We often hear questions like:
- What weight should I start with? How much should I be lifting?
- If my program wants me to be doing 5 sets of 5 at 80% of my 1 rep max, how do I figure out my 1 rep max?
- And what if it doesn't give any percentages at all? How do I know what weights I should be doing?
Let's back up a second. Before ever trying to figure out how much weight you can lift, make sure you know how to do the movement, as flawless as possible, without any weight at all.
Why? 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 bags of groceries? No - you would only hurt yourself.
So our first step is to learn each movement without any bars, dumbbells, or added weight.
"But!" you say, "how on earth do I do a deadlift or a press without any weight? And I know I can do a bodyweight squat, but isn't it completely different with a bar on your back?"
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 bar.
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. One great reason to start here is that you can do it in your own home, without other people around you (so you'll be less nervous). Also, you can video tape yourself pretty easily (I use my computer's web cam, or a phone camera and a little tripod).
If you are interesting in nerding out about learning perfect form for each movement, we 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)
Once you're comfortable with each movement with a broomstick or PVC, then you can move to the bar.
Your first workout shouldn't go any heavier than "just" the bar, which means the bar without any added weight. As we know from strength training equipment, a standard barbell weighs 45 lbs (20.4 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, you have a few options:
- Look to see if the gym has a lighter barbell - some have a "women's bar" or a "training bar" that usually weigh 30-35 lbs and 15 lbs, respectively. These are usually shorter, but that's okay (just make sure it's a straight bar. The ez curl bar is not a good alternative).
- Start out with dumbbells - while the movement is not the exact same, it allows you to build up the strength to be able to correctly handle the bar.
- Focus on bodyweight training (pushups, pullups, lunges, squats) until you build the strength to handle the bar.
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.
If you're planning on using dumbbells as your main lift (and not a barbell), I'd start out with the 5-10 lb dumbbells to get a feel for things.
If you're looking to start on a beginner program, such as the workouts in The Nerd Fitness Academy or Starting Strength, the first step is to look at the instructed number of reps in each set. A few common rep ranges for beginner programs are 5 sets of 5, 3 sets of 8, or 3 sets of 10. For this example, lets say your program has you doing 5 sets of 5 on a particular lift.
- After a proper warm up routine, start with the empty bar again, and complete the prescribed number of reps (for this, it would be 5).
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, this is especially important to ingrain proper technique.
- Next, add some weight to the bar. Depending on how heavy the bar felt, start by adding anywhere from 2.5lbs to 10lbs to each side. Do another set of 5 reps at this weight.
- 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 10's, if it felt heavy, add 2.5"s or 5's.
- 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!
Once you find your starting weight, you'll want to start using something called "progressive overload." This sounds a lot fancier than it really is.
Simply put, 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 in every workout. After every workout our body heals, and if you're getting proper sleep and nutrition, it heals back stronger than it was before.
If you do 5 sets of 5 at 100 lbs every single workout for months, are you getting stronger? Most likely not - your body is becoming more efficient at lifting 5×5 at 100 lbs, burning less calories and using less processes 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 was the sets 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 not only how much you lifted and for how many reps, but also how your lifts went so next time you know what you need to be doing. Did you go to failure on your last set? Did your form break down on any of the reps?
If you failed to complete any of your reps or your form started to break down, it might not be a bad idea to do the same weight again, and focus 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 last workout - you're still leveling up. You don't necessarily have to go up in weight every workout to see gains. Less rest between sets, more control and better form, and more repetitions all mean you are getting stronger.
If you were able to get through all of your sets with great form, and without the bar slowing down, consider adding more. 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 is to slowly add weight and progress consistently rather than progress very quickly then hit 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.)
If you started out too light (like we recommend!) you can easily add more weight each workout as your body gets used to the movements and as you get better at lifting.
Remember that there will be days when you can't add any weight. So many things affect how your lifts are going to feel - from a baby crying all night, to lots of stress at the office, to drinking too much at the big game. It's important to listen to your body over listening to some number telling you what you should be lifting.
- The strongest lifters I know warm up with "just" the bar.
- The strongest lifters I know focus on getting their reps in, and aren't ashamed that they're lifting less than the guy next to them.
- The strongest lifters I know take time to get things right, even if that means lifting less weight than they know they "can" do.
- The strongest lifters I know 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.