Throughout my 10+ years of lifting, I’ve been fortunate enough to only injure myself a handful of times.
I remember every single injury:
- Tweaked my lower back deadlifting off the floor twice.
- Tweaked my lower back doing Romanian deadlifts twice.
- Tweaked my left shoulder flat dumbbell bench pressing once.
- Got stuck under the bar bench pressing 135 lbs once (don’t ask).
- Tweaked my lower back doing the leg press once (my butt lifted off the seat).
Luckily all these injuries healed on their own within a few days and I never had to get surgery or go rehab.
Majority of these injuries were to due lifting more than I could handle and poor form.
I am still a HUGE promoter of lifting heavy and think that if you can lift moderately heavy, you should.
Just not too heavy like Ronnie Coleman:
Now when I say you should lift “moderately heavy,” I consider that to be anything that’s 4 reps and up.
Anything lower than 4 reps, and injury risk just shoots up like crazy.
But let’s say you just can’t lift heavy at all.
Let’s say you can’t lift anything lower than 10 reps (whether that’s due to injury or lack of equipment).
Are you doomed?
5 ways to spice up your basic “3 sets of 10 reps”
Most people who don’t lift heavy do something along the lines of “3 sets of 10 reps.”
This isn’t the worst thing in the world but there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential here.
10 reps is relatively easy to recover from since the weight isn’t too heavy, so we have to find a way to make it harder.
Here are the simplest ways to make that happen:
- Decrease rest periods
- Rest-pause training
- Increase time under tension
Decrease rest periods
Arguably the simplest thing you could do in your next workout.
I see people resting for too damn long in their workouts.
If you’re lifting in the 10+ rep range, you really don’t need to rest that long. In most cases, you need no more than 1 minute of rest.
I see people do a set of 10-12 reps then take a 2 minute micro porn break on Instagram.
Do me a favor and time your rest periods.
Just rest 1 minute. In some cases, you might need even less.
If you’re doing something like reverse barbell curls or calf raises., you might only need 30 seconds rest because the muscles being worked are so small.
Chances are you’ve heard of supersets.
It basically involves doing 2 exercises back to back without any rest in between. You only rest once you complete the second exercise.
For example, you could do:
- Dumbbell shoulder presses superset with dumbbell lunges.
- Barbell back rows superset with Romanian deadlifts.
- Incline dumbbell bench press superset with incline dumbbell flyes.
Supersets can be done with the same muscle group or opposing ones (depends on how the rest of the workout is structured).
The classic “run the rack” model where you do one set then decrease the weight and immediately do another set. Repeat for however many sets.
For example, take cable rows.
Let’s say you are doing 5 drop sets with the cable row.
- Set 1: Use 150 lbs and you would aim to do 15 reps.
- Set 2: Use 130 lbs and aim to do as many as you can.
- Set 3: Use 110 lbs and aim to do as many as you can.
- Set 4: Use 90 lbs and aim to do as many as you can.
- Set 5: Use 80-70 lbs and aim to do as many as you can.
There is zero rest in between these 5 sets.
A more underutilized training method but still effective.
Basically you do the following:
- Pick a weight you can lift for 15 reps (doesn’t have to be 15, but we’ll use it for this example.)
- Rest 10 seconds.
- Lift as many reps as you can with the same weight.
- Rest 10 seconds.
- Lift as many reps as you can with the same weight.
- Rest 10 seconds.
- Repeat a few more times.
Do this for 4-6 rounds and your muscles will be on fire.
I think most people would benefit from going slower on their reps, but this is ESPECIALLY true for those lifting lighter weights for higher reps.
So you basically find opportunities to increase the amount of tension placed on the muscle.
For example, if you’re doing curls, that could mean:
- Holding at the top of the curl for 2-3 seconds
- Holding at the mid way point of the curl for 2-3 seconds
- Deliberately going 50% slower on the negative portion of the curl.
If you’re benching, that could mean:
- Holding the rep when the bar is down to your chest.
- Holding the rep when the bar is mid way to your chest.
This can be applied to virtually any exercise and I guarantee you’ll see 10x better muscle growth and definition.
If you want to maximize strength, this probably ain’t for you
Using the methods above work well if your goal is to build muscle and lose fat, but not great for building raw strength and power.
Of course, if you don’t have much lifting experience, you’ll still gain a ton of strength regardless.
But if your goal is to maximize strength, then yeah, you gotta lift heavy at least once in a while.
But if you just want to look good naked…
Then not everything needs to be a hardcore 5 sets of 5 reps workout.
Not everything needs to be focused on increasing your 1 rep max.
There are plenty of ways (as I wrote above) to look good without following conventional heavy lifting programs.
In the end, 90% of people simply want to look good and you can do that without lifting crazy heavy.
Want a 100% customized workout program?
Next Tuesday (Sept 25, 2018) I’m launching a service called Project Sculpt.
In it, I’ll be creating 100% customized 12-week workout programs for both men and women.
When it comes to training, context is key and telling everyone to follow the same 5×5 workout just doesn’t work.
Some people can safely lift heavy, and some can’t.
Some need something more customized to their goals, experience, and body type.
That’s what you’ll get with Project Sculpt, 100% customized training programs tailored to YOU.
What is your experience with not lifting heavy? Lemme know in the comments below.
Great article Keith keep it up!
Been following you for a long time now. This was one of your best posts, it was just what I was looking for. Thanks Keith!
thanks MD, appreciate it.
As someone with terrible body comp [30+% bodyfat] I have just started weightlifting last week. This really helped. There is almost TOO much info out there these days. Hard to find the good stuff. This makes lagial sense and confirms what i thought. Maybe I’ll get addicted and become a powerlifter, though for now i want solid dense muscle and say 10% bodyfat. Last work out (yesterday) i did rest-pause without knowing it was a thing. Just experimenting and it worked well along with some slow reps. Also random question, when do you skip a specific area to avoid injury? My baseline is to not train an area if i have sharp pain in any joints in the powertrain used in exercise. If the joint pain lasts most or all the next 24 hours. Not muscle ache, specific sharp joint pain. For example the top of my left shoulder had fairly intense sharp pain all day Sunday. So my monday morning workout i focused legs. This a good standard? Thanks and sorry for long post
Yes it’s important to distinguish between soreness and actual pain but in general if something hurts, just don’t train it haha.
I always train as hard as I can possibly do each time I go to the gym.. I’m now 44 and in the best shape of my life!
But the one thing I notice is that I very very rarely get sore muscles! Is that a good or bad thing??
I usually train either 3 or 4 times a week, always take multivitamins, cod liver oils capsules & creatine plus whey protein lol
If you’re doing the same thing, and you’ve been doing it for a while then you shouldn’t expect to be crazy sore after every session.
But if you start switching up exercises, rep schemes, tempo, etc… then you’ll likely start feeling sore again.
Thank you for the advice.
no prob man.
Is there some sort of different rule for compounds like pullups? I can do like 15 all-out, but I need a pretty good rest afterwards. It’s not the same as curls where you can do like 3×10 with little rest.
ya that’s normal since pull-ups are a compound movement.
Keith, in your specialized workout, can you bias the exercises that will pay special attention to the hard to develop areas? It seems that no matter what I do, the only muscles that respond well are my biceps. I have tried multiple triceps and shoulder routines to hit what I would call my hard to develop areas, but I am not happy with the results. I recently dropped 15 lbs which I finally was able to do…need to shed 20 more, but would like to prepare to build my arms.
good chance it’s an issue with your form.
Rest between sets is the determining factor that governs how much weight one can lift and what one may consider heavy . Even resting only 1 minute for a 4 rep set is fine because resting only 1 minute will reduce the weight you could have lifted if you rested 3 minutes but it will still feel heavy to your muscles because your muscles aren’t fully recovered with a 60 second rest
Time under tension is really where it’s all at as long as your lifting in the 6 to 12 range. You can get in a pretty significant amount of volume testing only 1 minutes in between sets . I hit each upper body part in only 8 minutes with the following
Weights increase as reps decrease
Last set try and do better than 6 reps
Rest only 60 seconds that includes putting weights back and getting new ones
How would you go about progressing with rest/pause training if you’ve reached the maximum weight available? I’m now in the situation of having minimal equipment and a garage to work out in.
Instead of increasing weight, focus on static holds and going slower on your reps.
In past i tried hard to lift the heavy failed and always fell through. But your tips inspire to do it again.
Amazing article. May I ask how would you structure a routine with light weights?
many ways but it almost always revolves around doing a combination of the following: more reps, less rest between sets, going slower on the negative, holding the rep at its hardest point.