Are You Lifting Enough Weight?

Women lifting weights in class

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If you lift weights to improve strength or gain muscle mass, you've probably wondered just how much weight you should lift. Most of us tend to err on the lighter side, something researchers have already figured out. If you feel like your weight training program has stalled, or if you're not seeing the results you'd like, learn why lifting heavier weights could change your entire body.

Benefits of Lifting Weights

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 about 10-20 calories per day while a pound of fat burns only 5 calories. So, muscle growth helps you burn more calories all day long.

But, 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

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 16-20 times, you might not see the kind of fat loss you would if you increased your weight.

Common Concerns About Lifting Heavy Weight

According to a study done by the University of Michigan, researchers took beginners (both men and women) through a series of moves, allowing them to choose their own weight. After assessing their 1 rep max, they determined that most chose a weight well below what was needed to stimulate muscle growth.

So, why don't we lift more weight? For some, especially people new to weight training, it can be scary. There are so many types of equipment—machines, dumbbells, cables, and bands. And then there are tons of exercises, it's hard to know where to start.

Most of all, we know that lifting weights can make us sore and, potentially, put us at risk for injury. It seems much easier to either avoid weight training or choose weights that are too light to make much of a difference. Aside from that, there are other fears that invade our minds.

Lack of Familiarity

The goal of weight training, if you didn't know, 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 still a tired old weight training myth running around that men should lift heavy and women should lift light to avoid getting big and bulky. Women hear this: Lifting heavy weights will not make you huge—you simply don't have the testosterone levels to build big muscles. Lifting heavy weights will help you get strong and lose fat.

Fear of Pain

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

These concerns often 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.

How Much Weight Should You Lift?

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. The problem is that most of us don't go through the process of figuring out 1 rep max for every exercise we're doing.

For weight loss, science has found that lifting between 60-80% of your 1 rep max 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 1 rep max for every exercise, it's just not safe. There's a whole procedure to got 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 1 rep max? You can estimate the amount by counting the number of reps you can do with different weight amounts. If you're a beginner, it's a good idea to keep your reps between 8 and 16, particularly if you're lifting weights to lose weight, get fit, and stay strong.

  • If you lift 60%-80% of your max, 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 8 reps, you'll lift heavier than you would for 16 reps.

How to Get Started

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 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 2–3 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 10-12.

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. 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.

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.

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