How Much Weight Should I Lift?

Choosing the amount of weight you use for strength training is a tricky business, even for experienced exercisers and, if you’re a beginner it’s even harder.

Now, in the sciencey fitness world, where experts do studies and such, they use a one rep max protocol – Meaning, finding out how much weight one can lift for 1 rep and then taking a percentage of that to determine how much weight one would need for, say, 10 reps or 12 reps.

That isn’t easy to do in the real world and, frankly, I would never suggest anyone do that without a professional directing them.  Plus?  It’s miserable to lift that much weight, even just one time.

So, what’s the not-sciencey way to to do this?

You guess.

Yep, that’s how I figure out how much weight I need and it’s how I help my clients figure it out.  And here’s the rub – Every day is different and your body is different from one workout to the next.  That means you may have lifted 10 lbs on Monday but, on Wednesday you’re like – “This feels like twice as heavy.”  What the…?

Knowledge is Power

Experience is your best teacher when it comes to weight.  The next best teacher is me – Well, not me but fitness experts in general.  Here’s just one step by step way to choose your weights.

  1. Figure out the exercise you’re doing and how many reps you’ll do. For general strength and fitness, that’s usually 12 to 16 reps.  If you’re doing my workouts, I’ll tell you how many reps you’re doing.
  2. Pick a weight that feels reasonable for that exercise – Here are some tips:
    • Small muscles, smaller weights.  Big muscles, bigger weights.
      • Lower Body – These are big muscles so you can usually go heavier.  For example, for squats you might start with 8-10 lbs if you’re a woman, 10-20 lbs if you’re a man, and work your way up to 20 or more lbs.
      • Chest  – Big muscles.  For example, if you’re doing a chest press, start with about 5-10 lbs for women, 8-15 lbs for men.
      • Back – Big muscles.  For example, if you’re doing a dumbbell row, start with about 8-15 lbs for women, 10-25 lbs for men.
      • Shoulders – The shoulders tend to be smaller muscles and you’ll typically start with light weight, especially for overhead movements.  For example, if you’re doing an overhead press, start with 5-10 lbs for women and 8-15 lbs for men.
      • Triceps – Smaller muscles and these muscles are involved in other exercises like pushups, chest presses and other chest and shoulder exercises.  That means, they may already be fatigued by the time you get to them and you’ll need lighter weights.  An example:  For kickbacks, you might start with 3-5 lbs for women and 5-10 lbs for men.
      • Biceps – These are also smaller muscles and, like the triceps, they’re involved in other exercises, especially moves for the back like rows.  For that reason, you may use a different weight if you do biceps first as opposed to towards the end (where we usually put smaller muscle groups).  If you’re doing a biceps curl, for example, start with 8-15 lbs for women and 12-20 lbs for men.
  3. Check Your Intensity – If you felt like you could do way more reps, you went too light.  Make a note of that for your next workout or, if you’re doing another set, go up to the next increment in your weights and see how that feels.  If you couldn’t finish the reps, you went too heavy.  Again, make a note of that or reduce your weights for the next set.
  4. Keep a Workout Log – If you really want to make progress and figure out a good weight range for each exercise, it pays to keep a workout log.
  5. In your next workout, start with the weight you ended with from the previous workout. Go through the process again, increasing or decreasing the weight and keeping notes about each exercise.

And remember, building muscle and getting stronger is all about progressive overload, so as you get stronger, you’ll need to lift heavier weights.  Which will make you feel awesome.

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