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How Much Weight to Lift


Updated May 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Choosing how much weight to lift is often based on how many reps and sets you're doing. The general rule is to lift enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps. In other words, you want to work to fatigue. However, if you're a beginner or if you have medical or health conditions, you may need to avoid complete fatigue and just find a weight that challenges you at a level you can handle.

So, how do you know how much weight you need to challenge your body? Below are a few tips to help you decide:

  • The larger muscles of the glutes, thighs, chest and back can usually handle heavier weight than the smaller muscles of the shoulders, arms, abs and calves.
  • You'll usually lift more weight on a machine than with dumbbells. With machines, you're usually using both arms or both legs for the exercises while, with dumbbells, each limb works independently. So, if you can handle 30 or 40 pounds on a chest press machine, you may only be able to handle 15 or 20 pounds with dumbbells.
  • If you're a beginner, it's more important to focus on good form than it is to lift heavy weights.
  • It may take several workouts to figure out how much weight you need

The easiest way to determine how much weight you should use on each lift is to guess (not very scientific, huh?):

  1. Pick up a light weight and do a warm up set of the exercise of your choice, aiming for about 10 to 16 repetitions.
  2. For set 2, increase your weight by 5 or more pounds and perform your goal number of repetitions. If you can do more than your desired number of reps, heavy up again for your 3rd set.
  3. In general, you should be lifting enough weight that you can ONLY do the desired reps. You should be struggling by the last rep, but still able to finish it with good form.

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