You get to the gym, you’ve got your programme set (by me, if you’re on one of my programmes – ooo lucky ;)). But the weights ranging from 0.5kg to 35kg in the dumbbell rack have you stumped like a 90’s kid at the Woolworths pick and mix stand.
Should you go light? Heavy? ….and what exactly does ‘heavy’ mean, anyway?
How heavy is heavy?
Let me start by saying ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ is different for everyone. Which is why I never give set KGs/LBs to follow in my programmes. A 5kg bicep curl might feel light to one poler and like a tonne of bricks to another.
Choosing weights depends on a lot of other variables too, including how experienced you are at lifting, your goals, what other training you do, what other exercises you have to perform in your workout and also how many repetitions you need to do with that weight.
But fear not – it doesn’t have to be complicated! I’ve set out below the guidance I use in my online programmes that will help you choose weights in the gym if you’re not sure where to start.
First, a little bit of physiology
Bear with me here, this stuff is important…
When you do bicep curls in the gym, what you’re doing on a physiological level is overloading your bicep muscle and putting it under stress. That stress causes micro tears in your muscle fibres. I know ‘stress’ and ‘tears’ sounds scary.
Tear is never usually a good thing… ‘Labral tear’… wowch, ‘Love will tear us apart’… :’( … that ripping sound from the crotch of your pants as you try to impress an entire pub of strangers with your splits progress… but when it comes to weight lifting, those tears are entirely normal and, in fact, to be encouraged!
That’s because of the magic that happens after you leave the gym…
While you’re sleeping and resting, your body begins a process of muscle protein synthesis to rebuild and repair the damage you caused to your muscles with those bicep curls. And that process is what makes your muscles grow bigger. Bigger = stronger = happy flex Friday pics!
^This is why I’m always banging on about those three main components to strength: Lifting (to cause the stress/overload) and the right nutrition and recovery (to repair it, so your body can adapt).
BUUUT, strength training for pole is about more than simply creating that physical overload. You aren’t only training to get BIGGER guns. You actually want those guns to have a functional purpose —you are also training your central nervous system to strengthen the mind–muscle connection, too.
You see, we have thousands of muscle fibres in each of our muscles and the more fibres we can recruit to make a lift (or do a move on the pole), the stronger that muscle/movement will be.
When we are untrained, our body simply doesn’t know how to ‘fire up’ all of those fibres. You have an entire army of muscle fibres just sitting there, but only a small percentage of them are sat, guns cocked, helmets on, ready for battle. The rest are still asleep in the barracks with no idea that war has been declared.
Strength training is all about teaching your Central Nervous System how to recruit more and more of those muscle fibres, so that when you need them, you can put the whole army to work.
Using gym training to get strong for pole is all about creating both this neurological adaptation as well as the physiological adaptation of muscle growth.
Soooo, what does this have to do with choosing a dumbbell?
Well, my point is: you need to go heavy enough to cause that overload to the CNS and the muscles. Without the overload, your body won’t make the adaptations it needs to make to get stronger and build muscle.
BUT, at the same time, you don’t want to overload the muscles and particularly the Central Nervous System too much. Because pole training also puts a lot of stress on your CNS, especially when learning new moves, it can affect your ability to perform on the pole and it can quickly lead to overtraining if you do too much.
Arg! Don’t panic! Here’s exactly how to tackle it and find that balance:
Step 1: start light, we’ll get to heavy later!
To start with, until you have learned the correct movement patterns of the lifts in your programme, you shouldn’t be overloading your muscles at all. Technique always comes first.
Learn technique with very light or no weight at all – you can use a plastic pipe or broom handle to practice technique for barbell lifts. Only when you know you have nailed the form, should you start to add weight to your lifts.
Step 2: start to add weight
When you are ready to start adding weight, err on the side of caution and go light at first. You can gradually increase the weight each week as you get more confident.
Over time, you want to progressively add weight to your lifts as you get stronger. Lifting progressively heavier weights will keep that muscle overload and those adaptations going.
You’ll need to write down every week the weight you used so that next time you perform the lift, you will know which weight you used.
To know when to increase your weights, you need to start paying attention to how you feel during/after your sets…
Muscle failure v muscle fatigue
Let’s say you have 10 bicep curls to do. But you’ve gone so heavy that on your ninth or tenth rep, your muscles just give up on you. Your mind is willing but you physically cannot get the weight up to complete your last rep or two. Maybe you get half-way through your last bicep curl and you just feel your muscles ‘give way’.
That ^ is training ‘to momentary muscle failure’.
If, on the other hand, you get all the way through your 10 bicep curls and although those last few reps feel like a struggle, you can complete every one with good technique… that < is training to what I call ‘muscle fatigue’ and you have stopped before the point of muscle failure.
Many people (most notably bodybuilders) insist that you must train to failure on every lift you do in the gym in every workout. And it kinda seems logical when you think about the physiological side of things. If you are getting to the point of complete exhaustion of the muscle – this is causing the most muscle damage. And, remember, muscle damage + recovery = flex Friday.
However, bodybuilders don’t care about shoulder mounts, inverting without kicking or getting an Iron X before Christmas 2016. They are training purely for muscle growth.
Using weights so heavy that your muscles quit on you isn’t always the best way to train. Especially if you are still learning the movement patterns of lifts, are trying to avoid overloading your CNS and need to recover quickly from your workout so you can pole!
This is why, in all of my 8-week programmes, I advise my clients to train to ‘muscle fatigue’ instead of failure, especially on full body compound movements like squats and deadlits which require a greater focus on technique.
This means that the last few repetitions of each set should feel tough, but you should be able to complete them all with good form. You should feel like you could have done one or two more reps if you had really, REALLY needed to.
If you can do every rep easily and don’t feel any challenge at all – go heavier next time. If you were struggling so much that your technique was going out the window – go lighter!
Training to this ‘fatigued’ state rather than to ‘muscle failure’ is less likely to end up with a technique breakdown. It massively reduces the likelihood of injury and also helps to prevent overloading your CNS, so you can continue to rock it on the pole while you build strength in the gym.
It takes some trial and error to get this balance right, but as you get more experienced with lifting, you will eventually know your limits and know when and if you can push yourself harder.
If you want a gym programme to help you get stronger on the pole, check out my book >> Strength and Conditioning for Pole <<- it includes postural and movement assessments specifically for pole dancers, nutritional guidance and all the pole anatomy and sports science nerding you need to build your own programme and kick ass in the gym and on the pole!
Content on this website is provided for educational/informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should consult your Doctor or Health Care Professional before doing any exercises or fitness programs to determine if they are right for your needs.