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How much weight should I lift?

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Updated June 11, 2014

Question: How much weight should I lift?
Answer: Choosing how much weight you need for different strength training exercises requires a little guesswork and a little practice. There's no right way to pick your weights, but you can use these steps to steer you in the right direction:
  1. Choose an exercise and decide how many reps you want to do. For general strength and fitness, that's usually 10 to 12 reps.
  2. Pick what feels like a medium weight and do all your reps, paying attention to how you feel at the end of the set.
  3. If you felt like you could do several more reps, increase your weight by about 5 lbs and perform another set, again, paying attention to how you feel at the end.
  4. If you could barely finish the set or had to swing the weights to get them up, reduce your weight by 5 or more lbs for your next set.
  5. Make a note of how much weight you used for both sets and how the exercises felt to you.
  6. 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.
  7. Give yourself a couple of weeks to practice the exercises, get your form down and see how different weights feel.
  8. As you get stronger and more confident, focus on choosing a weight you can only lift for the desired number of reps. The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible. You don't have to go to complete failure, but your muscles need overload to see results. Make sure you feel challenged at the end of your set.

Experience is the best teacher when it comes to strength training and your body will make quick progress in the first few weeks, if you're consistent. It also helps to have a little knowledge under your belt, so consider these factors when you're choosing how much weight to use:

  • Your fitness level. If you're a beginner, it's better to go lighter so you can perfect your form. Your first few workouts may cause soreness, but keeping the weight light may help minimize that.
  • The muscles you're working. Larger muscles, like the legs, chest and back, can handle more weight than smaller muscles such as the shoulders, arms and calves. After working with personal training clients, I've come up with an average weight range for beginners when working different muscle groups. These numbers may help guide you in choosing your weights, but are only suggestions for a starting point:
    • Chest and Back: 5-12 lbs for women, 10-25 lbs for men
    • Shoulders: 3-8 lbs for women, 5-15 lbs for men
    • Biceps: 5-10 lbs for women, 8-15 lbs for men
    • Triceps: 3-8 lbs for women, 5-15 lbs for men
    • Lower body (squats, lunges, etc.): 8-15 lbs for women, 10-25 lbs for men
  • Experience. It takes practice to know just how much weight you'll need for different exercises. Over time, you'll become more intuitive about your choices.
Keeping an exercise journal and writing down the weights you're using can help you figure out when to increase or decrease your weights. You can learn more about the ins and outs of lifting weight in Weight Training 101.

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