Lifting Heavy for Beginners and How to Determine the Proper Weight For You

It seems since the influx of CrossFit everyone talks about lifting heavy, but no one really explains what that means. Obviously, what feels heavy to one person might be very easy for another and vice versa. Lifting heavy does not mean to find the heaviest weight and try to throw it around, you'll probably get hurt. The key is to find the right weight for you at your current fitness level. It's a perception. What feels heavy to you? That is lifting heavy. 

I see girls on Instagram that are around my body weight pulling 200-pound deadlifts, but if I tried that today, I'd probably pull out my back. If my goal is to lift a 200 lb deadlift, I can work towards that goal over time, but I have to start with my abilities today and build up to it. Lifting heavy does not mean lifting heavier than your current fitness level.

Lifting heavy for beginners and how to determine the proper weight. Save to your favorite Pinterest board for later.

Lifting heavy for beginners and how to determine the proper weight. Save to your favorite Pinterest board for later.

Why lift heavy? 

Lifting heavy weights stimulates muscle growth to help shape your body and lose fat. The more muscle tissue you have on your body the more calories you burn at rest, that means more muscle gives you a higher metabolism. Muscle takes up less space in the body than fat, so you may end up weighing the same (or more) but wearing a much smaller size.

Ladies, don't worry, it's so hard to get big and bulky muscles that most of us don't have to worry about that at all. Those bodybuilding ladies you see in the magazine lift weights full time and are most likely on steroids. You won't accidentally get too muscular. If you get to a point when you feel you are as muscular as you want to be, you can change your training so you don't gain new muscle. No problem.

Form First

Before we talk about lifting heavy weights we must master the movements with light or no weights. If you are performing a bodyweight squat with poor form, then adding heaving weights will only reinforce poor recruitment patterns and eventually lead to an injury.

Get the movements down correctly first. Find a reputable coach (either in person, at the gym or online) and get help to make sure your movements are correct before you started loading with weights. You can watch videos on You-Tube, just make sure you are following someone with a good reputation as a strength coach. I see a ton of videos on the internet and social media with people performing exercises with incorrect form. 

It can help to film yourself and watch for poor movement patterns or imbalances. Sometimes it is hard to see in the mirror or feel it at the moment. 

It may take a little longer to master the movements before adding weight, but in the long run, you will be able to lift heavier weights with less risk of injury using proper form.

How much weight?

Different exercises will require different weights depending on the muscle being worked. The bicep curl is an isolation exercise of a small muscle, so you will need a lighter weight than you would use in a bent-over row, which is a compound exercise (uses multiple muscles). You would choose a much heavier weight for the rowing exercise because it works bigger muscles and multiple muscles at once. Make sense? It may time some experimenting at first, but that's the fun part! At least I think so.

I advise my clients to choose a weight at first that they can lift for 12 reps. After 12 reps if you feel like you could've easily done five more, that's a sign you should increase the weight. It's too easy. Now at the higher weight, fully rested, do the 12 rep test again. If you can finish 12 reps with perfect form but feel fatigued at the end of the rep range, this is the weight at which you should begin your program for that exercise. Your effort level should feel at about an 8 out of 10. It should feel challenging, but achievable. Remember it's all about individual effort. Once it feels easy (easier) to complete the 12 reps you go up in weight again. 

If you do eight reps at the heavier weight and then your form starts to fail or you physically can't lift the weight another rep then make note of the number of reps with perfect form and slowly increase them up to 12 reps over the next several weeks or months. Any deviation from proper form means your reps are complete for that set, never use poor form to finish out a set, you will cause more harm than good. Reps with poor form don't count, so don't do them.

The secret to gaining muscle is to continue to progress. People stall in their progress because they lift the same amount of weight for months on end and the body adapts. Once your body adapts, it's time to progress, but don't push it. Too much too soon, can lead to injuries. Increase your weight only when you're ready based on the effort-level of your current program. In other words, when it starts to feel easy, increase the weight to the next level. 


An important factor, often overlooked is the rest after exercise. Our bodies adapt to exercise during the rest after we exercise, not during the exercise itself. That means if you don't rest, you won't allow your body the time it needs to repair and build the muscle tissue. Then you won't see the results from all your hard effort in the gym. Allow at least 48 hours between sessions when you are lifting heavy weights in order to properly recover for best results.

Lifting heavy is relative to your own fitness level. Whether it's 5 pounds, 15, 50, or 500, lifting heavy means lifting what is challenging for you. 

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