Woman holding dumbbells

What weight should I be lifting? Fitness trainers explain how to know what weight to pick in the gym

Posted by for Strength

What weight should I be lifting? Fitness trainers answer the most googled questions. 

If you’ve already headed back to the gym after a lockdown spent doing bodyweight-only training then you’ll probably have noticed that your lifts aren’t what they once were. That’s fine, of course, because we can take things slowly and get back to where we once were. But how do you know what weights to put on the barbell now your progression is out of whack? 

Equally, if you’ve never been to the gym before and you walk in to find racks of dumbbells, how do you know what weight to pick up? You want to do squats, but is 10kg too heavy or too light to start? 

Each week, we ask fitness trainers to answer the most googled questions from women who want to get into weight lifting. Today, Alice Miller, member of the Strong Women Collective, and Zara Ozard, fitness trainer for Energy House Fitness, explain which weight you should be picking up when you hit the gym.

What weight should I be lifting?


“This is so hard to answer because it’s very specific to you. For most people, it will be a bit of trial and error to work it out. I always say that the weight you’re lifting should be challenging but doable. If your form is being compromised during both the lifting and lowering phase, then that would suggest that you’re lifting too heavy.

Eight to 12 reps is a good place to start, and so you should be choosing a weight with which your muscles are fatigued during the last couple of reps. You might do your first set and know that you could get more out, in which case add some weight on for your next set. It’s also great to write things down so you can remember where you were last time and pick your weight accordingly.”

Woman in gym selecting dumbbells
Modified strength training exercises help you to get your form right without causing any damage


“The best answer here is: it depends. It depends on how long you’ve been training, if you’ve taken breaks, if you’ve got injuries and what your goals are. If you are completely new, I would focus on lifting dumbbells first. They are a great way to start out on your lifting journey. However, don’t pick up a two kilo dumbbell – your shopping bag will be heavier than that, so it won’t be challenging for your body. So make sure it’s not too light, but also not too heavy that your form is going.”

Should you lift heavy or light weights?


“Again, it depends on the goal. If you’re totally new to training then I would suggest that you do lighter weight for more reps until you have the form perfect, rather than jumping in to heavy weights and injuring yourself.

If your goal is strength, choosing a weight you can only lift for around 1-6 reps will be best. If you would rather focus on muscular endurance, training with lighter weights for around 15 reps is best as it will recruit those slow twitch muscle fibres.”


“I believe every single person should be lifting heavy. I would say that means lifting around 80% of their one rep max, which we calculate based on how many reps you can do off of a back squat. If you’re new and don’t know how much you can squat, we use ‘rate of perceived exertion’, which is a ranking between one and 10. Lifting heavy would probably be an eight, nine or 10, on that scale, with nine being the feeling of ‘that’s really heavy but I could probably do one more rep’ and 10 being ‘I am maxed out I cannot do anything more’.

It’s also important to remember that the body won’t change and adapt when it isn’t being surprised or stressed because the weight is too light for you. Adding on a little bit of weight every few training sessions will keep progress coming.” 

How do you lift heavier weights?


“We need to add weight over time otherwise we end up in a training plateau and it’s ineffective. We make those steps to progress safely. First, you need to make sure that you have good form so you understand how to properly perform movements before loading the muscles. You need to be training quite regularly, but also with enough time out to rest and recover. Having a strong core is also important because when we lift everything comes from the core.”


“Work on consistency and focusing on the basics. That means learning to move well. My advice is to go a little bit slower and just so you can really focus on that control. Think about what muscles are being worked when you’re doing it. 

Something that people kind of forget about is how powerful your breath is when doing strength work. If you don’t work with your breath and if you’re not creating tension in your body, you’re not going to be able to lift as much. So all the great strength coaches are going to teach you about intra-abdominal pressure and creating that tension in the midline. 

I always say that you should find a good coach, or someone that you can talk to and ask for advice, too.”

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).