When Should You Increase Your Weights?

A question I get from women every week is how should I know when I should switch up my weights? This is a great question because knowing when to increase your dumbbells in your exercise routine is essential for continued progress, motivation, results and to avoid plateaus. 

I’ve shared many times about the benefits of strength training exercises for midlife women and why muscle strength is key for longevity and aging well. Assuming you are doing some resistance training already, this question comes up all the time.

Women tend to be afraid of heavy lifting thinking they will become bulky and thick. But, that’s the opposite of what happens for most women. Typically using heavier weights with fewer reps will help to:

Increase your lean muscle mass to change your body composition

Improve your metabolic rate

Sculpt your muscles and to give you more energy

The good news is you are never too late or too old to build muscle. Many women are stronger in their later years because they more time to focus on taking better care of themselves. Famous author, Miriam Nelson, outlines in her best selling book, Strong Women Stay Young, how after a year of strength training twice a week, women’s bodies were 15 to 20 years more youthful.

They had less fat and more muscle; bone loss was prevented or reversed; their strength and energy increased dramatically; and they showed surprising gains in balance and flexibility.

So if you think you might be ready to increase your weights, check this list first! After teaching strength classes and lifting weights myself for 30 years, here is my advice for when to increase your dumbbells.

Consistent Ease

If you find that your current dumbbells feel too light or easy to lift throughout your entire workout, it’s a clear sign that it’s time to increase the resistance.

Your muscles adapt and grow stronger over time, so what once challenged you may now feel like a breeze. I always say, “the struggle is real” when weight lifting. It should feel hard to do and make you work!

Repetitions Increase

Another way to look at it is, if you’re consistently hitting the higher end of your repetition range with ease (e.g., 12-15 reps when aiming for 8-12), it’s a cue to up the weight.

Hitting your desired rep range with comfort indicates your muscles are no longer being adequately challenged.

No Muscle Fatigue

Muscle fatigue during and after your workout is a good indicator that you’re pushing your muscles to their limits. If you’re not feeling that satisfying burn or fatigue after your sets, it’s time to dial up the weight to stimulate further growth.

As I said above, a good rule of thumb is to struggle to do those last few reps and keep your rep range no higher than 15 per set.

Plateaus in Progress

If you’ve hit an exercise plateau in your strength gains or muscle growth despite consistent effort and proper form, it could be due to your dumbbells being too light. Increasing the resistance forces your muscles to adapt and grow beyond their current capacity. 

Improved Technique

As your form and technique improve over time, you’ll find exercises becoming more manageable. While this is a positive sign of progress, it also means it’s time to challenge yourself with heavier weights to continue seeing improvements in strength and muscle definition.

I always say “Good form first before increasing load.”

If you’re newer to weight training, take a look at my strength training for beginner’s guide for helpful tips!

Minimal Soreness

While you don’t need to feel sore after every workout, minimal or no soreness could indicate that your muscles have adapted to your current routine. Gradually increasing the weight will help reintroduce that soreness, indicating muscle growth and adaptation.

You can also learn more about which muscles groups to workout together to get the most out of your exercise.

Energy Surplus

If you’re finishing your workouts with plenty of energy to spare, it’s a sign that your current weights aren’t pushing you to your limits. Increasing the resistance will require more effort, leaving you feeling appropriately fatigued post-workout.

Time Elapsed

This is the concept of progressive overload. Generally, every 4-6 weeks, it’s advisable to reassess your weights and make adjustments accordingly. This timeframe allows for sufficient adaptation and progress monitoring, ensuring you stay on track towards your strength and muscle-building goals.

The Bottom Line

If your goals involve wanting to sculpt and build your muscles to get stronger, you have to go heavier and break down your muscle fibers, so they can repair and remodel.

Don’t get me wrong, lifting light weights with higher reps has it’s place to improve your muscle endurance. But, if your goal is getting stronger and toned, heavy weights are your friend.

One last thing, lifting heavier weights helps to build bone mass which is an important concept for us older women. Along with good nutrition, pumping iron can help to strengthen your bones so keep going with your weight training and keep progressing! 

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