Some exercises, like squats, I’ve been doing basically forever. Even if I’m not using a program that tells me exactly what to lift, I can walk into a gym and have a pretty good sense of how much weight I should put on the bar. But what if it’s your first time doing a particular lift?
This isn’t just a beginner question: Sometimes you know your main lifts, but then decide to try a brand new one (what is a “front raise” and how much weight should I use for one?) or you’re returning to something you haven’t done in a while. (It’s been years since I last did a hip thrust.)
Fortunately, it’s not hard to figure out what weight to start with. Here’s how I approach every new exercise.
Know what the exercise is supposed to do
The first step is making sure you know what you’re actually trying to do, and how a given exercise differs from those that look similar. For example, a regular dumbbell row is done as a slow and controlled movement, while a Kroc row is meant to be explosive, and to use your core to rotate your body a bit. Both use a dumbbell, but a Kroc row will require a heavier dumbbell.
On the other hand, a bent-over row usually calls for a barbell. Sometimes an exercise can be done with a variety of equipment: a windmill could use a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or even a barbell held in the centre if you’re adventurous. Check your program, and maybe look up some YouTube videos, so you know what you’ll be attempting.
If you’re doing an exercise for the first time, you have to learn the exercise as well as figure out your starting weight. Start with just a bodyweight movement, then add a little weight. For a dumbbell movement, grab something toward the lighter end of the rack; it’s fine to grab something too light, but you don’t want to accidentally grab something that’s too heavy. For a barbell movement, the ideal starting point is often just the empty bar. (If the empty bar looks intimidating, grab a smaller barbell or a pair of dumbbells.)
Work up to more weight
After trying that light weight, ask yourself how it felt. Were you able to do the movement in approximately the same way it was demonstrated? If so, put that dumbbell back and pick up a heavier one. (For barbell lifts, add plates to the bar.) Again, you still want to err on the side of being too light.
It’s totally fine if it takes you many attempts to find a weight that feels appropriately challenging. The heavier the final weight, the more jumps you’ll take along the way. For example, if it turns out you can do 143 kg on hip thrusts, you journey to that discovery might look something like this:
- Start with the 20 kg bar. Oh yeah, that’s super light.
- Add a pair of 11 kg plates, for a total of 95. Yeah, definitely still light.
- Swap out the 25s for 45s (the standard sized big plates), total 135. Huh, still really light.
- Add the 25s back: total 185. Still way light.
- Take off those 25s and add another set of 45s, so now you have two 45s on either side of the bar, for a total of 225. Nope, gotta keep going.
- Add the 25s back: 275. It finally feels like we’re getting close.
- Add a pair of 10s. 295. Better, but still not quite challenging enough.
- Take off the 25s and the 10s and add a third pair of 45s, for 315 total. Ahh, perfect.
With experience, you might skip some of these steps. If I were doing hip thrusts tomorrow, I’d probably start with 135, skip right to 225, and feel it out from there.
Get a sense of where your body is strongest
For a further shortcut, it may help to think about how lifts relate to one another.
Compound lifts (moving multiple joints at once, like a row or a squat) will be heavier than isolation lifts (moving one joint in one specific motion, like a bicep curl).
Lifts that use big muscles (like the quads or butt) will be heavier than lifts that use small muscles (like the biceps or shoulders).
Hip thrusts are usually heavier than deadlifts.
Deadlifts are usually heavier than squats.
Bench press is almost always heavier than overhead press.
Explosive moves (like push press) are almost always heavier than controlled moves (like strict press).
Barbell lifts are usually heavier than dumbbell lifts (for example, barbell bench versus dumbbell bench).
Even with these rules of thumb in mind, the best way to find out what weight to use is to pick something up and try it. Nobody will think you’re weird for working your way up the dumbbell rack or taking a bunch of warmup sets on your way to your working set. This is standard gym practice. Welcome to the club.