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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Great information! Report
How timely. I was just told that I should begin using slightly heavier weights. This article has helped me to clearly understand when my weights are heavy enough to be productive. Thanks!
Thanks I'm a beginner. I thought I would use 16 oz. canned veggies. to start
with. Then get dumbbells of 3 lbs. to certain exercises. Then gradually add
on. Have a Marvelous & Blessed Monday! Report
Good piece...a cheat rep is okay every now and then though (a little momentum on that bicep curl or shoulder press). Report
This was a very informative blog. I especially found the idea of thinking of form first by doing the "curls" without weights. I believe I will start there. yes. I will start my weight training without weights for the first week, then re-evaluate from there. If my form is "acceptable or satisfactory" I will add 3-pound dumbbells. Thank you for this blog. It took the "intimidation" away. Report
Would be nice if tracking was more user friendly to the working to fatigue concept. Seems like having to log most strength training exercises twice just to create a separate set with fewer reps for each could somehow be alleviated. Report
I've been lifting for a while and do 3 sets of 10 reps usually. Should I, instead, do ONE set and add more weight? Because when I do 3 sets, I have to make sure I'll be able to lift 2 more sets so I can't go to fatigue on the first set.
Also, I may be gaining muscle (I think in my legs at least) but I have this thin-ish layer of fat I guess so i can't see any of my progress. It's very discouraging. Especially when in highschool my arms look so sculpted w/only doing some push-ups or nothing at all. Report
Thanks for the reassurance on the different weights for different exercises. Joined a gym last week and met with a personal trainer this week for upper body exercises; while I could usually use the 3 lb dumbbells, for the lateral raises I had to use 2 lbs. And there were even one or two exercises that I needed to use the 5 lb, which amazed me! Report
I had been doing strength training at a gym for a number of years. I had to quit and at that time my right arm was kind of bothering me. (I was lifting about 20# on bicep curl and was close to 70 at the time.) After I quit, the arm got better. Then went back to lifting at home and think I did what I knew NOT to do -- lifted too much too soon. And the shoulder began hurting again. After a year of physical therapy, I had a right shoulder replacement. Now I am doing PT 3 times a day. When I can go back to regular lifting, I had a nurse friend tell me to not go above 8#. That used to be so easy, but will I have to continually up the weight?? Do not want another shoulder replacement because I went too high. Report
I think this is great advice! I am going to the gym to lift on Tuesday and have every intention of following your advice. =) Report
I truly Thank You for this blog. It is informative and does motivate me to give it a try. It explains what happen to me years ago; then, I quit. (I was a bull dozer.) I will start without the weights to get the form correct and then move up to weights. Thanks for taking the time to clarify it all.
God Bless You in all You do to keep 'SparkPeople' motivated & healthy! Report
Very good article.
I've had some training and a lot of physical therapy. I know what feels good when I start and then says NO MORE after about 13-15 reps. If I'm not going to drop the weights on myself, I try one more rep.

Be very careful with bench press. That has to be where I broke my clavicle. That seriously limited what I could do. I had to get one of the guys to lock the machine after squats. Report
Thanks. Explains why several machines need me to change the weight load. Report
thanks this helps me alot Report
Good blog.
I know that if I have muscle shakes when I've completed a set, I have fatigued that muscle group and it was a good workout. The shakes go away after a bit thank goodness!

And as for toning vs. bulking up - from what I have read, women really have to work hard to specifically bulk up so go for it ladies! It feels great to have strong looking arms and legs! Report
great article! Report
Thank you for the article! Report
Thanks for the info. But how do you know when you should increase your weights? I use 5lb. dumbbells. Is it o.k. to stick with the same or will I not see results after a while? I'm doing 2 days a week weight training for about 1/2 hour. Is this a good amount? Report
thanks coach nicole this is of great help,but i wanna know when to stop increasing the weight,i don't want to bulk up. Report
This article is right on time for me. I plan to add weight lifting to my exercise schedule. Report
If you're still uncertain, it's worth the time and money to meet with a personal trainer, even just once. I did, and he started me out by trying different weights for different exercises, and it gave me the confidence to say "that's too much" or "I can go heavier." After 9 months, I can pulldown 60 pounds, leg press 50, do a 35 pound bicep curl, etc. I do 12 reps of each, and by rep 9 or 10, if you feel shaking in your muscles, you're at the right weight. That is the chemical signal from muscle to brain that you need more muscle tissue. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism, the more fat you burn. I've lost 50 pounds since January. Just take those weights slowly so you avoid injuries, but don't be afraid to try an extra 5 pounds to see if you get that shaking. Good luck, and thanks, Nicole! Report
Thanks, Nicole, for the information. My DS thought that, just because my mother gave him some 5-lbs dumbbells, that's what I should use. Now I know that I should get some 2-lbs, and work up. Report
it makes sense to me. i have different weight dumbells which are gathering dust as i write this. it's time to dust them off and start with my 2# weights and work up from there. thanks. Report
I understand your comments and agree with them, however, it is useful to have SOME guideline on appropriate weights. In Miriam Nelson's book "Strong Women, Strong Bones" she does just that. The weights are specific not only to the muscle group being worked but also to the woman's age: 29-49, 50-69, 70+. I found the information in this book both helpful and realistic.

NOTE: these are maximum targets once you are strong. They are NOT intended as starting points. You start low and work your way up to them! Report
thanks for the info and for the comments, too Report
"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."

I found this to be extremely helpful because I'd never heard that before. I always assumed that I should be lifting the same weight for different exercises, thus I always struggled with good form when going from bicep curls to say, the military press. Knowing that it's ok to use different weights for different exercises (primarily upper body, for me) encourages me to not look at my workouts as "failures" if I have to change weights. Thanks, Coach Nicole! Very enlightening article for me. Report
This is exactly what I need to read, One question though, starting at a lower weight will that help to tone rather then bulk? I want to look strong and not look intimidating. :-) Thanks, great article Report
No I'm not confident, thanks for the article Report
Thanks for the info. Really helps. Report
This advice has actually motivated me to go to the gym and try it out with confidence.

Thanks. Report
Yes, these guidelines are very helpful. Thanks so much for posting this. Report
It's so good to know that I'm doing it right!
Thanks for all the great info!!! Report
This is great info. Now I know how I should use my 12 lb weights. Report
Thanks for the info... Report
Thanks for the infromation. Report
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