Whether you’ve decided to resistance-train for the physical and mental health benefits, aesthetic ones, or all three, investing in equipment like adjustable dumbbells or a set of resistance bands can be both empowering and a little intimidating. When adding weights to a resistance training routine, you might wonder: How do I know if I’m using these things optimally?
“The only reason the body adapts with resistance training is because it’s challenged beyond its present capacity,” Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, an exercise scientist and author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan, told me for Wirecutter’s guide to adjustable dumbbells. “It’s called the overload principle. If the weights are too light, you can’t do that.”
Creating effective overload and benefiting from it is a matter of balancing four factors:
a) the amount of weight lifted
b) the number of reps completed
c) the number of sets of said reps
d) the amount of rest taken between sets
Figuring out (a) is relatively simple: It’s the load you can move in an exercise for the desired number of repetitions (reps) with good form. If your aim is to improve general fitness, you’re looking at 8 to 12 reps (b) for up to three or four sets (c), in a workout done in circuit form—one exercise after another—with minimal rest (d) between exercises and only a minute or two between sets (keeping moving elevates the heart rate to reap cardio benefits, too).
If you feel like you could do many more reps once your first set is complete, the load wasn’t challenging enough. On the other hand, if you’re unable to get through even a few reps—or if the last couple barely resemble the exercise you set out to do—you’ve gotta go lighter.
The number of reps (as well as sets and other programming attributes) will come from whatever plan you’ve decided to follow, whether it’s one you found on your own or received from a personal trainer. If your goal is general fitness, alternating multi-muscle exercises such as squats, lunges, and deadlifts for the lower body and overhead presses (seated or standing), chest presses, and rows for the upper body will cover your bases.
First, learn to do your desired exercises with good form using bodyweight only. “Do the movement and be sure you’re comfortable with the entire range of motion,” said Rachel Straub, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and coauthor of Weight Training Without Injury: Over 350 Step-by-Step Pictures Including What Not to Do!. “Understand how to do it and what you’re going to get out of it.” For example, if the exercise targets the chest, you should feel the muscles of the chest contract on the lifting portion of the movement.
Once you’re sure of your form, add additional resistance with weights or bands. Start out with a lighter load than you think you can manage. Do a full set of reps at the upper end of your workout’s prescribed range (so 12 reps, if your workout calls for 8 to 12), and be honest: How many more reps do you think you can do with good form? If the answer is greater than five, add more weight until the answer is “one or two.” Conversely, if you find yourself struggling to complete the set at all, lighten your load.
Keep in mind that you’ll need different weights for different movements: You can’t expect to be lifting the same load when targeting different muscle groups (the back or chest, for example, are going to be a lot stronger than the arms in isolation).
Take however much rest you need to feel like you can tackle the next exercise or next set with vigor. As you get stronger, reduce your rest time to a minute between sets before adding weight. “It’s good to take things slower,” Straub said. Otherwise, “you [can] get hurt and it can take so long to recover.”
Keep track of your number of reps, sets, and how much weight you use in each exercise. Increase your sets until you’re at three or four (based on your program), then increase weight as you get stronger and your last rep gets easier—but also vary your reps, sets, and loads, with some lighter-intensity days and some heavier days, to allow for maximum adaptation.
With different fitness goals, your (a) through (d) will vary—but you’ll still gauge the weight based on your ability to complete reps and sets with good form. For example, building muscle mass (hypertrophy) typically means lifting greater weight for more reps or sets with some rest for recovery. Building muscular strength means even more weight for fewer reps with more rest to fully recover between sets. And building muscle endurance (important for certain types of athletes or people with jobs that require physical stamina) means more reps of comparably lighter weight.
If you do sustain an injury, follow your doctor’s recovery orders. When you return to resistance training, start with bodyweight-only or light loads, and build your way back up gradually. The same advice applies if you take a long while off and are just getting back into it. Don’t worry about a temporary loss in strength. In the end, said Schoenfeld, “It comes down to challenging the muscles … The major results come from being consistent.”
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