Because when it comes to lifting, more isn't always better—especially if you're new.

By Gabrielle Kassel
December 11, 2019
Augustas Cetkauskas / EyeEm/Getty Images

Put your soon-to-be calloused hands together for yourself…and the other newbie strength trainees everywhere! Committing to lift is about to change your life for the better—seriously, we're talking increased confidence, reduced stress, improved sleep quality, stronger bones, more defined muscles and more. And good news: to reap these benefits, you probably need to train less often than you think.

"There's a misconception that more is better: more weight, more hours in the lifting room, more days at the gym, more volume," says NYC-based strength and conditioning coach, Dan Daly, C.S.C.S. But that actually isn't true. And that training methodology (er "training mythodology") can actually increase your risk of injury, slow progress, and lead to symptoms of overtraining, he says. Yeah, yikes. (Related: Warning Signs You're Pushing Yourself Too Hard In The Gym).

That's why he says people who are new to strength training need to be conscious of their training volume. If you haven't heard of it, training volume is "a measurement of how much work you're doing within a specific type of exercise, within a given day, and over the course of a week or month." Basically, it's a measure of how much (weight) you're lifting in total. It can be calculated as:

Training volume = reps x sets x weight

And as you might guess, there's no simple formula for determining the exact right training volume. That's Daly and three other fitness trainers are sharing their best tips on determining the right training volume for you. (More here: Common Weight Lifting Questions for Beginners)

1. Determine your fitness level and training age.

Nope, not like your actual age. Or how old your body feels. "Your training age refers to the cumulative amount of time you've been training," says Daly. But (and this is important), your training age *isn't* something you can quantify in a single number—you wouldn't say, for instance, "my training age is 2.5 years."

Rather, training age is more of a ~concept~ that represents your body's readiness for exercise, with a higher age representing readiness for more volume.

Your training age is made up of three different components:

  1. How long you've been exercising, cumulatively, in any form throughout your entire life (factoring in whether you've taken an extended break in the recent past).
  2. How long you've been competing in the specific sport/activity in question (in this case, strength training).
  3. How active your day-to-day life is.

The theory is that if you have two individuals interested in taking up strength training, the person who hasn't exercised in 20 years (or ever) should start with less volume compared to the person who's been going to Pilates two days a week for the last decade. While neither has ever strength trained, the Pilates-goer-turned-lifter is coming into the weight room better conditioned, with more body-awareness and more baseline strength.

Your move: "Realistically, consider your training age, and keep that in mind when you're figuring out much volume you can handle," says Daly. The younger your training age, the less volume you should start with. That also means that "if you have a friend who's been strength training for years, you can't just jump right in with them, doing what they're doing," he adds. Your body isn't ready yet.

2. Figure out your goals.

Are you strength training because you want to compete in an Olympic Weightlifting competition, get strong enough to farmer's carry your groceries, or because you heard strength training might help you crush your marathon PR?

"You need to know what you're training for because different training goals will require a different number of reps per set, which will impact your training volume," says Melissa Chisholm, NYC-based NASM-certified personal trainer.

She offers the following rep-range guidelines, based on your goals:

  • Build muscular endurance or improve cardio: 12+ reps per set
  • Increase overall strength and muscle tone: 6 to 12 reps per set
  • Increase muscle mass or power: no more than 5 reps per set

As a general rule of thumb: "The higher the rep range, the lighter the weight should be," says Chisholm. "The lower the rep range, the heavier the weight should be." (See more: When to Use Light Weight vs. Heavy Weight).

3. Start light, then get heavier.

If you're new lifting weights, your goal is to move well—not heavy. "When you're moving with good form and feel confident, that's when you should increase weight," she says.

Once it's time to increase weight, Chisholm recommends following what's known as the Two Rep Rule. "The goal is to pick a weight that is challenging but manageable—up until the last one or two reps, which should feel hard," she says. When the last two reps become easy, or you feel like you could crank out more reps at that weight, it's time to go up in weight, she says.

Gradually increasing the number of reps, sets, and weight is an effective way to get stronger, but it's more important how challenging those sets are, according to a2018 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. TD;LR: If it's not burning by the end of a set, lift heavier or do more reps.

4. Follow the 10 Percent Rule while increasing weight.

Typically used in running, the 10 Percent Rule states that you should only increase your training volume by ten percent per week. If you're new to strength training (or if you're not new but have been MIA from the weight room for a while), this is a good strategy. Let's say that during week one, you could deadlift 65 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps. The next week, you might increase the weight by 10 percent and try a 70-ish pound deadlift for the same number of sets and reps. 

"But the better trained an individual is, the less applicable the ten percent rule is," says Daly. Think about it this way: "Someone who's deadlifting 300 pounds simply isn't going to be hit 330 for the same number of reps the following week. The jump is too big." At that point, you should try adding 2.5- or 5-pound change plates to the bar instead, he says. This is much more reasonable. (Related: How to Work Towards Your One Rep Max If You're New to Lifting).

5. Listen to your body.

This may be the biggest fitness cliché of all time, but it's solid advice, according to Chisholm. "Just because your workout program says you're supposed to be lifting a certain amount of weight doesn't mean your body is ready for it," she says. The same goes for the number of days per week your program has you exercising.

If you have muscle soreness that lasts more than three days, acute or localized pain, dizziness, persistent brain fog, an inability to sleep through the night, and/or are never hungry, pay attention: These are all signs you should skip a sweat sesh, she says. If these symptoms persist, you may have overtraining syndrome and should call up a health or fitness expert. (Related: Is It Okay to Workout While You're Sick?)

6. Adjust your training as your stress levels and sleep quality change.

"Things like your stress levels and how much you're able to sleep need to be factored into your training volume," says Carol Ferkovic Mack, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland, Ohio. That's because they both impact the body's ability to recover from exercise.

In fact, one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that as anxiety levels and academic and emotional stress increase, and sleep quality decreases, a person's risk of injury majorly increases, which suggests that training volume should decrease during periods of high stress and little sleep. (See More: Why It's Better to Sleep In Than Work Out).

7. If you're really serious, maybe do some math.

If you want to know E-X-A-C-T-L-Y how much you can safely increase your exercise volume week over week, you can calculate something called your acute volume to chronic volume ratio, says Mack. (Note: If you're new to strength training, you definitely don't need to get this nitty-gritty. Any strength workout you're doing to going to score you all the awesome benefits of lifting weights.)

  1. Start by finding your total volume in the past week (aka your "acute load"). Remember, your training volume = sets x reps x weight used. So, if on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you completed: 3 sets of 8 reps of squats at 100lbs and 4 sets of 8 reps of bench press 4 sets of 8 at 50lbs, your squat training volume is 3 x 8 x 100 = 2,400 daily volume x 3 workouts = 7,200 weekly volume. And your bench press volume is 4 x 8 x 50 = 1,600 daily volume x 3 workouts = 4,800 weekly volume. Added together, you get 12,000, which is your acute load.
  2. Divide the "acute load" by your average volume over the past four weeks (aka your "chronic load"). To find your chronic load, calculate your acute load using the above formula for each of the last four weeks. Add those values together, then divide by four to find the average. This value is your chronic load. For the purposes of the example, let's assume that your average volume (chronic load) is 11,000.
  3. Divide the acute load by the chronic load to get a ratio. In this example, the acute load divided by chronic load is 12,000 divided by 11,000 = 1.09.

Cool... so what does that value mean?? "Researchers found that the 'sweet spot' for training is a ratio between .8 and 1.3 and that anything over 1.5 significantly increases your risk for injury," says Mack.

So, if you get a value that is higher than 1.5, it means you should cut down on your current volume (or maybe the volume of a planned workout) either by dropping the weight, reps, or number of sets, she says. And if you get a value lower than .8, it means your body can probably handle going heavier.

Now go ahead and put out your phone calculator. The barbell is calling.

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