How often should you lift weights might not be something you have previously considered. After all, you may be perfectly happy staying active by going for a run or stretching out with some yoga. But strength training is hugely important for a whole variety of aspects of your health – from bone density to mental wellbeing – and should be a regular feature of your workout routine.
Indeed, resistance training is as important as cardio when it comes to exercise. But the frequency with which you should lift weights will depend on what exactly you are trying to achieve once you’ve laced up your trainers. Perhaps that’s healthy, sustainable weight loss, or maybe you want to improve your overall fitness levels or increase muscle tone.
As such, we’ve enlisted personal trainers to share how often you should do strength training depending on your particular health goals, as well as how to ensure you’re pushing your muscles hard enough during at-home workouts. They will also reveal exactly why picking up gym equipment like dumbbells and barbells is so important for your health as you get older – and how it can leave you feeling more empowered.
How often should you lift weights?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that the answer to ‘how often should you lift weights’ will differ person to person. “An individual’s training program is subjective for a lot of reasons,” says Rachael Penrose, personal trainer at F45 Paddington. “Your current physical ability, past training experience, age, injuries and health concerns are just some of the things that might influence what your training focus should be. What’s more, technique is vital when it comes to strength-based workouts – and I would advise talking to a professional if you are new to weight training.”
1. How often should you lift weights…for weight loss?
How often: 2-3 times a week
When it comes to healthy, sustainable weight loss, it’s important to look at the energy you consume versus what you expend. “Creating a calorie deficit to lose weight is important,” explains Penrose. “But you must also remember that you need enough fuel to live and move – so being in too much of a deficit can hinder your training. Shifting the focus away from ‘burning calories’ is a better, more long-term, approach to ensure that you don’t plateau.”
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 personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long. “Through increasing your muscle tissue you actually up your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which means you will burn more calories at rest.”
But how often should you lift in order to slim down? “I’d suggest doing two to three strength training sessions a week, combined with mobility work and cardio,” recommends 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.”
2. How often should you lift weights…to gain muscle?
How often: 3-4 times a week
Strength training is key for creating tone. “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,” Long explains. “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, it can level up other areas of your fitness too. “The aforementioned compound movements can help improve your cardiovascular fitness,” Long explains. “You’re using multiple muscle groups so it requires more effort. After a set of squats you may notice you’re slightly breathless – 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 become 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 you should 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 founder of Mother Fit. “
“Women can lose bone density rapidly in the first few years after menopause because they have less of the hormone estrogen 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 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,” Long notes.
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.”
Which brings us onto 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.”