I would suspect that not many industries are as plagued with myths and misconceptions as the fitness industry (especially if we include nutrition in that). You could probably fill a book JUST with the myths and misconceptions, let alone any answers to them. Due to this, people often feel overwhelmed and confused about what to do. One area where we see this frequently is a lack of understanding about how heavy of weights one should lift (assuming the goal being to build muscle and get stronger, or at least to slow the loss of muscle mass during aging).
This question typically comes from people who have either done minimal strength training previously, or have possibly tried some without seeing the results that they had wanted. Giving a blanket answer to the question “how heavy should I lift” is difficult, but I will try to offer some insight while keeping it on the brief side. Short answer: the minimum baseline is that you need to lift things that are significantly heavier than you “normally” lift in your everyday life.
What exactly does that mean? Well, if you normally lift things in the 30-40 pound range (a bag of dog food, a small child or pet, or even heavy groceries) then in your strength training workouts you need to lift things much heavier than that, so that those everyday objects start to feel light in comparison. How much heavier? Again, that’s hard to give a blanket answer to, but probably about double. In fact, every single person who I’ve trained in recent memory I was able to get safely lifting 70 lbs (32kg) on their very first day – regardless of their age, size (some were barely 100 lbs), if they were overweight, etc.
Of course, specificity comes into play here – the muscles you use to pick something up off the ground are much stronger than the muscles you use to lift something over your head, and each muscle group should be challenged appropriately based on its respective abilities (the example above were for lifting things off the ground).
At the end of the day the goal is to build muscle and get stronger, and the only way to stimulate that muscle growth is to expose the body to heavy enough loads on a consistent basis. “Heavy enough” will vary from person-to-person and from muscle group to muscle group, but the concept is irrefutable. If the weights you are lifting are not heavy enough compared to what your body is used to, it will not stimulate growth of new muscle and you probably won’t get stronger.
Things brings me to an important point: lifting weights is not always strength training. Let’s say that again: LIFTING WEIGHTS IS NOT ALWAYS STRENGTH TRAINING. What do I mean by that? I have seen countless people who have taken workout classes or done at home workouts that involve dumbbells, small barbells, exercise bands, or other fitness equipment, but the weights are so light that they do not meet the criteria from the previous paragraph – and unfortunately the efforts do not actually help people build muscle and get stronger. At the end of the day, two pounds is two pounds regardless of it’s a dumbbell or a can of soup, and it simply is not heavy enough to make you stronger. That weight is too familiar to your body and is not heavy enough to provide adequate challenge to your muscles in order to get the desired effect of building muscle and getting stronger.
I realize that the paragraph above may be a little disheartening for some people. I have met countless people who have taken every group class under the sun that offer workouts in this fashion (BodyPump, Orange Theory, F45, various bootcamp classes, etc.). The people taking these classes were told that it was strength training – so it is understandable if it is confusing and even frustrating to hear that, in fact, that was not the case. Again, our industry is plagued with myths, misconceptions, and sometimes outright lies.
The good news: it is never too late to start. Regardless of if you have tried other workout options before or if you are trying to start working out for the first time, it is never too late to start strength training and seeing real progress. The key is to have patience to learn to lift weights both safely and effectively (many exercises are safe while also being ineffective – for example if the weight is too light). The best way to do this is working with a qualified instructor who can help select good exercises for you and pick weights that are appropriate for your ability level.
If working with an instructor in-person is not accessible to you for some reason, then you need to find a way to include progression into your own workouts; if you aren’t familiar, in this context “progression” means to progressively increase the difficulty as your body adapts and gets stronger. For example let’s say you own two kettlebells: 24kg (53lbs) and 32kg (70lbs). You start with the 24kg and do 5 reps / 3 sets of deadlifts. Soon that becomes pretty easy, so you do 8 reps / 3 sets and then 10 reps / 3 sets. By that point the 24kg is too light, so you move up to the 32kg and start over again. At first you do 5 reps / 3 sets, then 8 reps / 3 sets, then 10 reps / 3 sets … now it’s time to go shopping for a heavier kettlebell again! Doing the same exact thing over and over will cause you to plateau quickly – but by including progression like this in your workouts will be both more effective and more fun.
PS – in case you are curious, the weights in the paragraph above are pretty accurate examples of where most people should start.