How to Select the Right Weight at the Gym

Have you ever cut out a magazine workout, finally remembered to put it in your gym bag, and then once you got to the weight rack you decided to give up on it because the article only told you what exercises to do, and not what weight you should select as well? 

(Or was this just me?)

I obviously wasn't always a trainer, and I fell into the typical girl category where I only ever used 10 pound dumbbells for sets of 10 on every exercise. It honestly never even occurred to me that I should (or could) use anything heavier. 

During my trainer orientation week at Equinox, we were reviewing the major lifts (bench press, squat, and deadlift), and my manager called me out to help demonstrate proper bench press form for the group. I was petrified. The bar alone weighs 45 pounds... 

"Come on down Jess, I'll coach you through, let's aim for 5 reps." 

I knew I couldn't chicken out, so I slowly walked over and laid down under the bar. Chris, my manager, walked me through next steps.

"Drive your heels down, lift the bar, lock out your arms over your chest and pause. When you are ready, lower the bar to your chest and then press it straight to the ceiling." 

Ugh, here we go. I took a breath, picked up the bar, locked out and went for it. To my utter surprise, I was able to complete all 5 reps unassisted. I racked the bar, sat up, and had an epiphany. 

I am way stronger than I thought I was!

Once I started working with clients, I finally stopped counting the number of times I'd hear a female client say this. Women almost always underestimate the weights they can or should use.

This is partly because we are afraid of bulking up (thanks society), and partly because we don't want to hurt ourselves. Both of these are valid, but I'm here to tell you that both are holding you back from better results like losing weight and toning up, and from getting (and feeling) stronger.

So since I'm not standing next to you at the gym, forcing you to grab a heavier weight (I swear my clients love me), here are 3 simple ways to always know how to select the right weight for each exercise. 

1. Test your strength in that movement pattern. 

For any exercise that calls for weight, if you aren't sure what weight to use, start light (like 5-15 pounds), and complete a set of 10 reps for that movement. If you are able to breeze through it without even elevating your heart-rate, GO UP. 

As a general rule of thumb, you want the last two reps, of your last set to feel hard (not impossible, and definitely not if your form starts to go, that's a hard stop, but it should be challenging). 

Here's an example: Goblet Squat

  • If you have never performed this exercise, start with a 10-15 pound dumbbell.

  • Complete your first set of 10 and assess (and be honest! You are only cheating yourself).

  • For the next set, try a 15-20 pound dumbbell and assess.

  • On your last set, either stay put, or bump it up to 25. Don't be afraid to go big and do less reps if you need. You will get the most benefit from the exercise if you are challenging yourself.

As a reference point, in this video I'm using a 15 pound dumbbell, but when I do these in my workouts, I use a 45-50 pound dumbbell for 10-12 reps. You can also play around with the type of weight you use. So try a kettlebell or a straight-bar (the ones that are in the background on the left in the video), instead of a dumbbell. 

What is important in an exercise, especially if it is part of a program, is the movement pattern (so in this case, the squat with a front load). But you have the power to play around with the load, the type of weight, and the number of reps you do (like sometimes you are just too tired for heavier loads, so go lighter and do more reps). 

Keep the "last two reps" rule in mind and you can't go wrong!

2. Keep track of your numbers. 

The most effective way to ensure you are not only progressing and getting the full benefit of your workout, but also getting stronger and challenging yourself (in a good way), is to track your stats. 

Write down what weights you use for certain exercises and try challenging your own numbers. When you increase your weights, it doesn't need to be dramatic, go up 2.5-5 pounds from your last attempt.

Slow and steady progression is how you maximize results without risk of injury. 

I do encourage you to log this somewhere though. I can't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone what weight I used for bent over rows at the gym last week. Track it on your phone in the notes app, or go old-school and use a physical notebook.

A lot of fitness apps (should) allow you to track this as well. In my WRK app for instance, you can log all your stats for easy recall. We also repeat workouts within a cycle, so that you can easily try and beat your last session (this is also the best way to actually get stronger). Muscle confusion is important, but too much variation can lead to injury.

3. Ask a trainer. 

This is our job! If you aren't sure where you should be at, grab a trainer from your gym and ask them.

The reason most programs won't tell you want weights to use is because it's HIGHLY personal. Some people are naturally great at rows, some are great at pressing, it's all individual so will require some experimenting on your part.

It's also important to listen to your body and honor your daily energy levels. You don't have to push it to 11 every day, but only you can make that judgement call. 

I love challenging women to lift heavier, so feel free to drop a comment below if you have any questions! This is literally my favorite part of working with women. 

I really truly believe that lifting weights is important. It will help you age with grace and avoid developing weird imbalances from sitting all day. It will help you lose weight and IS how you tone up (you can't tone fat, you have to build muscle). And it will also help you feel capable, independent and strong (or badass, whichever word you prefer). 

So get to the gym and select YOUR right weights.

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