How Heavy a Weight Should You Use?

In today’s installment of answering Ninja questions, we have a CLASSIC. This is an awesome question with absolutely no answer in a vacuum, as it depends on your training experience and goals.

Assuming your lifting technique stays solid, the easiest way to discuss weight is in terms of how many reps you can lift before your technique fails. (You can also describe the relative heaviness of a weight as a percentage of the heaviest weight you can lift for one rep, but for our discussion today, rep ranges are bit more user friendly for most trainees.)

As a general rule of thumb, different “rep ranges” will elicit different changes in your body. Classically, weights that you can lift for 1-5 repetitions will make you stronger, weights that you can lift for 6-12 repetitions will make your muscles grow, and weights that you lift for 13 or more reps will train your muscular endurance.

Having said all that… it all depends.

In the Beginning…

When you first start training, any rep range will make you stronger. Additionally, any rep range will probably add a bit of muscle (though how much will depend to a large extent on genetics, gender, and nutrition). 

Since everyone is a unique little snowflake, intermediate and advanced trainees will have more success at different goals in different rep ranges.

While advanced trainees will indeed need to lift heavier weights to get stronger, and will need to do more reps to develop endurance, a more contemporary approach to growing muscle will emphasize the breadth of rep ranges (though even here, it seems much above 20 reps in a single set starts to require too light of a weight for the intermediate or advanced trainee).

Lifting for Fat Loss

Where does fat loss fit into all this? Fat loss is always predominately created by your nutrition. However, you can and should use training to expedite the process and encourage the body to maintain muscle. Counter-intuitively, it seems a mix of heavy weights and moderate reps are more effective than lots of “high rep, toning” sets. Although the higher rep sets allow you to “feel the burn,” using heavier weights actually facilitates fat loss better. By focusing on lifting moderately heavy weights, more fat will be burnt after your workouts through something called post-exercise-oxygen-consumption. In non-douchey terms, you’ve increased your metabolism for 24-48 hours.

For the purposes of fat loss, once nutrition is on lock, your best bet is to follow two strategies. Firstly, make sure you’re lifting a low volume of heavy ass weights (1-5 reps) to maintain your strength levels. You will generally want to do this at the beginning of your workouts while fresh. This is always a good idea, but particularly key when working at a calorie deficit.

After you’ve hit a few heavy ass sets on 1-2 lifts, you can move on to more moderate rep ranges (6-12 reps). Unlike your heavy ass sets which will warrant sufficient rest to really recover between sets (generally 2-3 minutes), you can move a little bit quicker on your moderate weight sets. This is also a great place to employ alternating sets; in other words, instead of doing:

Dumbbell bench press 8-12 reps

rest 60-90 seconds

Dumbbell bench press 8-12 reps

rest 60-90 seconds

Dumbbell bench press 8-12 reps

A more time efficient and fat- loss- friendly approach would be:

Dumbbell bench press 8-12 reps

Rest 30-60 seconds

Bent over barbell row 8-12 reps

Rest 30-60 seconds

Dumbbell bench press 8-12 reps

Rest 30-60 seconds

Bent over barbell row 8-12 reps

Etc.

This allows the muscles to rest a bit longer between sets, but forces you to keep your heart rate elevated and challenges your system to stay active and do more total work in less time.

The way you set up your workouts will depend on the overall scope of your program. For instance, if you’re doing 2-3 days of “metabolic resistance training,” you’re essentially doing a “cardio with weights” workout focusing on some of variation of the protocol described above. If that’s the case, your “weights with weights” days may be lower volume and focused mostly on lifting heavy ass weights.

For people with less time, you can combine them into one workout by following the outline suggested above; start with heavy weights and sufficient rest FIRST, then move onto moderate weights with incomplete rest afterwards.

If you’re trying to lose weight with only a few workouts per week, you may consider adding a “finisher” to your workouts at the end of your workouts. Generally speaking, finishers fall on the far spectrum of the extreme and often employ little to no rest and moderate to (relatively) light weights. Examples include battle ropes, kettlebell circuits, and bodyweight circuits. (For a great resource, check out my friend Jen Sinkler’s excellent “Lift Weights Faster” program.)

A word to the wise—more is not better (TWEET THAT SHIT!). More is just more, and sometimes more will fuck you. When you’re working at a calorie deficit, exercise is adding one more stressor to the equation. Some exercise is important and will help speed things along and help maintain your muscle; too much exercise and you will freak your body out.

Next time, I’ll address how the speed of repetitions plays into all this (“how fast should I lift the weights,” also known as tempo). 

In the meantime, you know what to do! Hit a brotha up and drop a comment with any specific fitness items you’d like to see me address!

  • Charles Chilton

    Hey Mark…should I be starting with heavier weights/fewer reps and progressively getting lighter with more reps during my workout? I typically start with lower weight and get heavier as I go with fewer reps.
    Chas

    • Hey Chas! As always, the answer depends to some extent. In classical bodybuilding, you’d life progressively heavier weights over each work set like you described., called a pyramid (typically, let’s say DB Bench Press for 50 lbs for 12, 60 lbs for 10, 70 lbs for 8).

      While this is totally fine, and could very well have value for more volume-intensive muscle-building training, we generally prefer a “reverse pyramid.”

      In this schema, you’ll warm-up sufficiently, then do your first set with your heaviest weight, then come back down as you fatigue (so for instance, perhaps 75 lbs for 8, 60 lbs for 11, 50 lbs for 12). This latter set-up theoretically allows you to maximize your strength stimulus while fresh.

      • Charles Chilton

        It makes sense, thanks. Gonna try it out.

  • Eva_Paul

    Mark, I’ve been doing sets of two exercises in a row w no rest and then 30sec in between the sets. Is that okay or should I add another 30sec between the exercises within each set?

    Say:
    Deadlifts
    Bear crawl push ups
    30sec
    Deadlifts
    Bear crawl push ups
    30sec
    Deadlifts
    Bear crawl push ups

    Or:
    Deadlifts
    30sec
    Bear crawl push ups
    30sec
    Etc.
    ?

    • Hi there! I think this is totally reasonable, it really just depends on what your goals are and how it fits in to your program.

      If you’re using it as your first big lift, I’d probably recommend tossing in another 30 seconds in between so you have closer to a full 90-120 seconds between sets of deadlifts, allowing you to lift heavier. But again, it all kind of depends on your current goal and how it fits in your program.

      But I DO love the deadlift/ bearcrawl pairing, great superset!

      • Eva_Paul

        Mark, thank you for the precious info.
        Deadlift+bearcrawl combo regurgitated upon me by the Beast, duh! ;)~

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