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A man doing a weightlifting snatch movement in a gym

Weightlifting for Your Fitness Goals: Heavy or Light?

Suppose you’ve been successfully convinced that adding muscle mass should be a primary fitness goal regardless of what you want your body to look like. In that case, the logical next step for beginners is to wonder, “Well, how much am I supposed to lift, anyway?”

woman weightlifting at gym

You already know that to build lean muscle mass, you need to put your muscles through time under tension—stress the muscle fibres causing little micro-tears, so your body responds by beefing up those fibres. A great way to put your muscles through this stress is by weightlifting.

Unfortunately, weightlifting can seem intimidating when you’re a beginner. First off, how do you know if you’re lifting enough weight? Second, do I need to lift heavy if all I want is to tone my muscles?

Let’s tackle one of the most common weightlifting questions: Should I lift heavy or light to meet my fitness goal? The answer might surprise you.

Weightlifting is Relative

What does lifting “heavy” mean to you? For that matter, what does lifting “light” mean to you? Like all things in life, weightlifting is relative. What’s heavy to you will be light to someone else, and vice versa. It depends on your biology and your current conditioning.

The point is this: the idea of lifting heavy vs. light is subjective to the person. Therefore, the answer to whether you should be lifting your subjective heaviest weight or lightest weight depends surprisingly not on your fitness goal but on the individual exercise and your prescribed sets and reps.

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What are Sets and Reps in Weightlifting?

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Whether you’re creating your own traditional weightlifting plan, following one you found online, or working with a personal trainer, each workout will be made up of several exercises. The exercises will depend on what muscles you’re targeting on any given day.

Each exercise will be made up of sets and reps:

- reps: short for repetitions; this is the number of times you’re completing the exercise

- sets: how many times you’re performing these repetitions after a short period of rest

For example, doing three sets of ten squats means that you will perform ten squats, rest, perform ten more, rest, and perform the last ten squats before moving on to the next exercise.

Lifting Heavy or Light for Fitness Goals

It used to be that people thought lifting heavier with fewer reps was best for building muscle mass, while more reps with lighter weights were better for toning muscles. However, it turns out that “toned” is really the same thing as building muscle mass, so if you want to be toned, you simply want to add muscle.

Man weightlifting

This means that you should be lifting weight heavy enough to do that. So, how do you build muscle mass? First, let’s get one thing out of the way—lifting with both subjectively light weights and heavy weights will build muscle fibres the same way. It will just take longer if you’re not lifting as heavy as you can.

So, in our opinion, regardless of the fitness goal, you should be lifting as heavy as you can for each prescribed exercise. Whether your workout calls for three sets of twelve or four sets of five, the weight you grab should be challenging enough that you can perform only the number of reps.

This means if fifteen is the goal, you shouldn’t be able to keep going for twenty reps and it should also be a challenge to get to that last repetition. The same is true if you’re doing fewer reps. With five as the goal, getting beyond that number should feel impossible. Adjust weight until you’ve found the right level of challenge.

In Weightlifting, it is Form over Everything

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about your ego for a second. When you’re working towards fitness goals, it is critical that you put your ego aside and focus on your form above all else.

When you consider how heavy you should be lifting to perform the repetitions, you have to remove your ego and ask yourself, “Can I lift this weight AND maintain proper form?”

woman preparing barbell to weightlift

You can walk into any gym and watch someone load up a barbel and perform squats while hunching their back and buckling at the knees. Guess what? That person isn’t going to build muscle any faster than the one adding an appropriate weight and executing a perfect squat. In fact, the person sacrificing form to show off is likely to injure themselves, ultimately slowing down their progress toward their fitness goal as they recuperate.

So, when selecting a weight that is so challenging you can hardly make it to the end of your reps, take maintaining impeccable form into consideration. For example, if you can’t perform a bicep curl without using your back muscles to help, your weight is too heavy.

So, Low Reps or High Reps for Fitness Goals?

Now that we’ve established you should be lifting as (subjectively) heavy as you can while maintaining form, the question may become: should I be doing low reps or high reps for my fitness goal?

Again, the answer may surprise you because it’s *drumroll* both! We recommend starting with your main, compound exercises (like squats) and doing heavier weights for lower reps. Then, when you’ve completed exercises for the bigger muscle groups, focus on smaller and stabilizing muscles for slightly less weight at higher repetitions.

With this approach, you’re hitting all muscles and offering a combination of low and high reps to keep expanding your muscles’ time under tension. In this way, you can grow your muscles the fastest.

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In addition to this combination, you should be prioritizing rest and recovery. Never lift the same muscle group two days in a row, and always give your body between one and three rest days between weightlifting sessions. Rest is as critical as weightlifting itself! You won’t reach your fitness goals without allowing your body the necessary recovery time.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider in your workout plan. For this reason, it might be better to hire a professional trainer or follow a workout plan designed by a fitness expert. If you do want to build your own workout routine, check out our tips here.

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