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Q&A: How Much Weight Should I Lift?

Scott Wachter

Q: How much weight should I lift?

A: It depends. A good rule of thumb for your weight training is to use a weight that’s challenging but allows you to complete all your repetitions (reps) with proper form. If the last 1-2 reps aren’t hard, it’s too light; if the speed, or tempo, of your reps drops off significantly during the set or you can’t complete all your reps, it’s too heavy (note exceptions below). You want to challenge yourself with weight without sacrificing technique—guys often go too heavy; women tend to go too light at first. Most importantly, make it a goal to improve the quality of your movement with every repetition. When you move better, you perform better.

What to Lift When…

  • Learning New Exercises. If it’s your first time trying a move, err on the side of caution. Go light. Try it with just your bodyweight first. You can also draw a relationship between certain movements, such as flat bench press and incline bench press, or front squat and back squat. So even if you’ve never performed a particular exercise, you’ve likely performed a similar movement pattern, which should give you an idea of how much weight to choose. Over the course of a couple workouts, you’ll find the appropriate weight. At first, simply focus on learning proper technique. Once you’ve honed the skill, it will be far easier to move more weight, and you’ll derive greater benefits as a result.
  • Training for Power. Your goal is to move fast when training for power (a combination of speed and strength). Typically, with explosive moves, you should focus more on using a moderate resistance and moving it quickly (keeping it under control, of course). If you’re unable to perform a movement explosively—for instance, if the weight of a medicine ball doesn’t allow you to move properly—then the weight is either too light or too heavy. Either case—too light or too heavy—could disrupt your technique when trying to move explosively. For explosive drills, the end of the set shouldn’t necessarily feel harder. Your effort level should remain relatively high throughout the set.
  • Waking up Sleepy Areas. Sometimes the goal with certain movements is to simply activate a muscle that’s not functioning optimally. For instance, since many of us spend so much time sitting on our butts and not being active, it’s important to activate the glutes at the start of a training session. Movements in the Prehab portion of your Core Performance training program often focus on doing just this. For these movements, don’t worry about how much weight you lift—the majority of these moves only use your bodyweight anyway. If you’re able to activate the intended muscles, then you’re accomplishing the goal.
  • Progressing in Your Plan. In Core Performance training programs, when you’re in a training phase with fewer reps, increase the weight. When the reps increase, decrease the weight accordingly. By how much? Again, this depends on the exercise you’re doing and how much weight you’re currently lifting. The more weight you’re handling, the larger the jump in weight could be. Alternatively, if you’re lifting 5 pounds, an increase of 1 pound is significant. Make the smallest incremental changes in weight, and then adjust as need. Always use a spotter.

About The Author

Craig Friedman – Craig Friedman is the vice president of the performance innovation team at EXOS. He designs and implements performance training systems for professional athletes in all sports as well as elite youth and college athletes.

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Tags: Weight Plates, Q&A, Dumbbells, Training, Strength, Build Muscle