How much weight should I use?
How many repetitions should I start with?
How many pushups should I do?
How long should I hold a plank?
Well, there are all kinds of research studies that can provide in-depth answers to those common questions, and while they are a good rule of thumb, there’s one important technique that is much more important–especially if you’re just starting out on your road to better fitness:
Use a weight, rep count, or time, that allows you to focus fully on your muscle’s activation
What do I mean by that?
Let’s look at a bicep, as that is a muscle that just everyone likes to work on and you can easily see and feel. You know how to flex your bicep, right? OK, do that, with nothing in your hand. Take your opposite hand and place it over the bicep you are flexing. Do you feel that muscle? Can you feel it activating? Take your hand off and repeat. This time look at the bicep you are flexing. Don’t just watch the movement of your arm. Focus on connecting what you are seeing with what the muscle is doing–flexing and extending.
Congrats! You just made a “mind-muscle connection!”
Now, when you do a bicep curl don’t just swing your arms up. Don’t use a weight that is so light that you can’t feel that muscle working. Don’t use a weight that is so heavy that you’re too focused on lifting that sucker and can even feel your shoulders helping out your biceps because it is so heavy.
Pick a weight that lets you feel–either physically with your other hand or with your eyes and mind–the activation of that muscle. Feel it flex as you pull up and extend as you lower it again. Then count how many you can do before you start to lose that mental connection. If you counted between 8 and 12 repetitions, then you are in the “golden zone”–building strength and aesthetics (aka hypertrophy). If you only made it to 4 reps, pick a lower weight. Pushed past 20 reps? Increase the weight.
Now, take that approach with every exercise you do. Pick a weight, rep count, or time that lets you focus on the quality of the exercise–that mind-muscle connection where you can feel the muscle working. If you can’t feel the muscle working or you start to lose that connection because it becomes too heavy or takes too long, adjust accordingly.
As that becomes second nature, you can then try pushing your limits or, if you want to experiment, doing what’s called “junk volume” but, until that time, focusing on quality over quantity can lead to fewer injuries, better results, and a foundation that will ensure you achieve your workout goals.