fitness · strength training · weight lifting

How Much Weight Should I Lift?

I have a confession to make–I had a crush on Susan Powter in the early 2000’s. Do you remember her and Stop the Insanity!? I was a little late to the party, I admit, but I became a real believer for a while there. If you missed out on the fun, Powter was big in the low fat craze during the nineties, but don’t worry, that’s not what I’m here to write about today. She also made a whole series of exercise videos in classic nineties style–including yards of Spandex, step aerobics, interval training, simple weightlifting routines, and the like, and refreshingly, with people of all sorts of body types. And the real magic was that in all of her videos she offered modifications for movements, constantly encouraging people to “work within their fitness level.” “Only by working within your fitness level will you be able to advance to the next one.” And she was right.

A friend recently asked if it was ok she was doing her weightlifting with “just 8 pound dumbbells,” because that’s all she could do. My answer? Yes of course it was ok, and in fact, it’s necessary in order for her to build strength. I could hear Susan Powter in my head, telling us that my friend needs to work at her current strength level in order to build to the next one.

What Powter was pushing against, and what I’m going to push back on today, is this myth in fitness that we have to “go hard” for it to count. Or maybe more accurately, it’s to acknowledge that “hard” is a relative term. It just needs to be hard enough FOR YOU.

Here’s an analogy. My therapy sessions frequently focus on managing my trauma. Trauma can narrow your “emotional window of tolerance.” In other words, the range of emotional experiences you can handle before you are either hyperaroused (go into fight/flight/freeze) or hypoaroused (numb, emotionally disconnected) narrows. The goal of trauma therapy is to slowly increase the range of emotional experiences I can tolerate without going into either a heightened or collapsed state. My therapist and I work just inside my window of tolerance, we attempt to get close but not go over what I can handle. Becoming triggered is counter-productive; no one can learn when their nervous system is trying to flee. And by working within this window over time, the range of experiences I can tolerate gets broader.

That’s what I’m doing when I lift weights successfully, too. I need to find the level of strength that is challenging enough to push myself, without “traumatizing” my muscles. And just like emotional experiences, muscles will have a range of experiences that will promote growth–it’s not a single, set weight or number of reps but a moving target. It will vary depending on how much sleep I’ve had, how well fed I am, what exercises I did yesterday, how strong I currently am, and so much more. Therefore, each of us has to learn to feel our way into the right weights each day. And the right weight is almost never a weight we can’t control. It’s not a cop-out to reduce the weight to the level at which you can control it; it’s actually necessary in order to keep getting stronger.

Each of us must continually work to find the right level of challenge for where we’re at today. There is both freedom and responsibility in acknowledging this. You don’t have to lift what someone else is lifting; you’re free to find your own way. However, you also have to stay present enough to listen to your body, both to make sure you’re continuing to challenge yourself but also to ensure that you’re being responsive to your limits. Susan Powter was right. You’ve got to work within your fitness level to get to the next one. It isn’t a race; there’s no finish line. Give yourself permission to work at the right level for yourself, and you’ll be rewarded with increased strength over time, Spandex optional.

Image description: Three White women in form-fitting workout clothes, doing some kind of leg lift that might be donkey kicks on pink mats.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found working within her fitness level, picking up heavy things and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon.

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