Many people are interested in beginning a weight-training program but have no idea how much weight to lift, how many sets and repetitions, how much rest they need, or how often they should lift. This article is intended to give some general guidelines for beginners, as well as for those who already do some strength training but could use a bit more focus.
The first step is to set some goals. What do you want to get out of your training session? To improve your performance at a particular sport? To sculpt and tone your physique? Or simply to improve your general conditioning? For some it could be all of the above.
The amount of weight you lift and the number of sets and repetitions, among other things, will determine how your muscles will adapt to training. There are 3 types of training that can be adjusted to fit your goals: strength/power, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance. Strength/power training is meant to promote maximum increases in strength. Hypertrophy training can maximize muscle size, while muscular endurance training is more appropriate for improving strength for prolonged activities.
First we must address the concept of a repetition. In this text, when we refer to a repetition, what is actually meant is a ‘repetition maximum’ (RM). For example, if someone was to perform 1 set of 12 repetitions, a true 12 RM set would mean that this person would achieve maximal fatigue, likely between 10-12 repetitions. Thus, a weight should be chosen that cannot be lifted beyond 12 repetitions (12 RM). Some experimentation is required with this system. In order to find your true RM, you will have to initially try different weights depending on the level at which you wish to train.
Muscular endurance is best achieved with 2-3 sets of greater than or equal to 12 repetitions each. A fairly short rest of 30 seconds or less is recommended. This level of training is often recommended for those just beginning a strength training program. The lighter loads involved in this type of training will allow the body to adapt to strength training and prepare one for eventually lifting heavier loads.
Hypertrophy training protocols suggest 3-6 sets of 6-12 RM each. Appropriate rest period between sets would be 30-90 seconds. This level of training can maximize muscle size and associated strength gains.
True strength/power training loads should only be done by those that have a solid foundation in the previous two levels of training, as these loads can be high enough to cause injury in an untrained person. To get the greatest increases in strength, try performing 2-6 sets of less than or equal to 6 RM. An appropriate rest for this intensity of training is 2-5 minutes.
A general rule of thumb that can be followed when increasing your training load is called the 2-for-2 rule. If you can perform two or more repetitions over your assigned repetition goal in the last set, in two consecutive training sessions for a particular exercise, then it is time to add some weight to this exercise for your next session. Approximately 2.5 to 10% increases in load should be about right.
These numbers are not set in stone. There is a continuous spectrum along these different types of training, so just remember your goals, and choose accordingly. Variety is also key. Performing the same routine over and over again will lead to stagnation. Your body will respond better to variations in training intensity. Furthermore, remember that anyone wishing to begin a new type of training regime should check with their physician to ensure that there are no medical contraindications. Happy lifting!
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