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When you first start going to the gym, it can be a bit intimidating. You’re there trying to lift the smallest dumbell or pushing the machine with just one or two weights on it, surrounded by people grunting and throwing around items that weigh the same amount as a small child – but, before you beat yourself up – you need to realise – there’s no such thing as a light weight.
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I had this epiphany myself when I was in the gym. I hadn’t done my weights for a while and found that I could only lift the second weight on the stack with my bicep.
At this point, the evil gremlin that would much rather I were in the pub/going shopping/lying in bed reading a book emerged muttering ‘Two weights. You’ve schlepped yourself all the way into town to lift two weights – why bother?’
I was agreeing with it and embellishing with my own numerical dialogue – two weights, a measly nine kilos, what’s the point? – when the maths part of my brain kicked in….erm, nine kilos is 20lb.
Twenty pounds is a stone and a half. You’re lifting a stone and a half with that little bulgy muscle on the top of your arm.
At this point I decided I was a bloody superhero.
After all, if you asked me to go out and lift something that weighed a stone and a half up and down 36 times I’d tell you I couldn’t do it, it sounds so heavy – yet those weights just look so small.
At this point, I realised there’s no such thing as a light weight on a gym machine.
This has inspired me no end. I damaged my shoulder a few years back and find it really hard to lift it over my head without it hurting – and so if I do the shoulder machine I can literally only manage one weight – 4.5 kilos.
Because that looks so pathetic, I don’t work one part of my body that probably really needs building back up – but now I’ve realised, even that one weight is over half a stone.
I’m lifting half a stone with a shoulder that had a tear in it! Go me!
However, while this is aiming to encourage you not to beat yourself up, it’s also not an excuse to only lift light weights.
It’s a common misconception among female exercisers that if you lift heavy weights you’re going to bulk up – which, let’s face it, is usually not the aim of going to the gym for most of us.
However, the fact is that it’s incredibly hard for women to bulk up when they are strength training (head over to this post on why weight training doesn’t bulk you up for a full explanation as to why that is) and so all you’re going to get by lifting the heaviest weight you can are the benefits of strength training.
Now if you aren’t exactly sure what these are, let’s have a quick refresher…
The Health Benefits of Strength Training
There are over 600 muscles in the human body – including teeny tiny ones that make your hairs stand on end when you’re cold. Those ones you probably don’t need to train – but, you do want to train your skeletal muscles.
These include ones with names that might sound familiar – biceps, triceps, hamstrings, glutes – and are the ones that allow us to stand, sit down and basically move.
Working these muscles helps keep them strong and helps you maintain muscle mass. This is important at any age, but particularly important once you pass the age of 30.
At this point, the amount of muscle we have in our body starts to decline – falling by roughly 3-8 per cent a decade. Because muscle burns calories, this decline is one reason many of us find we gain weight with age. But a large decline can also affect how well you move and balance as you get older. Loss of muscle strength is one of the main causes of falls as we get older.
On top of this, building muscle is also associated with stronger bones, helps lower cholesterol, improve general fitness and reduce pain from conditions like osteoarthritis and may lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
People with a higher muscle mass also have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and starting strength training also helps actually reverse the cognitive decline associated with aging.
Okay, so most of this might not be bothering you now, but get into the habit of strength training when you’re young and it’ll really help you when worrying about them does start to kick in.
Strength Training and Weight Loss
On top of this, strength training can be an important part of losing, and controlling weight.
While fat in the body just kind of sits there all day doing nothing (well that’s not strictly true, it does some negative stuff but let’s not go there on this post), muscle actually burns calories. The more of it you build, the more calories you burn every day and so the easier it is to control your weight – or create the deficit you need to lose it.
Strength training also revs up the number of calories you burn when you do it.
The way muscle builds is that you create tiny tears within it, repairing these helps increase the muscle’s size – and, according to one study by the US’s Wayne State University, the extra energy you burn as your body carries out this repair after training revs up metabolism for as much as 72 hours.
And this boost was biggest in those who were new to strength training.
How to Get The Best Strength Training Results
Now, this is where we kind of go back to the original point of this post – all strength training is good strength training and any weight you lift is a good weight – but, if you want to get optimum results for your time in the gym, you need to be lifting the right way – and that starts with finding the right weight.
How to pick the right weight
If you get serious about strength training there are so complex formulas that help you decide what weight you need to lift (have a look here if you want to know more) but right now, a good rule is to work at a level that means you can only do 8-12 repetitions of an exercise without having to take a rest.
And that means you should really be struggling on the last one – if you could crank out another five if you really had to, you should be going a little bit harder.
That might mean you’re hurling a 50kg barbell around the place, or, like me, you’re just shifting one or two weights on the stack – but, whichever, at some point this will also start to feel easy – and at that point, you bump things up to the next one.
You might need to drop down the repetitions a bit when you do, but that’s okay, you’ll still be challenging your body.
Also, don’t expect everything to be even. I can only lift 4.5kg with my shoulder – but 64kg with my butt muscles as they are the strongest part of my body. Test things out, play around. You might surprise yourself.
Focus on both parts of the move
We think about weight ‘lifting’ but weight lowering is just as important.
Every strength training move has two elements – an eccentric part – where you are actively lifting, pushing or pulling the weight to make it move – and a concentric part where, in theory, you wouldn’t have to do anything for the weight to return to its starting point.
With most exercises, the eccentric part of the move is the first part and concentric follows it. You should aim to control both as both parts of the move stimulate muscle growth.
If the weights hit the stack with a clang that’s a good sign that you’re not controlling the return enough, the weights should always touch but you should barely hear it.
That’s right, all those people around you in the gym clanging the weights noisily are actually reducing their results by doing so.
Use the right form
Form means position – and the correct form means you’re lifting the weight in the right way to actually target the muscle you’re trying to work most effectively.
Lifting a weight incorrectly will not get you optimum results.
You should know what muscle you’re working with a move and how to really target that.
For example, if you’re trying to build the lat muscles in the middle of your back using the lat pulldown machine (the one where you reach up and pull the bar down behind you), you should be sitting upright and feeling the muscles in the middle of your back engage and pull downwards as you bring the bar down (as one trainer told me – think like you have wings and are trying to lower them).
I see a lot of people (or who am I kidding, I see a lot of men), bumping the weight stack up to ‘small child size’ and then swinging themselves back and forward on the machine like they are trying to do a sit-up to bring the bar down.
They are also usually the ones that klang and grunt!!! That’s not working the muscles in the right way.
If you’re new to strength training – or, if you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I have no idea if my form is right’, it’s a good idea to book in a session with the staff at the gym – or a personal trainer if that’s an option – to get things right from the start.
Have a Bit of a Rest:
Once you’ve done one set of your weight lifting move, it’s time to take a short break before you do another two sets (studies show that three sets of weights moves give the best results).
This lets the muscle rest and refuel which means you can work hard again for the best set.
When people are trying to build a lot of bulk, they might sit around for up to five minutes, but if you’re just trying to create good muscle tone and extra strength aim for about a one-minute rest between sets.
Train During Your Period
Obviously this is one for those still having them, but the reason is muscle-building ability varies across the menstrual and your period signals the start of a big of a power boost.
Oestrogen levels are high at this point which means you build the most muscle for your efforts say researchers at Umea University in Sweden. The hormone boost lasts from the day your period starts to ovulation roughly two weeks later.
Instagram might love the idea of #legday and yes, if you get serious with strength training it can be a good idea to focus sessions on one area at a time, but, at first, it’s better to start with a general programme that works your whole body so everything gets a chance to build and grow evenly.
Again, if you don’t have a programme, ask the people at the gym if they can help you with one – they should do this regularly as part of your membership.
So there you have it – why there’s no such thing as a light weight – and how to pick the best one to ensure you’re getting good results. Hopefully, it’s inspired you to feel good about what you can do rather than thinking about what you can’t.
If it has inspired you to think more about your strength training, here are a few books you might want to check out. Just click on the picture for more information, to check prices or to order them.
Strength Training for Fat Loss
As I said, using weights to build muscle increases your metabolism which helps with fat loss and toning. This book gives you all the science and routines to follow.
Transform Your Body with Weights
Chloe Madeley is the daughter of Richard and Judy (yes, them off the telly) but she’s also a qualified fitness trainer with abs to die for. This is the information that got them!
Lift Yourself: A Training Guide to Getting Fit and Feeling Strong For Life
The benefits of strength training go beyond building muscle and this book explains how it can help boost self-esteem and mental health as well – drawing a lot on trainer Laura’s own personal experience.
What to Read Next
If you’re into strength training you might also want to have a look at
If you spend some time in the gym you might have seen adverts for EMS training where you do body weight exercises wearing a suit that also works your muscles, and wondered if it’s worth it.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.