“Do you even lift?”
After today’s guide, not only will you be able to say “YUP,” but you’ll also know exactly how MUCH you should be lifting!
We’ll help you get big and strong so you can fight back against your older brother when he tackles you in the hallway.
As part of our Strength 101 series, we’re going to tell you exactly what you need to know about lifting weights and strength training:
If you find yourself with a billion other strength training questions as you build your own workout, or you’re overwhelmed at all of this and not sure how to get stronger…you’re in good company!
It can be scary enough to keep MOST people from starting, which is actually why we created our Coaching Program.
Your NF Coach will do an initial assessment to calculate exactly how much weight you should start lifting. They’ll then design a program that they’ll adjust regularly based on your progress and schedule.
Plus, with our app, your coach can do regular video form checks to make sure you safely make consistent progress.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into the nitty-gritty of “How much weight should I lift?“
Step #1: Why You Should Lift Your Own Bodyweight First
Stop! (Wait a minute…)
Before trying to figure out how much weight you can lift, let’s make sure you know how to do the movement, as flawlessly as possible, without any weight at all.
Because if you can’t do a movement correctly without weight, how can you expect to do it right WITH weight?
Think about it – if you can’t walk up a flight of stairs normally, would you expect to be able to walk up the flight of stairs carrying a sack of hammers?
No – you would only hurt yourself.
Also, what are you even doing with a sack of hammers?
STEP ONE: learn each movement without any bars, dumbbells, or added weight.
Which might make you say:
“Staci, how on earth do I do a deadlift or an overhead press without any weight? And I know I can do a bodyweight squat, but isn’t it completely different doing a barbell back squat?”
Easy – grab either a broomstick (be careful for splinters!), mop handle, or PVC pipe (I use a 1.25” PVC cut in half) and pretend it’s a barbell.
If you’re trying to mimic a dumbbell movement, either grab a short dowel, PVC, or just hold your hands in a fist as if you were holding on to something.
While it’s not the exact same as holding actual weight, it will allow you to practice getting into the correct positions.
Practice the movements in your own home without other people around you (so you’ll be less nervous).
Also, you can videotape yourself pretty easily. I’ve use my computer’s webcam, or my phone camera and a little tripod, then completed the movement with a broomstick.
Now, I can deadlift 455 pounds and I’m a Senior Coach for our Online Coaching Program:
If you want a beginner strength training workout to follow:
If you are interested in nerding out about the proper form for each barbell movement, start here:
We also HIGHLY recommend you pick up Starting Strength, widely considered to be the Bible of barbell training.
Once you feel good about your form, you can see if you can “pass the bar.”
(Guaranteed to be the nicest lawyer joke you’ll ever read on Nerd Fitness, by the way).
Now, if want a full Bodyweight Workout Program that you can follow along with at home that will help get you prepped to start strength training?
You can download the worksheet to follow along here when you sign up in the box below:
Grab Your Beginner Bodyweight Routine Worksheet. No Gym Required!
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight exercises
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
Step #2: How to Start Barbell Training with Lifting the Bar
Once you’re comfortable with each movement with a broomstick or PVC, then you can move to the bar.
Your first gym workout shouldn’t go any heavier than “just” the bar, which means the bar without any added weight.
How much does a barbell weigh?
- A standard barbell weighs 45 lbs (20.4 kg).
- A “women’s barbell” weighs 35 lbs (15.8 kg).
Now, don’t be discouraged if this seems really heavy – especially on upper body movements.
When I started out, I could not bench press or overhead press an empty barbell.
If the bar seems too heavy to start:
- See if the gym has a lighter barbell – some have a “women’s bar” or a “training bar” that usually weighs 30-35 lbs and 15 lbs, respectively. These are usually shorter, but that’s okay!
- Start out with dumbbells – while the movement is not the exact same, it allows you to build up the strength:
This will help you handle a barbell down the road.
- Focus on bodyweight training (push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, squats) until you build the strength to handle the bar.
Now, on opposite ends of the spectrum, if the bar seems really light, I would STILL encourage you to complete your first workout with just the bar.
According to Mike Rebold from Hiram College, when you start lifting the barbell or dumbbells for the first time you will notice muscle deficiencies (i.e., one side that is weaker than the other). It can often come down to motor units, or the nuerons that help muscle fibers.
When you first start strength training and lifting the barbell or dumbbells, your motor units don’t fire as quickly and smaller motor units that don’t generate a lot of force are recruited. As you continue working out and become more trained, your motor units fire more rapidly and your brain recruits larger motor units that can generate more force allowing you to lift heavier weights. This is why the progressive overload principle is important.
That means focusing on getting each rep correct, and worrying about adding weight next time.
Check your ego at the door!
I would rather see somebody in the gym lifting the bar with proper form than watch somebody with awful form lift 400 lbs.
That makes me…
Note: If you finish your first workout with the bar and still aren’t comfortable with the movements, it’s never a bad thing to do your next workout with just the bar again.
If you’re not comfortable with the movement and you start adding weight, not only will you be more likely to injure yourself because your body isn’t ready, but you’ll be more likely to hurt yourself because you won’t be confident under the bar.
Confidence is something that is very important as you start lifting heavier and heavier.
Mike Rebold supports this idea:
Self-esteem is confidence in one’s own abilities. Research has shown that in order to improve one’s self-esteem, or one’s confidence to exercise and lift heavier weights, you must first incorporate and master simple exercises.
This is why we also recommend starting with the barbell or light dumbbells. Because as you master these simple exercises, that will result in your self-esteem being improved and then you will have more confidence to try new exercises and to lift heavier weights.
Speaking of, if you’re planning on using dumbbells as your main lift (and not a barbell):
Start with 5-10 lb dumbbells to get a feel for things.
Whether you’re starting with dumbbells or ready to move onto a barbell, it’s important to do it properly!
We check the form of EVERY online coaching client on their workouts so they have the confidence that they’re doing these moves correctly!
We’ve also created a specific sequence of workout routines you can follow along with for free in our guide Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know.
Grab yours free when you sign up in the box below:
Download our comprehensive guide
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
Step #3: How To Start Adding Weight to the Barbell
If you’re looking to start on a beginner program, such as the workouts in our Beginner Strength Training Workouts or our 6 Beginner Gym Workouts, you need to start light!
A few common rep ranges for beginner programs are:
- 5 sets of 5 reps
- 3 sets of 8 reps
- 3 sets of 10 reps
Let’s do an example: your program has you doing 3 sets of 8 on a particular lift.
1) After a proper warm-up routine, start with the empty bar again, and complete the prescribed number of reps (for this, it would be 8).
“But I thought you said we could add weight this time?” you might be thinking.
You can – but no matter how heavy you are going, always start with just the bar to warm up for EACH exercise.
If you watch the best lifters in your gym, you will notice they all warm up with “just the bar” to start, often for multiple sets!
This helps get your body warm, primes your nervous systems and all of your muscles for that movement, and gets you ready to lift heavier weight.
As a beginner to strength training, this is especially important to ingrain proper technique.
2) Add a small amount of weight to the bar. Depending on how heavy the bar felt, start by adding:
- 2 – 5 pounds for upper body exercises.
- 5 – 10 pounds for lower body exercises.
When in doubt, add the lower amount. You can always add more! Do another set of 8-12 reps at this weight.
(Note: If you’re doing dumbbell training, instead of adding weight to the bar, increase the weight of the dumbbell. Start with 5 lb. dumbbells, then 10 lb. dumbbells, for example)
3) If you were able to complete those reps both without losing form and without the speed of the bar slowing, add more weight to the bar.
Base the amount of new weight off how it felt – if the last set felt really light, add 5’s, if it felt heavy, add 2.5’s’s.
Here’s a good guideline from NSCA :
If a person can do two or more reps than the goal in an exercise on two consecutive training sessions, then they should increase the load.
4) Continue to do this until your form starts to break down or the speed of the lift gets slower on any of your reps.
The weight you used right before your form started to break down is your starting weight on which you will base all future workouts!
5) If it is a lower number than you expect, that’s great actually!
Don’t try to be a hero your first workout, it is better to start out too light than too heavy.
Remember – we’re trying to get solid, productive sets in, not find our max, so we want all of the reps to be fast and with as perfect form as our body allows.
Since you’re testing out heavier weights for the first time, never be afraid to have a spotter, or to use pins to ensure your safety!
If you don’t want to figure ANY of this out on your own, and you just want somebody to tell you exactly how much to lift, how many sets, reps, etc., I hear you.
I’ve had a lifting coach for years and it’s the best investment I make each month!
Step #4: How Do I Know When to Add More Weight?
Once you’ve found your starting weight, you’ll want to start using something called “progressive overload.”
This sounds a lot fancier than it really is.
As Coach Jim explains above, progressive overload means gradually increasing the stress put on your body during training.
In other words, we need to increase something, regularly. Usually, this means the amount of weight we lift.
And for beginners, that can often happen after every workout.
During every workout, our muscles are torn and broken down. Then after every workout – for the next 24-48+ hours, our body repairs itself. If you’re getting proper sleep and nutrition, it heals back stronger than it was before.
Conversely, if you do 5 sets of 5 squats at 100 lbs every single workout for months, are you getting stronger?
Most likely not.
Your body is actually just getting more efficient at lifting 5×5 at 100 lbs, burning fewer calories, and using less energy to make that movement happen.
So, how much weight do you add when you’re ready to increase your workouts?
That depends on how difficult the set was last time.
This is where great note-taking comes in (I’m a huge fan of a simple notebook, or Evernote docs on my phone).
Be sure to document each workout with:
Did you go to failure on your last set?
Did your form break down on any of the reps?
You’ll end up in one of two positions:
PATH A: You failed to complete any of your reps or your form started to break down. Do the same weight again next workout, and focus on boosting your form and technique of each rep.
Remember, if you are doing the same workout as last time, but each rep is more solid and with better form than before, you’re still doing better than you were the last workout.
In other words, you’re still leveling up.
You don’t necessarily have to go up in weight every workout to see gains.
You could also focus on:
- Less rest between sets.
- More control and better form.
- More repetitions.
All of which means you are getting stronger.
PATH B: You were able to get through all of your sets with great form, and without the bar slowing down. Congrats! Consider adding more next week. It’s not unheard of for beginners to add 10-20lbs a week to some lifts (especially squats and deadlifts), though don’t get discouraged if you’re only adding 2.5 or 5!
The BEST THING YOU CAN DO: slowly add the smallest amount of weight possible, and progress consistently. This is much preferred to progressing quickly and then hitting a plateau.
Each week, as you add a little bit of weight, you are building strength, confidence, and momentum.
Note: For some lifts, especially the overhead press or bench press, adding just 5 lbs may be too much to go up per workout.
I personally have a set of 1.25lb plates that I bring with me to the gym so that I can still progress regularly.
Remember: You’re going to have shitty days at the gym. There will be days when you can’t add any weight, or you feel like you have to take a step backward.
So many things affect how your lifts are going to feel:
- A baby crying all night – causing sleep deprivation and resulting in systemic inflammation and decreased GH release = poor recovery
- Lots of stress at the office.
- To drinking too much at the big game – causing stomach discomfort and bloating.
- Just not eating enough for your goals – not consuming enough carbohydrates and fats to support energy demands or not consuming enough protein to facilitate muscle protein synthesis and recovery.
It’s important to listen to your body over listening to some number telling you what you should be lifting.
You want to make progress every time you walk into the gym, and that means having a specific plan to follow.
Don’t have a workout to follow? Tired of not getting results despite all the effort?
This is what we do for a living! Help people like you get out of ruts and finally get them the results they want.
After doing my own workout programming for 5 years, I hired a coach and it changed my life. Let us help you hit your goals too.
Step #5: How Do I Calculate My 1 Rep Max?
It’s really fun to find the maximum amount of weight you can do for one repetition (one rep max) every once in a while.
However, as a beginner who is just starting strength training, it’s better that you start with getting the movement right and adding weight slowly before trying to find a one-rep max.
I would suggest you follow a program for at least six weeks before even attempting “a heavy single”.
Even if your form is as good as you can get it now, you will get far better, learning how to make tweaks and corrections as you go.
When you first start out, you’re still getting everything down, so your one-rep max won’t be a “true” one-rep max.
Plus, when you train, you’re training everything in your body.
Some things, like muscles and bones, get stronger, while others, like your nervous system, get more efficient.
The more you do something, the better you get at it. And in the beginning you’ll get better very quickly.
It’s unwise to attempt a 1 repetition maximum when you’re learning the movement.
This is one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
But only slightly less well-known is this: “Never attempt a 1-rep max as a beginner.”
Even if you can do it with proper form with lighter weights, as soon as the weight gets close to your 1 rep max your form will start to break down, and you are more likely to hurt yourself.
Some words of caution here from Mike Rebold, an expert in exercise physiology:
During 1RM testing, fatigue will happen! One-repetition maximum testing has been found to overload the neuromuscular system resulting in lower motor unit activation, less force production, and ultimately more fatigue. This level of fatigue experienced by the lifter can be enough to result in injury, especially if the lifter is a novice (i.e., beginner).
When your form starts to break down, you need to have the experience behind you to finish (or bail out of) the lift safely.
If you watch any weightlifting or powerlifting competition, sometimes the lifts are not the prettiest lifts you’ve ever seen.
However, the lifters are experienced enough to handle this, and know how to bail if something goes wrong.
As a beginner, you are not.
Team NF’s Steve worked with a coach for 4+ years to finally get his 420 lb. deadlift:
If you want to work with a coach that can help you perfect your form and train to hit 1-rep maxes too, we’re here for ya! We’re slightly biased, but having a coach in your corner is an absolute game-changer.
Step #6: what is a respectable amount to be lifting?
The simple answer? The weight that’s right for you.
You are not competing against the guy next to you; you’re competing against the YOU from last week (like racing your ghost in Mario Kart).
As far as what you can strive for, there’s no easy calculation or formula.
While some people have put out strength standards, it’s truly up to your body, your body type, your background as an athlete, your genetics, and many other factors.
You should be lifting the amount that’s right for you today. In your next workout, you should be trying to lift more (even if you can’t do more weight, try doing one more rep, or with less rest between sets) than you did last time.
As a part of this journey, I want you to completely forget about strength standards and forget about everyone around you.
I don’t care if the guy (or girl) next to you is squatting 500 lbs for sets of 10.
If you’re squatting 50 lbs, and that’s the weight that is challenging for you, then that’s the weight you should be lifting.
These are the BIG mistakes you need to avoid:
Never EVER try to outlift the person next to you.
Never EVER adjust the weight to impress someone.
No one’s judging you based on the weight on the bar, and if they are, they aren’t worth your time or energy.
To recap “How much should I lift?”:
- The strongest lifters do a dynamic warm-up first.
- The strongest lifters warm up with “just” the bar.
- The strongest lifters focus on getting their reps in, and aren’t ashamed that they’re lifting less than the guy next to them.
- The strongest lifters take time to get things right, even if that means lifting less weight than they know they “can” do.
- The strongest lifters started off doing a beginners program just like you.
So remember – start slow, add weight slowly, and stay conservative.
It’s amazing how much even adding just 5 lbs (2kg) a week adds up to! It’s far better to play it safe in the beginning than to find yourself injured and frustrated before you have a chance to progress.
Do You Even Lift?
Hopefully, this article EXCITED you about strength training, and you now know exactly how much to lift.
For people looking for the next step, we’ve got 3 options you want to check out:
1) If you want to follow a strength training program that’s specific to your goals, check out our popular Online Coaching Program.
You’ll work with a certified NF instructor who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and create a workout strategy that will evolve alongside you.
2) If you want a daily prompt for doing workouts at the gym (or at home), check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).
Try your free trial right here:
3) Join the Rebellion! Join hundreds of thousands of people like you. It’s free to join, and we have a dozen free guides for you when you sign up in the yellow box below.
Download our comprehensive guide
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
Let’s get these questions answered so you can get back to getting stronger!
What are your other big questions about lifting weight and how much you should be lifting?
PS: Be sure to check out the rest of the Strength Training 101 series:
photo source: Strongman, Four Bricks Tall: Scenes from an empty lot in Brooklyn, vol 1., hxdbzxy © 123RF.com, Lego Lifting.