How to choose the correct weights when strength training
We answer one of life's biggest questions: heavy for few or light for many?
Being a female in a male-dominated weights room isn’t always easy, but strength training is important for women too. Not only can it increase your metabolic rate (and decrease your dress size), but it also provides a number of benefitsthat have nothing to do with how you look in the mirror.
When it comes to strength training, choosing the correct weights is key to getting the benefits you’re after. So to avoid having all the gear and no idea, we’ve enlisted the help of the experts: Nike Master Trainer, Kirsty Godso and founder of premier fitness studio, Better Being, Greg Stark. Here are their tips to make you Goldilocks in the weights room – not too heavy, not too light, just right.
How to choose the right weights for you
Your weight is dependent on your training goal
Are you hoping to get stronger? Bigger? Improve muscular endurance?
Before starting a training regime, you should have a specific goal in mind, as this will help you to construct a program. A bodybuilder preparing for competition, for example, will lift a very different weight to that of a runner training for a marathon (and not just because they can).
“One of the most important things when you’re training is to know what your training goal is. Each and every workout should have a purpose and fit into your overall training program so that you can ensure everything you’re doing is working towards your goal not against it. With weight training, your weight selection, number of reps and tempo will all be dependent on what your training method is – for example – conditioning, strength endurance, maximum strength and so on,” says Kirsty Godso.
If you’re working on improving your maximum strength, Godso recommends using heavier weights with less reps (1-6). And if your training goal is to focus on conditioning or strength endurance, she says lighter weights with higher reps (10-15) are the way to go.
When it comes to stacking on muscle, Greg Stark also suggests focusing on maximal volume, fatigue and isolating a particular muscle group. However, if your aim is to slim down he says the key is high heart rate and caloric burn, and exercises that use multiple muscle groups.
It’s too light if you could do more reps
“Once you’ve selected your weight based on your training focus, you want to make sure that it isn’t so light that there is no challenge involved,” says Godso. “It doesn’t take long to realise if you’re using a weight that is too light or too heavy for the exercise you’re doing.”
In other words, if you finish your set thinking, “damn girl, I’ll be reppin’ all day,” chances are the weight you’ve chosen isn’t heavy enough. In order to maximise efficiency, the exercise needs to be difficult and the last few reps should be a struggle. As Stark puts it, “If you finish your last set and feel you could have done a few more reps, it’s time to up the ante.”
But it’s too heavy if it compromises form
“The correct weight is one that is challenging but should not compromise form, as this can increase risk of injury,” says Stark.
If you are unable to finish the set reps or struggle to maintain proper form, the weight is too big. In such an instance, you may unintentionally use muscles not specific to that exercise and risk doing serious damage. Godso warns not to choose a weight so heavy you can’t control it – so stop swinging those bicep curls.
The exercise you’re doing can determine your weights (and your training goal should determine the exercises you do)
The weight you use should correspond to the strength of the muscles you’re working. Certain exercises such as deadlifts or squats employ a larger, stronger muscle group (glutes) than say tricep extensions, so you can afford to go heavier. Stark also suggests considering the complexity of the exercise. For simple exercises such as squats, it is more appropriate to go heavy, whereas for more complex exercises like kettlebell swings, it makes more sense to go light to avoid injury.
The type of weight you choose can matter too.
Certain pieces of equipment are better suited for specific exercises than others, but it’s great to include a variety of them in your training program so that your body is constantly responding in different ways.
Some equipment (lat pulldown, shoulder press) is designed to maximise muscle isolation and volume, perfect for hypertrophy (bulk up). While equipment which enables you to use multiple muscle groups at once such as kettlebells, TRX and ViPRs allow maximal energy expenditure, says Stark.
Weights 101 with Kirsty Godso:
Barbells: Most of us are slightly unbalanced with our strength and have a dominant side. This will be more obvious when working with a barbell. They are commonly used for major strength exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Dumbbells: These are great and often less intimidating to most. They are particularly useful when working on upper body strength and trying to improve control and evening out between your left and right. Kettlebells: These are off centred in their weight distribution, which forces you to recruit more stabiliser muscles and works targeted muscles through a wider range of motion.
…and don’t forget to try cables too.
As you progress through a training program you should be intermittently increasing your weights, even if it is by a small amount. This will ensure that your body continues to respond to the training that you’re doing.