“Selecting the right weight is something many people struggle with but it is so important, because choosing the wrong weight can seriously compromise your results when you’re training primarily for increased muscle mass,” says Nick Mitchell, founder of the global personal training gym business Ultimate Performance. “Most sensible muscle-building training programmes use a combination of tools for applying resistance, including free weights (in the form of barbells and dumbbells), machines and your own bodyweight. Here we explain how to select the right starting weight for the key muscle-building exercises so you can start noticing positive results sooner.”
Lifting a significant percentage of your bodyweight will be more challenging for some people than others. This is because of differences in body composition, which is a measure of the proportion of body fat and lean body mass (LBM) in your body. A common misunderstanding is that LBM only refers to muscle, when in fact it describes everything in your body apart from fat. So as well as muscle, it also includes organs, bones and skin.
We generally express body composition in terms of body fat percentage, eg 10% body fat. Two people can weigh the same but have very different body compositions. For example, somebody who weighs 80kg with 10% body fat has a LBM of 72kg, while somebody who weighs 80kg with 30% body fat has a LBM of 56kg.
Despite weighing the same, the leaner person will almost certainly find it easier to perform exercises that involve lifting a large percentage of their bodyweight, such as the incline hip extension or split squat. To put it bluntly, they have more functional weight and less “dead weight”.
However, the leaner person may still struggle to learn the exercise technique. Having the keys to a Ferrari will not get you very far if you do not know how to drive! That’s why we recommend starting with only bodyweight for resistance on some of the more complex exercises, which we have listed below. Once you have achieved the rep target and are happy with your exercise technique, you can increase the challenge by progressing to using free weights.
For some exercises, lifting only your bodyweight is not challenging enough. For example, you can practise your pressing technique with only your arms for resistance to learn the movement pattern, but almost everyone can lift at least a small amount of extra weight. In fact, adding weight can even make it easier to learn some exercises because it gives you something meaningful to push or pull against.
The two main types of free weights are dumbbells and barbells, and using free weights gives you complete control over the movement path. For free weights exercises, the aim is to select a weight where you could perform one to three more reps than the target number for the first set. So, if you are aiming for ten reps, you should feel like you could complete 11 to 13 on your first set. If you can only complete nine reps or fewer, the weight is too heavy and you need to adjust accordingly. Conversely, if you could have done 14 or more reps then the weight is too light and you need to increase it.
The number of reps you can achieve in each set will reduce as your muscles fatigue, which is why you shouldn’t train to the point of failure in set one. If your first set pushes you to the limit or you fail to achieve the rep target, you are even less likely to achieve the target on the next sets – and if you attempt to do so, you will be going close to failure in several sets, which increases the chances of technique breakdown and the risk of injury.
This is an edited extract from the book Principles Of Muscle Building Program Design: The UP Encyclopaedia Of Personal Training Volume 1 by Nick Mitchell and Jonathan Taylor