How Much Weight Should I Lift?

Whether you’ve decided to resistance-train for the physical and mental health benefits, lifting is always a must-have exercise. Finding the perfect amount of weight to lift during your strength sessions is really important, and one popular question is: How Much Weight Should I Lift? Opting for weights that are too light won’t transform your body much, and choosing weights that are too heavy will put you at risk for injury.

How to Know You’re Lifting Too Heavy

When adding weights to a resistance training routine, you might wonder: How do I know if I’m using these things optimally? Before ever touching a weight, I always advise clients and friends to master movements with just their bodyweight. Before jumping into a 175-pound barbell back squat you should be able to perform a perfect air squat. Once you’ve mastered that move, begin to add weight. Regardless of how much weight you add, the goal is to be able to execute a squat with proper mechanics.

A sign you’re lifting too heavy is being unable to perform a squat with good mechanics, which is sitting back with your weight in your heels, maintaining a flat back, and your thighs parallel to the floor. Another physical sign that the weight is likely too heavy is straining.

Overload your muscles

Creating effective overload and benefiting from it is a matter of balancing four factors:
a) the amount of weight lifted
b) the number of reps completed
c) the number of sets of said reps
d) the amount of rest taken between sets

If you feel like you could do many more reps once your first set is complete, the load wasn’t challenging enough. On the other hand, if you’re unable to get through even a few reps—or if the last couple barely resemble the exercise you set out to do—you’ve gotta go lighter.

Progress with care

Keep track of your number of reps, sets, and how much weight you use in each exercise. Increase your sets until you’re at three or four (based on your program), then increase weight as you get stronger and your last rep gets easier—but also vary your reps, sets, and loads, with some lighter-intensity days and some heavier days, to allow for maximum adaptation.

With different fitness goals, your (a) through (d) will vary—but you’ll still gauge the weight based on your ability to complete reps and sets with good form. For example, building muscle mass (hypertrophy) typically means lifting greater weight for more reps or sets with some rest for recovery. Building muscular strength means even more weight for fewer reps with more rest to fully recover between sets. And building muscle endurance (important for certain types of athletes or people with jobs that require physical stamina) means more reps of comparably lighter weight.