“How much weight should I lift?”
It’s one of the questions trainers (and we) hear most from those looking to build muscle and strength. For those of us allergic to details, here’s the short answer:
You should always lift the maximum amount of weight possible while completing all reps in all sets of an exercise. If you aren’t — by lifting too much or too little — you’re shortchanging your results and (worse) possibly risking injury.
So if a program or trainer gives you a target range of repetitions for each set — say, 8-12, which most experts consider the “sweet spot” for general fitness and muscle growth:
- Select a weight with which you can barely reach the low end of that range. As you become stronger, you’ll progress to the higher end of that range. When that happens…
- Increase your weight enough to set you back to the low end.
- Repeat this process for as long as you’re doing that workout.
Strength Training for Beginners
The goal of strength training — whether you’re pumping iron, using your body as your barbell (i.e. bodyweight training), or both — is, of course, to grow stronger. (If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s also your best bet for shedding fat.) To do that, you must challenge your muscles. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll define “challenge” as repeatedly contracting and lengthening them under load until they cry for mercy.
When you do that, you cause microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. During the repair process, your body not only fixes the damage, but reinforces those fibers. The result is muscle growth; your muscles literally take on new and greater dimensions, and as they become larger, they develop the means to contract with greater force and intensity.
Adaptations to your nervous system are what facilitate those means. The more you challenge your muscles, the more efficient your nervous system becomes at activating them. And since neural adaptations occur faster than muscular ones, they’re what explain the rapid increases in strength typically observed at the beginning of workout programs. In other words, first you become better at using the muscle you already have, and as you build more of it, you become adept at using that as well.
So how can you best challenge your muscles? Read on.
Repetitions vs. time under tension
Most weight training exercises target a certain number of repetitions for each set. This number might stay constant over the course of a workout or change depending on the exercise. Either way, a basic understanding of why this is will help you get the most out of your workout program.
Time, not numbers, is the actual factor that matters. Or more specifically, time under tension. Repetitions are used as a substitute for time because it’s far easier to count than it is to look at a clock. The load (i.e., the amount of weight you lift) is then scaled accordingly to challenge the muscle. Occasionally trainers will use time but, for the sake of most of our goals, repetitions work well enough.
As a general rule, strength gains are achieved in fewer (maximum six) reps with higher loads, while improved muscular endurance is achieved via higher (15 or more) reps with lighter loads. In between (at around 8-12 reps) is the generally agreed upon sweet spot for hypertrophy, also known as muscle growth.
Training the “sweet spot” to increase muscle size
Hypertrophy is what most workouts target because it’s the quickest means of changing your ratio of muscle to fat. Whether your goal is to lose or to gain weight, starting your workout program focused on hypertrophy changes your metabolism, which is the main objective in body transformation. Once your metabolism gets moving, how you then structure your diet and exercise will determine whether you gain or lose weight, and how quickly that change occurs.
This means that even if your goal is weight loss, you should push hypertrophy workouts as hard as you can. Never take it easy. And especially ignore the rationale that “I don’t want to gain too much muscle — I just want to lose fat.” Adding muscle accelerates fat loss, which is where the saying from which “muscle burns fat” derives.
Furthermore, gaining bulk is a very difficult thing to do. Some people, especially women, tend to overthink this issue. Most bodybuilders would sell their soul for a few additional inches of muscle mass. So nothing frustrates them more than to hear others suggest that it can happen by accident. And if you’re a woman, it’s likely not something you have to worry about anyway. Generally speaking, women can’t “bulk up” as much as men. It’s a genetic thing. And the only way to override it is with steroids.
Training for muscle endurance
Focusing on strength or hypertrophy will target your type II muscle fibers, which are the larger and stronger of the two primary types found in your body. Type II fibers also have the greatest potential for growth.
But you also have type I fibers, which, while not as powerful as type II fibers, offer greater resistance to fatigue. If you’re a distance runner or cyclist, these are the fibers on which you rely. And if you’re a weightlifter, these are the fibers you probably ignore, likely for for several reasons:
- You probably believe targeting them is a waste of time. You’re focus is strength after all, so why would you nurture the same endurance-oriented fibers as a marathoner?
- You’ve likely also been told that they have no growth potential — a belief that research is proving false.
Although not as great as type II fibers, type I fibers still have “a substantial propensity for hypertrophy,” according to a study in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. So if you want to maximize muscle growth, you can’t ignore them.
What does all of this mean? While the most effective body transformation programs may focus on hypertrophy, they don’t ignore endurance. In practice, that means not focusing solely on one set/rep scheme, but including a range of repetitions (low, medium, and high) in your workouts.
A word about lifting to failure (and why you shouldn’t)
You might hear some trainers say, “Failure is not an option, it’s the only option,” meaning that if you aren’t lifting so much that you fail to complete the last rep of your last set of a given exercise, you’re not lifting enough.
Ignore that advice. Lifting to “absolute failure” almost guarantees that your form will fall apart during the last couple of reps. That increases your risk of injury. What’s more, there’s little evidence that struggling through one or two final, sloppy reps will produce any additional growth stimulus to make that risk worth it.
Here’s a better plan: Lift to “technical failure” — the point at which your form starts to deteriorate. Not only will you reduce your risk of injury, but you’ll recover faster. And the faster you can recover, the faster you can progress toward your goal.