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How much weight should I start lifting?

When you’re starting out it’s best to start with lower weights so you can focus on good form. But once you’ve gotten your form down it’s best to lift the heaviest weights you can lift while still keeping good form. Don’t sacrifice form for heavy weights — that is ineffective. But heavy weights, with good form, can give you better results in a shorter amount of time. Heavy weights are not just for those who want to bulk up that is a common misconception.

To add to what the NASM explained, I think it's critical to highlight the importance of "checking your ego" at the door when first entering the gym.  Folks are generally so excited to work "hard" that they lift as heavily as they can at the expense of learning proper form first.

Motor patterns are grooved most easily while first learning a movement.  Put differently, when learning a new exercise, your body and brain "programs" the initial execution with ease.  Once something is "programmed" or "grooved" it's much more difficult to change down the road. 

If excitement, ambition, ego, or whatever else isn't regulated initially, many people load up "the bar."  Heavy loads on novel exercises (or movements you're not accustomed to) almost invariably distorts form.  Thus you groove flawed motor patterns that you'll carry with you permanently more often than not.

For a deeper explanation, check out the Hebbian theory and the newer research on synaptic pruning. 

So as the NASM eluded to above, starting with a lower intensity is more often than not the best approach.  They mentioned 50% of your max, and I'd agree that's probably a safe zone to be in.  However, I'm doubtful most trainees will have any idea about what their maximum ability is in exercises they're never really done before.  And having them test their max is dangerous given what I mentioned above. 

Given this, my suggestion is to rely on ratings of perceived exertion (RPE).  When it comes to resistance training, I prefer an RPE scale similar to the one Mike Tuchscherer uses in his Reactive Training Manual.  It looks something like this:

 

10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank at end of set.  The weight will move in a grindy and slow fashion.

9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank

8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left

7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”

6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force

5: Most warm-up weights

4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle

An RPE below four isn’t important.

 

For novices who are looking to learn movements first that they can progressively load later, I'd start with weights that feel like a 5-6 RPE.

When starting resistance weight training for the first time, it is advisable to keep your intensity low. To determine your intensity level think about the hypothetical maximum amount of effort you could possibly commit to a particular exercise. In this case, you could think about it as the largest amount of weight you could lift. Do not do this; this is simply a mental exercise intended to help you find the correct starting point. Your intensity level will be expressed as a percentage of your maximum possible effort. In the beginning, you should keep your intensity level at about 50%. You should be able to complete 12 to 20 controlled, quality repetitions. The focus should be on achieving correct form and maintaining control over the entire range of motion. Starting at too high of a weight can result in bad form, which will not work the muscles you intend and could cause injury. If you injure yourself you will not be able to exercise, and this can completely derail your goals. As you progress, you will be able to periodically increase the weight you lift. Just remember that you should never sacrifice good form and control for higher weight.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.