One of the biggest challenges women face when they start a strength training program is figuring out how much weight they should be lifting. (New to strength training? Here’s a list of posts I’ve written to help you get started).
Most err on the size of caution, lifting less weight that they’re capable of either because they fear getting ‘bulky’ or they just don’t realize how strong their bodies actually are (how heavy is your purse? your groceries? your toddler? that giant bag of dog food you carried from the car to the house?).
The thing is, muscles require adequate stimulation to get strong.
They quickly adapt to the loads we lift regularly and stop increasing in size and strength unless we consistently up the challenge (we all hit plateaus from time to time; here are tricks for busting through them).
Given that loss of muscle mass contributes to midlife weight gain, you want to be sure that you’re lifting heavy enough to actually see the results of your efforts in the gym.
Most of the women I work with via my online fitness groups and 1-on-1 fitness coaching program have two primary goals; to build muscle and lose body fat. (If you’re looking for an online fitness coach who specializes in midlife women, I’m your girl and just happen to have two spots opening up in my practice later this month. Click through the link to read about the service and apply to work with me).
As a consequence, I typically program them in the 8 to 12 (or ‘hypertrophy’) repetition range.
That is, I ask them to perform somewhere between 8 and 12 good form repetitions of each exercise in their workout (the exact range depends on what we’re focusing on in each particular phase of their program; lower rep ranges for strength phases, higher rep ranges for muscle building and leaning out).
Because I don’t train my clients in person, I give them detailed instructions to determine whether their weights are heavy enough.
How much weight should I be lifting?
For example, during week 1 of a program that requires a client to perform 10 to 12 dumbbell chest presses I’d ask them to do the following;
- choose a weight that they think they can manage 12 repetitions with (most will under-estimate)
- attempt to perform 12 good form repetitions
- evaluate their performance and adjust accordingly
- if they managed all 12 repetitions and feel that they could easily have performed at least 4 or 5 more, increase their weight on the next set, attempting to find a weight that they can just reach 12 reps with (I usually recommend increasing weights by no more than 10% at a time; of course, depending on the dumbbell options available to you, this may not be possible).
- if they were only able to perform 8 good form repetitions, stick with the same weight until they’re consistently reaching the upper value of the repetition range (12 reps) for the required number of sets
- if they managed fewer than 8 good form repetitions, lower their weight on the next set, again attempting to find a weight that they can just reach 12 reps with
Note that this is a bit of an iterative process. Sometimes it will take you several sets (and more than one workout) to determine your current ‘best’ weight for an exercise.
Think of this period of figuring things out as additional preparation time. You’re teaching your body how to properly perform the exercise and learning how to listen to any messages it’s sending you about joint mobility, range of motion, bilateral asymmetry and weakness.
After several workouts, you’ll probably notice that you’re able to perform more repetitions with the weights you’ve chosen. That’s great! A sure sign that you’re getting stronger. And an indication that you need to progress your workouts.
Rather than simply performing more repetitions with the same weight (remember the number of repetitions you perform is specific to your goals), try increasing your load.
You may find that the new, heavier weight only allows you to complete 6 or 8 or 10 good form repetitions.
That’s okay. Continue with this weight until you can again, perform 12 reps (or the upper limit of your prescribed rep range) for the required number of sets.
A couple of caveats:
- DON’T try to increase weights on every exercise in your workout at once. That’s a recipe for exhaustion and injury! I typically try to progress 1 to 3 exercises per workout. Some weeks I’m more successful than others.
- DON’T expect all exercises to be equally progress-able. Some exercises take a lot longer to increase load on than others. Lat pull-downs and pull-ups are notoriously difficult for women to progress.
- DON’T sacrifice form for reps. Doing extra repetitions with poor form will only slow your progress.
- DON’T expect gains to be linear. Sometimes a big weight increase will be followed by a month-long plateau. And holidays and illness will frequently force you to return to a lower weight than you’d been lifting previously.
- DO view lifting heavier as a good thing. Increasing muscle mass and functional strength are important contributors to overall health and aging well!
This post evolved from a recent Periscope broadcast of mine. Click on the image below to watch it where it’s been saved on Katch.me.
Never heard of Periscope? It’s a new social media platform that allows me to interact, in real-time, via video with my followers and clients. My show, “Fit Tips for Midlife Chicks” broadcasts live on M/W/F at 1:30 pm Pacific Time.
To catch the next episode all you need to do is:
- download the Periscope app on your smartphone
- log in with your Twitter handle
- find and follow me @fitknitchick_1
- open the app M/W/F at 1:30 pm PT and click on the link to my show
Which exercises have you progressed your weights on lately?