Start Light When Strength Training
Your first instinct with strength training is to lift superhuman loads. Here’s what to do instead.
Sometimes people get in their own way. Let’s take the average trainee. Chances are you’re reading this because you’re interested in getting stronger (besides being a personal trainer I’m also a part time detective). Perhaps you’ve tried strength training routines in the past and done well for a few weeks. Then you hit a wall. It’s a struggle to lift anymore weight. Before you know it, you can’t budge the weights you use to throw around with little effort. Now you need to either jump ship or start over. You got in your own way. That’s because whoever wrote the program told you to start light. But you ignored them because starting light seemed like a waste of time. Here’s why it wasn’t.
I always remind my clients to train smarter, not harder. Save the brutal workouts for when you plateau. Strength training is no different. A lot of guys want to get strong but, believe it or not, they don’t start light enough. I know it seems counterintuitive, but being conservative with your training loads means long term, consistent progress. If you haven’t gotten stronger month to month and year to year, then this concept can finally cure your lifting woes.
Here’s why: strength is a skill. This is why powerlifters and weightlifters specialize in their lifts. While a hockey player practices their slapshot, a weightlifter has to hone their technique in the clean and jerk. Let’s say you front squat twice a week. One workout is 6 x 3 and the other workout has you doing 2 sets of 8 reps. That’s 34 squats a week and 272 reps in an 8 week program. If you’re struggling by the third week, how do you do the remaining 240+ reps? If you start light enough, you get 272 reps to demonstrate your strength in the front squat. That’s some good practice. Your tendons, ligaments, and nervous system will all be ready the last week of the workout and you get a chance to set PR’S.
Strength is also the balance between stimulation and fatigue. If you’re lifting too heavy, too early – to where your reps are a constant grind – then your nervous system can get fried out. Since your nerves control your muscles, an impaired nervous system can literally shutdown on you and prevent you from lifting heavy things. It’s the body trying to protect itself to prevent injury. Starting out lighter than you think can stop the body from accumulating too much stress too soon.
An interesting study shows the value of starting light. Researchers compared two groups: one started out as heavy as 87.5% of their 1RM, while the other group went as low as 75% of 1RM. So if the max weight they could bench press for one rep is 200 pounds, then they started at 175 and 150 pounds, respectively. After 20 weeks, the group that started lighter had a 19 pound increase in their bench press while the heavier group raised they bench by 12.5 pounds (1). It’s also important to note that the group that started lighter began the study as the weaker group.
If you don’t use training percentages, then give yourself a “3 rep window.” If you’re doing sets of 3 to get stronger, start with a weight you could lift 6 times, or what we call a 6 rep max (6RM). 3 sets of 5 calls for an 8RM. You get the idea.
Think the only way to get strong is to suffer under heavy loads? Think again. Strength takes practice, so starting light will ensure you get a ton of time under the bar. Start light, enjoy the process, and set some PR’s.
1. Wood, P.P., Goodwin, J.E., Cleather, D.J. “Lighter and Heavier Initial Loads Yield Similar Gains in Strength When Employing a Progressive Wave Loading Scheme.” (2016) Biology of Sport, 33;3. 257-261