Which Weight Should I Choose?


Weight training is an awesome opportunity to strengthen your muscles, tone your body and shed fat. (See Why Lift? for even more benefits!) But have you ever found yourself staring at the dumbbell rack wondering where you should even start? Take the trial and error, and wasted time, out of the equation and use this simple method to get started.

Determining which weights to use:

  1. Let’s take a basic exercise, like a bicep curl or a front squat, and use a general fitness goal of completing 3 sets of 12 reps.
  2. During the first set, by the time you get to that 12th rep, it should feel difficult to complete but not impossible. If you get to 12 and feel like you could keep going and going, increase your weight for the next set. On the other hand, if you feel like that last rep is impossible, or you find yourself “cheating” or losing proper form to get the weight up, stop and drop down to a lighter weight.
  3. Always rest in between sets for 30-60 seconds. Don’t forget to breathe!
  4. Once you’ve reached the last rep of the last set (so the 36th rep here), it should feel like a struggle to complete. It should be difficult, require hard work and maybe a little internal pep talk, but you should still be able to maintain proper form and technique throughout the exercise.
  5. Once you are able to complete that 36th rep with ease, it’s time to increase the weight. Progressively add weight little by little to properly overload your muscles. In other words, don’t jump from a 15-pound dumbbell straight to a 30-pound dumbbell.
  6. Write down or record your info so you can remember which weights you used for which exercises.. That will also help you track your progress and save time during future workouts (i.e. avoiding the “what did I use for biceps last time?” dilemma).

The bottom line: The last rep should be challenging, but not impossible. You should always be able to perform the exercise with proper form. If you find your form slipping in order to lift the weight, always stop, rest and drop down to a lighter weight.  

Once you’ve determined your weight range using the simple method above, you can mix up reps, sets and weights to continue progressing and avoid plateauing. Use the chart below (info from Very Well Fit and the ACE Personal Trainer Manual) as a general guideline:

Goal Reps Sets
General Fitness 8-15 reps 1-2 sets
Increase Endurance 12+ reps 2-3 sets
Increase Muscle (and Muscle Definition & Toning) 6-12 reps 3-6 sets
Increase Strength 6 or fewer reps 2-6 sets


Remember, the same principles apply when selecting the correct amount of weights. If you’re decreasing the reps, you will be able to increase your weight. Likewise, if you’re increasing reps, you should decrease the weight.

As you build muscle and become stronger, you will notice it becomes easier and easier to lift those weights. Continue challenging your body by increasing the weights a small increment at a time — this is called progressive overloading and it is crucial in order to get results. The only way your body changes is by challenging your muscles beyond their comfort zone, which forces them to grow stronger to keep lifting that weight.

When your muscles grow, you will notice so many changes in your body– better muscle definition, an overall toned look and less body fat — not to mention increased strength, improved bone density and increased calorie burning. So no need to be intimidated by that big rack of dumbbells. Grab a weight, try out an exercise and find that sweet spot!

Emily Koches, LulaFit


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