“How much weight should I be lifting?”
This may be my most frequently asked question. As women, we tend to steer ourselves towards the lighter weights. We’re afraid of “bulking up” (myth), or else we don’t know what we’re capable of. I still struggle with knowing what I’m capable of no the weight floor, but that’s another topic for another post.
So, how much weight should you be lifting?
The short answer:
The longer answer?
It depends on your goals.
I’ll explain in a moment, but before you pick up any weight of any kind, how is your form? Good form is integral for preventing injury. I always recommend clients new to lifting start with bodyweight for the bigger lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press. For deadlifts and bench, grab a PVC pipe, a broom, or something similar. From there, go through the motion of the lift to get comfortable with the motion. It’s helpful to film yourself to check form. I have clients film their lifts both with and without bodyweight and send them to me for critique, but you can always ask a trainer at your gym to take a quick look.
Now that we know your form is solid, what are your goals?
Most of my clients are working to gain muscle, which means I have them training with a scheme of 8-12 reps per set. When I prescribe reps, I mean reps. It’s easy to grab a set of 10lb dumbbells and knock out 12 reps of bicep curls. And if it’s easy, it’s too easy. The last 2-3 reps should be tough. Doable, but tough. If your sets are too easy, go up in weight.
On the flip side, if you’re barely making the lift and losing your form 4 reps in, your weights are too heavy. Drop to a lower weight and resume your set when this happens. The trick is finding the “middle ground” between too light and too heavy, and then seeing those weights increase as you progress through your training cycle.
For those looking to build overall strength – with good form, of course – it comes down to lifting heavy “stuff” with a scheme of 1-6 reps per set. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited when lifting very heavy weight. These fibers are more prone to growth in response to resistance training, but they also exhaust quickly, hence why you can’t lift a very heavy weight for several reps. The rest time between these sets is longer (3-5 minutes) to give those fibers time to recover.
If you’re focused on building strength, you should have a good lifting foundation in place. No trying to go from the couch to a 300lb back squat in a week.
And if your goal is muscle endurance – building the ability to do something over and over without getting tired – a higher rep scheme with lighter weights comes into play. I will often start a new client out with a few weeks of muscle endurance training, utilizing bodyweight and lighter dumbbells and barbells. This is to, you guessed it, improve their endurance. It’s also beneficial in learning proper form.
A scheme for building muscle endurance is typically 15-20 reps. Weights for muscle endurance training aren’t heavy enough to maximize strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth) because they are utilizing slow-twitch muscle fibers rather than fast-twitch. The slow-twitch fibers are designed to be used for longer periods of time, helping the muscle become more aerobically efficient.
So how much weight should you be lifting?
If you’re working to gain muscle and improve body composition, find the weight that makes you work for the last couple of reps. Building muscle endurance? Pick up something lighter. Strength? Go heavy with a few reps per set, and take longer breaks between sets.
Above all else, make sure your form is on point before you pick up anything heavy. Good form will get you further than a 300lb back squat with poor form any day.
Have questions about what you should be lifting or about your form? Leave them in the comments!