“Everyone wants to go so fast,” bemoans expert trainer Heather Allen, referring to the many “high-intensity junkies” she encounters in her classes, who tend to reach for five-pound weights that allow them to bang out millions of reps at warp speed.
With Lift—a class she developed for the small-group FlexSystem workouts currently rolling out at select New York Sports Club locations—Allen’s making a case for occasionally slowing down and picking a (much) heavier weight.
“We wanted to bring back the importance of lifting and how to lift—and also emphasize the importance of functional fitness,” she says. “We want to prepare the body for movement, for you to be stronger for everything you do in everyday life.”
It’s a mission many trainers are on these days, to spread the word that picking up heavy things just a few times (and even taking breaks in between!) can build the muscle that will support efficient movement to prevent injury, help you burn more calories to lose weight, protect bone density as you age, and much more.
But whether you’re one of those fast-twitch addicts or a total gym newbie, hitting the weight racks can be intimidating. “A lot of people come in and they just don’t know how to use the equipment,” Allen says. Stepping into a Lift class will help you overcome that aspect so you can design your own sets down the road—but if that’s not an option, we got a few of her best pointers to get you started.
Here’s how you lift weights, the slow and steady way.
1. Pick a six-rep weight
This is often the trickiest part. Lift focuses on working with your “six-rep max” weight, which essentially means that it should be difficult to do the move six times in a row with that weight. Allen says it’s a great place to start because it’s not as serious as a one-rep max (which serious lifters may focus on improving), but is more focused and allows you to go heavier than the weight you’d normally choose when doing sets of 10-12 reps.
Your weight will be different for every exercise, since different muscles and muscle groups are stronger than others. (You can go much heavier in a deadlift than a chest press, for example, because you’re using the big, strong muscles in your glutes, legs, and back, as opposed to just arms and chest.)
Allen suggests experimenting a lot at first, and switching up your weight often until you’ve found the right match. “When you get to the fifth rep, if you can keep going no problem, go up in weight. If you’re really struggling at number two, you need to go lower,” she says. So for example, for a kettlebell chest press, you may grab a 25-pound kettlebell and see how that feels, and then adjust as needed.
2. Stick to a few basic moves
Allen recommends starting by working on a few basics, namely the chest press, deadlift, and back squat. “Those are a true foundation,” for weightlifting, she says. She also suggests working on your pull-ups, which don’t require a barbell but will increase your ability to lift one when it’s time.
3. Focus on form above all else
“Form over speed is always best,” Allen says, but it’s way more important to make sure your knees are aligned and you’re shoulders are down, for instance, when there’s a lot of weight involved. After all, the potential for injury can be greater. Plus, she adds, if you stick to perfect form, “that’s where we’re going to see the results.” Work with a trainer the first time or do your homework before you hit the gym so you know how to execute the moves correctly.
4. Stay in control
If the move is a pushing motion, people tend to push hard and then let the weight fall back; if it involves pulling, they pull aggressively and then let it pull itself back. In an ideal scenario, you should be in control the entire time, working against resistance and never letting the weight control you.
5. Channel the tortoise
Moving slowly is important for a few reasons, like maintaining the aforementioned control. If you speed up, you also tend to cheat yourself. “Don’t waste time by letting momentum do it for you,” Allen says. Instead, move at a steady pace with intention. And yes, with this kind of weightlifting, taking breaks is not only allowed, it’s beneficial to give your muscles time to rest before they go at the next set of reps. “We give it a little break to get the energy back,” she says. So shake off the feeling that every time you stop, you’re wasting time.