Are You Lifting Enough Weight?

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Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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If you are interested in weight lifting for weight loss, you've probably wondered just how much weight you should lift. Most of us tend to err on the lighter side, thus not getting the results we want, which is something researchers have already figured out.

When you feel like your weight training program has stalled, or if you're not seeing the results you desire, it's time to look at whether you're lifting enough. In fact, lifting heavy weights could potentially change your entire body.

How You Benefit From Weight Lifting

Lifting weights, also sometimes referred to as strength training or resistance training, offers a lot of benefits. Some of these benefits involve lifting weights to lose weight.

Weight Lifting and Weight Loss

Muscle plays a role in raising metabolism which can help you to change your body composition and burn more fat. A pound of muscle burns between 10 and 30 calories per day while a pound of fat burns between five and 10 calories a day. So, muscle growth helps you burn more calories all day long.

However, all of this only works if you're using enough weight to stimulate that muscle growth. In other words, if you can lift the weights you've chosen for most exercises more than 16 to 20 times, you might not see the kind of fat loss you would if you increased your weight.

Other Benefits

In addition to weight loss, other benefits of strength training include:

  • A leaner, slimmer appearance because muscle takes up less space than fat
  • An increased resting metabolic rate so you burn more calories, even while at rest.
  • Better confidence and self-esteem
  • Enhanced balance and stability
  • Potentially lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol profile
  • Stronger bones and connective tissue, which can protect your body from injuries in daily life

Common Weight-Lifting Concerns

There are a few concerns that can keep people lifting the same amount of weight for weeks, months or even years. Most of these fears are unfounded if you take time to ease into a weight training program and work slowly towards the muscle fatigue that will make your muscles grow.

Lack of Familiarity

The goal of weight training is to lift as much weight as you possibly can with good form for the number of reps you've chosen. In daily life, we typically don't push ourselves to fatigue in anything we do, so this idea may not only feel foreign, it may feel downright strange. That's one reason it's best for beginners to gradually work towards that.

But lifting more weight can also be confusing. When you haven't lifted weights before, you may not know what's too heavy and what's too light. It may take some time to get a feel for your body and what it can handle.

Fear of Injury

Many people err on the lighter side when they train simply out of fear of injury. Because our muscles burn when we challenge them with resistance, people often feel they're injuring themselves when they lift.

And injury can be a real fear for beginners since injury can occur if you max out before your body is ready for it. Taking it slow while still challenging your body will help protect you from injury.

Fear of Getting Bulky

There's a weight training myth that men should lift heavy and women should lift light to avoid getting big and bulky. But lifting heavy weights will not make females huge—you simply don't have the testosterone levels to build big muscles. Lifting heavy weights will help you get strong and lose fat.

For men, bulking up is about more than just the amount of weight you lift. Diet is important too. If you want to build more muscle, you generally have to consume extra calories. Lifting heavy weights is only part of the equation, which can help reduce your fear of getting too big from weight amount alone.

Fear of Pain

The other thing about lifting weights is the psychological factor. The discomfort level associated with training to fatigue is pretty high.

If you haven't lifted weights before, you may not be able to overcome that discomfort enough to lift as heavy as you're capable of. Again, this is one reason it's best to err on the side of caution (if you need to), while always working towards more challenge and more weight.

How to Choose the Right Weights

With all this in mind, you may wonder how to choose the amount of weight to lift. That's where things may get a little tricky because most formulas are based on your 1-rep max (1RM), which is the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time. The problem is that most of us don't go through the process of figuring out the 1RM for every exercise we're doing.

For weight loss, lifting between 60% and 80% of your 1RM is the best way to stimulate muscle growth, which is what helps you lose fat.

The other problem is that if you wanted to find your 1RM for every exercise, it's just not safe. There's a whole procedure to go through to get your body warm enough to lift the max amount of weight and you really need a professional helping you do that so you don't get hurt.

So how do you figure out how much to lift if you don't know your 1RM? You can estimate the amount by counting the number of reps you can do—with good form—with different weight amounts. For example, try using a 5-pound dumbbell for biceps curls. If you can do 20 reps easily, the weight may be too light.

If you're a beginner, it's a good idea to keep your reps between eight and 16, particularly if you're lifting weights to lose weight, get fit, and stay strong.

  • If you lift 60% to 80% of your 1RM, that means your reps will be somewhere between 10 and 20 repetitions, which is appropriate for a new lifter.
  • Lifting at 80% and above takes you down to the lower rep range, which is where you'll be if you're trying to gain size. This is usually for more advanced weight lifters, but you can easily work your way up to that if you take your time.

Looking at it that way, the amount of weight you use is determined not only by your fitness level but by the number of reps you're doing. If you're doing eight reps, you'll lift heavier than you would for 16 reps.

Weight Lifting for Weight Loss

The important thing to remember when it comes to strength training is that you must give you your muscles more weight than they can handle—that's how muscles grow. Increased muscle mass leads to an increase in metabolism, which helps fuel weight loss. Keep in mind, though, that muscle typically weighs more than body fat, so as you build muscle you may not notice much movement on the scale. For this reason, most experts recommend using other tools to measure your progress like how you feel and how the fit of your clothes change.

Once you have built a foundation of strength fitness, increase the amount of weight you lift. And remember that this is a mental game, not just a physical one. If you haven't pushed your body's limits in a while, just the act of lifting weights may be all you can handle. Here's how you get started if you're a beginner.

  • Choose a weight you can lift 16 times. This is hit or miss, so you're experimenting. You don't need to go to complete muscle failure, but make sure you're challenging your body. If you can do more than 16 reps, increase your weight next time.
  • Begin with 1 set of each exercise, slowly working your way up to 2 to 3 sets by adding a set each week.
  • When you've added sets and have a solid foundation, after about 4 or more weeks, add more weight so that you can only finish 12 reps of your exercises.
  • Continue to progress by adding a rep each week until you reach the max reps, no more than 16, increase your weight and drop your reps back down to 10 to 12.

A Word From Verywell

If you're consistent with a basic program and build a solid foundation of strength, you'll be ready for the next step—lifting heavy and pushing your muscles to their limits. You'll be amazed at the changes in your body. The key is to pick the best weight you can and keep track of how you feel. You can always lift heavier next time.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Wang Z, Ying Z, Bosy-Westphal A, et al. Evaluation of specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues: comparison between men and women. Am J Hum Biol. 2011;23(3):333-8. doi:10.1002/ajhb.21137

  3. Vargo K. Weight lifting for weight loss. American Council on Exercise.

  4. American Council on Exercise. Weight training load calculator.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."