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Q&A: How Much Weight Should I Lift During Strength Training?

Written on January 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm , by

personal trainer coach nicole nichols

Photo courtesy of SparkPeople

SparkPeople.com’s resident trainer and fitness expert, Nicole Nichols, offers up some advice for one of the most frequently asked questions as people start working out more in the new year. For more cardio and strengthening help from Nicole, check out her new DVD, 28 Day Boot Camp with Coach Nicole.

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Question: How much weight should I lift during strength training?

Answer: We are all at different strength levels and the muscles throughout your body vary in strength, too. So while 10 pounds might be the ideal weight for you to lift during biceps curls, you could struggle with that weight during lateral raises…or leg press it all day as if it were a bag of feathers. So keep in mind that the amount of weight you lift during one exercise could be too light or too heavy for another. That said, you’ll probably need to experiment with a variety of weights to find the appropriate level for each exercise you do. Working out at a gym makes that easy, but doing so at home will take a little more space and investment.

I think it’s a good idea to have at least two, and ideally three sets of dumbbells at home: a light, medium and heavier set, which is defined by your own fitness level. That could be 2, 5, and 7 pounds for one person, or 5, 10 and 15 pounds for another. Personally, I keep 6, 10 and 20 pound weights at home, which allow me to do a variety of workouts and exercises safely and effectively.

So how much should you lift? Here are the 5 guidelines you need to follow to select the proper weight for strength training.

  1. Aim low. The safest and most effective thing to do if you are a beginner is to master your exercises with little to no added weight. This allows you to focus intensely on proper form.
  2. Go slow. If you have to move at jackrabbit speed or harness momentum to lift the weight, it is too heavy. Period. The proper weight will allow you to move in a slow, controlled manner.
  3. Never sacrifice form for function. You might want to fast track your results by picking a  heavy weight, but lifting more weight should never trump doing it correctly. If you can’t do the exercise properly, then the added weight is not doing you any favors and may actually increase your risk for serious injury.
  4. Count your reps. In general, you are lifting the right amount of weight when you can perform 8-15 repetitions in excellent form. Once you get strong enough to do more than 15 repetitions more easily, it’s probably time to increase the weight again.
  5. Work to fatigue. This is the #1 key to selecting the proper weight. The weight you lift should not only meet the guidelines for form above, but should also challenge your muscles! The only way strength training is really going to benefit you is for you to overload your muscles—that means working them to fatigue. The weight you select should be challenging enough to fatigue your muscles within 8-15 repetitions.

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