If you are just beginning HIT, one of the practical questions you are most likely looking to answer is How much weight should I use? Keen to get started with the intensity aspect and enthusiastic to lift as much as possible, many new HITers end up short changing themselves. Focusing foremost on intensity at the very outset of the journey and equating high loads with intensity is double trouble and a case of putting the cart before the horse. Or dangerous and inefficient, up goes the likelihood of injury along with a side order of dilution of the stimulus.
It sure is impressive to be able to heave big weights about and there are sports built on doing exactly that: Olympic lifting and Powerlifting. Unless you want to participate in one of those sports it is wise to leave the shifting of huge weights to ladies and gents who specialize in doing just that. HIT is about fitness first, the weight we use to increase fitness is no more than a means to that end. You are not looking to shift the maximal amount you can but an optimal amount required by your physiology, the two are different. For clarity on this distinction, you can read how HIT compares to other forms of exercise or download the Beginner’s Guide to HIT ebook. I digress.
Let’s get back to the practical- how do you select a optimal weights for the exercises in your first HIT workout?
Bodyweight exercise seems a logical if somewhat tricky place to start! Logical because there is no external weight source beyond yourself, tricky because you can’t reduce or increase your actual weight significantly during a single workout. The question here is whether your bodyweight provides the right amount of load for the exercise that you are performing.
For example, if you start with a regular push up can you perform the exercise with good technique for 60 seconds? If you cannot, you don’t have the convenience of moving a pin up the weight stack a notch or two. Instead you are left with options such as to change the lever length or to perform the exercise statically. To shorten the lever and make the exercise easier you can perform push ups from your knees, rather than from your feet, effectively reducing the resistance you are working against.
On the other hand, what if you can do the push up easily for longer than 90 seconds what are you going to do then? Perhaps add a weight vest. What you don’t have is the flexibility of free weights or machines where you have the simple luxury of adjusting the load by simply adding a little more weight to the exercise if you need it.
How about free weights: the classic choice of barbells and dumbbells? How do you go about selecting a weight from scratch when you do have the choice? Let’s look at two exercises that represent extremes in terms of potential weight required, the dumbbell squat and the side raise. You are likely to use far more weight for a dumbbell squat that works the big muscles of the lower body than you are for a side raise that targets the side deltoids a far, far smaller amount of muscle. There are however at least a couple of other considerations you need to take into account: a) Before you even add external weight you are moving a greater load in the squat, all your bodyweight as opposed to just the weight of an arm in the side raise b) there is a far longer lever in the side raise, your full arm’s length, which as you abduct away from your torso is going to make a small weight feel pretty heavy.
If you are a complete resistance training beginner, I suggest that you start by doing bodyweight only squats and see if you can perform 90 seconds straight: continual tension, no locking out the knee joints, thighs parallel to floor depth, 4 seconds up 4 seconds down or slower. If you can do this with excellent technique, then you are indeed ready for some additional weight- so grab the dumbbells, but be in no rush to shift heavy weight. Use the least amount of extra weight possible that helps you to reach MMF (momentary muscular failure) in about 60-90 seconds.
With the side raise, you will need to use some additional weight right from the get go, just abducting your arms to 90 degrees with the weight of your arms alone, is not going to bring about MMF in 60-90 seconds. You will need to use those dumbbells, but the weight of the dumbbell that you will need is going to be quite small. If you get 30 or so seconds into your set and the weight still feels light and as if you could go on for ages using that same weight, then set the dumbbells back down and increase the weight of the dumbbells a little. Don’t go overboard though you still want to be able to perform about 60 seconds well with the new weight.
You don’t have to do it all in one set on day one
Sometimes individuals new to HIT get hung up about trying to perform only one set right from day one. You don’t need to, get the technique right first, get the weight right second and only then concern yourself with attempting to achieve MMF in one set. If on day one you need a few sets of each exercise to begin to get things dialled in, that is fine, use them. Over the next few sessions you can begin to make one set per exercise work for you.
Discovering the appropriate weights for you from the outset is very important. If you select a weight that is too heavy: by 30-40 seconds in or sooner you are already struggling, not sure if your form is good and have a strong desire to hold your breath as you attempt to squeeze and squirm through the rep then the weight is too definitely too heavy. Drop the ego, not the weights… put them down safely, and reach for a lower load, one which you can control. It is far better that a set is well performed and goes on slightly too long than you struggle with the weight you have chosen risking injury. As a beginner, a longer set that is well performed will help reinforce the correct technique and behaviours. Start out light enough to get it right, not to have to fight.
If you are using a weight-stack machine the choice and ease of selecting weight is usually much easier. As a beginner, it is simply a case of going through the same process that I described above for free weight training, take your time to find the appropriate weight for each exercise as you go through your routine.
What you will notice about weight-stack machines is that they are not all equal. I am not just talking about the quality of the build or the match with biomechanics, but also about the fact the same weight can feel very different on different brands of equipment. You may assume that if you use 300lbs on your regular leg press, then swap gyms that you will also use 300lbs on the leg press at the new gym. This is not always the case: but when is 300lbs not 300lbs you may ask? Obviously, a weight plate that weighs 5lbs always weighs 5lbs, but the distance that plate travels can make the load feel very different. For example, I have measured weight stack travel on 3 different leg press machines, one has a stroke of 6”, another has a stroke of 10” and the third 16” this despite the fact the actual ROM (range of motion) that my hips and legs moved in each leg press was the same. The further the weight stack travels during your normal ROM, the harder the selected weight is going to feel. 300lbs will be hardest with the 16” stroke and easiest with the 6” stroke- you are going to need to use a lot more weight with that short stroke, closer to 800 lbs in fact. That is a huge difference: the same person who needs to use 300lbs on one leg press will need to use closer to 800lbs on a different leg press.
I mention this so that you are not surprised if you change gym, your gym changes its equipment line, or you use a hotel gym at some point, don’t assume the weight you use is going to be the same. You are going to need to go through the refinement process. If the weight feels too heavy lighten the load till it feels right, if it feels too light increase the weight until it feels right- ultimately seeking a load that will get you to fatigue in 60-90 seconds. Even 2 minutes or so is an acceptable set length on a machine that is new to you, one that you are dialling things in on. Again, first time around it is always better to go too light rather than too heavy. Don’t expect to be able to use a new circuit of equipment and instantly plug in the appropriate weights… unless you happen to go around measuring stack travel ;-). The more you progress as a HITter and gain experience with how load needs to feel the quicker it will become to select the right weight on a new piece of equipment.
Remember pounds to kilograms
When using machines another factor to remember especially if you spend time travelling internationally is that weight stack machines may have plates that are in kilogram divisions or in pound divisions. If you are used to working in lbs, a 5kg weight plate is the equivalent of 11lbs, quite a difference.
New to HIT, not new to weight training
If you are experienced in doing machine or free weight exercises but are new to the HIT approach, where movement is slower and a great degree of control is required then I suggest that you lower your weights. Let’s say you were previously doing an exercise for 10 reps at a 1/1 tempo, giving you a time under tension of 20 seconds for that set, you are going to need to lower the weight initially to allow for a 3/3 cadence and a set lasts at least 60 seconds. Those are reps that last 3 times longer than you are used to and a set that lasts at least 3 times longer than you are used to.
A lighter weight will also help you to relearn the performance skills of the exercise. Just like the complete beginner don’t be in a rush to work with high loads. Take control of your form with a weight that allows you to focus on technique refinement during the beginning portion of the set before meaningfully challenging your muscles at the end of the set. Remember old habits can die hard especially as exercise begins to get tough, keep your primary focus on proper technique all the way through to MMF.
Choosing the right starting weights for a new client
What about the Personal Trainer working with clients? An experienced and talented personal trainer will be able to eyeball a new client as they walk through the door, refined by PAR-Q and questionnaire answers, and pick appropriate starting weights off the bat 80-90% of the time. There are always the outliers, the super skinny ectomorph with awesome neuromuscular coordination and on the mesomorph who just isn’t that great at recruiting their muscle tissue.
What the expert PT is doing when eyeballing a new client and listening carefully is making a conscious and subconscious scan of that individual that includes; their sex, body type, height, weight, body fat percentage, muscle tissue mass, limb lengths, motivations, training history, health history, current injuries and lifestyle. All to output a surprisingly accurate starting weight for the first exercise or two they intend to put the client through. The trainer will then assess the client’s performance on the first exercise or two to adjust/refine the weight they give the client for the remaining exercises in the workout.
How do you go about getting this skilled at judging appropriate starting weights for a broad variety of individuals? By training and keeping records of a broad variety of individuals. Gradually you will become accomplished at doing this, in fact you won’t even have to consciously process all that information. You will simply look, listen and pin the load, then recalibrate if need be or adjust if you are in the presence of an outlier!
It all starts at the very beginning of your personal training career by being clear that your own personal starting weights (which were right for your body and your training history) are not going to be appropriate starting weights for most of your clients. What was appropriate for you at the outset may not be appropriate for the client stood in front of you, and don’t assume that is.
Choosing the right weights
First and foremost, remember that form and technique are more important factors than intensity and the actual weight you use in an exercise. You need to develop skills to perform each exercise in your routine well with weights that give you the “space” to do so. A boxer refines his probing jab before his stiff jab, a tennis player develops her moderate backhand before her power backhand and a skier learns carving turns on gentle slopes before steep. Put in another visually robust way no one learns to surf 20 foot waves before 2 foot waves, don’t trick yourself into thinking you can do the gym equivalent and get away with it, you will wipeout. Start low, slow and work your way up.
And by the by a higher load does not automatically mean you are exercising with higher intensity at any level. If you can successfully reach MMF within 60-90 seconds with a load that is lighter than you have been using… do so, you currently don’t need more weight to achieve the task at hand.