It’s a question that pops into everyone’s head when they first enter a gym: which weight should I use so that I build muscle as fast as possible? What dumbbell should I pick up? Are they too light or too heavy for me? What weight should I set the machine to?
In this article, we will clear out all the confusion and give you simple and easy guidelines to follow to ensure that you’ll always pick the right weight which in turn will cause you to make continuous progress in the gym.
Hypertrophy range of 8-12 reps
It’s conventional wisdom by now that in order to gain the greatest amount of muscle you need to train in the 8-12 rep range, but have you ever actually wondered where this came from and what it actually means?
It does mean simply moving the weight 8-12 times. There’s hardly anyone who has taken the time to better explain this idea, so we will try to make it simple by presenting these three key points:
Pick a weight that you know you can only do 8 reps with, which means going to absolute failure on the 8th rep, i.e. you won’t be able to lift the weight for another rep even if you tried with all your strength.
Do not pick a weight you can do less than 8 reps with without proper execution form.
As your strength gradually increases, and you progress from doing 8 reps to 12 reps with the same weight without going to failure, you can then increase the weight to next increment you can only do 8 reps with to total failure.
Let’s look at a real-world example
So, a logical question comes up: “I’ve become stronger now and can do 12 reps with my current weight without failure. What do I do next? What weight should I use?”
Let’s use barbell bench press as an example, but keep in mind that the same principle applies to every exercise. Let’s say a couple of weeks ago you bench pressed 120 lbs for 8 reps, and you reached failure on the 8th rep. In the following weeks, you got bigger and stronger and you did more reps with each consecutive workout and eventually reached 12 reps to failure and then the next week you 12 and you could keep on going. This is the point at which you need to increase the weight as it has become too light for you and it’s no longer providing the needed stimulus for optimal hypertrophy, i.e. it’s no longer useful for building more muscle.
What you need to do is not simply increase the weight to a point where you can fail at 12 again, rather increase the weight to a point where you can again do only 8 reps to failure. Following our example, you are now pressing 120lbs for 12 reps without going to failure, so following the method above you decide to go to 140 lbs doing 8 reps to failure, instead of going to 130 lbs for 12 reps.
This method will help you build up your strength while at the same time optimally increase your muscle size. In the end, following this principle of progressive overload, you will inevitably become both bigger and stronger. And the most important thing is that you’ll do it faster than the guy who’s just using the same weight every workout or similar weights week in and week out training in the 8-12 rep range, who thinks he’s training optimally but who is not progressing at all nor training to his full potential.
How to implement this method when doing multiple sets
When doing more than one set, you might be asking, if I’m performing more than one set of an exercise, by the time I reach the 3rd or 4th set I will not be able to get in the 8-12 reps range because of accumulated fatigue. And you would be totally correct and the principle applies here as well. As soon as you’re not able to do 8 reps, drop the weight. For example, if you’ve completed 10 reps on the 1st set, 8 on the 2nd, then you know that for set 3 or set 4, you will certainly not be able to get within the 8-12 rep range. It is at this point that you decrease the weight stick to the outlined principle and pick a weight that allows you to be in the aforementioned rep range.