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How to Choose the Right Weights to Build Strength and Muscle

Have you ever been ready to start a new strength training workout but had no freaking idea which free weights to use for each exercise?

How do you really know if you’re lifting heavy enough to build muscle mass and get those upper body and lower body gains?

Or maybe just that phrase “lifting heavy” sounds intimidating to you?

Don’t worry – many women feel that way and I totally get it! I was once a strength training beginner too — we all started weight training somewhere — and, for the past decade, I’ve been programming strength training workouts for women who want to start lifting weights.

If your goals are to gain muscle mass, build lean muscle, increase bone density, improve athletic performance, and get stronger for everyday tasks, it’s important that you’re working at the right intensity when doing strength training exercises.

But, on the other hand, it’s also important that you’re not pushing yourself to your max or to muscular failure every time you strength train. We want the intensity to be high enough when you weight train so that you improve and make those muscle tissue gains, but not so intense that it leaves you wrecked for the rest of your day (or week).

The good news is that, when it comes to weight training, “heavy” is a relative term and understanding how to pick the perfect weight for your particular fitness level is actually very straightforward.

In this blog post, we’ll look at how beginners to strength training who are looking to graduate from body weight workout routines to weight lifting to build muscle mass and strength can determine which weights are best for them with less injury risk. We’ll also take a look at how to know when you need to grab heavier weights in your strength workouts so you keep building muscle.

How consistent strength training helps with building muscle mass and improving bone density

Whether your goals are to gain muscle or get stronger or both, it’s important that you’re working at the right intensity to create the changes you’re looking for from your training sessions.

We know from science that strength and muscle mass gains (something known as muscle hypertrophy) happen most readily when you’re strength training at a specific intensity for your goal(s). That specific intensity is the mechanical tension or load used when weight training.

Resistance training with the right weights creates changes in the muscle tissue cells that trigger muscle protein synthesis, which is the driver of muscle tissue growth and more strength potential.

In other words, as long as you are lifting weights that are heavy enough (and eating enough protein) for the right number of reps, you will build muscle and strength.

But, on the other hand, it’s also important that you’re not pushing yourself to your max or to muscular failure all the time. We want the intensity to be enough to improve, but not so much that it leaves you wrecked for the rest of your day (or week) because that will very likely mean that you’re unable to do the rest of your workout routine for the week and could increase your injury risk.

How many reps should you do when weight training to build more muscle?

If your weight training goal is to primarily get stronger in one or more muscle groups, ideally you’d be working in the 1-6 reps range for the strength training exercises you do in your own workout routine.

If your strength training goal is to primarily gain muscle mass, ideally you’d be working in the 8-12 rep range. Though this is not a hard and fast rule — new science shows that you can strength train for greater muscle mass across a wide range of reps — but it gives you a solid place to target when doing strength training exercises in your own workout.

If your goals with resistance training involve a combination of the above, a combination of those rep ranges is totally fine when you’re lifting weights.

How to pick the right weight in your strength training workout

A 2017 study found that most people choose weights for their strength training exercises that are too light to maximize building muscle in any given muscle group or muscle groups.

Since so many of us are leaving a lot of lean muscle growth on the table when we do our weekly strength training, how do you make sure you’re not one of them?

Many weight lifting coaches and personal trainers will prescribe the weight to be used as a percentage of the lifters 1-rep max (or the maximum amount the lifter can lift for that resistance training exercise for only 1 rep).

Most beginners to weight training will not have established their 1-rep max and that’s completely fine — establishing a 1-rep max is not something you need to do as a newbie to weight lifting.

So instead, I recommend using a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale in your workout program like the one in the graphic below.

How to choose the right weights for strength training

In the RPE scale graphic, you’ll see two numbers which are both based on your subjective experience when weight training — they are Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and Reps In Reserve (RIR).

RPE refers to how hard (on a scale from 1 -10, 1 being a piece of cake and 10 being totally maxed TF out) the weight training exercise — with the weight you’ve chosen for the prescribed number of reps — feels to you.

RIR refers to the number of reps you could do AFTER you’ve finished the prescribed number of reps for the weight you’ve chosen for that particular weight training exercise. In other words, it’s the number of reps you left “in the tank” when you finished your set.

When you strength train, you’re working with the lower rep range referenced above and you want the weights you’re using to have an RPE of at least 7.5 out of 10. In terms of RIR, this means that you should be using a weight that allows you to finish your set with no more than 2-3 reps with the correct form left in the tank.

When your weight training goal is to build muscle, you’re working in the higher rep range referred to above and you want the weights you’re using to have an RPE of at least 6 out of 10. In terms of RIR, this means that you should be using a weight that allows you to finish your set with no more than 3-4 reps with the correct form left in the tank.

While you don’t need to go to failure to maximize hypertrophy or strength gains in your training sessions, you definitely don’t want to be working with weights that allow you to have 5 or more reps in reserve.

So if you finish your set and could still bang out another 6-10 reps of your big compound exercises (like squats or deadlifts) or even your dumbbell exercises (like bicep curls) with proper form, then you’re not getting the most strength training bang for your weight training buck.

Let’s look at the push up as a simple example. If your workout program calls for 8-10 push ups, and you’re able to do 25 modified push ups from your knees, it’s time for you to up the intensity and increase the load, which you can do by doing incline push ups from your toes and gradually lowering the incline of your push ups as you get stronger. Additionally, if you can do 20 push ups and the program calls for 8-10, in order to keep getting stronger and building up those push muscles, you’ll need to start adding weight or band resistance to your push ups.

For these reasons, weight training is better for building more muscle, making bone density gains, and losing body fat, and maintaining a healthy weight than a workout routine that uses just your body weight. When you use just your body weight or do body weight only exercises, you plateau your strength, muscle growth, and bone density improvements quickly — especially in your lower body.

This is why I feel strongly that the right weight training workout program (as opposed to bodyweight workouts) is so important for women’s health.

When to increase the weight for strength training exercises

As I mentioned above in the push up example, if you do consistent strength training and keep challenging all your muscle groups, there will come a point when you get stronger with the weight you were using and will be able to do more reps of that exercise.

Then you’ll need to raise the number of reps you’re doing for that movement in order to make sure that you’re still working hard enough for that set in terms of RPE and RIR.

Or …

You can increase the weight you’re using.

Remember that the intensity (reps + load) is the target we’re shooting for when weight training to ensure that we’re getting the maximum benefit in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.

So, if you find yourself finishing a set of squats and you feel like you could do 5 more reps at that weight, first do a happy dance because you’re a rockstar and second, it’s time to up the weight you’re using.

What if you don’t have all the free weights?

Not weight training in a fancy, fully-equipped gym? No problem. I’ve been helping women lift weights at home for years. And the great news is that strength training for women just starting out doesn’t require a ton of equipment.

If you don’t have a ton of weight choices available — maybe you’re working out at home or in a smaller gym and this may make hitting the specific RPE and RIR targets with precision more difficult — DON’T STRESS OVER THAT.

Treat those targets as guidelines where you have options available to meet them. Otherwise, select a weight where you can get 6-12 quality reps with proper form, then log your reps and weight.

If you find yourself in between weight options where one is too light to be challenging and the next available weight up is too hard to complete the prescribed number of reps, here are some options for how to handle that:

  • Go with the lighter weight and add reps until your muscles feel fatigued;
  • Go with the lighter weight and go slower to add more time under tension — think 3 to 5 counts to contract and 3 to 5 counts to release (slower is harder);
  • Go with the heavier weight and reduce the reps to what you can do with good form;
  • Go with the heavier weight and do all the reps you can do with good form, then immediately drop to the lighter weight to finish out the prescribed reps; or
  • Mix it up using any combination of the above.

Consider this your blanket permission to adjust the reps in your program to work with whatever weight options you’ve got.

What types of weights should I use for weight training?

This is where things get fun. You’ve got so many cool options. Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, cable machines, and other gym machines can all be used for weight training.

Dumbbells, for example, are great for total body strength training workouts as they allow for free range of motion and can be used for larger compound movements, like squats and deadlifts, and can also be used for isolation exercises that target specific muscle groups, like bicep curls and shoulder presses. But for many people, your grip and your ability to hold the dumbbells can be a limiter when you get into the heavier weights.

Barbells are ideal for lifting really heavy weights and building overall strength with weight training. A barbell when racked on your upper back is also a great way to load your spine, which is really important for keeping the bones of your spine strong and resistant to osteopenia and osteoporosis. Barbells can initially be intimidating, but once you get comfortable with them, you feel like a badass using them. Work with a knowledgeable personal trainer to help you learn the basic exercises with a barbell and also how to safely bail out from a barbell strength training exercise when needed.

And let’s not forget about the versatile kettlebell, which can be used for everything from squats to power moves like swings, cleans, and snatches to Turkish get-ups. For many weight training movements, dumbbells and kettlebells can be used interchangeably, but often you’ll see that kettlebell movements use only one kettlebell at a time — not always but often. This is why my home gym has dumbbell pairs but only single kettlebells.

Each type of weight has its own unique benefits and can be tailored to specific strength training workouts for your entire body based on your individual goals.

The bottom line on weights and strength training for women

To get stronger and gain muscle, you have to progressively add more weight over time — but that doesn’t mean it’ll increase every workout or even every week.

Some days the weights will feel lighter and some days they will feel heavier. This is normal and don’t read too much into it unless it goes on for a while, because usually these fluctuations are more a function of the dynamic nature of your recovery, food intake, sleep, stress levels, other recent activities, and hydration than your current ability.

As best you can with the weight available to you, stick to the prescribed intensities (RPE and RIR) based on your current goals as laid out above and challenge yourself.

If every set is easily doable, you’ll plateau and stop making gains — which is fine if your goal is simply to maintain what you’ve got. Otherwise, to get stronger and make gains, you need to regularly work with a weight and rep count combination that are challenging but done with good form.

As your capacity and confidence increase, so should the weights you’re using in your strength training workouts.

Over time, you may see an increase in the weight you use for a lift, or you may experience that lifting the same weight you used to now feels easier. This is all progress you should be tracking, so you can see how things are progressing and feel good about how you’ve improved in your strength training.

The key is to keep challenging yourself and not always use weights that you can do a ton of extra reps with if you had to. Weight training for women is often portrayed as tiny pink weights and doing a bazillion reps, but those teensy weights — while they are a great place to start — aren’t doing you or your muscles any favors.

It’s time we start seeing weight training for women differently if we want women’s health to improve.

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Hi, I'm Alison

I’m the Founder + CEO of Miles To Go Athletics.

My own journey has taken me from always-injured-and-in-pain-farthest-thing-from-an-athlete in my 30s to ultramarathoner + competitive weightlifter in my 40s and beyond. So I firmly believe that athleticism is accessible to EVERYONE and is actually the key to better quality of life.

My team + I are here to help you stop putting your life on hold due to pain, injuries, and “getting old” and instead get back to the things you really want to be doing – like being active with friends & family, chasing bucket list goals, and feeling badass at any age.

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