How Much Weight Should I Lift?

Achieving Growth Without Undermining Form

Racks of weights in a gym

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 Wondering how much weight to lift is a common question for both beginner and advanced weight lifters for a good reason. Choosing an appropriate weight for your current fitness level is essential for achieving fitness goals and minimizing the risk of injury. To properly choose the correct weight to lift, you should consider various factors, including your age and sex, in addition to your current ability level and fitness goals.

How Much Weight Should You Lift?

Figuring out how much your muscles can reasonably handle is often a process of trial and error. You don't want to go too low and avoid the tension needed to build muscles. But you also don't want to go too high and have to swing your body to lift a weight.

There is a strategy that can help pinpoint your ideal weight and know when it's time to lift heavier weights. It all starts with three simple things:

  • Learning proper form 
  • Listening to your body
  • Keeping to an allotted time, neither rushing between exercises nor resting too long

Let's assume that you are doing a 10-exercise workout program involving three sets of 10 repetitions for each exercise. That's a pretty good starting point for a general fitness plan.

To determine the ideal weight for a specific exercise:

  1. Choose a weight that allows you to do the first 10 reps with moderate difficulty. By the end of the tenth rep, you should find it somewhat difficult to lift but not so difficult as to strain, hold your breath, or shake excessively. If you do, drop down a little.
  2. Rest for no less than 30 seconds and no more than 60 seconds between sets.
  3. By the tenth lift of the third set, you should be struggling to complete the lift but able to do so without grunting or breaking form. This is the exact intensity you will want to sustain whether you are new to weight training or a seasoned veteran.

Determine Your Goals

The first step is figuring out which goals you want to achieve during your weight sessions. Whether that is gaining strength, overall fitness, or increasing muscle size (hypertrophy). For each goal, there are ideal rep ranges, set numbers, and weekly training sessions.

Gain Overall Fitness

For beginners or people just looking to maintain overall fitness, a good goal is to do 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps. This means that it is vital to choose a weight that allows you to complete this many reps without struggling to finish the set.

A strength training session that works all the muscles of the body, including the hips, legs, abdomen, chest, back, shoulders, and arms, two to three days per week is plenty for maintaining overall fitness.

Improve Muscle Strength

For building strength, any rep range will work, but for best results, be sure to include 2 to 5 heavier sets of 3 to 5 reps. To build strength, the goal should be to do fewer reps at a higher weight that challenges you during each repetition. However, it is wise to establish a solid overall fitness level before moving on to heavier weights since heavier weights come with more risk if your form is not correct.

Aim for 2 to 4 days of strength training per week, and be sure to take rest days in between. The heavier weight will break down your muscle tissue, and you will require rest and recovery to repair that damage, building stronger muscles in the process.

Increase Muscle Size

Increasing muscle size, also called hypertrophy, will occur whether you train at the lower rep range with higher weight or a higher rep range of 8 to 12 with a moderately challenging weight. The key to increasing muscle size is volume, meaning adding more sets and reps to your workout over time. You can spread these additional sets and reps over your weekly training sessions.

For beginners, 1 to 3 sets per exercise of 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate load or 70-85% of your one-rep-max is ideal. More advanced individuals looking to further develop their muscle mass aim for anywhere from 3 to 6 sets per exercise of 1 to 12 repetitions with a loading range of 70-100% of your one-rep-max. Aim for 12 to 28 sets per muscle group per week spread over 3 to 5 training days for optimal muscle growth.

One-rep-max is a measure of the amount of weight you can lift for a particular exercise for one repetition. It is often calculated using a one-rep-max calculator where you can input your max weight lifted for multiple reps and it will provide you with an equivalent one-rep-max estimate. For instance, the amount of weight you can lift to fatigue for 8 repetitions is approximately 80% of your one-rep-max.

Ensure Proper Form

One of the things people fail to realize when lifting weights is how much their bodies will move to assist in moving the weight. Unfortunately, this can undermine the very goal of an exercise, which is to isolate and contract that particular muscle or muscle group. 

When lifting a weight, you always need to focus on isolating a muscle during the movement. If you swing your body, you are using momentum to lift the weight. By doing so, you are dispersing the energy meant for one muscle too many muscles.

This why people who grunt, arch their backs, or drop their weights are doing themselves a disservice (and likely annoying others in the process). By simply lowering their weight to a reasonable level, they can achieve so much more with so much less. 

If you cannot lift your chosen weight with proper form, it is too heavy, and you should use a lighter weight. Seek the guidance of a personal trainer if you are unsure about your form.

Maintain this focus when doing any weightlifting exercise. Keep your back flat, shoulders square, hips level, abdomen taut, and head and neck relaxed but lifted. Not only will this help you maintain proper form, but it can also help direct which weight is appropriate for the exercise you are doing.

When to Increase Weight

If you find you can do the last lift with little effort, then it's time to increase the weight. Progressive overload (adding more weight over time) is a fundamental principle of weight training. If you don't continually challenge your body by increasing your weights, you will eventually plateau even if you increase the number of exercises you do.

If your current weight is not challenging enough, but the next one up is too heavy, you have two choices for reaching the right fatigued state:

  • Use the heavier weight and drop down to eight or nine reps.
  • Stay with the current weight and increase to 12 or 15 reps.

Here's a trick that can help: Instead of lifting a weight standing unsupported, try pressing your back against a wall or post while doing an exercise. Try it with a bicep curl as an example. You'll be surprised how much more difficult it is to lift a weight when your back and core muscles are not allowed to assist.

A Word From Verywell

If in doubt, work with a personal trainer for a few weeks to learn proper form and technique. Despite what some may tell you, exercise is not always intuitive. Learning good habits at the start is always better than correcting mistakes later. You should always listen to your body when performing any exercise when lifting weights. If it feels like too much or if you are experiencing pain, stop immediately.

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