When it comes to strength training, one of the most common questions people have is "How much weight should I be using?" This is definitely important, because choosing the right weight will not only help you get the best results from your workouts, but it will also reduce your risk of injury.
Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to come up with a "one size fits all" answer to this question, because each person is unique. Body types, musculature, genetics, and so forth will vary from person to person, and even if you took two people who are very similar in height, weight and physical makeup, you could still see a large disparity in their muscular strength and endurance. So while choosing the right weight for your strength training routine won't be an exact science, below are some handy tips to keep in mind that will help you discover the right amount of weight to lift.
1. Determine Your Workout Goals: Are You Building Muscle or Toning Muscle?
Strength training is typically performed for one of two purposes: Building muscle or toning muscle. If you want to focus on building muscle and increasing power, you should go with higher weights and lower repetitions (6-12), while if your goal is to tone your muscles and increase endurance, use lower weights and higher repetitions (14-20).
2. Choose a Weight That Makes Your Last Few Reps a Challenge
This is the part where you're going to have to use some good old-fashioned trial and error. However many reps you choose to go with, you should choose an amount of weight that makes it difficult to complete your last few reps. In other words, when you get down to your last two or three reps, you should be able to complete them with good form, but your muscles should definitely feel some burn by the time you get to them. If you've been using a certain amount of weight and you're not feeling any real resistance even on your last reps, you may need to bump up the weight a notch to give your body more of a challenge.
3. The Bigger the Muscle Group, the Heavier the Weights You Can Use
There's a big difference between training large muscle groups such as your chest or thighs versus smaller, more isolated muscles like the biceps or calves. The general rule is that the bigger the muscle group is, the more weight it can handle. For example, you should expect to use heavier weights when performing squats versus when you're doing isolated hamstring curls on a machine.
4. Start Light and Focus on Form
If you've never done a certain exercise before, start with light weight in order to really get a feel for the movement first, and to ensure that you're performing it with correct form. You might be able to lift a heavier weight by "cheating"--i.e., compromising your form in order to power through the movement--but doing this can increase your risk of injury. Not only that, but using improper form means that you will recruit other ancillary muscles which will prevent you from effectively training the muscles you're intending to target.
5. You May Need to Use Less Weight with Dumbbells Than with Machines
Keep in mind that with most machines, you're typically using both arms or both legs to perform the exercises, which means that you're probably able to handle more weight. With dumbbells, however, your limbs are required to work independently, which means that you'll more than likely need to lighten the load a little bit in order to execute your movements with good form.
6. Resist the Temptation to Compare Yourself to Others
One of the first things that many of us do when we start a new workout program is look around to see what others are doing, how much weight they're using, etc. This can do more harm than good, because it can cause you to second-guess your choices regarding how much weight you should use. As mentioned earlier, everyone is different, so it really doesn't matter how much the other person is lifting; you must listen to your own body to discover the right amount of weight for you.
It may take you several workout sessions to really get a feel for how much weight you need to use, but this should be expected. Just keep the above tips in mind, and you'll have everything you need to create a fitting and effective strength training routine.