How to start going to the gym, part three: how much weight to use

Plus: the mystery of Elon's torso and the tyranny of Silicon Valley biohacking; Lorde and Kristin from Laguna Beach are deadlifting baby!!; Lululemon is unionizing. This is Links 46!

How to start going to the gym, part three: how much weight to use

Finally here we are at part three of “starting to go to the gym,” whether you are a complete noob, exploring a new gym for the first time, or dialing back in after a long break.1 Now that you have scoped out the gym for vibes in part one, and given yourself some space and time to do basic recon on how all the equipment works in part two, it’s time to actually touch weights.

However, this is the point where people roll up to the deadlift platform/squat rack/dumbbell rack/lat pulldown machine, the light of God upon their heads, the Kygo remix of “Higher Love” in their hearts, only to stand astride the equipment and go:

“Ah fuck; I have no idea how much weight to use. This has now made me so nervous I also forget how to do the movement that I so assiduously practiced at home. Oh no; oh no; uhhh,” nervously does some dumbbell curls and goes home

We’ve all been there. Don’t worry; I got you!

There is a basic truth to begin from here: With or without a training background, people can be all different levels and types of strong. Some people can step up to the squat rack and squat a plate (135lbs) their first go. Some people may have been bodily carrying a few baby-to-toddler-age kids around for a few years and can bench 75lbs without breaking a sweat. Many (most) people will be able to do less than this.

All of these beginning points are fine. (Central principle from LIFTOFF: the people who are beginning from the lowest possible point also have the most room to run early on and have the most to gain!)

For this reason, part three of “starting to go to the gym” is still not quite a run-of-the-mill training session. Instead, you are finding your starting “working weight,” or the weight that you warm up to and then use to do your programmed sets.2


A post shared by Casey Johnston (@swolewoman)

The idea for this session is to start with a weight you can definitely handle, and then increase the weight in increments until you find a weight that feels appropriately challenging for the number of prescribed reps. You can then do your working sets, or not, if you feel like settling on the working weight was plenty of a task. Then you know how much weight to use the next time you come back.3

So where to actually, numerically start? Here is the process:

  • Ten pounds (or two 5lb dumbbells) will be a good place to start for any lift, if you are totally in the dark. You may find ten pounds is plenty, and then that becomes your first ever working weight. You can then count that first set as a working set, do the rest of your sets, and move on.
  • If ten pounds is easy (like you do the number of prescribed working-set reps as a test, and find you could immediately go again), go up to 15 or 20 pounds.
  • If that’s still really, really easy, go up to 30 or 40 pounds. Keep going and adding weight like this. Rest a minute if you do several sets in a row and are feeling a little tired out by all this experimentation.
  • Most people for any lift are not going to be able to add weight like this more than a few times. If you can: Congrats! You are surprisingly strong. But if you find your challenging weight quickly: Stop! Rest a minute. After that, do your working sets with your newly found working weight if you feel like it, or move on to the next movement in your session.
  • If you overshoot (say you jump from 30 to 40, and 30 felt too easy but 40 makes you crumple to the ground instantly and you can’t even do one rep): Stop. Rest a minute. Then do your working sets with your newly found working weight (in this example, 30 or 35 pounds), or move on.

A key element here is that, even if you start with a weight that is too easy, the magic of linear progression means you are going to be adding weight the very next session. You can add as little as 2.5lbs, but you can add 10lbs or more if you’re able. This means the weights get to be no joke pretty fast, even if they start out joke-adjacent! You can just find a weight that feels easy enough and linearly progress from there. I promise it will get challenging pretty quickly.

If you are doing, say, ten sets before you feel like you find an appropriate working weight—say you were playing it really safe adding only 2.5lbs at a time, but you’ve done ten sets and only worked your way from 10 pounds to 35 pounds and it still doesn’t feel challenging—you will be SOME kind of sapped from all that extra legwork. Then it feels a bit unfair when you “find a working weight,” because your working weight may not be as much as you are capable of as if you had been able to dial it in several sets ago.

But still, that weight is unlikely to be SO far off that you could actually be doing, say, double or triple what it is. You might be off by 5, 10, 20 pounds. That’s not that much, in the grand scheme. If you are following linear progression and adding 2.5-10lbs per lift, you would be finding your way to that higher weight in just a few sessions. This is nothing to stress over.

The Whole “How to Start Going to the Gym” Series":

What paid subscribers will be getting this week: A reader recently wrote to me lamenting the unfairness a of a few setbacks they’ve had in their lifting progress, and how they are having a hard time getting over “what might have been,” how much better they would be doing, if not for these events. We are going to get into the Great Man Theory of life problems, and why they may be less like unpredictable potholes in the road than inevitable gravitational fields. This may sound like it makes them even more hopeless, but I have at least one good reason that it’s actually MORE hopeful to think about it that way.


~Discord Pick of the Week:

To my extreme delight, two celebrities revealed themselves to be deadlifters this past week!!: Kristin Cavallari and Lorde (in her own newsletter, above; thank you to several of you who passed this along!). I might just have to unpack how to do the lift that all the girlies are doing in next week’s edition…~

Enjoyed this Ragen Chastain piece, and I’m really enjoying the newsletter overall too: Is weight neutral health the same as size acceptance?

I think we can all agree that protein bor.

A blessing from the queen Fiona Apple: Practice spending time meditating on/internalizing good things, because we have a bias toward ruminating on the bad stuff. YouTube also served me this Fiona Apple vs. the culture retrospective video essay, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would!

The case for caring less.


I would not normally talk about what’s going on with Elon Musk’s torso. However, this recent photo of him is an entrée into a topic relevant to strength training, regardless of whether it’s actually the mechanism at play here.4

So: What can produce a torso such as this? It could be just “the person is built that way,” and may we never discount that possibility. It’s worth remembering that it’s pretty impossible to tell from a photo alone who’s doing what with their body, so that’s lesson one.

It could also be acromegaly, which is a condition that comes from having high levels of human growth hormone. We all produce HGH, and it’s how our tissues grow. But after years of elevated levels, symptoms of acromegaly can include enlarged hands and feet, a deeper voice, enlarged organs (including the heart) and enlarged bones; many sources particularly call out enlarged ribs as a symptom.

Acromegaly can be genetic, entirely from a person’s own ability to produce HGH. But it can also come from supplementing HGH, as some speculated on Twitter about Elon.

We may have seen this HGH effect play out already with Joe Rogan, a professed HGH supplementer and enlarged-torso-haver in recent years. But the broader lesson two is that, without being specific to Elon, Silicon Valley’s privileged recreational use/abuse of PEDs as plays for immortality may someday come home to roost (just as they do for anyone who abuses supplements without regard for the downsides). I imagine not a few people are influenced by the biohacking tech elites profess to. But without having access to their same level of resources and medical care, it’s irresponsible of them to toss off a “oh yeah I love [insert PED]” without a fuller picture of how they work, so I want to fill that in.

Recreational HGH use is mostly popular among bodybuilders who want to be lean and muscular. But for a time in the early 2010s, HGH seemed to be very popular among the tech elite. Noted “transhumanist” Peter Thiel, in particular, was a huge proponent of taking HGH around 2014 and professed that he believed it would lengthen his life span. (This is an, at best, questionable and even possibly debunked use of HGH, even before he started). Biohacking was and remains very popular in Silicon Valley. Many SV scions, including Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, and Sean Parker aspire to live forever, though are usually less candid about their regimens.

In response to questions about whether he was worried about the way that HGH can hasten cancer, among many other side effects, Thiel expressed confidence that we would be finding a cure for cancer soon enough, and that problem would solve itself. Here we are, eight years later, no cure in sight. It’s unclear if he is still on the HGH train.

Like Thiel, Musk himself has expressed interest in the past in transhumanism and biohacking. One of his pet pie-in-the-sky projects is Neuralink, a brain-machine interface that would allow people’s mental capacities to transcend our current physical limits. The business has not delivered on much and has recently descended into chaos. Recently, Musk stated that, despite Neuralink, he is no longer so fascinated with defying mortality. (Though he “certainly would like to maintain health for a longer period of time.”)

HGH does not necessarily and swiftly produce all these negative side effects; it seems you’d have to take a fairly intense dose for years to make them happen. Even when we certainly know someone is abusing HGH, it’s hard to say for certain why anyone’s body does anything.

We may never actually see the biohacking descent into chaos, given that many of its most visible proponents probably have access to classified DARPA-level health care we may never learn of in our time on this earth, limited as it is by the constraints of regular human biology. But it’s interesting to think about. And it’s worth knowing about, if you have ever considered supps like this and are susceptible to influence by the tech elite, but are not similarly situated to just reset your genome or swap your brain into a new body or whatever may be available to the billionaires-many-times-over.

A Lululemon store is unionizing!! Let’s go girls, let it all fall down!! I hope this goes the way of Starbucks.

“Weird weight stuff that pro athletes are doing in the off-season that you should not imitate” Corner: This week, this Carolina Hurricanes hockey player appears to be doing some sort of stability bench using… plates hanging from other plates. Okay! As I told a curious reader: Athletes and their trainers do a great many mysterious off-season things; this neither makes those things invalid nor something you need to try. You can just bench normally.


The numbing rise of I.P. TV. I confess that I hate it! Based on nothing I can point to, I have developed a deeply biased loathing against “TV show based on a podcast” and “podcast based on a book.”

The secret history of the internet’s funniest buzzer beater.

It’s time to stop living the American scam. We love Tim Kreider.

On a personal note, I want to do a specific thank-you to—I don’t even know what to call it—but the type of seltzer that is non-alcoholic, highly flavored to the point that it tastes like juice (as opposed to LaCroix/Canada Dry/Spindrift types, which are like “a hint/kiss of flavor”), mysteriously calorie-less, and seemingly is not made by any independent brand, but instead is a white-labeled product of the grocery store where you are buying it and is always in 1L bottles (e.g. “Signature Select” at Vons/Albertsons/Safeway; “Clear American” at Walmart).

Do you know what I am talking about? It’s the best. Why isn’t all seltzer like this? Why is it so unheralded? Does it have a particular name? It seems to me it should be distinct from seltzer because it’s so different from e.g. LaCroix. If you know more about this type of beverage, please leave a comment or get in touch!!

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—

  1. Perhaps by now you are exasperated, yelling in your head, “NOW can I finally start to work out?” Let me be clear again: You may start to work out at any time.

  2. Two frequent questions I get: Do I have to warm up? You don’t have to do anything in life. You don’t even really have to pay taxes. But if you largely wish to prevent injury and learn to lift properly, yes you have to warm up. (”How to warm up” is explained in LIFTOFF.) The other is, are the sets and reps written in a program including the warm-up sets? They are not. If a program says to do, for instance, 5 sets of 5 squats, you are doing 2 to 4 warm-up sets to get to your working weight (maybe more, depending on how advanced you are), and then doing your 5 sets of 5. “Sounds like a lot of sets!” You may say. Warm-up sets should go quickly and be back-to-back; you don’t rest between them and they are relatively easy.

  3. So wait: Next time you come back, do you use the working weight you found, or do you add some weight, per “weights go up”/linear progression? I say add the weight. But if you don’t want to, you can do one set with the working weight you found this session and see how it feels. If it’s too easy, add your increment: 2.5-5lbs for upper body, and 5-10lbs for lower body.

  4. Obvious caveat that I’m not a doctor or his doctor, and he has not spoken publicly about this, so there is no way of knowing what’s going on. Even if he had, as we will get into, it is tough to speak with certainty about things like this! That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to learn.