By Frank Wintrich – O2X Human Performance Program Manager – FBI
Increasing weight on loaded movements in the gym is a staple of every training program we see. Whether you’re adding plates to a barbell, picking up a heavier dumbbell, or increasing the weight of a kettlebell – we want to see that load increase over time, but why? The answer can be found in the Principle of Progressive Overload.
The Principle of Progressive Overload in training advocates for a gradual increase of the stress placed upon the musculoskeletal and nervous system, suggesting that the continual increase in the total workload during training sessions will stimulate muscle growth and strength gain by muscle hypertrophy and neurological adaptation. This improvement in overall performance will, in turn, allow the athlete to keep increasing the intensity of their training sessions. However, when is it prudent to increase weight and are there other means or methods that can improve performance without increasing structural stress unnecessarily? In this article, I will discuss when you should consider increasing weight, what the benefits and risks might be, and offer up some alternatives to consistently increasing the amount of weight you are loading onto the bar or dumbbell.
When should I increase the weight on a movement?
There are a ton of factors that dictate whether an increase in load is necessary. First, you need to understand the training goal of your movement (exercise). For this article, the focus will be on what is probably the simplest and most common training goal: maximum Strength.
In training for Maximum Strength, the obvious goal is to move as much weight as possible for the given repetitions. This is typically a 1 rep max (1RM), but is often performed for up to 5 reps, with the final rep in the set being an all-out effort (hence the term Maximum Strength or Max Effort). The most important factors when doing Max Effort work are technique and progression. Before performing ANY loaded movement under maximal or circa-maximal load, make sure that your technique in the given movement is on point. Basic power lifting movements like Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press are based on simple movement patterns and are typically easy to master with practice and good coaching. When training for more complicated movements like Cleans, Jerks and Snatches, the time it takes to master is much longer and due to the kinetic nature of these movements, the risk of injury is much greater. Having a great training partner or coach who can evaluate your movement and provide feedback is essential when performing Max Effort work. Using your phone to record your reps and evaluate your technique is also a powerful tool in helping you understand where your deficiencies are and how you can best correct them. If you don’t have access to a coach, check out resources from coaches like Mark Rippetoe and Matt Wenning. Both provide a ton of free online content and great technical expertise in the foundational lifts.
The second aspect of performing Maximum Strength work is progression. This is simply taking the time to master a technique at a given load before progressing. I always encourage athletes to master techniques using their body weight first. From there, gradually add to the load ensuring that your movement is safe and efficient. When progressing towards a one rep max, teach your body how it feels to strain under the load by using higher rep ranges, never more than 5 reps. Typically, it is challenging early on in your Max Effort experience to know how to engage your body for one rep under an extremely heavy load. Utilizing fatigue over a series of reps will help you learn how to strain under load and give you a general idea of where your current max stands. If you are struggling with your technique at a given weight, don’t always chase numbers (bar load). Sometimes you must take a step back to take two steps forward. Take some load off the bar and change the tempo of your movement. Focus on controlling your technique with the lighter load through a more concentrated eccentric (lowering or lengthening) phase. Lower the bar on a 3 to 5 count and then demonstrate control by pausing at the midpoint completing the movement with a controlled concentric (raising or contracting) action. Execute this tempo action with a lighter load for 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps for 3 weeks making sure not to compromise on your technique.
What are the consequences of not loading correctly?
The biggest concern I have with my athletes in this regard is musculoskeletal injury. By loading too much weight too fast the technique can either break down and the body structure is compromised, or the load goes up faster than the body can adapt, resulting in similar injury. Sport science typically agrees that a load increase of no more than 10% per week is appropriate, however, I’ve found that 2.5% – 5% jumps in load weekly can provide outstanding results while limiting the risk of injury. The more complicated the movement, the smaller the weekly increase should be. Listen to your body. If you have soreness or pain that doesn’t resolve with simple preparatory (warm up) movement, you’ve probably overdone it and need to step back. I love to train by the mantra “live to train another day” and progress slowly, mastering techniques and loads and ultimately avoiding injury.
In this article we’ve looked at when, why and how you’d go about increasing weight in movements to improve Max Effort strength. Remember, taking your time, mastering techniques, and progressing slowly is always the best formula for healthy and sustainable training. Train hard, train smart and stay in the fight.
About O2X On-Site Human Performance Specialist Frank Wintrich:
Frank Wintrich is an O2X On-Site Human Performance Specialist for a highly specialized FBI unit within its Critical Incident Response (CIRG) Division. He plays a vital role in supporting tactical athletes with comprehensive training and programs that enhance their performance on and off duty. With a background in collegiate athletics, Frank served as the Director of Football Performance at various universities, including UCLA, University of Virginia, and Brigham Young University. During his coaching career, he collaborated with military personnel and psychology experts to develop the Warrior Mindset Program, equipping athletes with mental skills to handle stress and improve resilience. Frank’s approach emphasizes safe training, proper movement skills, and sport-specific development. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Sports and Fitness Management from Kentucky Wesleyan College, where he excelled as a two-time All-American linebacker.
About O2X Human Performance:
O2X Human Performance provides comprehensive, science-backed programs to hundreds of public safety departments, federal agencies, and the military. O2X works with clients to elevate culture, improve mental and physical wellbeing, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce healthcare costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Driven by results and cutting edge research, O2X programs are designed and delivered by a team of Special Operations veterans, high level athletes, and hundreds of leading experts in their respective fields of human performance.