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It can be hard starting with dumbbells. There’s a whole range of sizes and weights, it can be hard to decide on what to start with.
In this ‘what dumbbell weight should I use’ guide, we’ll look at the perfect starting weight if you’re looking to buy dumbbells.
If you want to buy a dumbbell set, check out our guide here.
What Dumbbell Weight Should I Use?
You may be a seasoned gym goer, or someone just starting a new strength program. Knowing what dumbbell weight to use is essential to making the gains you so desire. Generally speaking, the amount of weight that is right for you should challenge you to reach the point of near fatigue or failure. This can be tricky for many people. By going too heavy, you risk injury and won’t be able to complete your sets with proper form. However, a weight that doesn’t make you work for those last few repetitions isn’t necessarily doing you a favor.
Consider the Type of Exercise
The type of exercise is a huge determinant of what dumbbell weight you should use. Dumbbell resistance exercises typically call for weights that fall into one of three groups: light, medium, or heavy. Depending on the type of exercise, the weight used should correspond to the strength of the muscles you are working.
Exercises that involve light dumbbell weights typically involve smaller, weaker muscle groups. You should also go lighter for moves where you need to stabilize or keep your core aligned. These can be core moves or arm strengthening exercises that require you to lift your arms above your shoulders. Common exercises include the jack knife, tricep extension, shoulder press, and straight arm pulses. Go too heavy for these exercises and you end up recruiting muscles in your back or neck, which can put you at risk of injury.
Exercises that involve medium dumbbell weights are compound exercises that fall within some sort of middle ground. These exercises recruit the core stabilizer muscles to keep things anchored while recruiting upper and lower body muscle groups. You can count on the stabilizer muscles to keep you strong. Examples of these exercises include weighted lunges or squats.
Finally, exercises that recruit your largest muscle groups require the heaviest weights in order for them to be effective. Examples of these include sumo squats, where the movements are less explosive and more controlled. These exercises work powerful muscle groups such as the glutes, so you can go pretty heavy without compromising form.
Conduct a Fitness Experiment
Once you have considered the type of exercise and its associated muscle groups, it is time to conduct a fitness experiment. This part comes down to you listening to your body. It inevitably involves some element of trial and error as well, but you are bound to know which pair of weights to pick up next time.
This fitness experiment involves you calculating your one repetition maximum. By taking a little time to do this, you can determine the right amount of weight for your subsequent workouts.
To start off, pick a dumbbell weight for the exercise you have chosen. This only needs to be a rough gauge of the amount you can lift and does not need to be exact. When in doubt, it is best to pick a lighter weight. Perform eight repetitions of the selected weight, then wait three minutes. Then, increase the weight and aim to perform five to eight repetitions of this weight. Wait another three minutes, increase the weight, and perform as many repetitions as you can. For the final set, increase the weight again and perform a single repetition.
The final weight is your one repetition maximum. This is the maximum amount of weight that you can lift for a single repetition, bearing in mind proper form and technique. It is now possible to calculate the appropriate dumbbell training weight from your one repetition maximum. To derive your training weight, multiply your one repetition maximum by 60 and 80 percent. For example, if the weight was 20 pounds, the right training weight for you is between 12 to 16 pounds.
You Should Feel the Work from Your First Repetition
Previously, you may have been cruising through your workouts and could even do additional repetitions at the end of your set. Finding your one repetition maximum is one way you can determine a dumbbell weight that is appropriate for your workouts. The next time you do your strength workout, it may also be helpful to perform a quick check in.
Conduct a quick check by asking yourself the following questions: “Can I move through this exercise with correct form?” “Am I struggling to complete the last few repetitions?” “Am I able to complete all the sets?” If you answer ‘yes’ to all the questions, you know that the weight is neither too light for you nor too heavy.
You know the weight is heavy enough if you struggle to push through the last few repetitions. For most workout plans and exercises, it is recommended you do a set of 8 to 12 repetitions. If you planned on doing 12 repetitions, you should find it difficult to take things beyond the 8th rep. You should also be able to maintain proper form right up till your last repetition, but not for much longer.
Dumbbells are evenly loaded on both sides, so they make for a symmetrical and stable piece of equipment. Equipment with an even distribution of weight are typically easier to balance. However, if you find yourself struggling to maintain proper form, it is a sign that the weight is too heavy for you. If the weight is too heavy, you may rely on the momentum of the exercise to bring the weight up. This means that you aren’t maximizing the full effects of the workout. At the same time, you run a real risk of muscle injury.
The amount of dumbbell weight to use differs from person to person, based on the individual’s existing strength levels. Those who have acquired decent base strength from consistent cardio and resistance training require more weight compared to a beginner with minimal exercise history. You may want to work with a personal trainer to discuss your goals. Then take their advice in regard to what dumbbell weight is going to be right for you.
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