You’ve heard all the reasons why adding strength training to your fitness routine is a must, but there’s just one little problem. Those barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells are intimidating! How do you know which dumbbells to grab or how many weight plates to put on your barbell? Choosing the right weights to lift will help you achieve your fitness goals and keeps you injury-free.
Too often at the gym, you’ll see “macho” types load up far too much barbell weight, then perform a few reps with terrible form. On the flip side, more than a few exercisers will tip-toe over to the free weight section of the gym and pick up tiny dumbbells, afraid that heavy weights will create too much bulk. (Which, for the record, is one of the most pernicious and incorrect fitness myths!)
How do you choose the right amount of weight to get the most out of your workouts? It’s not an impossible puzzle. Instead, just run down this five-part checklist:
1. Check Your Form
When it’s time to hit the weights, your first and most important goal is to stay safe. That means performing your reps with correct form. Just because you can lift a certain weight, doesn’t mean you should if your form breaks down in the process.
If you are starting a lifting routine for the first time or coming back to lifting after a long break, focus on form first. That means performing your reps at a light weight so you can train your body to feel the right form for each type of exercise. If you aren’t sure how to perform movements like back squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, or reverse dumbbell flies, consider working with a personal trainer for a few weeks.
If you notice that your form begins breaking down in the middle of your set, lower the weight until you can maintain good form until the last few reps. After all, you can’t improve if you’re injured!
2. Check Your Goals
Different exercisers have different reasons for adding a strength component to their fitness routine. Your goal will help you (or your personal trainer) design the right strength training routine for you, which in turn will let you determine the right weights to use during each exercise.
For example, if you want to pack on the muscle and build quads so big you split your shorts, you’ll want to focus on low reps at heavy weights. Alternatively, if you’re more of a cardio athlete who wants to add strength training to prevent injuries, you’ll likely focus more on performing a medium amount of reps at a moderate weight. If you’re just starting your gym journey, you might first participate in regular strength training classes. Once you develop a foundation of lean muscle and core strength, you can safely move on to your weight lifting goals.
3. Check Your Workout
Your workout will give you important clues about what type of weights to lift and how much weight you should choose for each exercise. For example, even if you want to build a lot of muscle, that doesn’t mean you should try to hit a personal record every single time you step into the gym. Instead, you’ll want to mix heavy and moderate lifting days and even maybe mix in a few light lifting days to build muscle endurance and keep your fitness routine interesting.
If you have a workout ready to go when you walk into the gym, take a look at your rep scheme.
- 1- 4 reps per set: You are going heavy! On a weight scale of 1- 10 (1 being a weight so light you could do endless reps and 10 being so heavy you can barely perform a single rep) choose enough weight that your reps feel like an 8 or 9.
- 5 – 10 reps per set: You are looking at a moderate lifting day, which is a great opportunity to focus on form and breathing. Choose a moderately heavy weight. On a scale of 1 – 10, this means about a 6 or 7.
- 10+ reps per set: Keep the weights light. We’re talking about a 3 or 4 on the scale. Your form should be perfect for the majority of these reps.
When choosing your barbell weight or the weight for other strength training exercises, keep in mind the concept of progressive overload. As you spend weeks and months lifting, your muscles will get stronger and stronger. To maintain progress, you’ll need to either perform more reps at the same weight or add weight to your current rep scheme. If the last few reps of your sets don’t feel pretty darn difficult, then it’s time to add more weight next time!
4. Check Your Muscles
Which muscle groups are you going to hit in your workout today? Big muscles like your glutes, quads, and hamstrings need big loads, i.e. heavier weights, to feel challenged. Smaller muscles, like your shoulders, triceps, and calves can’t move as much weight, so you’ll need to lighten the load when it’s time to give them a workout. Finding the right amount of weight for each muscle group usually requires a bit of testing.
When trying a new exercise, or isolating a new muscle group, it’s a good idea to start with a light weight and perform a few reps to see how you feel. If the weight is too light, begin to build up. Make sure to track your progress. (Some exercisers keep a handwritten lifting record, while others take notes on their phone or use a tracking app.) This will make it easier for you to choose the right weights to lift next time. As a bonus, you’ll also get to observe your increasing strength over time.
5. Check Your Comfort
Lifting heavy weights isn’t the right choice for everyone, even if you do want to build muscle and increase your strength. If you suffer from arthritis or have mobility issues, you may not want to start swinging a 55-lb dumbbell around or deadlifting a 200-pound barbell weight.
No matter your goal, make sure you feel comfortable with the weight you are planning to lift before you pick up the barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. If you’re trying for a heavy lift or a PR, consider asking a gym buddy for a spot.
Otherwise, you can still enjoy a great strength training workout while sticking with only moderate weight. In fact, researchers found that a group of male exercisers performing reps at a relatively light weight were able to build just as much muscle as a comparable group of men who performed heavy reps. There is a catch, of course. The individuals lifting the lighter weight had to perform a high volume of reps (three sets of 25 to 35 reps). If you want to build muscle without lifting heavy, you can do it, but you may need to spend more time at the gym and endure long, burning lifting sessions.
How to Find the Right Weights to Lift
Choosing the right weights for your next lifting sesh doesn’t have to be challenging or confusing. Just remember to:
- Check your form
- Check your goals
- Check your workout
- Check your muscles
- Check your comfort
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different weights and rep schemes until you find the right combination for you. Just one more reminder: make sure you start with a light amount of weight and build up to a challenging weight. If you still don’t feel entirely comfortable starting a weight training routine on your own, we strongly encourage you to invest in a personal trainer, at least for a few weeks. A personal trainer can help you define your goals, put together a weightlifting plan for you, and teach you the right form so you can get strong and stay safe.