How Much Weight Should I Lift?

By Dave Werner

Consider this instruction; deadlift 120 lbs. for 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

This is a satisfyingly clear instruction. It tells the reader exactly what to do, how much weight to do it with, and how many times to do it. (It does leave out important information such as how quickly the movement should be performed, and how much rest is needed between sets, because those are topics for another discussion.)

But who is this instruction for? What training goal is being addressed? 120 lbs. is very light for some people yet very heavy for others. When considering a large audience, the point of this instruction is not at all clear. If removing ambiguity from your life is the goal, instructions like this will work just fine. If you are after a specific training effect though, you will need a different approach.

At we specify the load to be lifted by specifying a range of repetitions. We do not tell you exactly what weight to use. Instead we write an instruction like; deadlift 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions. This is not done to save ink. We have just told the reader to use a weight that they can just barely lift for 8 repetitions. By the 3rd set it may not even be possible to perform 8 repetitions. 7 or even 6 repetitions may be all the reader can do.

When followed properly, this instruction will achieve the same training response for every person. The small beginner can be working just as hard – for him – as the muscular and experienced athlete. One person might find 60 lbs. challenging to deadlift 8 times in a row. Someone else might be able to handle 330 lbs. for the same number of repetitions. In both cases the athlete is working at a medium intensity. In other words the weight is not the heaviest thing they can lift, but it also does not seem super light.

By providing a range of repetitions we are giving more information about how to interpret the training goal. If the instruction were instead, deadlift 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions you would draw a very different conclusion about that days training goals. A weight that you are able to lift between 6 and 8 times is starting to get pretty heavy, while a weight you can lift from 8 to 12 times is not very heavy at all. In fact the category being trained is totally different, with the heavier range targeting strength-hypertrophy, and the lighter range targeting strength-endurance, or stamina.

When specifying loads in terms of repetition ranges, we are also allowing for the imprecise nature of our human bodies. You may find that you are able to lift a certain weight 8 times on one day and struggle to lift the same weight 6 times the following week. This is a common training experience and is not a cause for alarm unless you notice a trend. Sleep, nutrition and many other factors affect our daily performance, and as trainees we have to learn how to accommodate these daily fluctuations.

There is one major complication in specifying ranges of repetition, and that is that most people have no idea how much weight they can lift 3 times, 5 times, 8 times, and so on. This is knowledge that comes with experience. Knowing your own capabilities is part of the benefit gained through training. Keep a log/record, notice trends in your training, change tactics when you are not getting the results you expect.

Let me reiterate that last point. You must keep a record and write down your training results. If you decide that keeping a log/record is too much bother, then you will not get the full benefit of your effort. Over time you will learn what you are really capable of, and you will be able to tell how you are progressing. If you don’t record both the plan and the results, you will simply not get the results you hope for. There are no shortcuts.

There are many haphazard and ineffective approaches to training, and many people are expecting results that their training program will never deliver. One of the main things that separates a great program from a good one is the level of results delivered. Our program draws on many years of experience. We are very good at creating the desired results for our clients. Rep ranges are the best possible way to communicate how much weight you should be lifting.