How to Choose the Right Weight

Megan Dahlman
March 14, 2022

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Selecting the right weight seems tricky, but it's actually very simple. However, most women get it all wrong, choosing loads that are way too light 99% of the time (that's my own stat...totally unscientific, but probably pretty darn close). You see it all the time at the gym: the long racks of big, black dumbbells with women nowhere to be found. Where are they? Huddled around the little pink and purple dumbbells, which weigh 8 pounds at most. Heaven forbid they lift something more than 10 pounds, otherwise they'll get bulky all of a sudden, right?

Sigh. This couldn't be further from the truth. Lifting heavy weights will not make you bulky (unless you have elevated levels of testosterone pumping through your veins like a man), but they will make you STRONG. How will you ever get stronger lifting 5 pound dumbbells 30 times? Have you ever weighed your purse? That purse is probably making you stronger than the gym equipment. That's not right. We're Strong Mommas, right? Let's make sure you're getting strong.

So, here's the trick for making sure the weight is just right for you. When using the correct weight, you should be able to perfectly complete ALL prescribed repetitions of an exercise, feeling like you could still do about two more. So, if you finish your 10 reps and feel like you could have continued to 18, the weight was too light. If you were aiming for 10 reps, but the last one or two were ugly (you had to contort your body to move the weight) then the load was too heavy. Staying within this range will ensure that you actually get stronger without hurting yourself.

This is a moving scale for most exercises. If you're only doing 5 squats, you should be able to squat a lot more weight that if you were doing 15 squats. And generally, your legs can perform a lot more work than your arms. Thirty pounds might be a perfect amount of weight for 10 squats, but half of that (15 pounds) is probably more reasonable for a shoulder press. (The amount of muscle mass contributing to a movement determines how much weight it can handle. Shoulders vs. glutes for example.)

Load selection guidelines apply to all types of loads, not just dumbbells. Whether you're bands, the TRX, medicine balls, kettlebells, you should always be able to complete your target number of reps using perfect technique with about 1 or 2 reps left over.

You will get stronger, and every once in a while you should test this. Twenty pounds might be spot on for a row right now, but in a month, 25 pounds fits the bill better. If your routine is working, you should be gradually able to lift heavier loads.

No matter what, it is safer to err on the side of caution, using a lighter weight, especially when you're learning a new exercise. But, once you've got the movement down, challenge yourself. Grab a big boy and impress yourself with your new-found strength!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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