Deciding how much weight to use shouldn’t be a random decision. Here’s the best ways to determine how much you should be lifting.
Weight Lifting Goals
Being a fitness instructor, I’m often asked a common question by workout beginners: “How much weight should I be lifting?”
A simple enough question, but the answer can be a bit tricky. Basically, it all comes down to what your particular goals are. There are three general reasons for why you might engage in weight training. They are:
- To increase muscle mass (bodybuilding)
- To increase strength
- To increase endurance
Knowing which area you intend to target will better enable you to tailor your fitness program to your specific needs and help eliminate a lot of unnecessary guesswork.
Basically, you’ll want to use heavier weights with fewer reps for increasing size, less weight with more reps for strength, and even lighter weights with a greater number of reps for endurance.
While there are no hard-set rules to the number of reps you should do, here are some basic guidelines:
- For increasing muscle size, use enough weight to perform 8-12 reps per set.
- For increasing strength, use enough weight to perform 1-6 reps per set.
- For increasing endurance, use enough weight to perform a minimum of 15 reps per set.
With these things in mind, I’ll now cover each area in a little more detail.
Even though increased muscle size is a by-product of strength training, and to some extent endurance training, those who want to maximize muscle hypertrophy will want to follow a plan that’s been demonstrated to be most effective toward that goal. This includes training with enough weight that will allow you to perform between 8-12 reps, which has been found to be the sweet spot for muscle growth.
However, you must be careful to maintain good form at all times. This means that only the muscles targeted by each particular exercise are utilized and the weight is controlled the entire time. If you are having to exert more force using other muscles or body parts, or you are unable to properly control the weight, or are otherwise sloppy in your technique, then you aren’t using good form.
This can not only drastically reduce the effectiveness of the exercise, but can lead to injury as well. Doing reps correctly with less weight is far better than reps with more weight incorrectly. Always watch your form!
You should also aim to perform sets so that when you’re finished your muscles are at, or near, exhaustion. This means you can’t do another rep while still maintaining proper form. If you’re done with your set but can still do another rep, then you’re probably not using enough weight.
Whether you’d like to enter competitive lifting or become a professional athlete, increasing muscle strength will be a top priority. To do this, you’ll need to lift weights that are very heavy, doing exercises that focus more on muscle groups rather than in isolation, such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses.
The type of muscle fibers that are engaged when performing heavy sets are called fast-switch muscle fibers. These fibers get bigger and stronger when handling larger loads, but they also tire out pretty quickly – which is why you can’t lift really heavy weight many times in a row.
To maximize your strength training workout sessions, you’ll want to allow for a longer resting period between sets (anywhere from 3-5 minutes) since many muscles may be worked more than once with different exercises.
It’s also important to remember to warm up before lifting heavy weight in order to minimize any chance of injury. Another note of interest about strength exercise is that taking sets to muscle failure is generally avoided, unlike with bodybuilding.
For those of you who aren’t necessarily focused on getting bigger or stronger, but for going longer instead, then endurance training is your game. This form of workout is useful for those engaging in sports and other physical activities, such as swimming, running, cycling, and hiking.
The goal with endurance training is to build up the muscles’ aerobic efficiency rather than size or lifting power, resulting in the ability to do a lot more reps for longer without fatigue. A long-distance runner would be a good example of how this process works.
When your goal is to increase muscle endurance you’ll want to choose lighter weights that allow you to perform 15-20 reps, or more. Unlike bodybuilding or strength training, the muscle fibers employed here (called slow-twitch fibers) are suited for longer-term activity without an appreciable amount of size increase.
So… How Much Should I Lift?
So now that you’ve established your goals for weight training, finding out how much weight to lift is a relatively easy task. Since everyone is different, this will require a little trial and error in the beginning, but after that you’ll always know how much weight to lift and when to increase it.
The first thing you need to do is find the amount of weight that you can lift for the maximum number of reps (with proper form!) without completely fatiguing the muscles. Always start out with lighter weights and work your way up.
If you do a warm-up set first (recommended) you’ll have a good gauge of about how much to weight to add for your normal set. With a little practice and experience you’ll become accustomed to the whole routine.
Also, it’s very important to keep track of your progress by recording the results of each workout for reference, including the number of reps and amount of weight used for each exercise. This will help eliminate any confusion about where you are in your progress.
When Should I Increase the Weight?
By their nature, muscles are very adaptive to stress, growing bigger and stronger, literally changing to meet the greater demand. So, what’s the best way to know when to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting?
As a general rule, if you’re able to perform 2 additional reps over your regular number, for two workouts in a row, then it’s time to increase your weight. For example, if you’re normally doing 8 bench press reps at 225 lbs., but have been able to do 10 reps during the last two workouts, go ahead and up the weight.
A good guideline for calculating how much weight to add is to increase by about 5% for upper body exercises (for example, from 225 lbs. to 235 lbs.), and about 10% more for lower body exercises (225 lbs. to 245 or 250 lbs.).
Just remember, the more you push yourself and progress to a greater amount of weight or reps, the more you’ll challenge your muscles and the greater your gains will be.
Some Additional Tips
Now that all the main points are out of the way, here are a few extra tips to help you stay on track.
- Start your workout heavy – Since your energy tends to fade during the course of your workout, it’s a good idea to tackle the heavier, more intense exercises early on and save the easier sets for last.
- Increase your warm-up weight, too – Over time, as you increase the amount of weight you lift for each set, remember to also gradually increase the amount of weight you warm up with as well. Otherwise, the warm ups will eventually become less effective as you progress.
- Be aware of hitting plateaus – Eventually, even the most experienced weight lifters end up hitting a plateau. You may notice that your muscles don’t seem to be making the same progress that they were before. This isn’t something beginners should concern themselves with initially, just keep in mind that there are more advanced techniques that you can use should the situation arise, allowing you to stimulate further gains in size and strength (I’ll write more on this subject at a future date).
I’d love to know about any questions or thoughts you might have. Feel free to email me or leave a comment below.