Here's a Way to Make Lifting Heavy Weight Feel Light

Marine curls 50-pound dumbbell.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Talbot, with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, curls a 50-pound dumbbell in Iraq. (Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

I like to use this quote from American record-breaking powerlifter Ed Coan when coaching young and beginner lifters since it reinforces the importance of technique every time you lift a weight.

"When you start to treat the light weights like heavy weights, the heavy weights will go up a lot easier," Coan said.

If you think about it, there are three types of weightlifting for anyone who wants to get stronger. There is light weight with more repetitions (12-15+), there is medium weight with a mid-range number of repetitions (8-10) and there is heavy weight with fewer repetitions (1-5).

All offer different benefits when compared to the basic resistance training of calisthenics. Sure, you can build muscle and get stronger using calisthenics, but the limit tends to stop with the exerciser's body weight. Though you can add weight vests to decrease the repetition range of calisthenics and match many of the lifting benefits, changing your training to a lifting cycle instead could be a natural progression from calisthenics-only routine that can help with injury prevention and great strength increases.

Gaining Muscle and/or Gaining Strength

Most people who start lifting want bigger muscles. Bodybuilding is most effective when the focus is more on building bigger muscles and burning excess fat, which makes those muscles more visible. The good news for this group is, you can start out with light weights and higher repetitions and see great results as muscle size increases as you get stronger.

However, there is a limit to adding greater strength when lifting light weight. Eventually, the weight needs to be increased and the repetition range dropped if you want to develop more strength. In fact, building strength often requires a cycle where muscle size is increased first, then the strength can be added with both a mid-range rep cycle and then low rep and heavy weight cycle. Depending on your goals, these three methods can be done individually, but they work best when they all support one another in some way, especially when during your first few years of lifting.

Here is how my personal lifting cycle will look this year with a goal of gaining muscle and adding strength, but also maintaining calisthenics and cardio scores. This is ideal for those who are serving or seeking to serve and must pass military fitness tests, but also need to add strength for other rigorous activities required by the military profession.

High Repetition and Light Weight

Weeks 1-3

Focus on a repetition range of 12-15+ for all lifts for both upper- and lower-body days. I recommend 2-3 upper-body days and 2-3 lower-body days per week, though you could do a full-body day 2-3 times a week if you prefer.

This cycle can be done with machine lifts as well as free-weight barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags and TRX training routines. Depending on your ability, the total number of sets can be from 2-3 sets for beginners and up to 10 sets for more advanced muscle-stamina athletes.

Week 4

For week 4, consider a deload week where you change the focus from lifting and do more calisthenics and cardio maintenance, mixing in all testing events of your current military fitness test or try future tests for acceptance into the military or special programs.

Medium Repetitions and Medium Weight

Weeks 5-7

Focus on heavier weights that force a repetition range of 8-10 repetitions each set. You may find that the heavier the weight and the fewer the reps, the more challenging recovery will be. You can rearrange your split routine as your lifts get heavier and focus on upper-body pulling exercises one day, pushing exercises the next, followed by leg day. Based on your abilities, you may want to repeat the three-day split again during the week or skip it if you're not ready.

Week 8

This will be another deload week of calisthenics and cardio as a recovery week prior to the next cycle of heavier weight training. Depending on your goals and situation, the deload week can just be an easy week of training used as pure recovery versus focusing on a different energy system and training style.

Lower Repetitions and Heavy Weight

Week 9-11

Focus on even heavier weights that force a range of 4-6 repetitions with a few 1-3 repetition lifts. When lifting this heavy, proper form and comfortability with lifting is a must. Make sure you have good form before trying 1-5 repetitions in your max ability range.

These lifts are tough on recovery and require some extra rest between sets, sometimes as long as a few minutes. Personally, I like to focus on my breathing and catch my breath quickly, then do some form of active rest like walking, biking or some core exercises for a few minutes. I find these help me stay warm and ready to lift the next set.

Some classic heavier lifts are five sets of five reps of the bench press, squat and deadlift, but you can apply that combination to many other machine exercises as well.

Week 12

This is a partial deload week as above, followed by a few days of rest, and then a final test day to see whether the weight lifted at five reps, three reps and/or one rep have improved over the 12-week cycle.

If you are thinking about adding weightlifting to your training routine, my advice is to remember Coan's quote and practice with light weight to build muscle but also master the technique of lifting heavier weight. Eventually the heavy weight will feel lighter.

The system I am using above is more of a Block Periodization model for tactical athletes who need to maintain cardio and muscle stamina scores as well as build strength and overall durability.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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