I have been working as a Certified Personal Trainer for over 15 years, and one of the most common questions that my clients ask me is: How much weight should I lift?
After all, knowing what weights to use for each exercise is a crucial step to maximizing the benefits of your workouts and minimizing the risks of injuries.
If you are lifting dumbbells or weights that are too light, you likely won’t be able to build muscle or increase strength efficiently, and if you try to lift weights that are too heavy, you may not be able to use proper technique, which will increase your risk of injuries.
But, how do you select the right dumbbells or weights to lift? What is a good starting weight for beginners for lower body exercises and upper body exercises? How do you know when it is time to increase the weight that you are lifting?
In this guide to how to choose the right weights for workouts, we will discuss the factors that affect how much weight to use for an exercise, and some general recommendations for how to lift heavier weights over time in your workout program.
We will cover:
Let’s dive in!
How Much Weight Should I Lift?
The following are several factors that affect the amount of weight you should use in your strength training workouts:
#1: Your Fitness Level
Above all, the most important factor that should guide the dumbbell weight or amount of weight that you are using in your strength training workouts is your fitness level, which basically means your current level of strength.
Regardless of your primary training goal with your workout program, it is imperative that you are using dumbbells, barbells, or other weights that you can safely handle with proper form and technique for your desired number of reps for the exercise.
The risk of injury when you are strength training with heavy weights increases exponentially when the weights are too heavy for you to use good form and proper technique for the exercise.
Here, the term “heavy weights,“ is relative.
What might be a heavy dumbbell or barbell load for one athlete might be quite easy for another.
This is why it is crucial to be honest with your own self-assessment about how much weight you can lift with proper form, even if it seems that everyone around you in the gym is lifting heavier weights.
“Ego lifting“ is a term used to describe the all too common mistake that weightlifters can fall prey to when comparing the amount of weight they are lifting to the heavier weights being lifted by those around them or even just the amount of weight they “think“ they should lift or that they want to be able to lift with proper technique.
There is no point in loading up a barbell with huge plates and then trying to do squats if you are only able to do a partial squat because the barbell is too heavy.
Even worse, you could end up hurting yourself or even collapsing under the load because you have chosen an amount of weight that you are not ready for.
It is always better to use lighter weights that you can safely manage with good form than allow your ego to take over.
Using lighter weights for barbell exercises like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts is especially important if you do not have a spotter or you are still working on mastering proper form and technique.
#2: Training Goal
Aside from your strength level, your primary training goal with your strength training workout program will dictate how much weight to lift.
There are different guidelines or recommendations for how much weight to lift1Sands, W., Wurth, J., & Hewit, J. (2012). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) BASICS OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING MANUAL. https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/116c55d64e1343d2b264e05aaf158a91/basics_of_strength_and_conditioning_manual.pdf and how many repetitions to do with your chosen weight for an exercise based on your primary fitness goal.
The recommended rep range and weight to use will differ depending on whether you are trying to build muscle (known as hypertrophy training), increase strength, or increase muscular endurance.
#3: Type of Weight Training Exercise
Although it is likely intuitive, it is certainly worth discussing that the recommendations for the amount of weight to use, or which dumbbells to select for an exercise depend on the muscle groups you are working in and the type of exercise you are doing.
Generally, muscle groups in the lower body are inherently stronger than muscle groups in the upper body.
This is because lower body muscle groups habitually support a much greater proportion of your total body weight during everyday activities such as standing, walking, and climbing stairs, as well as during more vigorous exercise such as running, squats, and playing sports.
For this reason, you can generally use heavier weights for exercises that target muscle groups in the lower body, such as the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and adductors, compared to those in the upper body, such as the biceps, triceps, deltoids in the shoulders, and even back muscles and chest muscles.
This trend is certainly true when comparing the amount of weight that most people lift for an exercise like biceps curls versus deadlifts, lunges, or squats.
You’ll have to use lighter weights for biceps curls because the biceps are notably smaller, weaker, and not chronically subjected to supporting your body weight compared with larger, stronger leg muscles like the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
However, there are a couple of notable exceptions to lifting heavier weights for lower body exercises and lifting lighter weights for upper body exercises or arm exercises.
For example, some of the smaller muscles in the glutes, such as the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, can be notably weak, particularly in runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes.
Sometimes, just your own body weight or just a light resistance band or lightweight ankle weight is sufficient to strengthen these hip and glute muscles.
In contrast, strength athletes who are following a hypertrophy workout program and lifting heavy weights for upper body workouts may be able to handle significantly heavier weights for some of the major muscle groups in the upper body, such as when performing a barbell overhead press or barbell bench press.
This is why it is important to consider the muscle groups you are training, the muscle size in the targeted muscle groups, your training level, and the number of reps you are doing when selecting the right weight.
#4: Number of Repetitions
The final consideration when selecting the right weight to lift in your workouts is the number of reps you perform for the exercise.
As mentioned, there is a recommended rep range based on the primary fitness goal.
For beginners who are just building a foundation in their strength training workouts or who are unsure what number of reps they should be doing when they are lifting weights, considering the number of reps can help you choose the right amount of weight to lift.
Generally, there are two main approaches to the reps and weights when you are lifting weights: using heavier weights for fewer reps or using lighter weights for higher rep ranges.
As dictated by the NSCA strength training continuum, the fewer reps you perform, the heavier the weights should be, closer to your one-rep max.2TRAINING LOAD CHART. (n.d.). https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/61d813865e264c6e852cadfe247eae52/nsca_training_load_chart.pdf
How much weight should I lift to gain strength?
A lower rep range with fewer reps is recommended for trying to increase strength vs build muscle or increase muscular endurance.
This is because when the goal is to increase absolute strength, you are ultimately trying to increase your one-rep max weight, which is the maximum amount of weight you can lift with proper form and proper technique for a given exercise.
Then, through your strength training program, you will start to employ the principle of progressive overload to gradually increase the maximum amount of weight you can lift as your strength improves.
Strength training workout programs geared towards increasing strength; therefore, use a lower rep range and heavier weights.
How much weight should I lift to build muscle?
In contrast, when lifting weights to build muscle, you will use a higher number of reps and lighter weights than you would use when trying to increase your one-rep max.
This is because muscle growth requires greater training volume to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is the physiological process by which hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs.
Generally, as mentioned, the recommended rep range for the goal of building muscle mass is 8 to 12 reps per exercise, aiming for 3 to 4 sets.
According to the CSCS or the NSCA strength training continuum, the amount of weight to lift for this hypertrophy number of reps is between 67 and 85% of your one-rep max.
To choose the right weight, consider the number of reps you are doing within that recommended rep range.
For example, if you are only going to do eight reps, you can use heavier weights— closer to 85% of your one-rep max—and when you are going to be doing more reps (like the upper end of the hypertrophy resistance training rep range), you will use lighter weights that are closer to 67% of your 1RM.
How much weight should I lift to improve muscular endurance?
Finally, if you are trying to increase muscular endurance, you will do a greater number of reps— generally, at least 15 reps, if not more—and use just your own body weight or a light weight equivalent to no more than 67% of the maximum amount of weight you can lift for the exercise.
Certain bodyweight exercises, such as pull-ups, push-ups, and triceps dips, can be extremely challenging for beginners and even advanced athletes.
This is because the muscle size for the triceps, grip strength muscles, and even some of the upper back muscles is notably small, and many people are noticeably weak in these upper body muscle groups.
In these cases, you will likely not even need to use any external weight to get a challenging workout.
In fact, for most beginners or athletes who have a higher body fat percentage and lower relative strength ratio, your own body weight might be too much to handle with proper form for some of these challenging bodyweight exercises, especially pull-ups and parallel bar triceps dips.
You may need to start with assisted pull-ups and triceps dips with the assisted pull-up machine, or perform bench triceps dips.
If you cannot handle full push-ups with your own body weight, you can start on your knees or with your hands elevated on a desk or even against the wall until you build muscle and increase strength.
When Should I Increase the Weights I Lift?
In addition to knowing how to choose the right weight to lift, you also need to understand when to increase the weight you are lifting.
If you always use the same dumbbell weight for an exercise week after week in your strength training plan, you will eventually find that you are no longer building muscle, increasing strength, or seeing other gains from your resistance training workouts.
There is a key principle with weight training workouts known as progressive overload.
Progressive overload essentially means that you have to gradually increase the amount of weight you are lifting or otherwise increase the training stimulus to continue to build strength or muscle.
Your body will adapt to the number of reps you are doing and how much weight you are lifting in your workout program.
When this happens, if you do not start lifting heavier weights or doing higher reps, you will see a stagnation in your fitness goals known as a strength plateau.
With progressive overload, you can manipulate the training stimulus by either lifting heavier weights, performing a higher number of reps or sets, or doing more training volume by adding training days to your strength training program.
Like other personal trainers, I generally recommend a combination of all of these, depending on your fitness level, fitness goal, and the overall architecture of your current strength training program.
For example, for beginners, I generally recommend starting with 2 to 3 full-body strength training workouts per week with two sets of 8 to 15 reps of an exercise, depending on the muscle groups worked and the athlete’s fitness level.
Then, we will add another set.
After the athlete is lifting weights with proper form for three sets of 8 to 15 reps, I will increase the weights they are using as long as the athlete can maintain good form.
However, for more serious athletes interested in weightlifting to build muscle or do bodybuilding or competitive weightlifting, we would then transition to adding another training day each week to boost training value.
This is again another way to induce progressive overload.
Once the athlete is training 4 to 5 days per week, I would generally recommend focusing on lifting heavier weights.
However, again, this needs to be considered within the context of the strength training program goal.
When the goal is muscle growth, it is better to increase training volume with higher rep ranges for more training days, or more sets and exercises per workout once the athlete is already lifting weights that correspond to 67-85% of their current one-rep max.
In contrast, I have several strength training athletes I have been training for years who are trying to increase the maximum amount of weight they can lift or take on powerlifting or competitive weightlifting.
For these athletes, the focus of progressive overload is on increasing the amount of weight they lift for an exercise rather than trying to do more reps with the same weights.
The key to reducing the risk of injury with progressive overload is not manipulating all potential variables simultaneously.
In other words, don’t increase the number of reps and sets of an exercise, the number of exercises you do in your resistance training workouts, the number of days per week you are lifting weights, and the how much weight you are lifting in your workout program at the same time.
Pick one change and give your body time to adapt before further progressing your workouts.
Furthermore, any of these changes need to be gradual.
Increase your weights by no more than 5% from week to week, but once you can do all of your reps and sets with proper form, it’s time to grab the next heaviest dumbbells!
What is the Recommended Weight to Lift for Beginners?
So, how much weight should beginners lift?
Start with dumbbells you can use for 8-10 reps per set of the exercise. This might be 5-15 pounds for upper body exercises and 10-30 pound dumbbells for lower body exercises, but it really depends on your body size, strength level, and specific exercise.
If you enjoyed this guide, check out:
- 1Sands, W., Wurth, J., & Hewit, J. (2012). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) BASICS OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING MANUAL. https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/116c55d64e1343d2b264e05aaf158a91/basics_of_strength_and_conditioning_manual.pdf
- 2TRAINING LOAD CHART. (n.d.). https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/61d813865e264c6e852cadfe247eae52/nsca_training_load_chart.pdf