How Heavy is Too Heavy?
When we talk about strength for runners, we talk a lot about lifting “heavy.” But what does that mean?
For runners, if lifting feels too easy, their first inclination is always to increase reps. They’ll do the prescribed set of 6, scoff at how easy it felt, and then proceed to add 20 more reps per set.
While that completely defeats the purpose of the given rep range, it’s totally understandable.
Lifting is often outside your comfort zone, and low weight/high reps seems like it’s more applicable to running.
It’s not. At least not long-term.
Low weight/high rep has a place in learning a skill. Mastering technique requires practice, and there’s no benefit to overloading faulty movement patterns. But too often, runners seem to get stuck lifting the same 5-10# dumbbells for all eternity. I'm assuming it's related to fear - fear of getting hurt, fear of getting bulky, not sure what you're doing or how to do it right ... or it could just be internalization of old-school beliefs that runners don't really need to lift heavy. (They do).
But if you're regularly lifting a 30-lb+ kiddo or 40# bags of mulch or heroically carrying in all the groceries in one trip, think carefully about how much good those 10# DBs are really doing when used for full-body functional movement patterns like squats.
That said, of course our goal isn’t to reinforce poor form with more load. It’s to build resilience and the ability to maintain good form under increasing loads, because as your paces get faster, the stresses and loads your body experiences while running also increase.
Also, understand that effective strength training isn’t about using the same weights every workout just to check a box. The point is to use an incremental stimulus to which your body adapts over time, which improves your ability to maintain running form, power per stride, and durability in the face of fatigue.
But how do you know when it’s time to go heavier (or not)?
1. The last 2 reps per set should feel challenging - yes, even if you only have 4-6 reps per set.
2. Form shouldn’t considerably break down - for example, if you notice your back excessively rounding during a squat even though your legs felt pretty strong, this is an opportunity to identify and address the weakest link in the chain before adding more load.
3. Lift speed should still be relatively smooth - If it’s heavy enough, you’ll slow down a little, but you shouldn’t be grinding it out.
4. You should welcome the rest - If it’s heavy enough you’ll welcome the ~2 minutes of rest between your sets. It’s not a badge of honor to rush the rest. Strength training is not the same as HIIT.
Ok, so to summarize, if you are lifting heavy enough it will feel relatively hard for the given rep range. You might struggle a little to push through those last few reps, but your form is solid. If every rep is like butter, and you feel like you could do 10 additional reps per set at the weight you're using, it's probably too light. That said, not every exercise and given rep range is meant to push you to the edge on every single workout. Think about the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale. Depending on the exercise and its intended purpose, choose a weight that feels like a 6-9 out of 10 with 10 being an all-out 1-rep max.
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