I have seen a lot of women kicking some serious butt this year in the gym which makes me so happy! Women are slowly starting to venture into the free weights area. Some very common questions that I get asked frequently are:
-what is a good starting weight?
-when should I start increasing the weight and how much should I add on?
Unfortunately, I can’t give anyone a specific answer to any of these questions because it is completely subjective and up to the individual. So I decided to compile all of this information into this blog post!
Throughout my fitness journey, I have seen many women who have the goal of building lean muscle but stick to the same exact exercises, reps, sets and weights every single time they workout. Many of you already know that doing the same exercises all the time and not challenging yourself can lead to a fitness plateau. The biggest mistake a lot of women make when trying to improve their physical appearance is not challenging themselves enough. Your skeletal muscle is responsive to different training stimuli which will in turn cause your muscles to grow and your strength to increase. However, to continually increase those gains you need to put a greater demand on the muscles. Progressive overload is the key to this. If you do not progressively overload muscles over time they have no reason to continue to grow or make further adaptations.
Before you jump in and start loading on the weights you need to choose your type of training with a clear goal in mind i.e. strength + hypertrophy training to build glutes. Below I’ve explained some of the different types of training included as well as the recommended number of sets and reps.
The type of training that you choose to do is reflective of your goals. Strength training is aimed for increasing overall strength and muscle mass. Usually when strength training exercises are executed they are within the rep range of 1-6 reps. The aim is to use a heavier load for a lower amount of reps.
Hypertrophy is a fancy word used to describe the increase in muscle mass. A lot of the fitness stars on social media accounts include hypertrophy training into their regime. The big phase right now is to build your glutes and one of the main ways to do so is by including both strength and hypertrophy training into your workout. You will not build your glutes by simply doing body weight exercises which some people swear by. While these may be great glute activation exercises they cannot simply be used by themselves in order to build that booty. You need to incorporate some sort of hypertrophy training to see growth in your glutes. Hypertrophy training falls into 8-12 rep range (minimum of 8 reps, maximum of 12 reps).
Endurance training specifically recruits slow-twitch muscle fibers when using light weights for many reps (12-20 reps). This type of training will increase muscular endurance without necessarily increasing muscle mass.
Body weight first
Before we get into the logistics of weightlifting, lets bring it back to the beginning; body weight exercises. Body weight exercises are vital to ensure that your form is technically flawless before you start adding weight. If you cannot execute a movement almost perfectly without adding weight, then this can lead to serious injury once you do start to add weight. When I first started out on my fitness journey I had all of my body weight exercises down packed before I decided to add weight. A fear of mine was squatting with the bar. I found it awkward and hard to balance. I felt so silly and embarrassed when I would try. I would go home and practice body weight squats but they felt nothing like having the bar placed on my shoulders. So to get me into the flow of movements I found a household broomstick and would practice with that (feel free to laugh while you picture me at home squatting with a broomstick lol). Now I know this may sound silly but regardless of it adding next to nothing load on my squat, it really helped with the execution prior to going to the bar. I always urge women who are looking to take their squats to the next level, to place something on their shoulders and practice at home to get the feel of motion. Once you feel ready it’s time to step up to the bar. It is vital to make sure that you feel confident and you can properly perform the exercise before you decide to take it to the next level.
Finding a starting weight
Mainly when women start weightlifting majority tend to opt for hypertrophy style training with strength. Thus doing a rep range of 8-12 reps for 4 sets. Before you even proceed to add weight you must warm up. Perform the exercises at hand with a very light weight or body weight first.
Now determining the right weight is completely subjective to the individual and the particular targeted training plan. If you are completely new to weightlifting and want to start a new plan it is suggested to start with 50% less than what you might expect to lift and complete a few reps at that weight. For example, If you can normally lift 20lb dumbbells, start with 10. This will feel easier therefore it is crucial to ensure that your form is on point. Gradually start to work your way up and increase the weight doing a few reps at a time now that you’ve warmed up. You will soon hit a weight that feels challenging to you and will cause you to slow down your motion in order to complete reps.
When training for hypertrophy/strength to build lean muscle and muscle mass you should try to start with a weight that you can do a minimum of 8 reps with but a maximum of 12. If you can barely do 8 reps with the chosen rep then it’s too heavy and you should scale down. The starting weight should be a challenge to complete at least 9 reps for 4 sets. As time goes on and your body gets stronger your goal amount of repetitions with that weight will change until you can reach a maximum of 12 reps. Once you can easily hit 12 reps then it is time to increase the intensity by progressive overload.
Knowing when it is time to place a greater demand on your muscles because the current weight is too easy is very important. Two good indications of this is assessing your tempo and how you feel after your sets. If your movements are slow and controlled and muscle fatigue hasn’t hit then its probably time to start progressively overloading. However, if your final reps are slow, strenuous and leave you sweaty and short of breath then you are using the right weight. Over a period of time, our muscles will adapt to certain exercises. When this happens, it is time to increase the demand on your muscles and make them work harder. By progressively overloading your lifting over time you are slowly increasing the demands placed on your body. Here are some ways you can do this:
1. Increase the resistance
This should be done gradually over time. Increase the weight by the smallest increment (i.e. 2.5kg/5lb) every week or so depending on how you get on. Reassess your reps and sets dependent on your training plan. See how your body feels once you have added the weight to determine how you should move forward. For example, if you are used to just squatting the bar and you add 2.5kgs to each side, create a rep range target. So aim to get weighted squat repetitions within the range of 8 minimum to 12 maximum with the added weight. If you find that you are making it to 9 reps and you are struggling on your final rep then this is a good amount of weight. A long term goal would be to reach 12 reps with that given weight. Finally, once you have reached that goal you can add another 2.5kgs and reassess your reps x sets. Load and reps have an inversely proportional relationship. So when you increase the weight your reps will decrease. Remember some people progress faster than others. Never base your personal progress off of what others can achieve. For some people they can slowly increase their load on a weekly basis while others may take a longer time. What’s important is that you focus on slow controlled movements and challenge those muscles.
2. Increase the repetitions
You don’t always have to increase the weight if you are looking to challenge your muscles and build lean muscle mass. Another way of increasing the overload over time is by increasing the number of reps. Research has shown that to maximize your muscle gains, the end point for your sets should be in the 8-12 rep range. However if you are going to use this type of overload make sure you have a starting point of repetitions and an end point. You do not want to constantly increase repetitions too much. After a certain limit it would be counterproductive to continually increase your reps as your get stronger because those gains would lead to improving muscular endurance as opposed to muscle size and lean muscle.
3. Increase the volume
This is another great method to increase the overload over time. By increasing the volume (sets x reps x resistance) and adding more sets to your workout, you’re gradually increasing the demands on your muscle tissue. It is important to remember that since you are trying to keep your reps in a particular range, increasing the total amount of sets in your workout regime is the most effective way to increase the total training volume. This could simply mean adding 3 sets instead of 2 for all of the exercises in your workout plan.
4. Increase the training frequency
Increasing the training frequency of a given muscle group can also increase the overload. Over the past few months as stated, I have been focusing on growing my glutes. Since increasing my training frequency by having two leg days a week I have definitely seen a difference. This particular method is great for targeting certain body parts that are weaker than others. Bear in mind your muscles do still need time to repair and grow. So if you are going to increase your training frequency, give yourself adequate time between sessions for your body to rest and recuperate.
5. Decrease your rest time
By decreasing your rest time between sets you are allowing your body to put in the same amount of work in less time. This will increase your heart rate and I have personally found this to be an effective way to get rid of stubborn fat because it pushes your body to be metabolically efficient when completing anaerobic exercises i.e. weightlifting.
This method is great for athletes who are aiming to increase muscular endurance as well as cardiovascular fitness as opposed to focusing more on gains coming from strength and power.
These are great methods to include in your training overtime to increase the intensity and demand on your muscles. It is recommended to focus on one method at a time. Adaptation will occur over time and it is great to have other options of progressive overload especially if adding more weight may no longer work for you. Obviously this is assuming if you are staying within the 8-12 rep range for hypertrophy to build more muscle and overall lean body mass. With strength training it will be a bit different because increasing the load over time may be the best option compared to increasing the reps.
Remember to lift the amount that is right for you. In your next workout aim to incorporate one of the methods stated above, even if it’s not increasing the actual load. The only person you are competing against is yourself!
I have seen too many women get intimidated by others in the gym and get themselves caught up trying to compete with the person next to them. I don’t care if the girl next to you if squatting 200lbs. If you are only squatting the bar and you find that it is challenging for you, then that is what you should be lifting. We are all different and we all have different strengths & weaknesses. You need to make yourself a priority and work with your body. Time, dedication, persistence and consistency will always pay off.