Choosing the right amount of weight for lifting or strength-building workouts can feel a little like gazing down the cereal aisle at the grocery store: So. Many. Options.
Strength training as a whole functions as an excellent way to increase lean muscle, reduce fat, and amp up your self-confidence. And as a beginner, it’s crucial to know where to start when it comes to choosing the right amount of weight for you—so here are a couple tips to keep in mind as you get started.
Start with bodyweight.
“Before you reach for the weights, mastering technique without weight is a great place to start,” says personal trainer Annie Brees. “In some cases, that may mean scaling down to bodyweight movements first, but it’s a crucial step in safely gaining strength. But don’t poo-poo body weight work as it can be plenty challenging.”
Instead of dumbbell, kettlebell or medicine ball workouts, try managing your own bodyweight. You can work your muscles from head to toe with squats, push-ups and core exercises. Another option? Yoga, as it primarily utilizes your bodyweight to build strength and flexibility.
Repetitions impact both strength and endurance.
With strength training, it’s important to figure out your optimal number of repetitions and sets, as variances affect strength, muscle growth, and endurance in different ways. A lower number of reps, anywhere from 1-8 movements, will increase strength. If you gear up for a higher number of reps, such as 5-15 or more, you’ll likely build muscle. And if you prioritize 12-20 reps, know you’ll be focusing most on endurance.
Once you decide upon a number of repetitions with a particular strength movement, choose a number of sets. This can vary between 2-4, and then you’ll be ready to select a weight level. The right amount of weight should make it challenging to complete the last reps of each set, or the final set as a whole.
For example: if you’re lifting 10 lb dumbbells for 8-10 reps over 3 sets, ideally, you’d struggle to complete each rep around the sixth one. You may not even finish the last couple on the third set, which doesn’t make you a failure—instead, it means you’re pushing your muscles hard, in the right way.
And, if you prefer lighter weights, you can still make the most of each repetition. “Lighter weights don’t have to mean ‘easy,’ says Brees. “Traditional strength training calls for higher reps when the weight is lighter to help build muscle mass, but playing around with tempo (1 count to lift, 3 counts to lower) can be a great way to challenge yourself with lighter weights.”
Go slow with good form.
“Safety should always be a top priority when exercising, but especially when moving heavy weights,” says Brees. “It’s common for form to break down as you fatigue and the weight gets heavier, and because most of us aren’t winning medals for PR’s, make sure you keep your technique a focus when lifting a maximal weight.”
Don’t use momentum, swinging, or bouncing to move faster during a strength exercise, and remember that poor form can cause muscle tears, easily leading to injury. If you’re using too much weight, you’ll likely start recruiting other muscle groups (i.e., using your shoulder and torso to lift during a bicep curl instead of isolating the bicep itself and only moving from the elbow).
“If you’re lifting the right amount of weight, you should be able to maintain stability of your core with an appropriate level of intra-abdominal pressure and a neutral and elongated spine,” suggests Dr. Chris LoRang. “Simply put, when lifting, if you feel like you are arching your back, it may be too much weight.”
Picking the right amount of weight involves trial and error.
“Assuming you’ve nailed your form, selecting the right amount of weight may take some trial and error as weight prescriptions are so individual,” notes Brees. “Depending on what your workout calls for, I recommend picking a weight that you can maintain proper form throughout the whole set. If after a few repetitions you feel the weight is too heavy or too light, feel free to adjust as needed. Channel your inner Goldilocks and remember you’re not married to the weight for the entire set or workout.”
As Brees says, pick the heaviest weight where you can do one rep with good form, and then back down from there to a weight about 60-70% of the heaviest one you can lift. Additionally, if you’re worried about not lifting enough weight, have no fear. The moment when all of your reps feel completely manageable with good form is the optimal time to shift to a heavier weight so you can avoid a strength plateau.
“If you finish your first set and feel you have 4 or more reps left the in the tank, try adding a few pounds,” says Brees. “On the flip side, if you find yourself grinding out those last few reps, maybe take it down a notch.” Even a mere five-pound jump either direction can be a game changer, so start with add in small increments as you figure out what weight is right for you.
You’re stronger than you think.
Above all, be consistent, give yourself plenty of time, and avoid comparing yourself to others. Brees also encourages people to believe they can lift heavier, particularly women.
“I see women carrying multiple bags of groceries, children, and luggage, and also hoisting 20-pound bags of dog food over their shoulder—but they step foot in the gym and shy away from anything over ten pounds.”