When you first decide to pick up a dumbbell and start strength training, it can be confusing. How do you determine how much weight you can handle? What size dumbbell will challenge you, but not overwork your muscles? I hear these questions all the time from my clients — and they’re great questions! Choosing the correct weight can be difficult when there’s no one-size-fits-all guideline to follow.
Like most forms of exercise, if performed incorrectly, weightlifting can lead to injury. Lifting too heavy of a weight can lead to injuries such as fractures or dislocations, while choosing a weight that is too light can delay progress. That’s why it’s important that we take the time to figure out the weight that works best for us.
To help you figure it out, I’ve devised a short test you can perform at home. Keep in mind that you may need to perform this test multiple times for different exercises since some muscles, like the glutes and hamstrings, can handle heavier weights while other muscles may require lighter ones.
Before we get to the dumbbell weight calculation test, it’s important to get your body moving. Since you shouldn’t perform a weightlifting workout without warming up first, you shouldn’t jump right into the test. I recommend five minutes of climbing stairs, walking, jogging, or doing some dynamic stretching before getting started.
Step 1: Pick up a dumbbell, perform 10 reps
Start with a weight you’re comfortable with, whether it be a 3, 5 or 10-pound dumbbell. Don’t worry if you’re not entirely sure of your choice; the rest of this test will help you figure that out! Holding the dumbbell in one hand, perform 10 bicep curls.
Step 2: Evaluate difficulty level and adjust
Were those 10 repetitions too easy or too hard? If you could get through the repetitions without feeling any sort of burn in your muscles, increase the amount of weight by two pounds. If you started struggling halfway through the repetitions, decrease the weight of your dumbbell by two pounds.
Step 3: Perform 10 more reps and feel the burn
Perform a second round of 10 bicep curls with the new weight (or the original weight if that felt just right!). Are the last five reps challenging? If so, keep this weight. If not, increase the weight by a couple of pounds.
Step 4: Perform 10 more reps — and your muscles should be fatigued
Perform a third and final round of 10 bicep curls. The muscles should feel fatigued and this entire set should feel challenging. If it does, you’ve found your weight!
When can I increase my weight?
Use this weight to perform three sets of the exercise every other day for two weeks. If it feels easier as time goes on, increase your repetitions to 12 per set with the same weight. Then increase to 15 repetitions with the same weight. Once 15 reps feels easy, you can then increase the dumbbell weight.
One note: As a personal trainer, I have been lifting five-pound dumbbells and doing 15 reps of bicep curls for years! I have no interest in lifting heavier weights since I like how my arms look and feel. So I do not have a goal to increase my dumbbell weight. You don’t have to either! But if you’re looking for a progression or starting with a lower weight, like one or two pounds, and trying to build more strength, follow the above progression.
Perform this test every few weeks
Once you’ve been working out for a few weeks, you can perform the test again to see if your strength has increased and you’re able to up the weight. Remember that this is a general test and works best when performing three sets of 10 repetitions to start. However, if you’re looking to perform a higher number of reps, you can still use this test! Just follow the steps and when you find that the last few reps of your first two sets are challenging, you’ve found the correct weight.