There’s No One Right Way to Lift Weights

With all the advice about weight training out there, you might be a little confused.  Which exercises should you do? Should you only do low reps/high weight? Is mixing it up okay or unnecessary?

I like to think that the many ways of weight training are part of what makes it fun. And despite what you might hear, there is no one right way to weight train. Using basic variables, you can blend several approaches or use one method exclusively.

Which approach should you take? It depends on your goals.

You Want to Lose Weight or You Don’t Like Weights

Circuit routines might be perfect for you. With a typical circuit, you get your heart rate up by integrating cardio and weights into one short, intense routine. For example, one set in a circuit could include four to six different exercises that hit various muscle groups without resting. After a brief rest you would repeat for two more sets.

You’ll still need to do intense cardio separately and watch your diet if you want to lose weight, but you can get extra calories burned while toning – and that’s an enticing benefit of circuits.

If you’re not a fan of weights and you just want to get it done, circuits (or Cross Fit) can provide the cardio benefits and toning in a short time frame. Since you may be using a lot of different equipment (bodyweight, medicine balls, dumbbells, etc.), you’ll find less circuits less monotonous – maybe even exciting!

You can create circuits yourself, find a few on this web site, or find them online or in videos. Here’s one I did myself when I swapped routines with my friend Kris.

You Want to Build Serious Muscle

To build serious muscle you’ll want to look at more of a bodybuilder’s routine. Bodybuilders rely on a select few compound movements and heavy resistance to put on muscle with exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, dips, and Arnold presses.

Despite popular belief, this type of weight training works for women too. This approach builds muscle because these are “foundational” exercises – multi-joint moves that work many muscles at once and engage your core as well. You progress by simply adding weight, decreasing rest periods, changing reps, and adding in techniques such as drop sets now and then.

This approach also involves using very few isolation movements and machines, relying mostly on barbells and dumbbells.

You Want to Tone, Build, and Look Cut

This is a middle-of-the-road approach and the one I take. You want muscle but it doesn’t have to be epic or fitness-model quality. You want definition in your arms, shape to your rear, and even a few abs muscles (or more). And you might even like weight training!

If you like variety, you’ll love this approach. Notice that I said if you if. You can always confuse your muscles by simply change the reps, rest, and weight. But if you like changing things up (as I do), you can incorporate different exercises, techniques, and equipment to meet your goals and have fun.

This approach works with weight loss programs as well but you’ll still need to do intense cardio separately. Traditional weight training does burn calories but not on the level you may want.

You can supplement with isolation exercises but you’ll still rely heavily on foundation moves such as squats, lunges, bench presses, and overhead presses. You’ll still need to be diligent about increasing weight and you may want to track your workouts in a journal.

I’ve posted plenty of exercises and routines you can try, both full-body and for individual muscle groups. For full-body workouts, check out these posts:

Note: I train either two muscles groups per session or I do an upper/lower body split twice a week. However, I know many people recommend full-body workouts and many people prefer it. Choose what you’ll do and what you’ll enjoy!

For exercises and tips about individual muscle groups, click the muscle group in my tag cloud on the right (for example, triceps, glutes, etc.).

You Don’t Have A Lot of Time

See my post on 30-Minute Workouts for ideas. Saving time can mean circuits or using compound movements as I talked about above. It can also mean combining moves (such as lunges with overhead presses).

14 thoughts on “There’s No One Right Way to Lift Weights

  1. I like that you regularly refer to variety in your approach and in your posts.

    When people ask me if I train heavy, light, high-reps, low-reps, etc., I most often just say, “yes.”

    It is a relative thing though; 20 reps may seem high for some, but compared to 75 reps, 20 ain’t much.

    I also LOVE that you encourage journaling — an absolute staple for success!


    • To hear a big guy (and trainer) say he likes incorporating variety is nice to hear Roy. And I couldn’t live without my journal – I’d be absolutely lost without being able to see what I did last time!


  2. I take the middle-of-the-road approach too. Since I started training for my race, I haven’t been able to do legs the way I like. There’s just now way my legs would run 10 miles after an intense leg workout. Can’t wait to get back into this next week!


    • I can understand that Eunice. After I’ve done weights, there’s no way I can get on the elliptical. I usually do it before, but ideally it would be on separate days. Yay for getting back to it and good luck on your race!!


  3. Suzanne – what great information! My reasons for turning to weights vary (right now it is to budge a couple of stubborn extra pounds) and that always impacts the kind of routine I choose.


  4. Your blog post couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m trying to mix up my routine to better incorporate weights into an increasing running training schedule, so an upper/lower body split workout really works out great!

    Journaling is really important. I always track of weight and rep, but I also keep track of how much sleep i had, what I ate, anything that can be of use to me when I train.

    Great Post Suzanne!!!


    • Thanks Christian! An upper/lower split sounds perfect. I changed to that split a couple of weeks ago so we’ll see how it goes. I’m expecting some new results since it’s a totally new system for me.
      Michelle, you are hot already but if you want to get cut, I know you can do it. You are doing crazy good things with your health these days so now? It’s all yours.
      Lindsay thanks for stopping by! I could probably write a dozen more posts on quickie workouts (ironically, it takes me 1 1/2 hours, but I like it ;)).


  5. Journaling? That is a concept for me (I’ve got a lazy side – shhhhhhhhh) … BUT – it is really important to notice improvements and sometimes the only way to know that is to capture certain things and write them down. Maybe I’ll start writing more stuff down?

    I’m all about CELEBRATING the little improvements – whether it’s getting a couple more reps, a couple more pounds, or in my case, able to do things more ‘comfortably’ or easily than before (i.e., what used to kill me doesn’t any more).

    Great post Suzanne!


    • Really? I suppose Sonja keeps tabs well enough on you! But yes, journaling is the only way I can do it. Otherwise I’m duhhhhh. I don’t know how much I lifted last time or what I’m supposed to do.
      It’s GREAT to see you here again Kris 🙂


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