How Much Weight Should I Lift? [The Quick & Easy Guide]

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How much weight should you lift?

Should you lift ‘light’ weights for high reps? Or should you lift heavy weight for lower reps?

Are you going heavy enough?

Today you are going to learn how much weight you should lift to accomplish your fitness goals and why it should change over time.

how-much-weight-should-i-lift

Today’s post is going to cover:

  • How Much Weight You Should Lift To Gain Muscle
  • How Much Weight You Should Lift To Lose Weight
  • How Much Weight You Should Lift To Tone
  • How To Change The Weight You Are Using Through Rep Schemes

Alright, let’s get to the answers.

How Much Weight Should I Lift?

The amount of weight you should lift should coincide with your goals.

  • If your goal is to build strength, then your weights should be heavy enough that you can only perform 4-6 repetitions per set.
  • If your goal is to build muscular size, then you should only be able to perform 7-12 repetitions per set.
  • If your goal is to improve muscular endurance, then 12-15+ reps per set is best.

In other words, the weight needs to be in a sweet spot where

  1. It’s not so heavy that you can’t lift the weight for the minimum number of reps you were intending to get, and
  2. It’s not so light that you can easily get more reps than what you intended

But, there’s one more thing…

It is absolutely critical that you always lift weights with proper form. The heavier the weights get, the more you need to focus on good technique.

More on that later.

What Is A Good Weight To Start Lifting?

If you are a beginner, you should not start off with the heaviest weight you can handle. This just proves to everyone that you are a rookie.

The empty barbell is a good place to start!

A standard Olympic barbell weighs 45 lbs/20 kg.

If this is too heavy, then you can start off with a smaller barbell. Most gyms will have 15 lb barbells as well.

What If The Barbell Is Too Light?

Everyone starts off at different levels of strength.  You may already have a good baseline level of strength.

However, most people do not know how to lift with proper form.

If you are a beginner (or learning an exercise for the first time), it is always a good idea to start with just the barbell.

If the barbell is just way too light, then add no more than 20-40 lbs to the bar!

There is absolutely no need to rush anything. You can always add weight with each workout.

Don’t make the mistake of starting too heavy as there is nothing more de-motivating than having to go down in weight because you were overzealous.

How Much Weight Should I Lift With Dumbbells?

Just like with barbells, it is ideal to start as light as possible.

Start off with just 10 or 15 lbs dumbbells, until you have developed good technique in all of the basic movement patterns.  There are 6 them you should learn. 

Again,  it is always better to leave something in the tank than to go all out and potentially injure yourself.

Or, You Can Also Lift Your Own Bodyweight

One last option is lifting your own body weight.

This is ideal if

  1. You do not have access to weights
  2. You want to workout at home, and do not want to commute to a gym
  3. You want to learn the basic fundamental movement patterns

Bodyweight training also has the advantage that you can do it anywhere. We have an entire article going over how to decide if you should lift your body or lift weights, and an entirely separate article on how to begin training with your bodyweight from A to Z which you can find here.

Unless you are extremely overweight, lifting your bodyweight is a great option.

In the next section, we will go over specific guidelines of how much weight you should lift depending on your specific goals.

Section Recap:

  • The number of repetitions  you can do will help determine how much weight you should lift
  • Always start light- the empty barbell and 15 lb dumbbells are a good place to start
  • You can also use your body weight to begin resistance training

Ok – My Technique Is Good. How Do I Start To Build Muscle?

If your goal is to build muscle size, then you must lift weights that are heavy enough to keep you in the 4-6 rep range, as well as the 7-12 rep range.

The less experience you have, the more you should focus on lifting in the 7-12 rep range, to help ensure that you have proper technique.

Over time, you should add more weight to the exercises, slowly working your way down in repetitions.

This is known as progressive overload, one of the fundamental principles of building muscle, which we discuss at length in How To Build Muscle Naturally.

      • Once you have trained in the 7-12 rep range for ~8-12 weeks, then you should increase the weight further and train in the 4-6 rep range.
      • The 4-6 rep range will continue to help build size, but also strength. You should train in the 4-6 rep range for ~4-8 weeks.

Why train in the 4-6 rep range?

Because strength can help you gain more muscle mass.

Once you increase your strength, you will notice that you will be able to lift heavier weights in the 7-12 rep range compared to when you started, which puts you at a higher baseline.

So,

    • Gaining muscle mass will require you to learn proper technique in the major functional exercises.
    • Begin by training in the 7-12 rep range for 2-3 months, and use progressive overloading to increase the weight over time.
    • After 2-3 months of training, incorporate a strength block, where you train in the 4-6 rep range for 1-2 months.
    • Start over.

Do Different Exercises Respond Better To Heavy Weights?

In general, compound exercises respond best to ‘heavy’ weight; sets that you can only perform 4-6 repetitions on.

In contrast, isolation exercises respond better to ‘lighter’ weight or sets in which you can only perform 7-12 repetitions.

Compound exercises train multiple muscle groups at once. As a result, you can recruit many more muscle fibers to help lift the weight.

This is why programs such as 5×5 are so popular.

You focus primarily on compound exercises and only perform 5 repetitions per set. This training style builds a lot of strength and promotes muscle development.

In addition, compound exercises are extremely versatile.

You can use them for any rep range, including the 12-15 rep range, the 7-12, and even the 1-3 rep range.

On the other hand, isolation exercises are meant to develop a single muscle group and respond better to more reps per set.

The most common isolation exercise performed across the world is the bicep curl. Everyone seems to be fascinated with arms for some reason.

Isolated muscle groups are pretty weak by themselves, and therefore you will not be able to lift as much weight as you could if you use multiple muscle groups.

If you choose to lift heavy weight while performing isolation exercises you are more likely to

      1. Use bad technique
      2. Aggravate the joint you are training (for example you may develop elbow pain from heavy bicep/tricep work)
      3. Begin “cheating,” by using other muscle groups to help lift the weight

A good rule of thumb is to stick to 7-12 and 4-6 reps per set for your compound exercises, and 7-12 reps per set for isolation exercises.

What About Weight Loss? How Much Weight Should I Lift To Lose Weight?

If your goal is to lose weight, then you should still focus on lifting weights heavy enough to build muscle, and weights heavy enough to build strength.

By increasing your lean muscle mass percentage, you will increase your body’s fat burning capabilities.

It is also important to add High Intensity Interval Training to your exercise tool belt. HIIT forces you to do a lot of repetitions in a short amount of time, which increases your aerobic capacity while simultaneously helping you to burn more calories.

There’s one more thing.

You can exercise all you want, but you also need to address your nutrition. This is non-negotiable.

If you continue to eat a surplus of low quality food, then you will never lose weight, no matter how much weight you choose to lift.

Exercise is only one small piece of the puzzle. Your diet is by far the largest piece.

Don’t worry, we have an entire series on improving your diet for weight loss, starting with Any Diet To Lose Weight Must Follow This 1 Rule.

How Much Weight Should I Lift To “Tone”?

There is a common misconception that in order to tone, you must lift “light weights” for high reps.

Sure, this will cause a lot of muscular ‘burn’ but it is doing very little to help you tone up. In addition, the word “tone up” is a misnomer. There is no such thing as toning.  You can either build muscle, or lose fat.  That is all.

High repetitions only serve to build aerobic and muscular endurance. If you want to be the next Lance Armstrong, then you should use high rep sets.

If you want to tone up, then you need to drop your body fat percentage which automatically makes your muscles more defined. This has nothing to do with how much burn you get during your workout, but it has everything to do with how much muscle you can develop.

  • First, you need to focus on building some muscular size using 7-12 repetitions per set, and sparingly using a strength cycle (4-6 repetitions per set). The majority of your training should be done in the 7-12 range.
  • At the same time, drop your body fat percentage by consuming more water and cutting out processed junk from your diet. This includes soda, juice, sugary foods, white bread, you get the idea.
  • Lastly, keep your metabolism strong by keeping your body in motion. The easiest way is to walk, walk again, and then walk some more.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Dropping your body fat percentage is a lot like training for weight loss. It is in your best interest to develop as much muscle as you can while cleaning up your diet to shed fat.

Section Recap:

  • To build muscle, you must lift heavy enough to be in the 7-12 rep range for 2-3 months, then the 4-6 rep range for 1-2 months
  • To lose weight, follow the above guidelines and incorporate HIIT into your workout regimen, along with proper nutrition
  • To tone, you need to drop your body fat percentage. There is no magical rep range that will help you get more toned

How Do I Know If I Am Using The Correct Weight?

Once you have established proper technique, now you have to pick the right weight for you.

Here are three tips that you can use.

  1. Make sure that you are in the appropriate rep range for your desired goal (4-6 for strength, 7-12 for muscle growth, and 12-15 for endurance)
  2. Do not exceed a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) of 9
  3. Stop the set once your form begins to break

Let’s go over each one.

Work In Your Desired Rep Range

Do not make the mistake of going into either extreme.

Do not lift weights so light that you can easily exceed the goal rep range.

Women are more likely to do this. They pick up the pink dumbbells and start doing endless repetitions. This is doing nothing for you.

Similarly, do not lift weights so heavy that you cannot get the minimum amount of reps dictated by the goal rep range.

Easy peasy.

Do not exceed RPE 9

What does RPE 9 mean?

Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE is a method in which you grade how difficult a set is.

If it was a max effort set, and you could not get another repetition no matter what, it is a level 10.

If you were able to get one more repetition, and only one, you give it a 9.

Two reps would be 8, and so on.

Determining RPE can be very difficult at first, but get into the habit early of assigning every working set an RPE.

Never go lower than an RPE 7 on a working set.

Stop The Set If Your Form Breaks

If you are using RPE’s correctly, then ideally, your form shouldn’t break too much.

However, if you begin to notice that every subsequent rep you do looks drastically different from the first rep in the set, then stop.

Safety > Reps… Always.

When Should I Start Adding Weight To The Barbell?

There are many scenarios when you should be able to increase the weight of the exercises you are doing.

Here are the three most common indicators that you need to increase the weight

  • You are doing sets at an RPE of 7 or less
  • You can do 12 reps or more on that given weight
  • You have been doing the same exercises with the same weight for 3 weeks or more

If you are a beginner, you can increase the weight as often as every workout, or every week.  As an intermediate you can increase the weight every 1-3 weeks.

How Should I Start Adding Weight To The Bar?

It is always in your best interest to add weight as slowly as possible.  This usually means adding no more than 5-10 lbs to the barbell at any time.  Just because you can lift more weight doesn’t mean you should.

Take your time, add weight gradually, and focus on doing a little bit more than you did before.  This is the entire basis behind progressive overload. Using this technique will allow your body and joints to accommodate to the external resistance over time.

Here are some examples.

Week 1: Bench Press 135 lbs 3 x 8

Week 2: 140 lbs 3 x 8

Week 3: 145 lbs 3 x 8

Week 4: 150 lbs 3 x 7

Week 5: 155 lbs 3 x7

or you could add reps…

Week 1: 135 lbs 3 x 8

Week 2: 135 lbs 3 x 9

Week 3: 135 lbs 3 x 10

Week 4: 140 lbs 3 x 8

etc

Section Recap:

  • Pick a weight that allows you to work at an RPE 7-9, and is in your desired rep range
  • You can use form breakdown as a cue to determine how heavy you should lift
  • Be sure to increase the weight as needed to continue satisfying the above criteria

How Much Weight Should I Be Able To Lift For My Age or Size?

Regardless of your size or your age, there are a few benchmarks that we believe everyone should be able to accomplish.

First of all, you should be able to accomplish at least 25 pushups, at least 8 pullups, and hold a plank for at least 45 seconds.

Second of all, you should be able to lift a certain amount of weight on The Big 4– the squat, the bench press, the deadlift, and the overhead press.

We have written an entire post on How Strong Should I Be? Realistic Strength Standards For Busy Professionals.

Check it out and let us know how you stack up, and where you need improvements.

How To Calculate The Most Amount Of Weight You Can Lift

What about one rep maxes?

A one rep max is the most amount of weight you can lift for one repetition.

This is what you do in the sport of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting.

While there are no actual fitness advantages to knowing and practicing your one rep max, it serves as a cool bragging right.

If you are going to dabble in testing your one rep max, just make sure that you have a spotter and that you use the proper technique at all times!

You can actually calculate what your one rep max is (without actually having to test it) by using this formula

(Weight Lifted) x (# of reps performed) x 0.0333 + (weight lifted)

For example: You do 225 lbs bench press for 5 repetition

Your estimated 1 rep max is

(225) x (5) x (0.0333) = 37 + (225) = 262

I have found this calculation to be fairly accurate.

How Much Weight Should A Woman Lift?

A big misconception in the fitness world is that women should lift light weights.

I know you’ve seen those little pink or purple dumbbells that only weigh 1 or 2 lbs each.

This gives off the impression that women should be lifting weights that are cute and little.

To all the women reading this; you can and should incorporate heavy resistance training into your fitness regimen.

This is especially true for women who are entering menopause, as your risk of developing osteoporosis and suffering fractures increase.

Just like men, women should lift weights heavy enough to perform just 7-12 repetition per set when developing muscle, and 4-6 reps per set when developing strength.

I know what you’re thinking.

You don’t want to get bulky.

Saying you don’t want to get bulky so you avoid lifting weights is like saying you don’t want to get recruited to the NBA so you avoid playing basketball.

How To Avoid Lifting Weights And Bulking Up

Perhaps you might not be interested in gaining a lot of muscle mass at all.

I have good news.  You can still lift weights without bulking up. Believe it or not, getting bulky is actually very difficult. It requires

      1. a great deal of discipline,
      2. a dedicated training plan with the goal of getting bulky
      3. a calorie surplus
      4. years of hard work
      5. high levels of testosterone

In general, women don’t have high enough levels of testosterone to get bulky.

Any ‘bulky’ woman you meet probably trains for a living and is doing everything she can to get bulky.

Just take a look at Brittany. She can squat >200 lbs and deadlift >300 lbs and she is not bulky.

A Template That Tells You How Much Weight To Lift and How To Increase It

That was a lot of information.

You can either digest all of this information and turn it into a comprehensive workout program for yourself…

Or you can let us put all the pieces together for you into one cohesive plan.

Enter The WCT Strength Program For Busy Individuals.

This easy to follow template tells you how much weight you should lift, on which exercises, and how often.

Our Conclusion On How Much Weight You Should Be Lifting

So to wrap it all up:

  • The amount of weight on the bar (or dumbbell) will always be inversely proportional to the number of repetitions you can perform on the exercise.
  • The most important thing is to ensure that you are lifting with good form and changing up the rep scheme that you are using from time to time.
  • If you are a beginner, stick to the higher rep sets first, and progressively overload each exercise as time goes on with more weight.
  • Compound exercises respond best to all rep ranges (12-15+, 7-12, 4-6, and 1-3), and build great strength in the 4-6 rep range and less.
  • Once you are comfortable with an exercise, always use weights heavy enough to perform the desired rep range with moderate difficulty.

Well, that’s all we have for you.

Next, you should learn:

Now it’s your turn.

Have you been lifting appropriately heavy weights in your training?

Are your sets moderately difficult? Or are they pretty easy?

Do you want to bulk, tone or lose weight?

Comment below and let us know!

P.S. Don’t forget to share this article if you found it useful! And join our community to keep getting articles like this one, and when you do, you’ll receive a copy of our  The White Coat Trainer Workout Template!

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, a NASM CPT, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy individuals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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4 thoughts on “How Much Weight Should I Lift? [The Quick & Easy Guide]”

  1. What supplements if perferd to gain the most mass as possible.. I’ve been doing 10-12 reps and dropping to 4-6 bi monthly seems to be doing well but its like my workout is too easy? Is there anyway to get an advanced plan or guide? I look forward to a reply.
    Thanks joe. M

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Hi Joe,Thanks for your comment. I would actually recommend that you not rely on supplements, and focus on consuming as many nutrient dense foods as possible. If you really want to use supplements, a simple protein powder with minimal ingredients will suffice.
      It’s great that you are varying your rep ranges. The workouts shouldn’t feel too easy. They should be tough but manageable. This is likely due to the weights not being heavy enough in your workout. If you are comfortable with the desired exercises, then use weights that are heavy enough that you can only perform the desired 4-6 reps. The key is to progressively overload all of these exercises with time. I will definitely create an advanced plan as some point. In the mean time, check out The Best Workout Template Article that we have written.
      Hope this helps.

  2. I’m an advanced 62 year old lifter. Because of injuries, I cant train shoulders or legs but this has been the case for several years. I have stopped making progress and need advice on how often to train. Now I train chest and triceps on Monday, Thursday and biceps/back on Tuesday, Saturday. My rep ranges on chest is 7-12 and 12-17 on all other body parts. I do about 8-11 sets for each body part on every workout. Please help. I’m 6-1, 230.

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      Hi Jerry
      Its tough to answer your questions without looking at all of the specifics of your training program. In general progress always boils down to progressive overload – i.e doing slightly more work for each exercise over time. That could be by adding one more repetition gradually, or adding 5 more lbs to the lift etc. It might help to change up the exercise variations that you are using and then apply the principles of progressive overload on a weekly basis

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