How Much Weight Should You Be Lifting at the Gym?

Written by Elizabeth Santoro on March 28, 2017
How to lift weights

Here we go. Today’s the day you’ve decided to venture beyond the treadmills and elliptical machines to, yes, the weights!

Weight lifting might make you think of protein powder shakes and bulging muscles, but that’s just the stereotype. Weight training has its benefits, and can help you reach your fit-body goals. Here’s a look at how to get started and how much weight you should be lifting.

How much weight should I lift?

If you’re in good health, Cris Dobrosielski, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and owner of Monumental Results, suggests beginning with a light to moderate weight. If you’re nervous, brand new, or have other orthopedic concerns, Dobrosielski advises to start with a very light weight.

Once you have a proper technique, Dobrosielski says that you should feel a “significant sense of exertion as you’re completing a set of exercises.” For example, if you’re doing three sets of 10, you should feel a little challenge to complete that set around repetition seven. Be careful that you aren’t just going through the motions, but that you actually feel this sense of exertion.

Can I lift weights without bulking up?

Yes! Contrary to popular belief, resistance training doesn’t mean you’re on the road to becoming the female version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Resistance training can serve multiple goals. There are four main areas of focus.

Four categories of weight lifting

NameWhat is it?
muscular hypertrophygrowth of muscle size, including lean muscle mass (aka no big bulk)
muscular endurancerepeated muscle exertion at submaximal force
muscular strengthmuscle exertion at maximal external force
muscular powermuscle exertion at maximal force as quickly as possible within a certain movement
 

Depending on your goals, you want to ideally build a routine using the above categories. Dobrosielski says when building a routine, “you typically don’t train all of those systems as a rule in the gym,” but instead work through a sequence of phases best suited for your goals. You may start with a strength phase, followed by an endurance phase, onto hypertrophy, and ending with power.

How do I start?

Before starting a new exercise routine, it’s important to talk to your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to do the activity, and that you’re not at risk for injury.

Seek professional help

If you’ve never tried resistance training before or have strong health limitations, Dobrosielski suggests seeing a certified professional who has the education to give you safe guidelines and help you meet your needs.

Gradual progression

Dobrosielski says, “The number one thing to realize is that this is a commitment over time. The best way to have success in any athletic endeavor, resistance training included, is to gradually increase the difficulty and the scope of what you’re doing.”

So while some goals have a shorter timeline, reshaping and improving your body isn’t one of them. Trying to reach your goals within the first couple months can do more harm than good. It can lead to overtraining, injury, or loss of interest.

Consider movement patterns

While we’ve all probably heard of bicep curls, this might not be the best exercise for starting your resistance training. Dobrosielski says to think in terms of major movement patterns in order to work your body’s major muscle groups. He says, “You really do want to take a three-dimensional approach. But by focusing on those primary movements or major muscle groups, both upper and lower, you’re assuring that you’re getting a more balanced routine.”

Remember to rest

Your type of training affects how much you can do it every week. If you’re doing a whole body workout, Dobrosielski advises a minimum of 48 hours between sessions. “So if you lift on a Monday, you wouldn’t want to hit those same muscle groups again until Wednesday,” he says.

You also want to rest between sets. For a moderate-intensity routine, Dobrosielski says your range of rest may be 30 to 90 seconds, whereas for high intensity it could be 90 seconds to three minutes.

Machine weights vs. free weights

Which type of weights should you use? For a beginner who may not know proper form or have professional guidance, Dobrosielski says a good option is using a preset circuit of machines at a reputable gym. These circuits usually target the major muscle groups as well as some smaller ones, according to Dobrosielski.

But if you know proper form and have the resources to perform safe lifts, Dobrosielski says that using free weights can have advantages, such as:

  • recruiting your core
  • engaging certain stabilizing muscles
  • requiring neurological coordination
  • burning more calories

These advantages come from performing what Dobrosielski calls “closed chained exercises,” where you stand with your feet planted firmly into the ground instead of sitting.

When do I bump up the weight?

If you’re a beginner, Dobrosielski says that you should be attaining your repetition goals and feel a moderate to significant challenge at the tail end of your repetitions before bumping up the weight. For example, “If you’re doing sets of 10 or 12 and those last several [repetitions] are pretty moderate, then you know that’s a good indicator that you need to bump up the weight on your next round.”

If you’re intermediate and have good form, Dobrosielski say your goal should be to reach your repetition goals as an indicator to bump up weight. For example, if you wanted to complete three sets of 10, “you’d use actually arriving at your desired number of repetitions as your goal,” says Dobrosielski. “When you get that, you bump up [by] some small increment, so that it’s still in the neighborhood, but the next time around you probably won’t your get three sets of 10. You might get three sets of eight.”

But when you decide to bump up the weight, Dobrosielski reminds us that it’s a “trial by error” process. To avoid putting on too much weight, Dobrosielski says to begin light to moderate, and then build from there on your next sets if necessary.

Injury prevention

Injury prevention is key for successful resistance training and to maintain a healthy body. Here are Dobrosielski’s tips.

What to do to prevent injury:

  • Avoid overuse. Don’t do too much at one time, and get enough of rest outside of the gym
  • Properly warmup. Dobrosielski recommends two to eight minutes of aerobic exercise followed by two to eight minutes of dynamic stretching or mobility training.
  • Properly cool down. Dobrosielski suggests five to 10 minutes of low-level aerobic exercise followed by five to 10 minutes of static stretching or self-massage to help lengthen your muscles and return your body to its “pre-exercise state."
  • Try myofascial release self-massage tools for restoring muscle comfort. These include foam rollers or tennis balls.
  • Use ice and heat. Ice can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Dobrosielski says that cold showers are another great natural anti-inflammatory tool. Heat is good for loosening up muscle stiffness and tightness.
  • Cross-train on your non-lifting days. Dobrosielski says cross-training can help your body recover while also burning calories and stimulating your metabolism.

Routines to try

To get you started, Dobrosielski has shared three routines. There’s one for each level: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. For best results, Dobrosielski suggests resistance training two to three times a week. But he says even resistance training for one session per week can change your body.

The following routines are designed for an injury-free female between the ages of 25 and 50 with the goal of improving muscle tone and overall strength.

Note: If you’re unclear about the technique for these exercises, Dobrosielski strongly suggests seeing a certified personal trainer for guidance.

Beginner

Option 1:

  1. Go through the entire list, do each exercise for one set of reps, and take 15 to 30 seconds between each exercise.
  2. Repeat the lifting list two to three times and then move on to the core exercises.
Lifting exerciseNumber of repsNumber of sets
step-ups holding dumbbells using 6- or 12-inch steps152-3
chest flys (with cable machine)152-3
leg press (using machine)152-3
Mid row (using cable machine)152-3
hip hinge (using kettle bell)152-3
lat pull downs (using machine)152-3
lateral raise dumbbells152-3
 
Core exercisesNumber of repsNumber of sets
pelvic tilts103
bird dogs103
plank10-15 seconds3
bridges (on the ground)103
 

Option 2:

  1. Do two to three sets of each exercise and then lightly stretch for 45-60 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.
  2. Complete the lifting list once and then move on to the core exercises.
Lifting exerciseNumber of repsNumber of sets
step-ups holding dumbbells (using 6- or 12-inch steps) 152-3
chest flys (using cable machine)152-3
leg press (using machine)152-3
mid row (with cable machine)152-3
hip hinge (using kettle bell)152-3
lat pull downs (using machine)152-3
lateral raise dumbbells152-3
 
Core exercisesNumber of repsNumber of sets
pelvic tilts103
bird dogs103
plank10-15 seconds3
bridges (on the ground)103
 

Intermediate

  1. The exercises below are categorized in groups and should be done together.
  2. Go through each group, doing each exercise for one set of reps, and taking 15 to 30 seconds between each exercise. This first set should feel moderate.
  3. One you finish the group, rest for 60 to 90 seconds and then repeat that same group until you reach three to four sets. On these subsequent sets, your intensity should increase.
  4. Move on to the next group.
  5. Once all groups are complete, move on to the core exercises.
Lifting exerciseNumber of repsNumber of sets
Group 1
moving lunges (holding dumbbells)83-4
wood chops (using cable machine to twist high to low)83-4
Group 2
bench press (using Olympic barbell)83-4
glute-ham raises or back extensions (using physioball)83-4
Group 3
back squats83-4
hay balers in kneeling position holding one dumbbell in both hands83-4
Group 4
combo high-rows with one arm using a cable machine and the other arm using a dumbbell for bicep curl83-4
hip-hinge (one leg at time with light dumbbells in both hands)83-4
Group 5
overhead press (using dumbbells in parallel stance)83-4
low rows (using cable machine in split stance)83-4
 
Core exercisesNumber of repsNumber of sets
side plank raises123
modified crunches (using physioball and feet into the ground)123
bridges (using physioball with legs on the ground, heels and calves into the ball)123
push-ups via toes or knees123
 

Advanced

  1. These exercises are categorized in groups and should be done together.
  2. Do the exercises in the following order.
  3. Go through each group, doing each exercise for one set of reps, and taking 15 seconds between each exercise. This first set should feel moderate.
  4. Once you finish the group, take 90 seconds to two minutes of rest, and repeat that same group until you’ve done the prescribed amount of sets. On these subsequent sets, intensity level should be high but safe.
  5. Then move on to the next group.
  6. Once all groups are complete, move on to the core exercises.
Lifting exerciseNumber of repsNumber of sets
Group 1
box jumps (using 6-, 12-, or 18-inch box)44
kettle bell swings20 seconds each4
Group 2
bench press dumbbells63
skaters with uppercut punches for each side20 seconds each3
rotational push-ups163
Group 3
pull-ups (machine assisted if necessary)63
single leg squats with overhead static hold of weight plate63
medicine ball slams33
Group 4
step-ups with overhead press (using a 12- or 18 inch-box) press with opposite arm of leg that is stepping.)63
single leg hip hinge (with dumbbell in opposite hand from lifting leg)63
Group 5
bar dips (assisted if necessary)63
glute-ham raise with rotation on physioball (one hand behind the back and other hand behind the head) 153
Group 6
low rows dumbbells “saws” 63
jump lunges (on a soft surface if possible)103
chopping (using cable machine to twist torso high to low)63
 
Core exercisesNumber of repsNumber of sets
single leg bridges with foot on foam roller 152
weighted bird dogs using light ankle and wrist weights202
side plank raise with rotation152
 

Takeaway

Resistance training can be beneficial if you build a plan to safely help you attain your goals. We’re all different people with different health goals, so resistance training should be customized to your needs. There’s no one answer for what routine you should do or how you should train.

But however you train, understand that it will not change your body overnight. Working out consistently over time will help you see results. So take that first step to figure out your goals and the right training plan for you. We know you can do it!

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