How Much Weight Should I Lift? A Quick & Easy Guide
Okay, so you have your training schedule, your workout split, and your exercises ready to go.
Now you need to determine how much weight you should lift.
Should you lift ‘light’ weights for high reps? Or should you lift heavy weight for lower reps?
Today, we will go over how much weight you should lift depending on your goals, and why it should change over time.
Welcome to the fifth installment of the WCT Workout Routine Basics, where we cover the most fundamental questions of working out.
In Part 1, How Often Should I Workout: Determine Your Optimal Training Frequency, we discuss the optimal number of times you should exercise
In Part 2, The 3 Best Workout Splits Of All Time, we go over how to structure your workouts and give you examples of a few templates.
In Part 3, Free Weights Vs Machines we cover the pros and cons of the two types of weights and help you determine which you should use in your training.
In Part 4, Barbells Vs Dumbbells, we provide a comprehensive guide on how to use both types of free weights in your training.
I highly encourage that you check those out first if you haven't already done so.
Today’s post is going to cover:
How Much Weight You Should Lift To Gain Muscle
How Much Weight You Should Lift To Lose Weight
How Much Weight You Should Lift To Tone
How To Change The Weight You Are Using Through Rep Schemes
Alright, let’s get to the answers.
How Much Weight Should I Lift?
This is a very popular question. The amount of weight you should lift should coincide with your goals.
If your goal is to build strength, then your weights should be heavy enough that you can only perform 4-6 repetitions per set. If your goal is to build muscular size, then you should only be able to perform 7-12 repetitions per set. If your goal is to improve muscular endurance, then 12-15+ reps per set is best.
In other words, the weight needs to be in a sweet spot where
It’s not so heavy that you can’t lift the weight for the minimum number of reps you were intending to get, and
It’s not so light that you can easily get more reps than what you intended
But, there’s one more thing…
It is absolutely critical that you always lift weights with proper form. The heavier the weights get, the more you need to focus on good technique.
If you are a beginner, it is in your best interest to not begin with the heaviest weights that you can find. This just proves to everyone that you are a rookie.
The empty barbell or 10 lb dumbbells can be a good place to start!
Always start light and ingrain good technique. As a beginner, it is always better to leave something in the tank then to go all out and potentially injure yourself.
How Much Weight Should I Lift To Gain Muscle?
If your goal is to build appreciable muscle mass, then you must train for both muscular strength and muscular hypertrophy.
The less experience you have, the more you should focus on lifting ‘lighter’ weights for more repetitions to ensure that you have proper technique.
But don’t misinterpret this. By light, I mean weights that you can ONLY get 7-12 reps per set with proper technique.
Over time, you should add more weight to the exercises. This is known as progressive overload, one of the fundamental principles of building muscle, which we discuss at length in How To Build Muscle Naturally.
Once you have trained in the 7-12 rep range for ~8-12 weeks, then you should increase the weight further and train in the 4-6 rep range.
The 4-6 rep range will continue to help build size, but also strength. You should train in the 4-6 rep range for ~4-8 weeks.
Why train in the 4-6 rep range?
Because strength can help you gain more muscle mass. Once you increase your strength, you will notice that you will be able to lift heavier weights in the 7-12 rep range compared to when you started, which puts you at a higher baseline.
Gaining muscle mass will require you to learn proper technique in the major functional exercises.
Begin by training in the 7-12 rep range for 2-3 months, and use progressive overloading to increase the weight over time.
After 2-3 months of training, incorporate a strength block, where you train in the 4-6 rep range for 1-2 months.
Do Different Exercises Respond Better To Heavy Weights?
In general, compound exercises respond best to ‘heavy’ weight; sets that you can only perform 4-6 repetitions on. In contrast, isolation exercises respond better to ‘lighter’ weight, or sets in which you can only perform 7-12 repetitions on.
Compound exercises train multiple muscle groups at once. As a result, you can recruit many more muscle fibers to help lift the weight.
This is why programs such as 5x5 are so popular. You focus primarily on compound exercises, and only perform 5 repetitions per set. This training style builds a lot of strength and promotes muscle development.
In addition, compound exercises are extremely versatile. You can use them for any rep range, including the 12-15 rep range, the 7-12, and even the 1-3 rep range.
On the other hand, isolation exercises are meant to develop a single muscle group, and respond better to more reps per set.
The most common isolation exercise performed across the world is the bicep curl. Everyone seems to be fascinated with arms for some reason.
Isolated muscle groups are pretty weak by themselves, and therefore you will not be able to lift as much weight as you could if you use multiple muscle groups.
If you choose to lift heavy weight while performing isolation exercises you are more likely to
Use bad technique
Aggravate the joint you are training (for example you may develop elbow pain from heavy bicep/tricep work)
Begin “cheating,” by using other muscle groups to help lift the weight
A good rule of thumb is to stick to 7-12 and 4-6 reps per set for your compound exercises, and 7-12 reps per set for isolation exercises.
What About Weight Loss? How Much Weight Should I Lift To Lose Weight?
If your goal is to lose weight, then you should still focus on lifting weights heavy enough to build muscle, and weights heavy enough to build strength.
By increasing your lean muscle mass percentage, you will increase your body’s fat burning capabilities.
It is also important to add High Intensity Interval Training to your exercise tool belt. HIIT forces you to do a lot of repetitions in a short amount of time, which increases your aerobic capacity while simultaneously helping you to burn more calories.
There’s one more thing.
You can exercise all you want, but you also need to address your nutrition. This is non-negotiable.
If you continue to eat a surplus of low quality food, then you will never lose weight, no matter how much weight you choose to lift.
Exercise is only one small piece of the puzzle. Your diet is by far the largest piece.
Don’t worry, we have an entire series on improving your diet for weight loss, starting with Any Diet To Lose Weight Must Follow This 1 Rule.
How Much Weight Should I Lift To Tone?
There is a common misconception that in order to tone, you must lift “light weights” for high reps. Sure, this will cause a lot of muscular ‘burn’ but it is doing very little to help you tone up. High repetitions only serve to build aerobic and muscular endurance.
If you want to be the next Lance Armstrong, then you should use high rep sets.
If you want to tone up, then you should make your muscles more defined, and drop your body fat percentage. This has nothing to do with how much burn you get during your workout, but it has everything to do with how much muscle you can develop.
First, you need to focus on building some muscular size using 7-12 repetitions per set, and sparingly using a strength cycle (4-6 repetitions per set). The majority of your training should be done in the 7-12 range.
Then, drop your body fat percentage by consuming more water and cutting out processed junk from your diet. This includes soda, juice, sugary foods, white bread, you get the idea.
Lastly, keep your metabolism strong by keeping your body in motion. The easiest way is to walk, walk again, and then walk some more.
Rinse and repeat.
Dropping your body fat percentage is a lot like training for weight loss. It is in your best interest to develop as much muscle as you can, while cleaning up your diet to shed fat.
How Much Weight Should I Lift As A Woman?
A big misconception in the fitness world is that women should lift light weights.
I know you’ve seen those little pink or purple dumbbells that only weigh 1 or 2 lbs each.
This gives off the impression that women should be lifting weights that are cute and little.
To all the women reading this; you can and should incorporate heavy resistance training into your fitness regimen.
This is especially true for women who are entering menopause, as your risk of developing osteoporosis and suffering fractures increase. Just like men, women should lift weights heavy enough to perform just 7-12 repetition per set when developing muscle, and 4-6 reps per set when developing strength.
I know what you’re thinking.
You don’t want to get bulky.
Saying you don’t want to get bulky so you avoid lifting weights is like saying you don’t want to get recruited to the NBA so you avoid playing basketball.
Getting bulky is very difficult and requires
a great deal of discipline,
a dedicated training plan with the goal of getting bulky
a calorie surplus
years of hard work
high levels of testosterone
In general, women don’t have high enough levels of testosterone to get bulky. ‘Bulky’ women train for a living, and are doing everything they can to get bulky.
Just take a look at Brittany. She can squat >200 lbs and deadlift >300 lbs and she is not bulky.
How Much Weight Should I Be Able To Lift For My Age?
Regardless of your size or your age, there are a few benchmarks that we believe everyone should be able to accomplish.
Second of all, you should be able to lift a certain amount of weight on The Big 4- the squat, the bench press, the deadlift, and the overhead press.
We have written an entire post on How Strong Should I Be? Realistic Strength Standards For Busy Professionals.
Check it out and let us know how you stack up, and where you need improvements.
The Bottom Line On How Much Weight You Should Be Lifting
The amount of weight on the bar (or dumbbell) will always be inversely proportional to the number of repetitions you can perform on the exercise.
For example, you may be able to do 135 lbs for 12 reps, 10 reps on 155 lbs, 8 on 175, 6 on 185, and so on and so forth.
The most important thing is to ensure that you are lifting with good form and changing up the rep scheme that you are using from time to time.
If you are a beginner, stick to the higher rep sets first, and progressively overload each exercise as time goes on with more weight.
Compound exercises respond best to all rep ranges (12-15+, 7-12, 4-6, and 1-3), and build great strength in the 4-6 rep range and less.
Isolation exercises respond better to higher rep sets such as 7-12 reps.
Once you are comfortable with an exercise, always use weights heavy enough to perform the desired rep range with moderate difficulty. I.e, you should not be able to easily get 13 reps if your goal is 7-12.
Once you begin to plateau, rotate the exercises and perform new variations like we discuss in How To Make An Exercise Program For Muscle Growth.
Well, that’s all we have for you.
Now it’s your turn.
Have you been lifting appropriately heavy weights in your training?
Are your sets moderately difficult? Or are they pretty easy?
Do you want to bulk, tone or lose weight?
Comment below and let us know!
Be sure to check out the next post in our series of Basic Workout Routines where we discuss rest times and warm up sets.
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