Resistance training in the form of weightlifting and bodyweight exercises has long been established as perhaps the most effective way of building muscle and developing a lean and healthy physique. The difficulty for many of us, when starting an exercise program, is trying to figure out exactly how much weight we should be using on each exercise.
Too little weight and your muscles won’t be sufficiently stimulated to grow bigger and boost your metabolism for enhanced fat loss. Too much weight and the tension will instead be placed on your joints and tendons, reducing the effectiveness of your workouts and placing you at greater risk of injury.
In this article, we are going to look at some of the considerations you should make in order to determine how much weight you should be lifting to achieve maximum muscle building and fat loss results.
Establish Your Baseline
Everyone is built differently from a physical standpoint, and there is such a vast array of different exercises available to you that there is no singular recommendation that can be made for all individuals in terms of where you should start.
Instead, we recommend working to establish your baseline strength levels on each exercise using somewhat of a trial and error approach. You will naturally be able to lift more weight on, say, a deadlift than a dumbbell bicep curl, so applying this logic will enable you to at least start with a reasonable amount of weight.
When it comes to heavier compound lifts such as the aforementioned deadlift – as well as movements such as barbell squats, barbell bench press, and bent over barbell rows – it is generally advisable that you focus more on technique and explosive movements than really feeling muscle contractions.
With this in mind, we recommend starting with a relatively lightweight that will enable you to learn the correct technique or form for each exercise without hurting yourself. Not only will this prevent injury in the short term but it will also train your movement patterns and establish good habits for when you eventually start adding more weight to the bar.
As for lighter concentration or machine exercises, you will generally want to focus on using a weight that is challenging, but at the same time enables you to feel the target muscles working effectively.
Some exercises such as the lat pulldown machine do allow for a small amount of momentum to be used, but you should generally avoid rocking or swinging your body backwards and forwards. If you are only able to lift the weight by using a lot of “body English” in this manner then you might want to consider reducing the weight to a more manageable amount.
Any coach worth his or her salt will tell you that the most fundamental principle when it comes to consistently developing your body over many months and years is that of progressive overload.
Progressive overload is the principle of always stimulating your body in a progressive fashion by doing more work over time.
This can mean a number of things, including using more weight on an exercise for a fixed number of reps or getting more reps with a particular weight. Increasing volume by way of additional sets and/or exercises is also another way of increasing the workload you place on your body.
Progress in this fashion typically comes incrementally, with a couple of pounds added to the bar here or an extra rep lifted there, but it is these incremental gains that will add up to a significant change in your body.
Take your squat for example: if you add 2.5lbs every week to your squat, by the end of the year you will have added in excess of 125lbs. That is no small difference, and all that extra weight will be stimulating your muscles to grow and your metabolism to become stronger in the process.
It’s perfectly normal to look at the stronger people in your gym tossing around heavy weights and feel intimidated or scared of the weights. We all feel like this to start with but the confidence that comes with making small, incremental gains over time can dramatically change your perspective.
In general terms, a stronger body will have more muscle, and more muscle means a stronger metabolism burning more calories daily. More calories burnt means, you guessed it, easier and more sustainable fat loss.
Just remember: small baby steps; incremental gains. Think about it in terms of little 1.25lbs and 2.5lbs increases over the long-term. This is far less scary than trying to lift 500lbs from day one!
Don’t Get Hurt!
This has already been mentioned, but we really must emphasize the importance of doing everything you can to avoid injury.
Getting injured sucks, and not just because of the physical pain and inconvenience it can cause. If you throw your back out or tweak your shoulder you might end up having to miss several workouts, which can severely hamper your progress and set you back for many days or even weeks and months.
Many of us hit the gym with a huge amount of zeal and enthusiasm, which is never a bad thing, but if we can give you one piece of advice it is this:
Your muscles have no idea how much weight you are holding in your hands. All they know is the amount of tension that’s being placed upon them. If you use too much weight and the strain is placed on your joints instead of your muscles then you won’t even achieve the best results anyway.
Men tend to be far guiltier of this than women, but try to leave your ego at the door whenever you go to the gym and it will go a long way to enhancing your results and reducing your risk of injury.
On the flipside, do your best to not be afraid of the weights. If you learn correct technique and respect the weights, they will generally extend the same courtesy to you!
Balance Your Routine
Although the question of how much weight you should be lifting is an important one, you might want to also consider how much, or how often you should be lifting weights.
How much of your exercise routine should actually consist of weightlifting compared to other forms of exercise like cardio?
As with many aspects of fitness, there is no one answer that applies to everyone.
Generally speaking, applying a 70/30 rule to your fitness regime is a good idea, meaning that 70% of your time in the gym should be spent on challenging resistance training while the remaining 30% consists of a variety of cardiovascular or aerobic workouts.
Weightlifting and cardio both offer their own advantages in terms of health and physique development, so applying them both in a balanced fashion will help you to reap the greatest benefit from them.
Additionally, try alternating between moderate intensity longer duration cardio – like brisk incline walking on a treadmill – with more intense interval based and aerobic workouts like HIIT and Tabata.
Mixing up your weight training workouts from time to time will help to reduce wear and tear on your joints caused by repetition, and varying your cardio exercises every week or every other day will help to prevent your body from adapting so that your results come more rapidly and more consistently.
There is a science and art when it comes to establishing how much weight you should be lifting and how to balance that with your overall fitness efforts. Your body is unique in its physical proportions and in the way your metabolism functions. It’s important to take the time to establish your current strength levels and learn correct form on each exercise so that you can avoid injury and keep working your butt off week after week, month after month.