REAL WORLD WEIGHT LOSS: "I'm a complete beginner to lifting weights, how much weight should I be lifting?"

Successful weight loss takes programming, not willpower

Whilst acknowledging the vital importance of nutrition for weight loss, resistance training is also extremely important. I have written about the many benefits of strength training, which you can read about here.

Strength training will help you preserve (and possible gain) muscle mass as you lose weight. It will also help strengthen your bones, tendons and ligaments.

When starting out, it is easy to get confused with how much weight you should be lifting. Now, without knowing exact individual circumstances, I can give you a rough guide by introducing some concepts to you that will allow you to make the judgement about the weight for yourself.

Concept 1: Using a Percentage of your 1 Rep Max (1RM)

This is usually done by performing 1RM tests on your main lifts at the start of your training program. A 1RM can be defined as the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 1 rep with good form. These would usually be performed on compound lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Pull-Up etc.

Once you have found your 1RM you can work at a % of it - you can use the table below as a guide to how many reps you would expect to perform at a given %: -

Whilst using percentages of your 1RM can certainly be useful, for beginners to training, performing 1 rep max can be difficult without a certain level of training. Therefore using the second concept of RPE’s can be more applicable…..

Concept 2: Rating of Perceived Exertion (based on repetitions remaining)

This concept is based on how close to failure you feel at the end of each set you perform.

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 5.44.12 am.png

As you can see from the table above, a 10 would mean you were at complete failure at the end of the set and could not have managed 1 more rep.

It is my general recommendation that the majority of your sets should be performed between 7-9 on the RPE scale. That means, at the conclusion of your set, you could have performed another 1-3 reps.

Why not just train until you cannot do any more I hear you ask?

Training until you cannot perform any more reps is known as ‘training to failure’. Whilst there are occasions where training to failure can be beneficial, there are 3 main reasons to generally avoid it: -

  • Risk of injury: There is a higher risk of injury if performing certain exercises to failure, namely compound lifts, such as squats and bench press.

  • Systemic Fatigue: Training to failure is extremely taxing on the body and is much harder to recover from.

  • Overall Reduction in Volume: Because of the above point, training to failure can negatively impact the amount of reps you will be able to achieve on subsequent sets. For example, if on your first set of Bench Press you perform 5 reps and the 5th rep was to failure, it is likely that your performance on subsequent sets will diminish and you will end up performing fewer reps overall than if you stopped just short of failure on your first set

If you are training to failure, i generally recommend doing so sparingly, and generally on isolation exercises, such as biceps curls and lateral raises, rather than Squats.


So, how can you apply this to your own training?

My advice would be as follows (assuming a 4 week training block): -

  • Week 1: The goal is to ensure you are executing all movements with correct form. Therefore I would use a slightly lighter load. Week 1 I recommend selecting a weight that would be a 7-8 RPE (2-3 reps in reserve).

  • Week 2: Now that you are familiar with the movements, I recommend trying to progress the load slightly so that you use an RPE of 8-9 (1-2 reps in reserve).

  • Week 3: I recommend pushing the load the furthest on week 3. I would take compound lifts to an RPE of 9 and the final set of isolation exercises I would take to the point of failure.

  • Week 4: If week 3 can be considered a week you ‘over-reach’, week 4 can be considered a ‘de-load’. You utilise this week to allow recovery from the previous week. I would drop back to an RPE of 8-9 and perform slightly fewer sets.

Key Take Home Points: -

  • It is neither necessary nor desirable to train to failure all of the time. Training to failure can be useful but should be used at the right time and on the right exercises

  • That being said, you also need to ensure you are lifting loads that present a challenge to the body to force it to adapt. As a result I recommend that for the majority of your sets you use a load that is between 7-9 RPE. That is, on completion of the set you could have managed only another 1-3 extra reps.

  • You need to also consider other factors that may affect the load you choose, including the speed (tempo) of the lift. Using slower tempos or pauses will affect the amount of weight you can lift

  • Never compare yourself to others or base your weight selection by comparison. People have different training ages, training histories, body shapes and injuries that can have a big impact on how much can be lifted. Always base your weight selections off of your own capabilities

  • If new to an exercise, take time to perfect the lift with lighter loads first

  • When increasing the load on an exercise, try to make the jump in weight as small as possible, to minimise the chance of the increased weight disrupting your form. For example, on a Barbell Back Squat, rather than increase by 5kg each side (10kg in total), try increasing by 2.5kg each side first.

  • Understand that increasing the load you lift is only one way to make an exercise more challenging. You can also: -

  1. Increase the volume by increasing the number of reps you perform with the same weight. For example, performing 3 sets of 8, rather than 3 sets of 6.

  2. Increase the volume by increasing the number of sets you perform with the same weight. For example, perfuming 4 sets of 8, rather than 3 sets of 8.

  3. Increase the difficulty of an exercise by increasing the range of movement through which you move the weight. For example, performing a deadlift on a small step.

  4. Increase the difficulty of an exercise by slowing down the tempo of the lift - For example, lowering the weight for 4 secs rather than 3 secs.

  5. Increase the difficulty of an exercise by changing the stance or grip you use. For example, using a closer grip on a bench press.