Are You Lifting Enough Weight?

Use it or lose it!

Middle Eastern man exercising with dumbbells
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If you lift weights, have you ever wondered whether you're doing it right? Specifically, are you lifting enough weight? According to a study done by the University of Michigan, many of us aren't.

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 (the general standard for choosing weight), they determined that most chose a weight well below what was needed to stimulate muscle growth.

Are you guilty of going too light? If so, you may not be seeing the results you'd like. Learn more about why lifting heavier weights could change your entire body.

Why Lifting Heavy is the Key to Weight Loss

You know that losing fat involves increasing your metabolism. What you may not know is that muscle plays a huge role in raising metabolism. A pound of muscle burns about 10-20 calories a day while a pound of fat burns 5 calories.

That means any growth in your muscle tissue is going to help you burn more calories all day long.

What Strength Training Does for Your Body

  • Increases resting metabolic rate so you burn more calories, even while at rest.
  • Makes you lean and slim--muscle takes up less space than fat so, the more you have, the slimmer you are
  • Strengthens bones and connective tissue, which can protect your body from injuries in daily life
  • Enhances balance and stability
  • Builds confidence and self-esteem

    However...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.

    Why We Shy Away From Heavy Weights

    So, why don't we lift more weight?

    For some, lifting weights is scary, especially if you've never done it before. The machines...the dumbbells...the people who seem to know what they're's enough to make anyone skip weights altogether. Aside from that, there are other fears that invade our minds, such as:

    • It feels weird. 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 miserable. That's one reason it's best for beginners to gradually work towards that.
    • 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.
    • Confusion. 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 getting bulky. There's still a tired old 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 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...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.

    These fears 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.

    So, how do you choose your weights?

    How Much Should You Be Lifting?

    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 problem is that most of us don't think much about how much weight we need, much less going through the process of figuring out 1 rep max for every exercise we're doing. In fact, I see many gym-goers lifting the same weights week after week, which is just one way to keep your body from changing.

    Figuring Out Your Weights

    So how do you figure out how much to lift if you don't know your 1 rep max? Typically, if you lift 60%-80% of max, you could do anywhere from 10-20 reps. 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.

    That means keeping your reps somewhere between 8-16, if you're lifting for weight loss and fitness. Your weights are determined by the number of reps you're doing.

    For Beginners:

    • Choose a weight you can only 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 could do more than 16 reps, make a note that you need to increase your weight for next time.
    • Begin with 1 set of each exercise, slowly working your way up to 2-3 sets (i.e., adding a set each week)
    • When you've added sets and have a solid foundation (after 6-8 weeks), add more weight so that you can ONLY do 8-12 reps.
    • 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 8-12.

    For more on the specific guidelines of strength training, including choosing reps, sets and exercises, read Weight Training 101.

    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.

    The challenge of lifting heavy is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one and, 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.


    Glass, Stephen C. Effect of a Learning Trial on Self-Selected Resistance Training Load. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22(3):1025-1029, May 2008.

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