What is a good starting point for weights and reps, and when do we decide it is time to increase them?
First, let's look at this rule of thumb:
- Muscle Tone: Low Weight/ Many Reps
- Strength: High weight/ Few Reps
Personally, I am looking to increase strength, so I opt for the latter option. In that regard, I began with a weight that I knew I could lift correctly for at least two sets of 4 reps. When I was able to build up to two sets of 6 reps on consecutive days, I would increase the weight and only expect 4 reps. If I could get 5 or 6 on the first try, I would keep 'leveling up' each session until I reached the point where the last rep of the second set of 4 was difficult to lift correctly. Normally, I like to get 8 - 12 reps per exercise per session with the last rep being almost impossible.
When you are starting out, you may find that sometimes your starting weight is ridiculously easy, or it may be too difficult. I say stick with the easy weight and learn the correct form, increasing weight or reps next time. The more complex the movement, the less weight I would add on. Example: for a push press, I would only increase the weight by 5 pounds, but a leg press, I may add 20. If the weight you choose is too difficult, there is no shame in lowering the amount in order to get your reps. It will happen; you will get there, so don't worry.
Remember, it's not about how much you can lift, it's about how well you lift. It means nothing if your form isn't correct. A correct push press of 20 pounds trumps a sloppy one at 50. So the first month or so of any new exercise should be a learning period to find the perfect intersection of weight and form.
To recap: Two sets of 4 reps, the last rep should be difficult while still keeping correct form. When you are able to do 2 sets of 6 reps, increase the weight and lower the reps back to 4. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.