You Asked: How Much Weight Should I Lift?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
When you put this all together, the proper weight:
  • 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.
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!

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I have used Joyce Vedral's wonderful videos for years now and they are such good instruction. I love doing KettleBells and find great ones on YouTube. Steve Cotter has the best Video on them. Report
I would really love to see some actual numbers for what a fit person could aspire to lift. It's easy to get a sense of what 'fast' means for various ages and fitness levels at any distance, but hard to figure out what 'strong' means. This is a great article for choosing what weights to use now, and I hope we can have another one that helps us set realistic long term strength goals :) Report
thanks for the great tips Report
Very clear and well explained. Thank you! Report
Thanks BETHANY for your comments - I was just thinking how I'd like to know a program for lifting, and you named one. I'll check it out. I'll also check out the adjustable dumbbells at Walmart. Thanks!
This is good basic info NICOLE ~ I needed this as I'm just about to start. Got out the old set from the shed, but unfortunately, my 5 pound set is missing. Next one up I have is 7 lbs. Guess I can give it a try. Thanks!
CHAR Report
Great pointers. Thanks. Report
Great tips! Report
I would add one more consideration: if you have chronic health issues, check with your doctor first. It's possible that you may have weight restrictions because of your health condition. That was my case; I have a heart condition and my cardiologist advised that I not lift above a certain amount so that I wouldn't strain my heart. As I've gotten stronger, that amount's gotten higher, but it's still lower than other people lift. Report
I have respiratory problems and sometimes weights add just a little bit too much resistance so I do without or use exercise bands. Still good exercise! Report
Cardio plus portion control are important but working with weights religiously makes a very big difference.....(plus, it is fun) Report
too many women are afraid of using any weight at all, they start with a 3lb weight and never move up. They keep using the weight they started with because they believe falsely that they will bulk up if they use to heavy a weight. I am always amazed at the women who can do 15 reps in like 15 seconds because they refuse to challenge themselves and add weight. this is echoed in some Woman's only gyms where the free weight only go up to 20lbs. Report
Great information. Thanks Nicole. Report
Thank you for the info! Report
Thanks Bethanyboo. That is good info about the walmart weights. Great blog also Nicole. Just getting started on weight training and really looking forward to FIRM. Report
That slow burn is correct. Another thing I have done recently is to back off the weight and get up to 15 reps before moving the weight up. Report
Unfortunately, most people don't know what "fatigue" in 8-15 reps actually feels like. They feel a tiny burn and figure a 1 pound weight must be the right one. Report
Thank you so much for the article! I have been lifting the wrong weights and causing myself pain that was not needed. Now, I know I need to back off and choose a lighter weight until I am ready for the heavier ones. Thank you! Report
For anyone who doesn't yet have weights, I'd suggest getting an adjustable dumbbell set. They come with two dumbbells and several different weight plates that you can put on so that you can change the weight for different exercises and up the weights as you progress. Walmart has a set that's under $40 for 40 lbs (so you can use it for 5 lbs/dumbbell up to 20lbs per dumbbell)

I have been strength training for about a year and a half now and this advice is very good. I'd also further advise that you follow a program like New Rules of Lifting for Women and do not worry about "bulking up". I lift heavy and I do not look "bulky" (except when flexing, but that's kind of fun :)) Report
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