Next month, Katie Holmes returns to the big screen as an ex-marine in the action-thriller The Doorman. To prepare for the character, which Holmes has described as a “warrior” in the press, the actor seriously upped her fitness game, especially in the weight room.
“I was a 5-pound weight person and now I can do 15, 20,” ”Holmes told Women’s Health when describing her two-hour personal training sessions that included “lots of crunches, dumbbells, and squats.”
There are many benefits to stepping up your weight training like Holmes—but it’s important to do so slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully to avoid injury and ensure you’re getting the most out of your efforts.
“You should aim for baby steps with the weight increase,” Courtney Paul, NYC-based certified personal trainer who previously trained Holmes, tells SELF. [Paul did not work with Holmes for The Doorman.]
Before you even think about adding extra weight to your fitness routine, it’s important to make sure that you’re able to execute movements with the proper form, Mark DiSalvo, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells SELF. “The biggest mistake when it comes to amping up weight training is a mentality of ‘more weight, more weight, more weight,’” says DiSalvo. “The best progress comes from the best form.”
When you’re doing squats, for example, your knees should be aligned with your toes, your core should be braced, and your back should maintain its natural curvature as you lower yourself down. Many people, however, make the common mistakes of caving their knees in and rounding their backs, which can put undue stress on your knees, lower back, and hips, and lead to muscle imbalances and injury over time.
If you haven’t yet mastered the proper form of a basic bodyweight squat, adding in a kettlebell, dumbbell, or other weight to the movement will only exacerbate any imbalances and increase your risk of injury, which is why it’s so important to nail good form before loading up more weight.
Because it can be hard to identify your own form mistakes and imbalances, enlisting the eye of a personal trainer or other certified fitness coach can help set you on the right track. If hiring a trainer is outside your means, you can video yourself and then compare that footage to experts online, recommends DiSalvo.
When you are ready to level up your weight training, it’s important to first decide what your goals are, which will determine how much weight and how many repetitions you should target, says DiSalvo.
If your aim is to build overall strength without necessarily increasing the size of your muscles, you should aim for 5 to 8 reps of each movement. The proper weight will be the one at which you can complete 5 to 8 reps with perfect form, while still feeling fatigued by the end. If you complete 5 to 8 reps and still feel like you could easily do 5 more, you likely need to add more weight, DiSalvo explains.
If your goal is to build strength and muscle size, you should do between 8 and 12 reps. Again, the right weight will be the one at which you can complete all 8 to 12 reps with proper form while also feeling like you couldn’t do much beyond that.
Lastly, if your goal is muscular endurance ( aka, your body’s ability to contract muscles and keep them contracted over long periods of time), which is helpful in cardio-intensive sports like running or cross-country skiing, you should aim for 12 or more reps.
If you’re new to using weights, it’s a good idea to start with dumbbells and kettlebells before jumping into barbells, trap bars, and other heavier-duty free weights.
While it’s different for every person, DiSalvo says on average, you should expect to work with dumbbells and kettlebells for about four to six weeks before progressing to barbells.
With upper-body movements, like rows, overhead presses, and bicep curls, increases of 2.5 to 5 pounds at a time are probably the most appropriate, says DiSalvo.
When you do add on more weight, it’s important to pay attention to how your body feels—and dial things back as needed.
“Sharp pain during exercise is a sign that something is wrong,” says DiSalvo. It’s about learning the difference between fatigue, which is inevitable with exercise and a sign that you are pushing your body in a good way—and stabbing, pinching, or radiating feelings that are likely an indication of improper form.
As a general rule, your first and last reps should essentially look the same, meaning you should be able to maintain proper, controlled form. “You shouldn’t look like you’re about to die on the last rep,” warns DiSalvo. “That’s a sign that the weight is too heavy.”
It also helps to pay attention to how your body feels the next day, says Paul. Slight soreness and muscle stiffness is OK. What’s not: “feeling paralyzed,” he says. If simple things like getting out of bed or raising your arms above your head are agonizing, that’s a sign you overdid it.
This is something that should be evaluated on an ongoing basis, says Solomon. “A bad night sleep, change in nutrition, and stress can all impact your performance at the gym,” she says. Just because you nailed squats with 10-pound dumbbells on Monday doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the correct weight for you on Wednesday. Scale things up or down as needed based on your body’s feedback.
If done safely and properly, there are many benefits to adding weight to your workouts.
For starters, resistance training helps to build and preserve bone density, says DiSalvo, which can decrease your risk of developing osteoporosis and other bone density-related issues later in life. It also keeps you strong and sturdy as you age by combating the age-related decline in muscle mass and strength that hits most people around ages 30 to 35.
Lifting heavier may also help you maintain (or slightly boost) your metabolic rate, which tends to decline with age.
Most obviously, it strengthens your muscles, which can help you avoid injury, push yourself more during other workouts, boost your performance in sports, and improve your ability to move about daily life better.
The bottom line: Adding more weight to your regular exercises like Holmes can be a great way to boost your strength, fitness, and long-term health. Just be sure to nail your form first—and from there, take things slow and steady.
This content was originally published here.