Are You Lifting Enough Weight?

Use it or lose it

Women lifting weights in class
Women lifting weights in class. Hero Images/Getty Images

If you've ever lifted weights, you've probably wondered more than once just how much weight you should lift. Are you lifting enough? How heavy do you go?

Most of us tend to err on the lighter side, something researchers have already figured out. 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, the maximum amount of weight a person can lift for on repetition, 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. In fact, beyond weight loss, there are a number of incredible benefits of strength training.

What Strength Training Does for Your Body

  • 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.
  • Can help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.

    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.

    Why We Shy Away From Heavy Weights

    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, 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 strange. 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 get strong and lose the 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, that is if you take time to ease into a weight training program and work slowly towards the muscle fatigue that will make your muscles grow.

    With all this in mind, you may wonder how to choose the amount of weight to lift. That's where things may get a littl tricky, but practive makes perfect.

    How Much Weight Should You Lift?

    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.

    And even 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.

    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, that means your reps will be somewhere between 10 and 20 repetitions.  

    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.

    For now, 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.

    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. 

    Here's how you get started if you're a beginner.

    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 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.

    For more on the specific guidelines of strength training, including choosing reps, sets and exercises, check out 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. The key is to pick the best weight you can and keep track of how you feel. You can always lift heavier next time.

    Source:

    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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