Strength training may not be rocket science, but for the average person, figuring out the best, safest, and most effective ways to lift weights is no small task. There's no shortage of workout videos, toning classes and fitness plans you could follow to reach your goals of toning up, building strength, and reshaping your body. But even if you're following a great plan designed by a knowledgeable trainer, one big question still remains: How much weight should you be lifting?
This is by far the most common question I receive. While there is no easy answer, I'm going to break it down for you as simply as possible so that you are getting the results you're looking for from your strength training program while staying safe at the same time.
How much weight should you lift during strength training? Drum roll please…
It depends. I know, I know, not a straight answer, but an accurate one! Let me explain.
We are all at different strength levels and the muscles throughout your body vary in strength, too. So while 10 pounds might be the ideal weight for you to lift during biceps curls, you could struggle with that weight during lateral raises, or leg press it all day as if it were a bag of feathers. So keep in mind that the amount of weight you lift during one exercise could be too light or too heavy for another. That said, you'll probably need to experiment with a variety of weights to find the appropriate level for each exercise you do. Working out at a gym makes that easy, but doing so at home will take a little more space and investment. I think it's a good idea to have at least two, and ideally three sets of dumbbells at home: a light, medium and heavier set, which is defined by your own fitness level. That could be 2, 5, and 7 pounds for one person, or 5, 10 and 15 pounds for another. Personally, I keep 6, 10 and 20 pound weights at home, which allow me to do a variety of workouts and exercises safely and effectively.
So how much should you lift? Here are the 5 guidelines you need to follow to select the proper weight for strength training.
When you put this all together, the proper weight:
- Aim low. The safest and most effective thing to do if you are a beginner is to master your exercises with little to no added weight. This allows you to focus intensely on proper form, which is essential before you're going to increase the weight (and therefore your risk of injury, should you be doing things incorrectly). There is no shame in doing body weight squats, crunches, modified pushups or even "mock" bench presses or triceps extensions without added weight. Many workout DVDs modify the workout for beginners by doing the same exact moves without any added weight. It's a great way to start if you are new to strength training OR trying a new workout DVD/class/exercise for the first time! Slowly begin to incorporate weights, starting with your lightest weights, only after you have mastered the moves without weight.
- Go slow. If you have to move at jackrabbit speed or harness momentum to lift the weight, it is too heavy. Period. The proper weight will allow you to move in a slow, controlled manner.
- Never sacrifice form for function. You might want to fast track your results by picking a heavy weight, but lifting more weight should never trump doing it correctly. If you can't do the exercise properly, then the added weight is not doing you any favors and may actually increase your risk for serious injury.
- Count your reps. In general, you are lifting the right amount of weight when you can perform 8-15 repetitions in good form. Once you get strong enough to do more than 15 repetitions more easily, it's probably time to increase the weight again.
- Work to fatigue. This is the #1 key to selecting the proper weight. The weight you lift should not only meet the guidelines for form above, but should also challenge your muscles! The only way strength training is really going to benefit you is for you to overload your muscles—that means working them to fatigue. The weight you select should be challenging enough to fatigue your muscles within 8-15 repetitions.
Do you feel confident in selecting the proper weight for strength training? Was this explanation helpful to you? Share any other pressing fitness questions you have, and I could answer yours in a future blog post!
- Is moderately challenging (not so heavy that you can't lift it with proper form and control, and not so light that you could lift it forever).
- Fatigues your muscles within 8-15 reps (which means you couldn’t possibly lift another repetition in good form beyond that).
- Varies depending on the exercise and muscle group you are working since some muscles are stronger than others, just as certain exercise are inherently more complex or challenging than others.
- Will continue to change as you get stronger, and this continual progression is what improves your strength over time and boosts your fitness level.