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How Much Weight Should You Lift? Part 3: Building Your Own Workout

Active adult athlete putting weight on barbell

You can’t just lift the same weight for the rest of your life.

I’ve already discussed where to get started in Part 1, and how to work through weaknesses in Part 2.

Once you’re ready for more (and it won’t take long), knowing what your workouts should look like, and how much you should be lifting, can get confusing.

I’m going to help you with that.

Reps, More or Less

The original question was, “How much should you lift?” But since everyone starts at a different level of strength, we’ve been dealing with reps.

Before we go into making your own workout, you need to understand the typical goals of certain rep ranges.

If you think you already know this, you might be surprised about some of the information I share.

1-5 Reps: Strength

There is no down side to getting stronger.

The best way to do this is in the 1-5 rep range — lifting heavy. Here are some tips:

  1. Work your way up to heavier weights. Start at the high end of this range (or higher).

  2. Avoid lifting to failure. You can still leave 1-2 reps in reserve.

  3. Reserve heavy, low reps for compound movements (e.g. squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, olympic lifts, etc.).

Everyone should work toward lifting heavier. Not all the time, and not on everything, but we could all stand to gain some strength.

15+ Reps: Muscle Endurance

You might think this is where it’s at.

The bees knees. The cat’s pajamas. The pink starburst and the middle brownie (unless you’re one of those deranged psychopaths who prefers yellow starbursts and corner brownies).

I have to disagree.

If you start out weak, and then work only on muscle endurance, you’ll end up… weak.

You might be able to lift 5 pounds for 300 reps, but you’ll still struggle when you have to lift a 50 pound box.

On the other hand, if your goal is to lift as heavy as possible, you still need muscle endurance. Without it, you could be missing out on the extra rep or two that will take you to the next level.

That’s why you need both high and low reps in your workout.

But what about in between?

6-15 Reps: ???

This is typically labeled the rep range for building muscle size (aka hypertrophy), but that’s not exactly right.

Some people even narrow this window to 8-12. But then what about 6-7 and 13-15? What do they do?

The answer is that this entire rep range does a little bit of everything.

For that matter, the high and low reps I’ve gone over are a bit more specialized, but they aren’t one trick ponies either.

This graphic illustrates the point nicely:

Rep Ranges and Training Outcomes: Expectations and Reality

(graphic used with permission of Greg Nuckols, Stronger by Science)

(This pic was made by powerlifter and coach Greg Nuckols. For a long, science-y, but great article of his on the “hypertrophy range,” click here.)

You can add muscle at any rep range. It has more to do with how much you work any given muscle each week, rather than the number of reps on any given set.

If you’re worried about looking like a bodybuilder, there’s no reason to stay away from this rep range. Just don’t focus too much on one specific muscle group.

Then play around with this rep range as a way to build both some strength and endurance.

Putting It All Together

Listen carefully: do not live and die by these rep ranges.

If you’re ready to move beyond the beginning stage concepts I gave you in Part 1, you’ll want to work in all of the rep ranges to some extent.

An easy way to do this when you go to make your own workout is to structure it from low to high reps.

For example:

1. After a good warm-up, do 2-4 sets on a heavy lift in the lower rep range. (Pick 2 or 3 compound movements you’ll repeat weekly, but only 1 for each workout.)

2. Add 2-5 sets (err on the conservative side) per exercise of “assistance work” in the middle rep range. My favorite ways to do this are:

  • Full body: Try to do at least one exercise for each major muscle group.

  • Upper/lower splits: Hit the front and back side of either your upper or lower body with a couple exercises.

For help on how many days a week to workout, and how to split it up, check out this blog.

3. Finish up your workout with a few sets of a higher rep exercise or two.

You can focus on some mobility type exercises, or just exercises that don’t lend themselves to heavy lifting. Or do some metabolic conditioning, which is basically using lifting as a form of cardio.

In The End

As long as you challenge yourself, but also don’t overstep your current capabilities, it doesn’t matter whether you lift 5 or 500 pounds (or kilos for the rest of the world).

The rep ranges and examples I gave today should give you some guidance. Just keep in mind, it’s not the only way to do it.

Not even close.

It’s a good option, but feel free to mix it up.

If another program does things differently, it’s not necessarily bad. There are a lot of bad workout programs out there, but there are also a lot of different ways to design a good workout.

My hope is you can walk away from this series feeling empowered to do more. But if you still need help, give my online coaching a try so I can help you feel even more confident. You can go here to read more about it and see how it can help you.


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