How Much Weight Should I Lift?

How much weight should I lift? How heavy should I lift? How many plates should I put on the bar? How much weight should I start with?

These are all common questions asked by those getting started in weight training. I've even heard it asked by more experienced bodybuilders when they're seeking to add a new exercise to their bag of tricks. Ask 20 different bodybuilders and/or personal trainers how much you should be lifting and you'll likely get 20 different answers, and none of them will necessarily be right . . . or wrong, for that matter. Turn to the Internet for answers and, well, you're going to have to sort through a bunch of advice before you find anything that's even remotely close to being accurate.

Learn the Right Technique First

The process of figuring out where to start is a daunting one because nobody wants to start off in the wrong place. Beginners tend to think bodybuilding is an all-or-nothing type thing and many believe starting with the wrong weight could seriously put a damper on their potential gains. It can, but the way you'd think.

Beginning bodybuilders tend to have extremely poor form when it comes to technique. It isn't anything to be embarrassed about. As with anything worthwhile, there's a learning curve and starting off sloppy is a normal part of the process. If you hit the gym for the first time thinking you're going to max out on weight, you're setting yourself up for failure in a spectacular fashion. Weight training isn't easy and heavy weights aren't very forgiving when it comes to mistakes in form.

Instead of getting a good workout in, you could end up doing major damage to your body and end up setting yourself back months, or even years, if you get hurt.

The Best Weight to Start Lifting At

For this reason, it's best to start off with light weights until you learn the proper form. By light, I mean starting off with just the bar. You shouldn't add any weight at all until you're able to properly lift the bar 12 times in a row and maintain proper form and posture. Sure, standing in the gym lifting a weightless bar might be a little embarrassing when the meathead next to you is benching 300 pounds and snarling at you between sets, but it helps to remember everyone had to start somewhere. If you'd like to get remotely close to where that guy is, you're going to have to learn proper form before you go into beast mode.

Here's something to think about. When you started driving, did you start off in a parking lot somewhere or did your parents take you to a NASCAR race and put you in the driver's seat of a $200,000 race car? The first time you rode a bike were you on flat land or did your dad take you to the steepest hill he could find and let you bounce down the hill?

Weigh training has a learning curve, just like driving a car and riding a bike, and it's best to start off slow. Learn each lift you plan on doing with only the bar first before you start adding weight.

Sometimes Even the Bar Is Too Much

Most 7-foot Olympic bars weigh around 45 pounds. This is the bar you'll probably be using for bench press, barbell curls, squats and all sorts of other exercises. 45 pounds may not seem like a lot of weight on paper, but if you're on the small side or you've lived a sedentary lifestyle up until now, it can get heavy in a hurry.

For this reason, it's best to do a bit of pre-workout training at home before you ever pick up a dumbbell or barbell. Use a broomstick to practice barbell exercises and a wooden dowel or short piece of PVC tubing to practice dumbbell exercises.

Starting off this way benefits you in a number of ways:

  • You'll be able to fine-tune your technique before you hit the gym. You may not be lifting the same weight as others at the gym, but at least you'll look like you know what you're doing. Using proper technique will allow you to avoid most of the raised eyebrows and smirks most newbies endure when they hit the gym and start lifting completely wrong. Heck, learn the right technique at home and you'll be light years ahead of some of the more experienced lifters who never bothered to learn the right way to do stuff.
  • You're less likely to get hurt. I'm not going to go as far as saying nobody has hurt themselves practicing squats with a broomstick because I'm sure there's someone out there who has, but you're a lot less likely to hurt yourself starting out this way. You're also less likely to hurt yourself when you hit the gym and start lifting real weights because you'll have had time to get the proper technique figured out.
  • Starting slow allows your body to adjust to your new lifestyle gradually. You haven't felt pain until you wake up the morning after working out for the first time and trying to go way too heavy. This isn't the good pain sometimes associated with pushing hard while weight training that you'll feel later. This is debilitating pain that makes you regret every little move you make. It's enough to make some people quit working out altogether. Ease into it and your body will thank you for it. You may still be a little sore, but it'll manageable.

Once you've got the technique down, try lifting the bar. You might find the bar is the perfect starting weight. You might also find it's too light and you want to add more weight the next time you work out. Focus on getting your technique right the first time or two before adding more weight. 

Ideally, you'll be able to do between 8 and 12 reps at whatever weight you start at. Start slow and work your way up, gradually increasing the weight as your strength increases. If the bar is too heavy, look around the gym for a lighter bar. Most gyms have training bars that are lighter than the standard 45 pounds. Alternatively, you can do dumbbell exercises with light dumbbells until you can lift a standard barbell.

Conclusion

To answer the question of what weight you should start at, the answer is to start with very little weight. I'm not sure how much a broomstick weighs, but that's all you're going to need to get started. Learn proper lifting technique first and go from there. Once you're comfortable with the broomstick or PVC piping, move up to the bar. Once the bar feels comfortable, add a small plate to each side. Once that feels comfortable, move the weight up again.

Before you know it, you'll be a regular at the gym. Lift hard, lift heavy, lift often. Just don't start off too heavy or you'll end up doing more harm than good. And remember, a light workout is better than no workout at all. Everyone's got to start somewhere.