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    Weight Loading & Failure. How Heavy To Lift & When To Stop Lifting

    Beginning a new exercise or workout program, I always focus on performing the proper technique, not on how heavy I can lift. However, the weight loading I choose is always challenging. I also methodically learned the basic lifts before progressing onto the more complex lifts. Taking my time progressing through the lifts took patience and control, but is worth it for avoiding injury and getting optimal cognition.

    While lifting, research shows that it is best to be getting close to muscle fatigue by the last few reps of the set. Generally speaking, to reduce the risk of injury, don’t push the weight load or the number of reps past the point of failure. Failure is the point that you can no longer maintain proper technique.

    Technique breaking down during a set leads to three problems. The first is that you are most likely, depending on the movement, increasing your risk of injury. The second problem is that you are cognitively hardwiring in your brain how to do an exercise badly. The third is the likelihood that you are no longer targeting the muscle groups you want to work.

    For more on failure, refer to taking your sets to failure.


    Optimal weight loads vary considerably between exercises, muscle groups, genders, age groups, training experience, and individuals. As a general guide:

    – For beginners to a strength training program, aim for loads of around 60% of your 1RM (one repetition maximum).

    – For those that are intermediate to advanced, loads of 80-85% of your 1RM may yield better results.

    Don’t know what your 1RM is? That’s ok, here is a more straightforward explanation. As a beginner to a strength training program, start with higher volume and lower intensities in about the 15RM rep range. Once you have a decent base level of conditioning, you can progress to fluctuating between the 5-12RM rep range. If you want to increase the weight, an increase between 2-10% is a good rule of thumb to avoid overreach. If you can perform more than 1-2 more reps beyond the prescribed rep count, then the load can go heavier. That is assuming that you can maintain proper technique.


    Once experienced in strength training, for optimal neuromuscular improvements, your program should include periodization. Also, include heavy loading (6RM or less) and varying weight loads. The following provides a general guide of advanced training for specific characteristics:

    • Strength and Hypertrophy perform 3-12RM of heavy weight training at traditional speeds, i.e., with controlled tempo.
    • Endurance (and aerobic power) perform 12-28RM of moderate weight training at traditional speeds.
    • Power and Speed perform 3-5RM of high-speed training such as ballistic exercises.

    It is normal to feel some aches and pains when lifting safely. However, if lifting a weight load induces specific pain of concern, then stop exercising and seek advice from a health professional.

    For a comparison of the weight load between men and women, there are two general observations. Women can lift about 70% load for lower body exercises and 50% load for upper body exercises when compared to men.


    If you are buying weights for a home gym, the smaller weights that you initially use will still be useful down the track. You can always use these weights for warming up and for specific supplemental exercises after you have progressed.

    For weight load selection of dumbbells, kettlebells and barbell plates, refer to equipment selection.

    For an introductory strength training program, refer to introductory strength.


    1. Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength and muscle power gains. Izquierdo M, et al. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 May;100(5):1647-56.

    2. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, Ball SD. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Mar;35(3):456-64.

    3. Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 May;18(2):377-82.

    4. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. American College of Sports Medicine. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 March;41(3):687-708.

    5. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Campos GE, et al. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60.

    Saturday, February 16, 2019


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