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It is often recommended to do a given number of sets of a given number of repetitions of weight lifts (regardless of your exact training methodology, which mainly dictates the number of sets and repetitions), and add weight when you are able to do that. I can see the logic in this, and it has been discussed at least once already on the site.

However, when exactly should you add weight? Let's say you are just barely able to finish the exercise with good form, whatever exactly "good form" means to you. Should you add weight the next time around, or should you keep working on that level until you aren't reaching total muscle exhaustion? Why? Does your personal level of fitness make a difference here?

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If I'm focusing on challenging myself in lifting, I'm confident my form was excellent, and I have my recovery dialed in—my sleep and food are of a high quality, I feel good, no injuries—I may add weight in the expectation that my body will recover and get stronger by the next workout.

If lifting is a secondary priority, or I'm not sure how good my form was on that last set, or some elements of my recovery aren't optimal, I might try to add weight or I might stay at the same weight and try to really smash it and feel capable doing so.

The answer depends on a lot of situational factors. For an athletic novice on a linear progression, or for someone who is by nature very cautious and holding themselves back, I might say add weight. For someone with mediocre form, or a non-athlete, or someone who is inconsistent, or in a dozen other scenarios, I might say to master their current weight. The lift in question matters, too, since highly skill-dependent lifts like the clean, snatch, or squat warrant more time than, say, the deadlift (for someone who has already ingrained proper form in the deadlift).

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What are your goals? If your goal is strength, then I'd recommended starting with a weight you can lift for five reps. From there, follow the pithy saying "If you can do eight, add more weight".

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    maybe consider this as a comment so that the user can re-write their question – Eric Nov 19 '14 at 17:43
  • Mastering a weight for more reps, then adding weight and expecting less reps, has worked well for me when I'm not 100% confident in the lift. – Dave Liepmann Nov 19 '14 at 20:19
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It is a good question, to which answer often distinguishes between progression and / or potential injury.
From my own experience, over years I've learned to not to increase weight if I am unable to do, depending on trained muscle group at least 8-10 repetitions.
This became a rule of my workouts and a safeguard against an injury for many years now.

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I'd make it a little more straight forward and say that you should increase your weights according the program you're following.

Effective training programs have already done the math on volume/strength increases set against sufficient recovery. Trying to eye-ball that is terribly inefficient and unless you nail it will end up with results that either:

a) Have you increasing ahead of what you can safely handle (ie: overtrained or injured).

b) Have you not increasing gains in material way (ie: going sideways).

Good programs have built in safety valves for common situations like missing your weekly volume, getting sick, getting injured, taking a week off, etc.

Look into programs like the Texas method, MadCow 5x5, Bill Starr 5x5, or 5/3/1. All of them have created really great results for thousands of people. They are intermediate programs and assume you have been doing the big compound lifts for ~6-9 months already.

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My suggestion is that do the weight you can actually lift, add more until you can lift it for 12 reps easily, reps and sets are more important than weights. Keeping your form right would also help a lot.

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In community college gym I was taught to do 10 to 12 repetitions at 70% of max lifting weight. That is, if I could lift 100 lbs once, I should life 70 lbs 10 to 12 repetitions. Once I start doing 14 repetitions because the weight has become "lighter" I will add weight until 10 to 12 repetitions is what I can do without too much strain. It was suggested that one set each day per workout was probably as good as double sets without the added affect of adding possible injury. Although it was stated they weren't positive on this, so perhaps one day doing a double set of repetitions and the other days doing a single set was probably the optimal until they learned more.

I am not aware if this regiment was designed for increasing body mass, losing weight or staying in shape however.

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