Postpartum woman lifting a barbell
When it comes to strength training, how “heavy” is your “heavy”?

 Here’s a question I hear a lot from my clients:

“How heavy do I need to lift?”

And the answer?

It depends.

It depends on your goals and it depends on your current baseline.

Regarding goals, here I want to chat about goals for general fitness.

Strength for living your life.

For longevity.

This doesn’t cover super sport-specific goals (a very different convo).

Lifting heavy is super important for building muscle (obvs). But’s it’s also really important for maintaining and improving bone strength- majorly important as we enter perimenopause.

The Aging Process and Its Impact On Your Muscles & Bones

➡️ As get older, we experience some amount of muscle and bone loss.

It’s a natural part of the aging process, and it’s influenced by factors such as hormonal changes and physical activity.

➡️ After the age of 30, most people begin to lose about 3% to 5% of muscle mass per decade, a condition known as sarcopenia.

➡️ To boot, post-menopause, bone density can also decrease rapidly, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

While it’s tue that some of these declines are facts of life, it’s also true that you have a say in how you age. You can make choices within your workouts to offset some of these natural declines.

A Strategic Approach to Workouts

What does this mean for you?

It means you need to be strategic with your workouts.

While we talk a lot about our core and pelvic floor, postpartum recovery and return to activity- I want to make sure that HEAVY lifiting is on your radar.

Because while we’re recovering from pregnancy, we’re also preparing for the rest of our lives.

Heavy lifting isn’t just about building an impressive set of muscles.

It’s a way to combat natural declines, helping you maintain your strength, independence, and quality of life as you age.

How to Define “Heavy Lifting”

But what does “heavy lifting” mean? 

First, let’s get one thing clear: Your workouts should be harder than your everyday lifting.

Whatever you’re used to lifting in your day-to-day life, your workouts need to challenge you beyond that.

This means that the weights you choose for your workouts should be heavier than, say, the groceries you carry home. Or your toddler.

They should be heavy enough to challenge you but light enough to maintain good form and technique.

3 pound dumbbells aren’t going to cut it.

How Heavy Should You Lift To Build Muscle?

When it comes to building muscle, it’s not necessarily about lifting the heaviest weights possible.

It’s about using a weight that challenges your muscles to the point of fatigue within a certain rep range.

Typically, that’s a weight you can lift for at least 8-12 reps with one or two reps left in the tank. You should feel like you COULD lift 1 or 2 more reps, but not 5 more reps.

How Heavy Should You Lift To Build Bone Density?

For bone density, similar principles apply.

We need to put our bones under more strain than they’re used to for them to grow stronger.

Consistently lifting heavy weights applies this beneficial strain, signaling to your body that your bones need to be denser to handle the load.

The amount you need to lift for this effect is going to be unique-to-you- but it should be heavy enough to challenge you in a lower rep range.

There’s a little wiggle room with respect to the “lower rep range”. Some studies say you should be lifting between 80-85% of your one-rep max (6-8 reps). Others demonstrate bone density gains at a wider rep range (75-80% one-rep max, 8-12 reps)

My take-away from digging into the research is that to maintain or build bone density, lift as heavy as you safely can.

What’s Your “Heavy”?

Everyone’s ‘heavy’ is different. What’s most important is that you are challenging yourself, moving well, and listening to your body.

It’s also important to keep in mind that if you’re newer to lifting, start slow and gradually increase weight to avoid injury.

Tips For Injury-Free, Muscle- and Bone-Boosting Workouts

A few more tips:

1)Work out 2-3 times a week

To gain maximum muscle and bone-boosting benefit, you should workout 2-3 times a week minimum. And let me stress, 2-3 times a week is also sufficient.

2) Perform 2-3 sets of each exercise

Both bone and muscle development respond better to shorter sets of reps separated by rest, rather than performing a single high-volume set.

3) Focus on multi-joint exercises

Focus on the “big” multi-joint lifts that cover all the major movement patterns: hinge, squat, push, pull, lunge and carry.

Studies show that the greatest increases in bone density are achieved using exercises targeting muscles that cross the hips and spine.

4) Work in all the planes of motion

As you consider your exercise selection, include exercises that require movement front-to-back, side-to-side and incorporate rotation. 

Movement variability has always made intuitive sense to me from a functional, muscular standpoint.

But it turns out, this is for your bones too. Your bones adapt to your typical loading patterns, which are most often one-dimensional (front-to-back). To get the most complete bone-building response, you have to load them in ways that are novel. In most cases, this means taking care to include frontal plane (side-to-side) and rotational exercise.

5) Progressively overload

That means, start light. Work towards heavier. And make sure you’re increasing your load and/or type of challenge over time.

6) Periodize your workouts

That means, for 6-12 weeks, lift in a 6-8 rep range to build muscle. Then spend 6-12 weeks lifting more reps of a lighter weight to emphasize muscle building. This will ensure you keep making progress and reduce your risk of getting injured.

If you’ve got a well-rounded strength routine, you’re probably already doing the things. Let this be a reminder to keep on.

And if you’re not? There’s no time like the present to start.💫💪🏽

If you’re looking for guidance in navigating your exercise during pregnancy or postpartum, I offer one-on-one personal training and consultations. Please send me a message to set up a free Meet and Greet to discuss your goals and how I can help you achieve them!

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Redmond, WA-based Seattle birth doula Laura Jawad, headshot

My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

I offer customized, online pregnancy and postpartum personal training to folks locally (Seattle-area, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and beyond.

Laura Jawad holds a PhD and a personal training certification (NASM). She’s a Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach, and Pregnancy and Postpartum Corrective Exercise Specialist. You can check out the rest of her alphabet soup here.

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