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The Fitness Zone

Could I Be Lifting Too Heavy?
May 13, 2015

There are so many health and fitness benefits that can be achieved from weight lifting. Sensible weight lifting involves precise, controlled movements specifically targeted at training one or more muscle groups. But what happens when the weights start getting quite heavy? Is heavy weight lifting safe? Maybe. It isn’t just a straightforward answer, sorry. The answer depends on lots of factors. Before we try to settle on this debate let’s make it clear that today we are talking about ‘light’ versus ‘heavy’ not ‘free weights’ versus ‘machines’.

Too much to handle?

So, what is ‘heavy’? Heavy will be dependent on the client’s ability. It will also depend on who is defining it. But for today’s view let’s say it’s a load that you can only lift between 1 and 6 times (or maybe slightly more). For some people this can be too much to handle, at least initially. Heavy weight training means that the client is going to find it more difficult to maintain exercise technique. There is more chance of the client ‘cheating’ to get the exercise complete. For example, they will swing their body and arms during a bicep curl to lift the load into a flexed position. In this case the client is using momentum to assist with lifting the load. It’s possible then that the muscles, joints and supporting structures are not well prepared for this lift and injury risk is higher.

Don’t break your or your clients’ backs!

Weight lifting can be awesome for back strengthening to help support the spine. But heavier loads place greater strains on posture and technique demands. Clients that are asked to lift heavy weights must be well trained and prepared for the lift they are about to attempt. Personal Trainers need to have a solid understanding of biomechanics and anatomical demands placed on the body during heavy lifts. Without this it is very easy to dangerously overload the client with loads where they simply cannot maintain their technique. Weaker muscles, and tendons and ligaments can fail and tear. The problem can be that one muscle group can be strong but smaller muscles or stabilising muscles may not be appropriately prepared. Let’s take the barbell squat for example. The client may have really strong legs but their back is relatively weak. It’s more likely that they will strain their back than their legs despite the fact that the squat is primarily targeted at leg and glute training! Great Personal Trainers are required to make sure that clients are progressed at the appropriate rate with awesome technique.

How much should you lift?

This really depends on what your goals are. There will be different weights for each individual and what they aim to get out of the work out. As a general rule:

- If looking to build on strength, you should aim for weights that allow you to train in a rep range of 1-6.

- If looking to build muscle, choose weights to train in a rep range of 8-12.

- If you’re focusing on muscle endurance, choose weights to train for at least 15 reps.

As you get tired during your workout, you will find that your energy will start to decrease. This is why you should start with the most difficult and heaviest exercises early on. Of course, remembering to warm up is very important to avoid injuries. Logging your results and weights with each workout will help you to guide your future workouts and understand where you can improve and what you are currently capable of.

Tips to minimise the injury risk

1. Know your anatomy, physiology and biomechanics really well. Make sure you understand how all the muscles are required to work during a lift so that you can prescribe loads safely.

2. Always start client programs on lighter weights with higher repetitions. As you or your client becomes more confident and starts to be able to work with heavier loads, ensure your workout includes low reps with a high resistance load.

3. Make sure you program in rest and recovery into a weight-training program. Allow at least 48 hours recovery for training of a body part. Many people continue to push through minor pains and injuries, which will only work to exacerbate the problem. Allow time to heal from any pains or injuries.

4.Ensure your equipment is up to standard. Checking the equipment before each use can help reduce the risk of injury. A platform with cracks or uneven surfaces can lead to ankle joint injuries. Bars should also be examined often.

5. Don’t forget to warm up. You may feel like rushing to start (and finish) and feel like you’ll be warmed up after a couple of reps anyway. Warming up, however, ensures that your muscles, tendons and ligaments are appropriately stretched and your blood-flow will have increased to get ready for your work out.

6. Help to reduce swelling. This can be done by taking anti-inflammatory medications and your diet. By eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, you can help reduce any inflammation. Ice packs can also assist.

7. Understand that it's not all about being a “weightlifter”. If you’re throwing a heap of weights on the bar to impress others in the gym or give your ego a boost, you can lead yourself to unnecessary injury. In the end, no one else in the gym really cares about how much you’re lifting, so use the right amount of weights for your goals and needs.

8. Know when to see a doctor. If after taking some of the steps above and you still have pains or an injury feels like it is worsening, it is important to seek medical attention right away to avoid worsening symptoms. 

This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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