How do I choose the right weight?

How do I choose the right weight?

This is a really good question and its certainly not obvious to the beginner.  Advanced lifters are often of no help here because they consider it a “stupid question” when its actually a very good one.

There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers – Scooby Werkstatt

How much weight to use depends on a lot of factors and its related to form, number of reps, and how long you will be resting.  First, if you are a newcomer to lifting then light is good – you should be nowhere near pushing your limits for the first few months because you just want to get used to the motions.  Once you get past the first few months you can start pushing the weights up .. as long as you keep good form.

Good Form

OK, here are two reasons to use the slow, deliberate form that I preach on my website: #1 you will maximize your strength and mass gains, #2 you will minimize the chance of injury.  We are surrounded by a sea of bad-form, everywhere we look are bad examples.  At the gym, 80% of the people there are using horrible form.  Hollywood movies are even worse, every time you see a bodybuilder portrayed they are lifting some huge weight with jerky, swinging, gyrations.  Just say “No” to bad form!

How can I possibly say that my slow controlled form will give you better results than using heavy weights with bad form?  First of all, lets look at “time under tension”.  Using my slow controlled form a set will last about 45 seconds, so the time under tension is 45s.  Add another 50lbs will force you to swing and jerk the weights around and the same set will only last about 15 seconds.  The second reason why my slow controlled form provides better results is that you focus 100% of your energy on the muscle being exercised.  When you do more weight than you control it forces you to swing, jerk or bounce to do your reps.  In each of these cases you are having to recruit muscles from another bodypart to help you do the set – what good does that do?  Here is a typical example we have all seen, someone maxing on the bench press.  They arch their hips upward and when the bar hits their chest they bounce it back up using their hips, legs, and abs – this trampolining does nothing to workout their chest.

Lets look at #2, the injury potential.  Any quick jerky motions place additional stress on your joints and increase the risk of injury.  Tell me, is it worth getting an injury that will keep you out of the gym for 4 months just so you can look really tough at the gym?  How much progress do you think you will make sitting on the sofa for 4 months watching TV while your injuries heal?  In the proceeding bench press example where the lifter is using their torso as a trampoline to bounce the bar back up, they are quite likely to have a serious lower back injury, and for what?  So they can look really tough at the gym?

Use good form and don’t ego-lift or you WILL get injured – it looks really impressive to do lat pull-downs with twice your bodyweight but dislocate your shoulder and your bodybuilding career is over.  Don’t use momentum and don’t throw the weights around.  If you have to cheat, then lower the weight.  Everybody thinks they use good form but try this, try 3 seconds up and 3 seconds down for a total of 6 seconds for each rep – count out loud “one onethousand, two onethousand, three onethousand”.  If you cant do reps this slowly then you are probably cheating and using momentum to help you so lower the weight and try again.  Check out my videos to see what I consider good form, here is one for the reverse curl.

Another thing to be mindful of when doing any exercise is to mentally note what is moving and what muscles are being used. If you are doing biceps exercises then only the elbows should be moving, not the shoulders. If you are doing abs, the neck and head should not be moving. Always be thinking, what muscle is being used now!  Think about the physics involved and make sure you are not fooling yourself into thinking you are lifting more than you really are.

How Many Reps?

Many trainers give a really simple answer to this question and end up confusing everyone. There are no simple rules you can apply here, statements like “for mass, use low reps” or “for toning, use high reps” are misleading oversimplifications. If you don’t care to dig into the guts of this issue and figure it out, just follow the suggestions in my workout plans.

First of all, there is no definite answer to this question. It depends on the muscle being worked out, the person, and the goal. Lets look at the extremes first. A powerlifter is interested in a one-rep maximum lift and the goal of their training is to do just one rep with as much weight as possible. On the other extreme is a marathon runner whose goals is to do about 45,000 mini-lunges as quickly as possible.

The one thing I would say is that it is important to vary the number of reps you do at least on a monthly basis. The body is excellent at adapting. If you only do high rep with low weight, the body will quickly adapt to that and you won’t make any more gains. If you only do heavy lifting with single reps, your body will quickly adapt to that too. For those of you hard core power-lifters out there who scoff at this idea, try this. Rather than doing a chest workout with high weights and single reps, do my workout which basically just consists of a hour of pushups. I can guarantee you that even if you can bench 405lbs, if you do a hour of high rep pushups your chest will be destroyed the next day. Doing heavy weights with a single rep max or very few reps (less than 5) might be good for developing strength but it sure take a toll on the joints. Personally, I try to limit heavy lifting like this to two week periods done twice a year.