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How Heavy is Too Heavy? Choosing Training Weights
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  February 25 2011

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How Heavy is Too Heavy? Choosing Training Weights, Greg Everett,
"So when I lift I always shoot for best form over loading the weight. I don’t do 1RM’s mostly because I have no huge fantasies of lifting a shit ton of weight and I’m mostly looking to just better my over all strength to apply it to sports. I do “heavy” days but I only load the weight as much as I can still maintaining my depth (ass to feet of course), knees driving out, chest up, and my hips under my shoulders. My stopping point is when I feel like my butt is starting to sneak behind me on my way up instead of staying under my shoulders. My question comes, when is it okay to say “this is just what happens when I’m working on my heavy.” I don’t allow my clients to get away with deviating from good form but I do let them know that if they struggle on the last few reps (say of their 5 of 5) that we know we’ve found the right weight. How much do you let your clients get away with and at what point do you say this is as heavy as we can go? -Adriana"

Doing things properly and doing them heavily don't have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. Maximal efforts will certainly not look as perfect as sub-maximal lifts, but the more proficient you become at a given exercise, the less deviation you will see, and this is the goal because it means more success and less chance for injury. That means performing the overwhelming majority of your reps properly - you learn what you practice, and you strengthen the movements you load. Gray Cook says something about not strengthening dysfunction - that is, don't load improper movement, because it simply reinforces it by strengthening the body in those poor positions and patterns.

The only people who need to push maximal effort lifts are more advanced athletes, especially strength athletes. The typical personal training client has no need to be approaching colon-prolapsing squat efforts. The former group are experienced trainees who have well-established motor patterns and don't deviate grossly from correct movements even when loaded heavily. The latter group are the ones who suddenly fall apart with an additional 5kg and look like they've never done a squat in their lives.

Something I've found helpful with the squat in particular is having individuals do them daily with about 50% of their best for 3 sets of 5 reps before and after each training session. This is enough weight to make the lift realistic enough for effective practice, but nowhere near enough to have a real fatiguing effect. These reps must be done perfectly - every single one. This is the practice that will determine how the individual squats. If he or she can't take it seriously and do it well in these practice sets, he or she has no hope at all with heavy lifts.

To more directly answer your question, if you're taking the lift up and you reach a weight at which your movement deviates too much from what you want, reduce the weight slightly and work there. Something like a 5-10% reduction should be enough. This is basically a simple way of finding the heaviest weight at which you can strengthen the movement properly. As you get more reps under your belt, the need to do this will diminish.

"Struggling" is good - you need to work hard to get stronger. But struggling means pushing hard, not falling apart. So if by struggling you mean your client doesn't just stand up with no effort, then that's a good way to find a working weight; if you mean a squat starts looking like your client is trying to pop a soccer ball between his or her knees while in child's pose, then that's way beyond anything helpful.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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