TrainingGoalsMuscle Building

How Heavy Should You Lift for Optimal Gains?



A lot. Often. And preferably in front of a full body mirror while still being in the view of that hot redhead in the grey yoga pants.

Wait. You wanted a real answer? Not just bro science? Well sh*t, son, you should have specified. The amount of weight you lift is actually a science, and using it correctly can be instrumental to your gains. Just frolicking around the gym using random weights will get you a dad bod faster than actually being a father.

The amount of weight you lift and the number of reps you do with that weight should be determined by your training goal. Someone trying to squat 550lbs for a powerlifting meet is not going to be using the same weight or rep ranges as someone who wants to get his legs up to par with Tom Platz. This article will break down the three most common training goals, as well as the rep and set ranges (which determine how much weight is being lifted) for each goal.

Goal One: Size (8 to 20 Reps)

Think “volume” when training for size. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, gaining size is about hitting your muscles with a high volume of reps. The volume breaks down muscle fibers, gives you a nice pump and provides the metabolic damage needed for muscle growth. Since you’re hitting your muscles with a high number of reps (8 to 20) depending on the muscle group, a lighter weight is needed.

Somewhere between 50-80% of your one rep max is the sweet spot for muscle growth, depending on your sets and reps. For example, if you were trying the infamous 10×10—also known as German Volume Training—you would use a weight around 50-65% of your max, allowing you to hit all 10 sets of 10. In contrast, if you were doing 3×10 (aka The Bro Science Classic) you would use a heavier load in the 70-80% range.


The heavier the weight lifted, the more muscle fibers are recruited, specifically your fast-twitch fibers. Always training your muscles with light weights for high reps will not effectively recruit all the fibers possible. As a result, the first exercise of your size workout should be a heavy compound lift, with reps in the four to five rep range. Transition to the higher rep work after these heavy sets.

Essentially, training for size is about using a weight that allows you to train with high volume and still expose your muscles to a weight heavy enough to recruit as many fibers as possible. The volume doesn’t have to be in just three sets either.

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Strength rep ranges such as 10×3 are often just as effective, if not more so, compared to the traditional 3×10. This is because the weight lifted is heavier, but the total volume remains same. And as stated above, the more volume, the more muscle gained (generally speaking).

The range of reps for size is higher (8 to 20 reps) because different muscle groups respond best to higher/lower reps. Legs for example, can benefit from 20-rep sets, while triceps thrive on lower reps, such as eight and even as low as five or six.

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Sample Size Workout: Chest Focus

  • Dumbbell Bench Press 5×5
  • Incline Press 3×8
  • Machine Fly 4×12
  • Push Ups 3×20


Goal Two: Strength (one to five Reps)

Training for strength is more complicated than training for size, because strength training involves the central nervous system (CNS), as well as the muscles themselves. If you gain strength (you can lift more weight, or lift the same weight for more reps) two things have taken place.

The first being that your CNS is becoming experienced using more muscle fibers as a result of lifting heavy things. The second being that your muscles gained size, and while this isn’t always the case, this is most likely as a result of you being stronger, because they now have more fibers to contract.


Simply put, to gain strength you want to gain muscular size (and therefore have more muscle fibers to contract) and gain neural adaptions (which allow you to contract all your fibers). A great example of this is when two people arm wrestle, and the man with the smaller muscles wins.

Ignoring technique advantages, the smaller man won because he was able to recruit more muscle fibers than the bigger man, even though the bigger man had more fibers overall.


To become as strong as possible, we should try to to maximize both number of muscle fibers and the ability to contract them. This means heavy weights need to be lifted (to train the CNS to contract more muscle fibers) and muscle size needs to be gained. As a result, the number of reps should be low (80-95% of your max for two to five reps) but the sets should be high (as many as 10) in order to hit the muscle with enough volume to cause it to grow (8×4 or 10×3 are great examples of this in action.)

It is important to note strength can be gained without size (strength in relation to your bodyweight) by simply training for neural adaptions. For this type of training, low reps are still used, but the high number of sets are ditched in order to avoid size gain. Examples of this would be a 3×3 or 5×2. This type of training is great for athletes who need to make a weight class, but still want to gain strength without size.

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Sample Strength Workout: Back Focus

  • Deadlift 8×3
  • Deficit Deadlift 5×3
  • Barbell Row 4×6
  • Farmer Walks 4x 50 Yards


Goal 3: Fat Loss

Training for fat loss is a matter of burning the maximum amount of calories while maintaining the muscle mass you already have. As a result, fat loss training is a hybrid of the first two goals. Someone training for fat loss will often use both size and strength rep ranges in the same workout—and sometimes even 30+ rep sets for conditioning.

This hybrid is effective, because the heavy weights and volume signal to your body that it needs to keep its muscle mass in order to survive, while the conditioning helps burn up calories.


However, this hybrid method is not the only way to maintain muscle and strength while cutting. Bodybuilders and powerlifters often maintain the same training style while trying to cut, because they use cardio and their diets to lose the fat. Both these methods are effective, and which to choose comes down to your personal preference.

Sample Fat Loss Workout: Quad Focus

  • Back Squat 5×3: Strength
  • Leg press 4×10,12,14,16: Size
  • Walking Lunges 4×30
  • Prowler Pushes 4×50 yards: Conditioning


Continue to the next page for some classic lifting motivation!

Golden Age Motivation!

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