I am often asked the question… “How much weight should I be lifting?” As with many topics related to strength training and fitness, there is confusion surrounding this subject as well as many persistent myths out there.  And as with most such questions, the answer can be really straightforward and simple or it can be frustratingly complex.

Seniors often mistakenly believe they should ONLY lift very light weights
Seniors often mistakenly believe they should ONLY lift very light weights

One such myth is that older people should never lift heavy weights. I often observe, you might even say “catch”, some of our older members working with weights with which they do sets of 25 or more reps. When I suggest that after several workouts doing such high volume of reps per set, that it might be time to increase the load, they are often hesitant, almost fearful. I can understand why that might be. Most are concerned that they will hurt themselves by lifting heavier loads. That might be true if they aren’t using correct form and aren’t supervised. I’m sure that somewhere along the line they have read that it’s OK for “seniors” to do resistance training, but only with very light loads. And it’s possible that well meaning friends, loved ones, or even healthcare providers may have advised them to stick to light weights.

Are all those good people just plain wrong or misinformed? How much weight should somebody use while lifting?

Sets, Reps, and Loads are prescribed…

Well, the simple straightforward answer is they ought to lift weights that are heavy enough to achieve their desired goals. You see, whether lifting heavy, moderate, or light loads, each has its own specific benefits. Varying loads to achieve specific results is to a Strength Coach or Fitness Professional what prescribing the correct dosage of a drug might be to a physician. In fact, the terminology that the industry uses is in fact “prescribe”. We prescribe exercises, sets, reps, and loads for our athletes in much the same manner that healthcare providers do with certain dosages of drugs for their patients.

OK, that seems simple enough, but “what’s the correct dosage for me?” you might ask. This is where is the discussion starts to become slightly more involved. That’s because, to properly prescribe the appropriate amount of weight that somebody should be using, we need to understand what the objectives of that workout are, and then from the wider perspective, what are the long-term goals and objectives of the athlete.

Research has shown…

You see, volumes of research and decades of practical application have shown that lifting heavy loads for a few reps per set delivers one particular result, while lifting proportionally lighter loads for many repetitions per set results in something altogether different. Each approach has its uses and its advantages. Each approach should depend on what you are hoping to accomplish with that particular workout. And finally, each workout should fit into the broader plan to reach whatever your individual goals happen to be.

While that is all very interesting, I’m sure most folks would appreciate more direct and straight forward guidance on how much they should attempt to lift. So, what are the specific uses and advantages of the various approaches? Should I lift really heavy weights for a few reps, or should I use lighter weights for dozens of reps?

Resistance training, or weight lifting, can result in four specific outcomes. They are:

  1. Strength
  2. Power
  3. Muscular Endurance
  4. Hypertrophy

For our purposes, we are only going to focus on the first three, Strength, Power, and Muscular Endurance. Hypertrophy is a fancy term for increasing muscular size. That has its application for athletes and body builders. But, for most people in their second fifty, getting bigger isn’t really all that important.

Most folks in their second fifty are more interested in what we call Functional Strength.

Functional Strength = Strength + Power + Muscular Endurance

At ACCELERATED  we define functional strength as…

The strength necessary to successfully accomplish everything you need to in your everyday life and everything you aspire to in your dreams and aspirations. 

For us, functional strength includes Strength, Power, and Muscular Endurance. The combination of the three contributes to functional strength. Each is equally important and they are all interrelated.

Deadlifts are examples of pure strength
Deadlifts are examples of pure strength

Strength is the ability to do work. Work is done when force is applied to move a mass over a distance. A great example of pure strength is when a powerlifter completes a deadlift. She must successfully raise a very heavy barbell loaded with iron plates from the floor to full hip extension. The weighted bar is the mass while the distance is how far/high she must raise it to successfully complete the lift. We observe strength in our everyday lives when a gardener lifts a 40 lb bag of potting soil from the floor at Lowes into their shopping cart. The two lifts only differ in the amount of load.

Power is quite similar to strength and is often confused with it. That’s because power involves strength, but includes time. It speaks to how quickly, or explosively, can the load be moved? A good example of an athlete demonstrating power is a gymnast exploding off the floor during his floor routine. Our gardener from the previous example would demonstrate power when she lifts that bag of potting soil out of the shopping cart and tosses it into the bed of her pickup.

Rowing is a perfect example of Power and Muscular Endurance
Rowing is a perfect example of Power and Muscular Endurance

Muscular Endurance is the final ingredient in functional strength. It refers to the ability to repetitively complete repetitions of a movement for as long as possible while delaying fatigue. The sport of rowing provides a terrific example of muscular endurance, and power. For the crew, each individual stroke is a demonstration of pure power. The strokes are explosive movements in which the blade of the oar displaces a mass of water a particular distance, propelling the boat to glide over the surface. Because the crew will perform hundreds of those power strokes over a course of 1000’s of meters, muscular endurance is critical. Our gardener might employ her muscular endurance while tilling and turning the soil in her beds prior to planting.

How much can I lift? What’s my maximum? 

Researchers have long since zeroed in on the optimal amount of weight and number of repetitions that are best for the development of each of these three critical elements. Each of us has a maximum amount of weight that we can safely lift with each movement. That weight is specific to the movement such as a squat or shoulder press. It’s also variable in that it can increase or decrease depending on the work we do and the approach we take. For each person and each movement there is threshold known as our one rep maximum, or 1RM. Determining our 1RM is relatively simple. For the most part, we continue to lift increasing loads for one repetition until we are no longer able to complete a rep. That last load that we were successfully able to complete is our 1RM.

In general, we get stronger the closer we work to our maximum. That’s not to mean that we should always be working at such heavy loads. On the contrary, doing so would be ineffective and potentially unsafe. However, there are times when we need to and should be lifting closer to the maximal limit. Because the risk of injury can increase when we are moving heavy loads, whenever we do so, it is imperative that we use rigidly correct form. Correct biomechanics is our best protection from injury. 

The proper dosage is…

If our intention is to develop pure muscular strength, the optimal prescription is to use a load that is > 85% of 1RM for sets of 4-6 reps.

Developing power also involves proportionally heavy loads with few reps. Ideally, we would work up to a weight that is 80-90% of 1 RM, and perform 1 or 2 reps with explosive movements. Occasionally, the training plan might even call for loads that are at or just below 1 RM.

Muscular endurance is most effectively developed by using moderate loads that are < 67% of 1 RM, done in sets of 12+ reps.

But lifting such heavy weights is HARD and feels scary…

It’s not surprising that many folks can be intimidated with rep schemes that involve only a handful of reps at near maximal loads. The sensation of trying to move that much weight can be scary, especially for older people. Which explains why some folks feel more comfortable moving much lighter loads for dozens of repetitions. But remember, each of these ingredients is critical to developing effective and useful functional strength. Simply moving light loads at a high volume of repetitions will not develop or even maintain adequate functional strength. Doing so can build muscular endurance, but at the expense of strength and power, both of which are critical components.

It should feel heavy when we are lifting heavy
It should feel heavy when we are lifting heavy

OK, so then what should it feel like when I’m lifting heavier loads? Well, there’s no way around it… it should feel hard. It should feel difficult to finish the set within the targeted rep range. For example, if the targeted range is 8-10 reps for a set using 100 lbs, the 8th rep should feel heavy. The 9th rep should feel really heavy, and that 10th rep should be just about all you can push. In fact, if you are not actually able to complete all 10 reps, that’s completely OK. Actually, that’s great! It means that we’ve found the correct weight for you to be using for this prescribed rep scheme.

Trust that as you get more comfortable moving that 100 lbs and you are able to develop more strength, in just a short while you will be able to complete that 10th rep. Then after more time and reps working at that weight, the 100 lbs that previously felt nearly impossible on the 10th rep, will begin to feel more manageable. Eventually, after successfully completing the rep range at 100 lbs for multiple workouts, it will be time to increase the prescribed load again.

Remember, for most of us as we are aging, the objective is often more about our overall physical wellbeing and quality of life. Functional strength is the foundation upon which that physical state is constructed. And the cornerstones are Strength, Power, and Muscular Endurance. Whenever we neglect any one of these three critical elements, our foundation will become compromised. Make your foundation as strong as it can possibly be, by balancing your efforts to develop the full spectrum of functional strength. It will absolutely bear fruit in your real life outside the gym.

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.