How often should you lift weights? We know that strength training is important - for everything from reducing the risk of injury to boosting feel-good hormones - but when it comes to getting the most out of the activity, frequency really does count. Lifting weights just once or twice a month isn't going to cut it, unfortunately.
When we talk about lifting weights and strength training, we're talking about using your body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells to put resistance on your muscles, bones, and tendons, forcing them to grow and get stronger. Consistency is key with this because, to get stronger, you need to go through a process of progressive overload where you increase the intensity of the workout to continue progressing.
Equally, however, you can end up getting the strength training bug and working out too many times a week, which comes with its own problems. So what's the perfect amount? We've enlisted personal trainers to share how often you should go to the gym depending on your particular health goals, whether you're looking to do strength training for weight loss, to get stronger, or just as a new hobby. They also reveal how to make sure you're working hard enough and exactly why picking up gym equipment like dumbbells and barbells is so important for your health as you get older.
How often should you lift weights?
1. How often should you lift weights...for weight loss?
How often: 2-3 times a week
"I’d suggest doing two to three strength training sessions a week, combined with mobility work and cardio," says personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long. "Start by mastering the compound movements, such as squats, bench presses and deadlifts - and then look at incorporating isolation exercises that can help further your ability to build lean muscle."
While a moderate calorie deficit is essential for anyone looking to lose weight healthily and sustainably, if you're doing strength training as your regular workout, it's especially important not to cut your calories too rapidly - or low.
"You need enough fuel to live and move so being in too much of a deficit can hinder your training. Remember, you should be lifting more every week or so, which means you may need more energy, i.e. calories, to make sure you can do that safely," explains Rachael Penrose, a personal trainer specialising in strength, HIIT workouts, and mobility.
What's more, having enough calories in your system to perform strength training properly can actually help you achieve your weight loss goal in a different way too. "It can help improve lean muscle mass and decrease body fat," notes Long. "Through increasing your muscle tissue you actually up your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which means you will burn more calories at rest."
2. How often should you lift weights...to gain muscle?
How often: 3-4 times a week
Strength training is key for so-called 'toning up', which is just another name for building muscle. "If you are looking to gain muscle, then the fastest way for you to do it is through lifting weights," says personal trainer Chelsea Labadini. "In order for a muscle to grow it needs to be placed under enough tension throughout the week. If you really want to see a difference, then you need to be doing at least three full body sessions a week - or if you have the ability to do more, then two upper body and two lower body workouts is ideal."
You also need to ensure that you're feeling challenged, whichever weights you pick up. "Try to aim for 10 to 12 reps to achieve hypertrophy - the increase and growth of muscle cells," explains Long. "You also want to be performing compound lifts that use multiple muscle groups." Think weighted squats and deadlifts. Additionally, ensure that you're lifting heavy enough. "Not the lightest weights that you can find and therefore have to do hundreds of reps," adds Labadini. "Pick up ones where the last two reps feel pretty hard." What's more, pushing yourself and reaching fresh PBs is excellent workout motivation.
3. How often should you lift weights...to get fit?
How often: 1-2 times a week
While it might seem like lifting weights is all about strength and increasing how often should you do cardio will change your fitness levels, weight training can level up areas of your fitness too. "These compound movements can help improve your cardiovascular fitness," explains Long. "You’re using multiple muscle groups so it requires more effort."
After squats, you may notice you’re slightly breathless, she says. "This is tapping into your cardiovascular system due to the demands of the lift. It is why strength training actually helps build solid foundations for everyday life, for things like walking up the stairs or carrying your food shopping."
She recommends one to two strength sessions a week will already bring huge benefits if this is your goal - although try to make them full-body sessions for a well-rounded approach.
But to improve your fitness levels in this way you also need to ensure that you're pushing your body enough, which is why it's wise to stock up on a selection of the best dumbbells if you're working out at home. "You must use the progressive overload principle," explains Penrose. "That is, gradually increase the total workload by increasing the weight, frequency or repetitions in your strength training routine to challenge your musculoskeletal system. The easiest way to do this is to slowly up the weights you use for certain movements - when you feel it becoming too easy, your body has adapted to the workload, and you must increase it to challenge your muscles so you don’t plateau."
4. How often should you lift weights...to boost mental health?
How often: 2-3 times a week
There may be many reasons why you are struggling with your mental health, and so it is important to seek the advice of a doctor if you are concerned. However, exercise has been widely found by research to help mood - with strength workouts providing particular perks. A University of Limerick study discovered that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms.
"Any form of physical activity improves mental health via neurotransmitters throughout your body - the most common being endorphins - which interact with your brain to reduce the perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling," explains Penrose. "Oxygen supply to your brain is increased, stress levels reduce, and the after effect of completing a task - in this case a workout - improves your overall self-esteem."
Strength training in particular can likewise build confidence. "Many women who lift report feeling really empowered," notes Labadini. "In fact, increasing the weight you can pick up can feel strangely sexy." How often should you strength train in order to experience these psychological benefits? "Try performing two to three full-body sessions a week and work up from there," recommends Long. Additionally, don't neglect the importance of other types of exercise - indeed improved mental wellbeing is one of the health benefits of walking.
Why is lifting weights good for you?
While learning how often should you lift weights is helpful, it is also important to understand why you are strength training in the first place. "It has a multitude of benefits," says Penrose. "The use of resistance, in this case lifting weights, helps to increase bone density, build stronger connective tissue, and increase the stability of your joints."
However, it becomes particularly important as women pass through the perimenopause. "After this, you’re more likely to be affected by osteoporosis - a condition that causes your bones to become weaker and which affects half of women over 50," explains Michelle Baynham, personal trainer and women's health specialist.
"Women can lose bone density rapidly in the first few years after menopause because they have less of the hormone oestrogen in their body. Keeping active can help keep bones healthy and can reduce the chance of them breaking or fracturing if you fall over. Studies [from Chonnam National University Medical School] actually show that strength training can help prevent bone loss and may even help build new bone."
Additionally, as previously mentioned, lifting weights is also beneficial if you're struggling with aspects of your mental health - like anxiety symptoms. "Strength training can help lift your mood, allowing you to focus on yourself and give you a real feeling of self-worth," notes Long.
Finally, it can also aid weight management as we age. "There is a reduction in muscle and this can result in less functional ability and a higher body fat percentage," adds Labadini. "This all leads to a slower metabolism, which can contribute to weight gain even if you are eating the same number of calories as you were before."
This brings us to one of the biggest myths surrounding lifting weights. "Unfortunately, many women still believe that weight training will bulk them up and this is a massive misconception," explains Baynham. "However, it is actually very hard to become overly muscular due to the lower levels of testosterone than men. If a woman strength trains regularly with progressive overload and with good nutrition then she will simply develop muscle tone and definition."
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A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness as well. Everything from the best protein powder to dating apps, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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