A Simple Way to Know How Much Weight to Lift

Racks of weights in a gym
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One of the most common questions people ask personal trainers and weight training coaches is: "How much weight should I start with?" The truth is, your first few reps and exercises might take some trial and error, so you can figure out how much your muscles can handle. 

To get started though, there's a simple strategy for beginners to decide what is the ideal weight to lift and when to progress to heavier weights.

More sophisticated approaches can be used after you get more experience and decide to train for specific results such as strength, muscular endurance, bodybuilding (or muscular hypertrophy), or sports-specific strength and power.

Let's assume you are doing a workout program of 10 exercises and three sets of 10 repetitions for each exercise. That's a good starting point for a general fitness program. Here's how to figure out your ideal weight to lift:

  1. For the initial experiment, choose a weight for each exercise so that by the time you reach rep 10 of the first set, you find it's somewhat difficult (but not too difficult) to complete. You should start to feel fatigue in your muscles, but still be able to maintain good form through the exercise.
  2. Rest the allocated time, usually 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
  3. By the tenth lift of the third set, that is, rep number 30, you should be struggling to complete the lift—not breaking form or grunting through it, but working hard to complete it. That's about the intensity you should aim for to get the most benefit from your weight training workouts for general strength and muscle building.
  1. When you find you can do the last lift (in this case, rep 30), with little effort, it's time to increase the weight. Progressive overload, or adding more weight over time, is a fundamental principle of weight training progression. So even if that 30th rep was difficult a few weeks ago, and now you breeze right through it, it's time to go heavier. You have to keep fatiguing and challenging your muscles to continue to see results. 
  1. If you can't find a suitable increment, that is, the next size dumbbell or barbell or plate is too heavy, you could use that heavier weight and only perform eight or nine repetitions (and you'll still gain benefits). Alternatively, you could stay with the same weight and increase the number of repetitions in each set from 10 to 12 or even 15. Either way, both methods will help you progress your training and reap more rewards. After all, it's all about reaching that fatigued state, no matter how you get there. 

In general, your first strength training workout can be as simple as that—test out different weight sizes and follow the idea of working until you have difficulty moving the weight. You should feel tired by the end. You can use this basic method without worrying about the complexities of drop sets, pyramids, slow or fast tempos or anything else.