How Heavy Should Women Lift to Reach Their Goals?

By Ingrid Marcum

It’s been amazing to watch more and more women gain an interest in strength training in recent years, evidenced by all of the “strong is the new skinny” memes. But the truth is, strong isn’t really the new anything; strong has always been strong. It’s just finally gaining more of a female audience!

Once frequently viewed as outliers, physically strong women — of all different shapes and sizes — have become part of the mainstream.

Women of all ages are discovering the true benefits of strength, and it’s beautiful! Strength looks different on everyone, and can even mean something different for different bodies and different goals.

No matter the goal, strength is gained through moving against resistance in some way (your own body weight counts). And, the resistance must be “heavy” enough to sufficiently challenge the body to elicit any change in strength, performance, body composition or aesthetics.

But how do you determine what constitutes “heavy”? That answer can be very different, depending on who you ask — and it really depends on what you’re using as a comparison.

“Heavy” Is Subjective

Ask an experienced competitive lifter for their definition of heavy and they might talk about their maximum lifts, or maybe what the qualifying totals are for nationals or what top level athletes are lifting in their weight class.

Someone brand new to lifting weights would have a very different definition. The 10-pound dumbbells might be enough to feel heavy and intimidating. They might compare what they can lift with their friends or to what they see others lifting at their gym.

The reality is that the definition of “heavy” is subjective, and it often depends on your experience and your environment. It’s important to determine what your personal reference points are to know if you’re lifting heavy enough for your goals. The biggest thing to establish is what heavy looks like for you.

“Heavy” Is Relative

Determining what “heavy” means relies more on discovering your own personal strength level and deciding on your personal goals than on anything else. Let me say that again. Heavy is only what heavy is for you, right now.

All too often, we evaluate our abilities by comparing ourselves to others or to some standard — or even to some former version of ourselves. We want to know how we measure up. However, the only time this is at all helpful is in the competition arena. And even then, it’s only helpful to use when determining how much you need to lift to win a competition or qualify for a specific event.

When it comes to training, even if you’re a competitive athlete, it’s only helpful to know your own numbers in order to decide what you need to lift to make forward progress. For many — especially those new to lifting — “heavy enough” often just means simply lifting more than you did last week!

“Heavy” Requires Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

“Heavy” must be heavy enough to trigger change. The truth is that most women (and men!)  aren’t lifting heavy enough to see the results they desire. They put in the time at the gym, but too often underestimate their true capabilities.

Most are much stronger than they believe, and as such, they don’t lift enough to make those changes. Or, they stop when it gets uncomfortable. Essentially, they aren’t creating enough of a challenge, and don’t push themselves out of their comfort zone. But that’s where change (and progress) happens!

If you finish a set and stop just because you reach a predetermined number of repetitions, chances are you aren’t lifting heavy enough.

Of course, it’s important to always ensure that your repetitions maintain a high level of quality — don’t count sloppy repetitions! And, know that it’s OK to stop knowing you could have done one or two more repetitions. But, if you feel as if you could have done more than two additional quality repetitions in your set, it’s probably time to increase your weights and get out of your comfort zone.

Your “heavy” might surprise you! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested to people that they increase the amount of weight they are lifting — even though the weight they were lifting “felt heavy” — and they ended up easily lifting far more than they ever thought they could. It’s best to take small jumps to stay safe and gain your confidence as you increase the weight, but don’t be afraid to try!

If you aren’t challenging your capabilities, you won’t make progress.

“Heavy” Gets Heavier

As you get stronger, the challenge must be increased regularly to keep making progress. I see far too many people use the same weights, week after week, month after month, for the same repetitions in the same workout. If you’re interested in staying exactly where you are, this is a great plan. Just know that what worked to make progress in the beginning is not enough to make further progress. So stop holding yourself back!

If you’d like to make continued progress and make any change — in strength, performance, body composition or aesthetics — then it’s necessary to regularly increase the challenge placed on the body. This is known as progressive overload. As we adapt to the challenges placed on our bodies, it then takes a greater challenge (more load) to induce further change.

If nothing else, aim to increase your weights every week or every other week. Or, simply perform more repetitions with the same load. Just aim to do more than before. It won’t always be possible, and over time, you’ll learn more about how to know when you’re ready for an increase. Just make sure you’re moving forward regularly to make progress.

“Heavy” Is Transformative

Once you embrace pushing your comfort zone, other things often start happening. Your confidence increases, and all of a sudden you realize you are capable of more than you ever thought possible. What else can you do? Other challenges are often suddenly less intimidating.

You also start to get stronger for everything in your daily life and begin to see the changes you are aiming to achieve. It’s also pretty empowering (and awesome!) to be able to do something (lift more, etc.) that you weren’t able to do just a few weeks ago, or something you didn’t believe you could do!

How Heavy Should I Be Lifting?

A common way to determine how much to lift is based on what’s called your “one-repetition maximum” (1RM), which is simply the amount of weight you are capable of lifting one time in a specific lift. This can be determined through an actual 1RM test — lifting as much as you can once (which should be reserved for more experienced lifters). This can also be done using submaximal testing — lifting as much as you can for multiple repetitions and then using a chart to estimate your 1RM based on your result.

Once a 1RM has been determined, you can then use percentages of the 1RM for training purposes. The percentage of the 1RM (%1RM) you use will depend on your goal. For example, if you’re interested in training for max strength, you’ll typically use relatively heavier weights (higher percentages of your 1RM) for training — often between 85 and 100 percent of your 1RM for 6 or fewer repetitions per set. If instead, you’re interested in hypertrophy (gaining muscle mass), you might spend more time training between 60 and 85 percent of your 1RM in each lift.

Note from GGS: See this article for more information on sets and reps, and how they should be manipulated according to your goal.

If you have enough lifting experience, you should know if and when you’re ready for max testing, and should feel safe and confident in doing so.

However, don’t let this technical information about testing and using a 1RM confuse, intimidate or deter you! Know that testing the 1RM  is best reserved for more experienced lifters, and that this is not the only method for determining an appropriate or “heavy” weight for training. In fact, it can be just as beneficial to determine your loads simply based on the recommended repetition range for your goal. Just remember that you’re probably stronger than you think you are!

Using the above table, you can determine the repetition range that you should use for the majority of your training based on your personal goal. It might take some experimentation in the beginning to determine how much to lift as you begin to push your comfort zone and challenge yourself, and that’s absolutely OK!

Take the time to use trial and error to determine what heavy really is for you within the rep range recommended for your goal.

Remember that it’s OK to finish a set knowing you could have done one or two more reps. If you could have been able to complete three or more extra reps, you might try adding some weight for the next set or the next workout.

If you don’t already, start logging your weights in your workouts. It makes a big difference to be able to track your progress, and use that information to select appropriate — and challenging! — training weights.

Even if your goal is not to build max strength, know that you’ll still benefit from spending some time lifting some even heavier weights using the set and rep recommendations in the table for max strength.

“Heavy” Takes Time

As much as I want to see you start to challenge yourself in the “heavy” zone, also be sure to take your time getting there. Although you’re probably stronger than you think, you also want to be sure that you are ready to handle those heavier weights — physically and mentally — and that you can maintain good form as you increase your loads. Increasing slowly and incrementally over time will help ensure that you’re ready.

Just keep moving yourself forward, little by little, and you’ll get there. Remember that you’re capable of far more than you ever thought possible. Lift on, ladies!

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About the author:  Ingrid Marcum

Ingrid Marcum, CSCS, is a successful multi-sport athlete with a great passion for teaching and coaching. Since 1997, Ingrid has been helping others reach their own fitness and athletic goals as a speaker, educator, strength & conditioning coach and movement specialist. To learn more about and from Ingrid, visit her website, and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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