It is a question that I find myself in a recurrent way and about beginners who have just started bodybuilding… How much weight should I use? How many discs should I load? Which dumbbells should I use?
This apparently simple question does not have a simple answer. Many variables come into play, and we have to analyze them one by one to make sure we are using the correct weight at all times. We will look at how to choose our weights in the gym in a practical, non-formal way.
You can take a 10 kg bar and make 75 curls with a bar. You’ll probably end up fatigued and with congested arms.
You can take a 40kg bar and do 8-10 curls until you have to release it when you can’t do one more repetition.
In both cases you have worked hard but is one method better than the other?
The answer is… it DEPENDS on what your OBJECTIVE is.
Types Of Training
If you try to be as strong as possible, you will need to use heavier weights than someone trying to get as big as possible. And if you want to improve your strength you will need even lighter weights.
- Strength training involves choosing weights that allow you to train in a repetition range of 1-6.
- Training for muscle volume means choosing weights that allow you to train in a repetition range of 8-12.
- Focusing on muscle endurance means choosing weights that allow you to train in a repetition range of at least 15 per series.
Weight Training For Strength
The biggest and strongest men and women (powerlifters, Olympic lifters, Strongman) have one thing on their mind: Become even stronger.
What Weight To Use In The Gym
Lifting heavy weights during competition means that they have been lifting heavy weights while training. This basically means training with really heavy weights.
Focusing on increasing strength requires relying on multi-articular exercises such as bench press, squats and dead weight.
In these exercises, more than one set of joints are working at a time, such as when the shoulders and elbows work together in a bench press. This multi-articular action recruits more total muscle mass, allowing you to lift heavier weights.
The muscle fibers that are recruited during heavy series are called fast-contracting muscle fibers; these fibers are also more likely to become stronger and larger in response to resistance training.
However, they tire quickly, and that’s why you won’t be able to lift very heavy weights for a long time.
Rest periods between these peak work series are longer (3 to 5 minutes) although not fully recovering does not mean that the next series is not effective.
Of course, lifting heavy weights entails a proper pre-heating, so it is necessary to make some lighter series of progressively heavier weights before reaching the maximum weights.
Strength trainers avoid taking this type of series to muscle failure, a technique widely used by bodybuilders.
Weight Training For Muscle Size
Although those who train to become primarily stronger also become larger, their methods are not the most effective in maximizing muscle size (hypertrophy).
Bodybuilders and gym rats looking to increase the size of their muscles follow a slightly different approach to determining the amount of weight they use.
In this case, choosing a weight in which no more than 8-12 repetitions can be done before reaching muscle failure is the best overall method for maximizing muscle mass gain.
But there are a couple of things to keep in mind in this procedure:
You must use a proper execution technique
You’ve probably seen Youtube videos with guys bouncing their chest bar while doing bench press because the weight is so heavy that they need to generate inertia to lift it. That’s not a proper execution technique.
Each exercise has its own “Correct Execution Guide”. You have to have control over the weight, and only the joints designated for movement should be in motion.
If you need hip or knee action to make a bar curl, you’re using joints that shouldn’t be involved. This has a name -trapping- and violates the principle of correct execution of the movement.
Perform a “true” series of 8-12 repetitions
Of course, you can put a light weight on the bar and stop at 12 repetitions, but that’s not a real series. A real series means that you are very close to total muscle failure – the point at which you cannot do another repetition with good technique (also called technical failure).
If you can do the thirteenth repetition, the weight you used was too light. Similarly, if you can only do 4-5 repetitions, the weight is too heavy to boost the hypertrophy.
The right point is in choosing a weight that you can do for yourself, with correct execution, between 8 and 12 repetitions exactly.
Bodybuilders also train fast-contracting muscle fibers, usually starting with multi-articular movements ordered by part of the body.
This requires more work (3-4 series of multiple exercises from different angles) and shorter rest periods (60 seconds for small muscles and up to 90 for larger ones).
Training For Muscle Endurance
We don’t all train to become as big or strong as possible. You can also train at a lower level of intensity – that is, use lower weights.
This activates the mechanisms of the muscle that make it aerobically efficient, without increasing the size of the muscles.
Therefore, the muscle can do a lot of repetitions over a longer period without fatigue. For example, the marathon runner’s musculature is designed to allow him to run that distance.
Focusing on muscle endurance means choosing light weights that allow us to perform 15-20 repetitions correctly. Weight stimulation will not be sufficient to maximize strength or hypertrophy. This is because the muscles are using slow-contraction fibers instead of rapid-contraction fibers.
These fibers are designed to be used in longer activities and generally do not grow significantly compared to rapid contraction fibers.
Choosing The Weights
This is the difficult part but that doesn’t mean that an experienced lifter can’t adjust the working weights. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind.
1. Work with progressively heavier series
Some consider the warm-up series a waste of time, but they really allow you to lift heavier. Your fabrics become more elastic, and you’ve practiced movement before embarking on the heavy weights.
It is important to note that although a bodybuilder trains muscle failure, warm-up series never lead to failure.
You must stop these warm-up series long before muscle failure. For example, for a bodybuilder who wants to perform heavy series of 100 kilos, training in a range of 8-12 repetitions, the warm-up weights could be 60, 80 and 90 kilos.
2. Train heavy at the start of training
Because your energy begins to falter during a hard workout, choose the most difficult exercises at the beginning of your workout, when you’re coolest. You can even train in the lowest zone of the hypertrophy range, choosing a weight in which you can perform only 8 repetitions (muscle failure).
In the course of your training you should try to train with different intensities so include a series of 10 repetitions (close to the failure) and 12 repetitions as the session progresses.
With warm-up included, start your exercises in the lowest zone of your target repetition range and leave your series of 12 or more repetitions for the end of the workout.
3. Be aware of the progressive overload
The muscles adapt to the training becoming bigger and stronger. Strength practitioners and bodybuilders know that the greatest adaptations occur in the fibers of rapid contraction. Thanks to these adaptations you will be able to do more repetitions than before with any mileage.
How do I know when to gain weight?
Try this method: When you can do 2 more repetitions of the target, during two consecutive workouts, increase the weight. For example: If you started in the bench press with 8 repetitions of 100 kilos, but now you can do 10 repetitions and you are able to do it in two consecutive training, increase the weight.
How much weight should I gain?
For torso exercises such as bench press increases weight by about 5%. So instead of using 100 kilos, use 105.
For lower body exercises such as squatting, increase the weight by about 10%. So instead of using 100 kilos, use 110.
Now the normal thing would be that you could do 8 repetitions with 105 kilos in the bench press. Imagine that you have already gained mass and strength. To continue to make progress, you must increase the challenge to your muscles by increasing endurance again.
Setting Reasonable Goals for Strength Training
Setting reasonable goals for strength training is easier than you may think. Goal setting is a great way to stay motivated for strength training workouts. Strength training is the popular term for weight workouts, body sculpting, weight training and lifting weights.
10 ways to set goals for strength training:
Make a list
Make a list of everything you want to accomplish with strength training. The list will probably contain goals that can be broken down into sub-goals, such as the goal of “getting stronger.” If you spot goals that can be sub-categorized, then write down these breakdowns, such as “get a better body” can be broken down to 1) bigger biceps, 2) smaller thighs, 3) comfortably fit into tight pair of pants, or 4) more definition in arms.
Don’t doubt yourself
Next ask if any of your strength training goals are unreasonable, either in the goal itself (chest press with 110 pound dumbbells even though you’re 48 years old, 130 pounds and never strength trained before), or the time frame you’ve set the goal to be achieved, such as put on 20 pounds of muscle in three months, or turn a saggy butt into a round shapely butt in six weeks.
Ask for help
Consult with a personal trainer, even if you can afford only one session, to help you with setting strength training goals.
Start with small goals that can be achieved in days rather than months or many weeks. Many strength training goals can be accomplished in a week or less, such as improved sleep from strength training; improved self-esteem; and more energy.
Create a journal
Once your strength training goals are figured out on a list, create a journal that outlines strength training goals for easy referral back to them and see how much you’ve achieved or how long it took.
Format your journal
Make sure the journal is in a convenient format; a small notebook with a pen attached that can be carried around during workouts.
Keep strength training goals realistic. If you’re a “90 pound weakling,” don’t expect to look like the muscle guy at the beach in only 90 days. If your strength training goal is to turn a flabby 180 pound body into that of a swimsuit model’s, don’t expect the outcome in only six weeks. If your strength training goal is to bring a 120 pound bench press to 200 pounds, this will not happen too soon.
Set a goal of three strength training workouts per week, no matter what your schedule. Before the next week begins, plot out the days you will be strength training for that week. Ideally, it should be the same days each week.
Don’t focus on weight only
Strength training goals need not necessarily be in terms of how much weight is lifted. You can set goals within the set you’re using a particular amount of weight with. For instance, it may be some time before you can jump from 25 pound dumbbells in the side-arm raise (lateral raise) to 30 pound dumbbells. Rather than obsessing with when you’ll finally be able to handle the 30 pound dumbbells, instead focus on setting a goal of 12 reps with the 25 pounders. Concurrently set another strength training goal pertaining to this 25 pound set: being able to lift your arms to a little past parallel for all 12 reps. Another goal might be being able to do this without going up on your toes or jerking your body.
Health and fitness is the goal
Focus on health and fitness before anything else for goal setting. Secondary goals should be for vanity, such as broader shoulders or a smaller waistline. Focusing on health and fitness will create adherence to a strength training program no matter how much you goof up other aspects of your life, such as poor eating habits.
Evaluating current strength
The journal comes in handy here if you have trouble remembering how much you can lift for every strength training routine. Strength can be measured in terms of:
- How much weight is lifted
- Range of motion: is it complete, or partial? Some people think they can bench press 150 pounds even though they cheat by bringing the bar down only half way and/or arching their back while pushing up the bar.
- How many reps for a particular weight
- How many sets for a particular weight
- Increased muscle power can be noticed in daily activities such as picking up kids, carrying groceries, controlling a large dog on a leash, lifting garbage and moving furniture.
As you can see, you must progressively increase the load or you will stagnate. Self-indulgence is your biggest enemy whatever your goal, so forcing you to do more repetitions or use slightly heavier weights each time can help you continue to make progress.
However, even the most dedicated lifters reach a training plateau (stagnation) sooner or later.
Advanced techniques in which weights are manipulated can further increase gains in size and strength, but it must be done specifically, in a planned way, never at random.
You should study different techniques that will allow you to cycle your training over time.