Lifting heavy simply means the weight feels heavy to YOU and your body at it’s current load capacity. A 100lb bar might be as heavy to your friend as a 220lb loaded bar is to you. Get that straight. It’s all relative. This is where RPE comes in.
RPE refers to how difficult you perceive something as. It is a measure of the intensity of your workout. This is why I am not a fan of lifting based on percentages. Some days your “80%” of your 1 rep max might feel like 100% of your 1 rep max. Say you are supposed to do 4 reps at that weight and you know that is blasphemy. Your muscles are fatigued, your movement pattern feels off, the weight feels way heavier than it is and you know it just isn’t going to happen on that given day. But you’re supposed to hit that percentage…You are now at risk of injury and feeling like shit. That is NOT the goal with lifting heavy, or any exercise for that matter. I suggest working off of RPE.
The RPE scale is from 1-10. 1 being easy, 10 being “am I going to die? We just can’t be sure…Every cell in my body is working to make this happen,” aka FULL effort, empty the tank. As a side note this is not limited to lifting heavy. The RPE scaling method can be used with circuit training or conditioning as well. Like I said it is a measure of intensity.
RPE also encourages athletes to know and learn their bodies, what they can take and what their limits are – a very valuable skill for someone lifting heavy weights.
So, if you’re supposed to hit 2-4 heavy reps, shoot for an RPE of 8-9. Know that your 2-4 rep max is going to be different day to day and week to week.
That leads me to my next pointer.
Leaving 1-2 reps in the tank could be the equivalent of hitting an 8-9 RPE. Especially if you are new at lifting heavy, I do not suggest going to a 10 RPE. Lifting heavy is a learned skill. Being comfortable pulling and pushing maximal weight needs to be learned. You need to get used to how it feels. That’s A LOT of stimulus for your body to deal with, let alone perform well under.
You are not a porcelain doll. That is not my intent here. I am simply suggesting 8-9 RPE vs. 10 when lifting heavy. Leave those 1-2 reps in the tank. That ensures that you are definitely lifting heavy, but not going to the point that you are compromising form or potential injury. Trust me, your veins will still be poppin’ and you’ll be on verge of “am I going to die?” but not quite.
Again, even knowing whether you have 1-2 left in the tank is a learned skill and you will make mistakes and miscalculations.
Which brings me to the last and possibly most important tip for lifting heavy.
If you’ve never lifted heavy weights before, how are you to know when you have 1-2 left in the tank vs. 3, 4 or no reps left? You don’t always know. You are just feeling out your body as best you can.
So, come to terms now with the fact that you are going to fail. You will get pinned in the bottom of a squat, the bar won’t leave the floor on a deadlift, and your bench press might just end on top of your chest. Rather than busting your knees in that squat, bulging a lumbar disc in that deadlift, or smashing your face in that bench press I suggest you know HOW TO FAIL first.
Step 1: Be okay with failing. No need to fear it if you know how to do it properly.
Step 2: ALWAYS control the eccentric (lowering portion) of the exercise so that if you happen to reach the bottom and you cannot get out of the hole, it was in a controlled manner and you can simply roll the bar off your back, or off the front if you are front squatting. (Squat specific)
Step 2: Safety pins or spotters. If you have safety pins they should be 1 inch or so below your bottom position so that if you have to bail out, you simply bottom out and set the bar on the pins (for bench or squats). If you don’t have pins, you either need a spotter who knows what the frick they’re doing (these are hard to come by), OR you need to be confident in the ability to drop the weight off your back and get out from under the bar (not safe for bench). I highly suggest the pins or a spotter over the latter.
This can seem like a very safety based post, and it is. That is because I assume if you are “lifting heavy” you already have solid movement patterns and understand the basics of lifting weights. If you don’t, you need to read my post on 5 must know tips for barbell training.
I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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