The process usually looks something like this:
Your workout calls for 10 reps. You make an educated guess to pick a weight. If you realize mid-set the weight is too light, you either up the weight, or you keep the weight the same and get more than 10 reps in. If you realize the weight is too heavy to get 10 reps, decrease the weight or do less than 10 reps.
It’s all based on how you feel during your training session.
Heavy really just means challenging enough to make your body change and adapt. You don’t necessarily need to lift weights you can only lift 3-5 times (what the lifting world often refers to as “heavy”) if you don’t want to. The most important thing is that you’re showing up and challenging yourself.
If you don’t feel comfortable lifting super heavy things there are ways to improve muscle tone, strength, and joint health without adding weight to an exercise.
Let’s say my client, call him Finn, wants to lose belly fat and build muscle, so I make squats a staple of his workouts.
Finn doesn’t feel comfortable squatting anything heavier than 30 lbs. However, after a month or so 30 lbs feels pretty light because he's gotten stronger. To keep building muscle and strength, Finn’s workouts need to evolve to accommodate his new level of strength.
We could do this without adding weight by:
- Adding reps
- Going really slow on the way down
- Adding in a pause at the bottom
- Or using less rest time in between sets
Personally, I’d rather just add weight to my squats because the methods I listed above are reeeeally freaking uncomfortable. THE PAIN! But I’m a baby and hate doing any exercise that lasts longer than 10s.
Actual footage of me doing high rep squats:
The point is to challenge yourself based on what your body is telling you during your workouts. To get results you need to lift heavy, but you don’t necessarily need to lift something so heavy you can barely pick it up 3 times.
Beyond that, heavy and strong are relative terms. Choose weights based on what you think is going to challenge your body safely in that moment. Using the RPE scale is a great way to make your workouts adequately challenging, while making you more in tune with what your body is telling you.
This makes strength training more safe, effective, and tailored to your needs. Pretty awesome, eh?