When you’re just starting out, those 5-pounders can do wonders for your strength and body. But the ultimate goal is not only to increase your lean mass, but also to make that muscle stronger, denser, and devoid of harmful fat—which is why regularly increasing the weight you’re lifting is so imperative. “Every time you challenge your body with a heavier weight, you’re creating more microtears in the muscle,” says Perkins. “As your body repairs those tiny tears with amino acids, your lean mass becomes stronger, tighter, and more compact.” So how much should you be lifting? “You’ll be able to tell you’ve got the weight right if your form starts to get ‘a wee bit sloppy'” on the last two reps, says Perkins. “Once 12 reps are a breeze, it’s time to move up.” Increase in increments of 2.5 to 5 pounds for free weights, and about 5% (of the total weight) for machines.
6. You’ll never have time to fit it in.
It’s already ridiculously hard to fit in your weekly walks and runs, right? Well, the great news is that it doesn’t take a lot of resistance work to make a major difference. Two full-body strength training workouts a week have been shown to be just as good as three when it comes to increasing strength and muscle mass, says Westcott. (Still short on time? Try our Fit in 10: Total-Body Transformation routines, which will help you squeeze it in with just 10 minutes a day and are proven to make a major difference in your body and health.)
7. You need a gym.
While Perkins is on a mission to get more women into the weight room, if it’s not your thing, that’s OK. “Home-based weights workouts are a great place to start, and can help you accomplish a lot,” she says. (Check out her top 10 at-home moves for women here.) But if you’re interested in learning to regularly increase the weight you’re lifting, remember that you have just as much right to be in the weight room as the sweaty dude next to you. “Strength training is absolutely critical to your overall health and well-being,” says Perkins. “Don’t let intimidation keep you from the powerful benefits that can change your life.”
8. It’s all about muscle.
If promise of a stronger, fitter bod isn’t enough to get you to pick up the weights, consider that it’ll also help protect your brain. When sedentary older adults began a program that combined progressive strength training and aerobic exercise, their cognitive function improved significantly more than folks doing aerobic activity alone, according to research by psychologists at the University of Illinois. Other studies have shown that just 10 weeks of progressive strength training can reduce anxiety, fatigue, and depression and boost a sense of tranquility and revitalization in older adults.
9. Body-weight exercises are just as good.
So, what about yoga, Pilates, and good old-fashioned body-weight moves? Westcott and other experts agree that these kinds of workouts are a good introduction to strength training, because you do use your own body weight as resistance. “But you’ll never be able to lift more than your body weight doing these types of programs,” notes Perkins. “I want women to think bigger.”
10. You’ll see results instantly.
While strength training is the most effective way to shrink-wrap your body with lean, shapely muscle, like most good things it doesn’t happen overnight. “If you stay consistent with a strength-training program, you will see the real and accurate results after 6 to 8 weeks, and not before,” says Perkins. So make the commitment, and then stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.