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  • Writer's pictureMuscle Nation

How Heavy Should I lift?

In the last article we discussed the number of repetitions per set (number of times to go through a complete motion before taking a rest).

And in this corresponding article we'll discuss how heavy the weights should be.

This is a challenging concept for most novice and intermediate fitness enthusiasts (a.k.a. anyone working out). Unless you're working with a kinetic physiologist and they have you plastered with sensors that can provide a measurement of muscle activation, it's going to take some time and experimentation to know how heavy to go.

Warm-Up Sets:

The purpose of the warm-up set is to get the muscle activated, blood flowing and joints loosened-up/lubricated. Do so in a careful and minimally-stressed motion. In upcoming videos on the YouTube channel we'll show the proper form and types of warm-up exercises to use.

As a reminder, do NOT stretch when "cold" (when you haven't first warmed up).

To begin, choose a weight that you can easily do 20-25 reps BUT ONLY DO 10-12 reps. For your second and third warm-up sets you should either stay with the same weight or increase the weight slightly. For instance, if you warm up with a 15lbs dumbbell, for your next set use 20lbs.

If you use an initial weight and feel like it was far too light, it's ok to go up a bit more. Just keep in mind that the purpose is to get the blood flowing and joints lubricated. The purpose is not muscle-growth so you do not want to strain yourself.

If you go too heavy, stop mid-set, take a 30-45 second break and go with a lighter weight to finish your set.

If you feel pain at any point, stop. If it's just a little ache, reduce the weight significantly, perhaps to 5lbs if you were at 15lbs. If the ache doesn't fade or if you're in a good bit of pain, stop. Choose a different muscle group, walk on a treadmill, or worst case scenario, head home.

Working Sets

The purpose of your working sets are to activate muscle-growth. The way to do this is by pushing yourself harder than what your body is expecting, thus signaling your brain to begin the anabolic process (muscle-building process) because this is what you need to do to survive. Part of this is derived from small tears in the existing muscle fiber but your body's natural biofeedback mechanism will also release hormones needed to instigate muscle growth, from various types of growth hormones and growth factors to increased testosterone (yes, even for women).

Choose a weight that you feel you could do 12-15 reps, but you'll only be doing 8-10. After completing 10 reps, if you felt like you could have gone on to do far more than 15 reps you'll know next time to start slightly heavier and you're ready to move up to a higher weight for your next set. Each set should be limited to 8-10 reps. If you feel like you can do more than 12, increase the weight.

The number of sets you do can vary from three to eight depending on the number of exercises you plan on doing for your workout. For instance, if you plan on doing legs you may start with leg extensions for your quads and hamstring curls for your hams, both at light weights. Then you may move on to squats, belt-squats, hack-squats, incline leg-press, vertical leg-press, etc. There are a ton of exercises for legs, as there are for back. However, if you're planning on doing chest, you'll find there are really fewer exercises and as a result you do more sets per exercise.

The key here is that when you feel like you can't do more than eight sets, it's time to reduce weight. Make sure you're resting between 45 seconds to two minutes between sets.


If your form is getting sloppy, you're going too heavy. Do NOT continue if you're not using the proper form even if you feel like you can do more weight. Worst case you could hurt yourself and be out of the gym for a while. If not that bad, you still may end up in a situation where your form is taking the strain off of the intended muscle and you're compensating with other muscles resulting in less growth than if you used lower weights and proper form.

And again, if you're in any pain, stop.

Pain can be a sign of many types of problems. It's not easily diagnosed and there's no point trying to push through it when the chance of doing more harm out-weights the chance of doing good.

All right, Muscle-Nation. See you at the gym!

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