How to Find Your Iron Sweetspot for Maximum Gains
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If you’re just getting started with weight training and it appears to be incredibly intimidating, know that you are not alone. Especially if you are going at it alone – without a personal trainer or coach there to guide you – it’s hard to know where to start. Can you attempt a 200-pound bench press right away? If not, how much weight should you be lifting? How many reps and sets should you be doing? How do you know when it’s time to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting?
To answer all those questions and more we checked in with a couple of our favorite fitness pros, Teddy Savage, head of health and fitness excellence for Planet Fitness, Megan Davies, Beachbody Super Trainer and Creator of #mbf, and Joey Thurman CES, CPT, FNS, CSMC, CSSC, BLS, celebrity trainer, on-air personality, and host of the Fad or Future podcast to get their tips on weight training for beginners.
Before you add all the heaviest weights to your Amazon cart and check out, start setting realistic goals. One of the worst mistakes you can make while weight lifting is attempting too much too soon – which tends to result in a lot of pain and potential injury. “When starting a weight training routine make sure to pay attention to the basics and set that foundation for yourself to be successful long term,” says Davies.
“Don’t overdo it during the first few weeks. One of my biggest concerns when working with clients who are new to training is how they are going to feel the next day. A little goes a long way at first and no one needs to feel like they got hit by a truck from a day of training.”
It’s good to have an idea of how you want your body to benefit from strength training, as well. Are you focused on gaining muscle mass, improving muscle endurance, gaining muscle strength, or all of the above? “There are several distinct styles of training, each with its own unique effect on how the muscles grow,” says Savage. “This is called hypertrophy and doing the wrong kind of program can lead to frustration because the results aren’t in line with the vision you have for your body’s maturation.”
On that note, Thurman shares that if one of your goals is to bulk up and build muscle mass, increased strength will come as a secondary effect. However, you can gain muscle strength and muscle tone without putting on a lot of mass, if that is your goal.
Test Your Range of Motion
Savage shares that before you add load-bearing weights to your routine, you should ensure that you can safely move through what he calls the ‘6 Functional Movement Patterns’ without impingement or strain.
Those movement patterns are:
Hinge – Deadlift motion
Push – Either a push-up or pressing up an empty weight bar
Pull – Pull-up, row, or pulling down empty weight bar
Carry – carrying anything, medicine ball, groceries
“You’ll want to pay close attention to your range of motion (ROM) through the execution of the moves,” he adds. “If you feel like you are short of achieving your fullest ROM, you may need to spend valuable time focusing on flexibility before you embark on your weightlifting journey.”
As noted above, it’s best to start slow and finish strong when weight lifting. “Going light will still allow you to add positive stress to the muscles, while giving the lifter an ability to focus on the form and mechanics of each exercise,” notes Savage. “This will ultimately create a better environment for muscle growth and provide more efficient pathways for graduating your weights in the desired lifts.”
There’s a nice reward for your patience in starting slow, too. You shouldn’t have to wait too long before you start gaining strength and feel ready to progress to heavier weights. “The nice thing about being a beginner is that you’ll see strength gains quickly. Your central nervous system starts communicating better with your muscles allowing you to coordinate your effort more effectively and lift heavier,” says Davies.
Just remember the visual results that come with building muscle will take a bit of time. “It takes a bit more time to start seeing true muscle hypertrophy or growth. Being patient and consistent with your training, using the principles of progressive overload, and of course, getting your nutrition in alignment with your new goals, are key to seeing great results.”
What Weight Should You Start With?
So what amount of weight should you be starting your weight training program with? Unfortunately, there’s no set answer here as this will vary greatly from person to person.
You might consider starting with adjustable dumbbells or adjustable kettlebells so you can easily change the amount of weight you are lifting as you gain strength – and change the weight to match the muscle group you are working with. For example, you likely need a heavier weight for the kettlebell you are using for weighted squats than the dumbbell you use for back exercises. Alternatively, when using a weight machine you can simply move the pin or remove a weight plate to adjust.
Start low and make sure you have proper form and control. “At first, you’ll want to be more concerned with form and control instead of how heavy you are lifting. Once you start feeling comfortable with the movement patterns, you can challenge yourself not only with more weight, but with adding reps, sets, or even tempo changes slowly over time,” says Davies.
When it comes to the number of reps and sets you complete, Savage shares that “it’s always better to give yourself a repetition range to hit instead of a single rep target.” For example, he suggests “doing three sets of 10-12 reps, rather than just three sets of 10 reps. This will also help you to determine if a weight choice is too light, too heavy, and when it’s time to safely graduate to a heavier weight.”
To give you a starting point to work off of, here are three exercises Thurman recommends for beginners.
- Bicep curl: "For biceps curls using dumbbells a good weight to start with would be 15 to 20-pound dumbbells really focusing on form and tempo," he says.
"Think about going faster on the way up and take about 2-3 seconds on the way down. Do one set and assess how easy or hard it was for you. Could you do 15 with ease? Go up in weight. Was it hard to even get 8? Go down in weight."
- Dumbbell kickback: Here you will lean forward in a flatback, dumbbell in each hand, and move your lower arms from a bent position (90-degree angle with your body) to form a straight line with your upper arm behind you. "This is a MUST with form and I like people starting with a lighter weight to feel the triceps working. This might be as low as 10-pound to start," says Thurman.
- Squats: When it comes to squats, Thurman says that the amount of weight you lift will depend on whether you are doing a bar back squat or a suitcase squat holding dumbbells to your sides. "If it is a bar just start with the bar (45-pound) and adjust the weight accordingly. For most beginners about 1/3 of your body weight might be a good goal," he says. "If it’s dumbbells you can go a little heavier, as it’s a safer movement and allows more range of motion, I would go for about 1/3-1/4 of your body weight in each hand."
How Do You Know When to Increase Weight?
Lifting weights starting to feel too easy? Then you’re likely ready to increase your weight. “Start paying attention to how you feel during the set. It should start feeling challenging in the last 2 to 3 reps of the set, but not so challenging your form begins to break down,” says Davies. “If you get to the end of your set and feel like you could have done at least 2 to 3 more reps, it’s an indication you are ready to go up in weight.” She recommends trying a small increase between 2 to 5 pounds on your next set.
Alternatively, “if you do feel your form start to break down, it’s an indication your weight is too heavy. You should safely discontinue the exercise and use a lighter weight for any subsequent sets,” she adds.
Long-term Weight Training Habits
Avoid plateaus: The type of exercises you do while strength training will depend on you, your goals, and the muscle group you are training on any given day. However, you should keep in mind that, no matter what your routine is, it is important to change your routine every once in a while to avoid a plateau. “Doing the same routine with the same weights will ultimately lead to muscle memory and pesky plateaus,” says Savage.
Adjust every four to six weeks: “To avoid hitting these roadblocks, as a general rule of thumb, you want to adjust your regimen every 4-6 weeks to keep your muscles guessing and engaged. This can be interchanging the exercises themselves or just how you execute your sets and reps. Remember, a confused muscle responds better.”
Keep a training log: Davies recommends having a training log, as well, so you can keep tabs on what exercises you’ve been doing and track how much weight you are starting to lift. “Keeping a training log can help you see what [weight] you have used in the past so you always remember where you’re at on your next workout,” she says.
Don’t forget about external impacts: She adds that you should also note if an external factor was impacting your physical activity on a particular day to remember for future reference. “Other things could have an impact on how much you lift on a given day. So include other notes in your log like how much sleep you got, hydration, overall mood, and whatever else you think may have had an effect on your lifting session that day.”
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