Q: What size dumbbells should I be using — 5-pound, 10-pound? What's a rule of thumb for how much to start with, when to move up, and so on?
A: For weight loss, research has found that lifting between 60 and 80 percent of your 1-rep max (that is, the heaviest amount of weight you can lift for one repetition of an exercise) is the best way to stimulate muscle growth, which is what helps you lose fat. The problem is that most of us don't think about how much weight we need, or go to the trouble of figuring out our 1-rep max for every exercise we do. In fact, I see many gym-goers lifting the same weights week after week — this is just one way to keep your body from changing.
So how do you figure out how much to lift if you don't know your 1-rep max? Here's what I suggest, especially if you're a beginner:
- Choose a weight you can only lift with good form for 12 to 16 reps (which constitutes 1 set). You don't need to go into complete muscle failure, but make sure you're challenging your body.
- Begin with 1 set of each exercise, slowly working your way up to 2 to 3 sets (adding a set each week).
- When you've added sets and have a solid foundation (after 6 to 8 weeks), add enough weight so that you can ONLY do 8 to 12 reps.
- Continue to progress by adding a rep each week until you reach the max reps (no more than 16); then increase your weight again and drop your reps back down to 8 to 12.
The important thing to remember when it comes to strength training is that you must give your muscles more weight than they can handle — that's how muscles grow. The challenge of lifting heavier weights is just as much a mental game as a physical one. If you haven't pushed your body's limits in a while, the act of lifting weights alone may be all you can handle. If you're consistent with a basic program and build a solid foundation of strength, you'll be ready for the next step — increasing the amount of weight to push your muscles to their limits. You'll be amazed at the changes in your body!