Weight lifting – how heavy should you go?

Latest research challenges standard advice on weight lifting, and how heavy we really need to go.

Exercise does wonderful things for us, that much everyone agrees. As well as cutting our chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50%, weight lifting, in particular, also ensures muscles don’t wither with age. This helps to protect joints and ensures mobility and good posture.

While you might often hear the phrase uttered in gyms, “Go heavy or go home” this isn’t always the case. In fact, the question of how much weight you should be lifting in an exercise session is quite a complex one and depends on a variety of factors including your genetic profile, your body shape and also, the golden question, “How do you want to look?”

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What does science say?

While there’s numerous studies on the benefits of heavy weight lifting, a study from McMaster University in Canada suggests that you can get the same benefits lifting lighter weights or heavier weights. While this might sound contradictory, the good news is, you don’t have to feel intimidated with heavy weights in the gym to reap the same health benefits.

After splitting a group of 49 weight lifters into two groups, researchers put them onto a 12-week strength training programme. The one group lifted 30-50% of their maximum weight they could hold for one repetition, while the other group lifted 75-90% of their maximum weight. Both groups were instructed to complete as many repetitions as they could before reaching failure.

The group lifting lighter weights completed 20-25 repetitions per set, while the heavier group could lift 8-12 repetitions. Results showed that despite lifting different weights, both groups showed the same increase in strength and muscle growth for their bodies. So, whether they lifted heavy weights with fewer repetitions or lighter weights with more repetitions made no difference in the end.

What I believe based on my experience

Throughout the years I’ve experimented with different weights to see how my body responds. I personally like to look toned with a bit of muscle definition but nothing over the top and I like to feel strong and healthy but not lose my femininity.

However, if you prefer a stronger physique with bigger muscles and more definition, you’ll need to adapt your training plan to suit those goals.

There are a few key factors which play a big part in how you look and how you want to look including; your genetic makeup (including hormones), your natural body shape, plus your diet and exercise regime.

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Your genetic makeup and natural body shape

Knowing your body type will help you to understand your body, so that you can work with it rather than against it. Genetics plays a big part in how you look. Are you naturally tall and slim, or do you have big bones and a larger frame with more muscle? There are three basic body types and you might be one or a combination of these, but they’ll ultimately influence how you look as well as how your body responds to a diet or exercise programme;

Mesomorphs have a natural athletic frame. They gain muscle easily without much effort and generally don’t carry too much body fat.

Ectomorphs are naturally skinny with a boyish frame. While they’re naturally slim and don’t gain weight easily, they might have a high body fat percentage, compared to mesomorphs.

Endomorphs tend to retain weight and gain fat easily. They’re also prone to hormonal fluctuations and are naturally curvy.

The bottom line is, while you can’t change your natural body type, you can work with your body to achieve your personal goals and feel confident with the way you look and feel. If you’re naturally curvy, embrace your hourglass shape, rather than slaving away to look like Kate Moss!

Your diet and exercise regime

Your diet plays a key role in supporting your exercise regime. If you’re training with heavy weights and want to build muscle, you’ll need to up your protein intake as your body needs essential amino acids to build and repair muscle tissue

NOTE: this doesn’t have to be animal protein), whereas if you’re doing a combination of cardio and body weight exercises and including more endurance-type sessions, you’ll need to eat a varied, balanced diet with plenty of good-quality carbohydrates for energy.

Currently, I'm only doing some rebounding sessions with light weights and little weight training, but I’m following a cleaner diet with less processed foods and sugar, and my muscles are starting to look more defined.

Remember, if you want to change the shape of your body and embark on a weight training regime, throw away the scale! Muscle is denser and weighs more than fat, which is fluffy and takes up more space.

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Have fun and experiment!

One of the most important factors for long-term success is to enjoy your exercise journey and stay consistent. Here’s a few of my top tips to a healthy, balanced approach:

  • Variety is important, with rest days in between. Focus on quality, not quantity.
  • Figure out what works best for you and your body. It’s trial and error.
  • Keep a progress journal. Try different eating and exercise combinations to see what makes you feel energised and happy.
  • Rather than weighing yourself, go for a body composition test or use an app like Fitness tracker to track your progress. The app allows you to set up your own weight loss, or “get fit” plan of action and log your journey every step of the way, including before and after photos, diet advice and loads of useful tools to help you reach your personal goals.
  • Give your regime time to work before jumping to the next thing. Consistency is key.