If you’re new to the gym, or exercise in general, the idea of stacking a bunch of plates on a bar and hoisting it above your head can be surprisingly intimidating.
But there is basically no better training tool for almost everyone than free weights, and used correctly they’re surprisingly simple and safe to use. Here’s what you need to know:
The benefits of lifting weights
First off, why lift weights at all? Simple. Strength training is one of the most efficient and effective ways of getting fit, no matter what your goals are. Lifting weights can help you:
- Lose fat: Lean muscle tissue is far more metabolically active than fat, which means you’re burning more calories just sitting around, plus lifting weights is great exercise, which puts you in a fat-burning metabolic state for up to a day or two afterwards.
- Get stronger: You don’t lift heavy just to push more plates in the gym. If you’re stronger, everyday tasks become much easier, injuries become less of an issue, you’ll have better cardiovascular health and better fitness. Tired of running out of breath walking upstairs? Start lifting weights.
- Feel better about yourself: The psychological benefits of being fit and healthy are well-documented. If you think you look good, you feel good. Plus, there are some serious mental health benefits that come from regularly pitting yourself against a physical challenge and overcoming it.
- Reduce the chances of long-term illnesses: Whether it’s heart disease, bone disease, arthritis, diabetes, or something else entirely, having a fit and healthy body helps to stave off all manner of issues.
Benefits of lifting light weights
There’s a definite addiction once you start putting weight on the bar. Seeing the numbers climb is a great feeling, but there are serious benefits to lifting light, especially if you’re still a relative beginner.
A lot of programs actually recommend starting with an empty Olympic bar. For the uninitiated, that’s a mere 20kg, which is almost nothing for a lot of exercises that use a barbell.
But there are real advantages to lifting light at first. When you first start, you should be focused on learning how to lift, and teaching your muscles and nervous system to perform movements under stress that they might not be used to.
Early on, instead of focusing on hitting big numbers, instead focus on learning the correct movement, making sure that you’re completing the exercise with the full range of movement, that you’re being efficient and controlled all throughout the movement.
If you do this, when you do start to lift heavier weights, you’ll find it much simpler and make progress much faster.
Lifting light can be used as a form of cardio exercise, burning fat and building endurance. This makes lightweight and high-rep workouts a good choice if you’re training for endurance, like marathons or bike races.
Lastly, high reps actually burn out glycogen stores in your muscles, which can convince your body into storing more glycogen in the muscles over time, increasing muscle size, getting you the pump.
The benefits of lifting heavy weights
Lifting heavy has some serious and well-documented benefits. Obviously, the biggest benefit is the increased level of strength you gain, as lifting heavy breaks down muscles and causes your body to build itself back stronger.
Heavy lifting can help to strengthen bone density, reducing the risk of injury and helping to fight against bone diseases like osteoporosis.
Finally, lifting heavy weights can affect your mind. Firstly through the increased confidence and self-respect, you gain from pushing yourself and achieving your goals, but also because lifting heavy has been linked to increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is one of the staple building blocks for new brain cells. Lifting can actually make you smarter.
However, lifting heavy does carry an element of risk, and you should always make sure that you’re safe, either by having a spotter or performing your workouts in a power rack or cage.
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What’s best for me? Light vs heavy
The correct answer is both.
If you lift light, you should occasionally mix in some heavier lifts, which will increase your overall strength and make your standard workouts much easier to complete.
If you lift heavy, there is a concept called deloading, where for several sessions, usually a week, you lift at around 50% of your current rep weight.
Thus reducing the chances of injury from over-training and gives your body time to recover fully.
What exercises should you focus on?
When you’re lifting, the main focus of your workout should be the big three:
- Presses, like the bench press and overhead press
Workouts should be full-body, hitting as many of the big muscle groups as you can. You should also do all of your big lifts first, working down to exercises like curls that only affect one body part or muscle group.
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How much weight do you need to lift to tone your muscles?
Common knowledge is that if you want to tone up, you lift light, exercise often, and do tons of cardio.
But this may actually be the worst thing you could do to tone up.
Most people consider a toned body to be one that’s relatively free of fat, with enough lean muscle that they look slim and healthy, but obviously still athletic.
For that, body composition needs two things.
- Low body fat percentage
- Toned, strong muscles
The traditional method for toning none of these things. In fact, the standard toning exercises of high-rep low-weight could be doing the opposite!
Instead, lift medium to heavy, three or four times a week, focusing on compound lifts. Once you start getting close to the body you want, maintain that level of exercise.
How much weight do you need to lift to gain muscle?
The single best way to gain muscle fast is to lift heavy, using multiple compound exercises, 3 to 4 times a week.
Most people will try to build big muscles, for example, get bigger arms, by doing endless sets of curls, rows, and bench presses.
But muscle isn’t built in isolation. Instead, focus on the major compound exercises. The more of your body you exercise, and the more of your muscle you put into a hypertrophic state, the faster your muscles will grow.
Once your main compound lifts are complete, it’s perfectly fine to perform sets of isolation exercises to add that finishing touch.
And don’t forget the importance of diet. Muscles aren’t built, they’re rebuilt, and that means you need the calories and macros to build them back up again after each punishing workout.
Eat clean, consider supplementation, and make sure you’re getting enough protein.
How much weight should you be lifting?
How much you should lift depends on your goals. In order to work out how much you’re lifting, start by calculating your one-rep max. This is the maximum weight you could potentially lift for one rep.
Don’t actually try and find your one-rep max. Instead, find a weight you can lift comfortably for four to six reps, then find a calculator and put it into this formula.
(Rep weight X 1.1307) + 0.7
Round up the difference, and now you have an approximate one rep maximum.
I want muscle growth!
Training for muscle growth should be achieved by lifting a weight of 60-70% of your 1RM for sets of 6-12 reps.
Take longer breaks when training for strength, to allow your body to recover fully.
The final rep of each set should be a struggle and feel free to end sets early if you’re at your limit. Maximum growth will be achieved when you find that fine balance.
I want greater endurance!
Endurance requires volume, and the best way to do this is with a lower weight of 40-50% of your 1RM, in longer sets of 10-20 reps.
If training for cardiovascular endurance, take short breaks between sets and lift lighter weights. For muscular endurance, extend individual sets and take long breaks for recovery.
I just want to be stronger!
If you’re training for raw power and strength, you should be using a weight that you can only lift a maximum of 5 times.
Make sure that you have a solid foundational base of strength before you begin lifting at this volume. Around six months of consistent training is recommended.
References & Further Reading
- Science Daily – Pumping iron: Lighter weights just as effective as heavier weights to gain muscle, build strength
- ScientificAmerican.com – Can poor nutrition affect height?
- Harvard – Strength training builds more than muscles
- Does Cardio or Weight Training Burn More Fat?
- Built With Science – Is it better to lift heavy or light weights to gain muscle: Which is best for muscle growth? (6 Studies)