How much weight should I lift as a beginner?

We looked at the data for beginners and here's how much you should be lifting on these 7 common lifts
By Dean Phillips
Evidence Based

Doubt creeps in.

A pause. A gulp. An uncertain glance at the weights on the rack.

Will I be seen as weak if I choose a smaller one?

Wait. Am I weaker than I thought?

We’ve all been there, questioning how well we’re doing in the gym, wondering if we’re doing well enough.

After all, how much should you be lifting as a guy just getting started? What about if you’ve been lifting weights for a few months?

We’ve got you covered. We’re going to look at how much you should be lifting for the most common (and tested) movements and give you a calculator that'll show you what you should be aiming for on the seven movements outlined in this post.

Sound good?

Let's get started.

Should you start with your bodyweight before you enter the gym?

If you're like most people in the gym, then you probably want to dive right in and start lifting weights right out the gate.

Maybe lifting your bodyweight feels like a waste of time.

Maybe you feel like you might as well being an aerobics class:

https://gamespot1.cbsistatic.com/uploads/scale_medium/171/1712892/3556931-screen shot 2019-07-04 at 1.29.37 pm.png

Plus, if you've heard much about the typical bodyweight workout then you know they're typically found under the weight loss section.

(Which if you’re a skinny guy, just starting out, is probably the last thing you want).

But none of that is why I recommend starting with them.

If you've never lifted before, or have for just a few weeks, then it's probably wise to start with your bodyweight as they’ve been shown to help with motor-unit recruitment and reach good movement. (study)

Plus it's accessible to everyone and gives you the ability to train anywhere.

And not only that but - if you're a beginner - starting with your bodyweight has a bunch of benefits that I'll outline in a second.

But the main one if you're a skinny guy?

Getting enough recovery in, and not being too hard on your body early on.

That's not to say you'll be doing a bodyweight workout for weeks on end, but before you step into the gym, it's a great idea to learn how your body moves:

  • Noticing what you struggle with
  • Practising fluid movement without the distractions of how much to lift
  • Notice where you feel your limits with just moving in general are, so you can distinguish them from when you lift

This comes down to one thing: If you can't do a movement with just your bodyweight, you're going to struggle when it comes to adding weight.

The moves that lend themselves well to this are the bodyweight squat, the chin-up (assisted if needed), push-ups and inverted rows.

Although some people recommend starting with a broomstick and practising movements with this to get your form optimised, I think when it comes to the majority of people who want to start lifting, this is overkill and doesn't create enough forward momentum with getting into the gym and experiencing things. The longer you hold off, the less likely you are to get started with the actual work of lifting weights.

Quick wins are the way forward to being consistent and starting to get results.

Is it a good idea if you want to become a strength training master? Sure.

For a skinny guy starting? Nope. I'd pass.

Another reason why it is essential to get used to lifting your body weight is that bodyweight training helps you to manipulate your own body organically and safely, improving balance, coordination, and flexibility (study). It also lends itself to getting stronger, regardless of your muscle mass, which can be a benefit for some.

The Two Different Kinds of Physical Strength: How much weight should I lift for my size?

We all know people who can bench 200lbs, out of the gate.

You're impressed, jealous even. After all, it's miles ahead of where you currently are. 

But what if they weigh 200lbs themselves?

Not so impressive now, huh.

That's because two types of strength come into play when it comes to lifting weights - the kind that is separated from someone's weight and the kind that’s linked.

1. Absolute strength

This is all about being able to lift, and move weights against heavy resistance. Think 1-rep max squats, grinding deadlifts, pushing a car.

This doesn't care about how much you weigh and is about pure brute strength.

Beginners are in a phase where motor learning and coordinating patterns are developing. To give a concrete example, when a beginner does a bicep curl with a dumbbell, they'll likely be contracting their tricep and pec muscles as well, even though those muscles don't need to be contracted during the movement. The nervous system has to learn how to properly sequence and fire the correct muscles for a given movement.
Opexfit
Leader in coaching education

To get around this, the science recommends testing for absolute strength often, and repeating this every few weeks. However, for skinny guys, I don’t like this method for reaching strength AND muscle growth levels.

Although absolute strength is a decent measurement of strength, I'm more of a fan of focusing on your strength based on where you are with your current (and growing) body weight measurement.

Guys outside of the "beginners" category usually have a decent amount of absolute strength from abusing barbell movements, but can't be athletic for shit.

That's where this is important…

2. Relative Strength

This is about being athletic and viewing weights from the perspective of how much you weigh. It’s also most commonly the one you want to improve.

Remember the example of someone benching 200lbs but weighing 200lbs themselves.

This is where relative strength comes into question.

"Relative strength is the amount of strength to body size, or how strong someone is compared to their size. This reflects a person's ability to control or move their body through space, a vital trait in all athletics."
Opexfix
Leader in coaching education

And all things being equal, smaller guys (like us) typically have a higher relative strength.

Why is it important to look at relative strength?

It'll give you a more clear measurement on whether your strength and athletic ability is increasing, or if your weight is going up (be that fat or muscle mass).

And actual strength increase (generally) = more muscle mass and growth potential.

I screwed up with this early on.

I obsessed over building absolute strength, wanting to be stronger than the guy who was twice my size, and then I’d flip the switch and focus purely on bodybuilding for a few months, and ditch building strength. As you can imagine this dramatically limited by muscle growth potential (which I didn’t think about back then).

That's why all the measurements given later in this article are, for the most part, relative to your bodyweight.

Absolute vs relative strength

Instead of purely separating the two into different camps, I like to see things as a balance, and the science backs that up too.

"While relative strength appears to have the greatest impact on predictors of athletic performance, the development of absolute strength should enhance relative strength" (Study) - which means developing greater absolute strength, builds greater relative strength (if your body mass doesn't change).

Let's look at how the two compare and benefit each other:

BodyweightDeadliftMax Absolute StrengthRelative Strength
185 lbs 405 lbs405 lbs 2.2 x bodyweight
105 lbs205 lbs205 lbs1..97 x bodyweight

Notice that while the larger lifter has the same absolute strength as the lighter lifter, his relative strength is less than the lighter lifter.

If you're a dedicated gym rat, your objective is to get stronger, leaner, and more athletic. Both absolute strength and relative strength are needed to maximise your high-performance.

You develop greater absolute strength by improving technique on big lifts, improving neuromuscular function, and in many cases, increasing how much you weigh.

When body weight is kept the same, an improvement in absolute strength benefits relative strength, thus increasing your ability to generate a force on exercises like jumps, bodyweight exercises, and moving your body through space.

An excellent program schedule should have both built in:

  • Low reps that test your absolute strength
  • More athletic programming to help with relative strength.

1. How much does a barbell weigh?

If you've never lifted before, you might be wondering how much the bars laying around the gym weigh. Maybe you've picked them up and struggled to move them.

Lucky for you, I've got the answer to this and more.

There are several types of barbells out there, ranging in both different weights and styles. I'm going to show you the three most popular ones you’ll find:

1. A standard barbell weighs 45 lbs (20.4 kg).

This is the most typical barbell you'll find lying around in the gym.

It's the one you see most people using when it comes to doing the bench press, squatting and deadlifting.

2. The "women's barbell" weighs 35 lbs (15.8 kg).

If you've done a circuit before, then you've seen these.

They're lighter in weight, meaning they're given to females, and in classes where strength might be lower than usual.

These are great for when you're starting out (most client's I've trained have struggled with lift a standard barbell when they first enter the gym).

The Hex Barbell

3. The Trap/Hex Bar comes in several variations.

This is a unique one and has many benefits for moves such as deadlifting and farmer walks.

Hex bars let you stand in line with the weight, instead of behind it. This makes it easier for beginners - technically and biomechanically.

They also come in a bunch of variations.

The Gerard version comes weighing at the typical 20kg (45 lbs). The standard (conventional version) comes in at a lighter weight of 13.3kg (30lbs), and the XL trap bar can go up to 25kg (55lbs)

2. How about dumbbells? (Spoiler: These have the weight written on the side)

Guy at a dumbbell rack

Dumbbells come in all sorts of sizes.

Gyms usually have a mini rack full of smaller dumbbells (1-10kg here in the UK) and then a full rack of the heavier weights if you're in fancy town.

The selection depends on your gym, but 95% of gyms I've been to have included weights that go to a minimum of 30kg (66.1 lbs), and are stacked in order of lightest to heaviest.

You'll find the weight written on the side of the dumbbells, but be sure to check if they're written in kg or lbs. Don't make the same mistake as me.

3. Machines + Cables (typically have the weights written on)

Guy on a leg press machine

This is where things get a bit tricky.

Machines and cable machines vary significantly in the weight stacked on the machine.

Usually, this is written on the side of the machine, but it's not always clear what the format the weight is written in.

Here are some of the typical machines most gyms have:

Leg Press: The most common leg press machines, such as those made in Gold's have sleds weighing between 45-53 kg. This varies wildly when going from brand to brand, and some sleds can go as high as 56 kg while others can go as low as 29 kg.

Hack Squat: These vary massively from gym to gym, for example by local gym's hack squat starts at 47.6kg (105lbs) where some start at 75 lbs. It’s all over the place.

Cable Machine: Typically very little, like 1kg to picking the weight you want to stack on the machine. Remember that each machine varies it's measurements, so 3 weights on one machine might be drastically different to 3 weights on another machine/different gym.

Smith Machine: This is much lighter than a standard barbell. It's also much easier for beginners to use due to its lack of activating the stabilization muscles (study). The bar is fixed on a straight path and ranges from 6-15kg (13-33l bs)

The 2 types of lifters that should be reading this article

When looking at the recommendations, there's a ton of numbers out there.

A lot of them are for people who have been lifting for a while — Guys who already have a large amount of muscle mass, and want to optimise their strength for powerlifting.

If that's you, then there's plenty of decent apps out there to help you work out what you should be aiming for (and you probably won't love the rest of the article).

However, for guys who are struggling to build muscle, there's very little out there that gives you an idea of what you should be reaching for.

That's why I've decided to write this article. 

For guys that fall into these two categories (you'll have to use your own judgement on this):

The Beginner - Can perform the movement correctly and has practised it for at least a month.

The Novice - Has trained regularly in the technique of these movements for at least six months.

Bear in mind that you might fall into the ‘beginner’ category if your form/program has been pretty poor for the first 6 months. 

Have a little think, and leave your ego at the door. Your body doesn't care about that.

If you've been lifting for over six months, but you're a skinny guy, then I think it's safe to say you still fall into the ‘novice’ category, as you've not built enough solid muscle mass to advance yet.

Note that these definitions vary between studies and experts. However, when putting together the evidence for this article, these categories were the most common and supported by the data.

However, when looking at the research (from science, coaches and data provided by clients coached), it's pretty clear that there's a mixed bag of information out there.

For example, some experts (reference) say 1.25 x your body weight is a "decent" amount to aim for with the bench press, yet after the real-life data shows that most people are likely to have a standard of 0.6-0.8.

That's a big difference.

And figures expand outside of that box too.

That's why I've gathered all of that information for you by seeking out the common threads between them.

The 7 Movements To Test Your Strength On

Let's get into the nitty-gritty stuff.

These moves are the most common in studies and the literature across the board. They're also the most widely used movements for testing strength and building muscle.

If you're a true beginner, then some of these might be new. However, as you progress over the next few weeks, with good practice, you should be confident in doing them all.

To accommodate people who have done the movements, and who might have done easier variations, I've added some alternatives so you have a benchmark too.

I've also gone ahead and given calculations for a 1 rep max/5 rep max (how much you should lift for 1 rep, and 5 full reps). Most beginners can't do an accurate 1RM test, but I wanted to give options outside of that incase some decide to attempt it anyway.

Something that's difficult to do with these calculations is to take into account that you have no previous joint dysfunctions or injuries that limit your performance. Other factors that impact how strong you are on any given day are how well you lift a movement, how much sleep you've been getting or your diet.

How much should you barbell squat?

Belonging to the big 4, this is a staple in every muscle-building program.

After all, it more than just a "legs" movement. It has an effect on your back, core, shoulders and arms, making it one heck of a compound movement [4].

However, there are many forms of squats, from back to hack squat and front squat to bodyweight. In this section, we're going to take a look at the strength for the three most commonly given to people starting.

And you'll notice a vast difference between all 3…

Different areas of the lower body (quads, glutes, hamstrings) can be targeted by changing the biomechanics of the squat through numerous variations: namely, high bar and low bar squats; wide-stance versus narrow-stance squats; and even light high-rep sets versus heavy low-rep sets.
Jim Stoppani

The Back Squat Vs Front Squat

With any squat variation, we're going to be training simultaneous knee extension, where the quads straighten the legs out, and hip extension, where the glutes straighten the hips out.

When the bar is positioned to the front of the body the only way to maintain that balance is to keep a more upright back posture.

Notice how the back squat also has the lifter leaning more forward while the front squat has the lifter more upright?

This is huge because it's the main difference between the two types of squats, and because of this you can see that the front squat forces the quads to work a bit harder, but most importantly it forces the upper back to work much harder to maintain that upright posture.

You'll typically find that you're much weaker in the front squat for a couple of reasons:

  1. More quad activation and less help from the surrounding muscles (glutes and hamstrings).
  2. You'll usually fail the lift because your traps and rhomboids fail to keep the upper spine extended, not because your quads and glutes give out.

It's also been discovered that the front squat presents a similar training stimulus to the back squat, but requires a lighter load (study) leaving less chance of injury.

"Front squats place a higher proportion of tension on the quads versus the glutes as compared to back squats, so it's a great exercise for anyone looking to bring up his or her thighs. But more importantly for those with lower back issues, front squats force the torso to remain more upright than do back squats (otherwise the bar will fall forward and drop to the floor), thus relieving some of the strain on the spine."
Jim Stoppani

Here's the numbers for both the back and front squat:

Beginner: 0.794/0.794
Novice: 0.952 / 0.84
Beginner: 0.682/0.606
Novice: 0.966/0.85

Alternative: The Goblet Squat

I don't typically start anyone on the traditional back or front squat right out the gate. Although the goblet squat is close to the front squat, the front squat requires more coordination, core strength, rigidity, and overall leg strength to do it well.

Most people struggle with their mobility and spinal loading in the early stages, that's why in my flagship formula for skinny dudes, we typically start with the goblet squat.

Beginner: 0.794 / 0.70666

Novice: 0.952 / 0.84728

How much should you be able to deadlift?

In the meathead world, this is the movement typically given a lot of love.

But if you're just starting out, there's a good chance you might not be able to deadlift yet.

It's a movement that can be difficult to get right in the early stages and requires a lot of motor unit recruitment and coordination.

Firstly, it requires you having the flexibility to get low enough to pick the bar up from the floor. It also requires being able to drive the hips up and a bunch of other things.

If you'd like an 80/20 guide on deadlifting, let me know by signing up here.

For those who are deadlifting well, here's what you'll want to aim for:

Beginner: 0.996 / 0.88 x Bodyweight
Novice: 1.398 /1.24 x Bodyweight

If you're someone starting, then I don't recommend deadlifting.

You'll have a much better chance of improving it and getting stronger overall if you work on your rack pull.

The Alternative: The Rack Pull

This has the advantage of less range of motion and the fewer steps to learn. This makes it a brilliant deadlift and mass building alternative.

Beginner: 1.072/0.95 x Bodyweight

Novice: 1.622/1.44 x Bodyweight

Pull-ups. How many should you be able to do?

This is a tough one to judge.

There's conflicting information and egos typically get in the way of finding the numbers the average dude can perform.

According to the Candidate Fitness Assessment, the average number of pull-ups performed by men is nine. Men who can perform 18 consecutive pull-ups are considered to possess a high level of fitness.

Not to mention, to join the United States Marines, you have to perform at least three pull-ups.

From my experience, here are the numbers:

Beginner: 1 unassisted full range pull-up

Novice: 2-5 full-range pull-ups

If you're opting for a chin-up (palms facing towards you), then you'll get more assistance from the bicep, and this will lead to higher numbers.

If you're doing a program that requires you to hit higher numbers, to reach hypertrophy, then this will help.

How much should you be bench-pressing?

Being part of The "big 4" movements that every strength program seems to have, it makes sense to measure it.

After all:

This is the golden question that most people want to know and talk about when trying to throw gym talk at their fellow bros.

Rarely do people ask anything else (other than curling)

Because of that, I'm going to get straight into it…

Beginner: 0.588 / 0.52 x your bodyweight
Novice: 0.858 / 0.76 x your bodyweight

Something to bear in mind with this is that your technique and style of bench press will dictate how much you can lift.

And contrary to what most people believe, the bench press isn't just a chest movement, in fact, it targets a lot more than just that:

Depending on the angles, placement of your elbows and hands it can affect your forearms, shoulders, triceps, lats, traps and rhomboids. Primarily, it hits all areas of the upper body and can also put the lower back and legs under stress too.

How much should you shoulder press/overhead press?

This is one of the moves that most people get wrong.

They use too much lower back, make it a push-press (using their legs to move the weight) and they overextend their arms to get the weight up.

Beginner: 0.36 / 0.32 x bodyweight
Novice: 0.555 / 0.493 x bodyweight

This article isn't to teach you how to overhead press correctly, however, note that form is a considerable impacter when it comes to reaching the numbers below, especially with the press.

You'll usually be weaker at the overhead press than you want to be, so it's always better to go lighter, correct form and then get stronger.

How many push-ups should I be able to do?

These need no explaining.

They're a staple in every guy's life.

If you've wanted to improve your body, show off or win a free pizza[5] then you've no doubt dropped down and done push-ups.

That begs the question.

How many should I aim to complete with a max effort?

The data says 20-40 for most people with less than six months of strength training; however, I've seen real-world evidence to show contradictory evidence for skinny guys.

Here's the amount you should aim for:

Beginner: 1-10 push-ups in a row
Novice: 10-20 push-ups in a row

This is a complex movement to give numbers with because in the real world, I've met people who weren't strong, who could rep out push-ups and guys who were strong who would hit 30 and be blown.

The push-up also depends, not only on how strong your pecs are, but also on your triceps, shoulder health and core stability.

If you're struggling to hit the amount you were expecting above (based on hitting the figures with other movements in this list), then make sure your program includes work on the sticking points[6]

And better yet…

If you're stuck with push-ups, or bored of doing the same ones time and time again, then I've got an article that'll help you out. You'll find my favourite alternatives along with a bunch of progressions from going from not being able to do any push-ups to mastering them like you're Rocky.

How many dips should you be able to do?

Dips are one of my favourite movements because they can be done and tested in most gyms.

These generally link with push-up strength.

Although they work different muscles directly, they have the same assistance muscles that need work to get stronger.

I've put together an article that covers this here.

The numbers listed below are for the standard tricep dip:

Beginner: Assisted > 1 full dip
Novice: 8 full dips without assistance

The stronger your bench press gets, the more dips you'll be able to do. After these get easy, with just your body weight, you'll be able to add weight using a dipping/weight belt.

Plug your weight into this and we'll spit out the numbers for you.

Your Weight (LBS)

3 Rules That Can Help You Pick Better Weights

Here are 3 rules I recommend you follow when it comes to picking the perfect weight to start out with.

Rule 1 - Follow The Minus 2 Method

This means if you're doing rack pulls with 135 pounds for 12 reps, you should actually be able to do 14 reps. This allows your form to be correct, and it will also help you recover faster which in term will speed up your muscle growth.

Rule 2 - Stick With Great Form And Cues

When starting out it takes some time for your cues and form to be great. When it isn't? The weight shouldn't be the reason for this - you not being used to the movements should be why it's not perfect. If the weight is the reason, then obviously decrease it!

Rule 3 - Make Sure You Can Feel The Right Muscles Working

This won't always be true with heavy compound lifts, but for the most part, especially early on in the program you should feel the muscles working

If you can't?

You'll need to make sure your form is correct (ask someone, watch our videos and even send us a video of you doing it if it continues).

If you still can't feel it, it could be because the weight is either too heavy or too light. If you don't really feel anything at all (and the weight feels easy at the same time) then you'll want to increase the weight.

How To Get Stronger And Add Weight To The Bar

No matter what, if you're hitting the numbers given in this article, or not, you'll still undoubtedly want to increase the amount you can add for each lift.

But how do you do this?

Use progressive overload to gain strength over time 

It's not the sexiest thing, and most people want to talk about other ways to increase strength (nervous system hacking, angle adjustments on benches etc) but the reality is nothing beats progressive overload when it comes to getting stronger, and bigger.

And the simple stuff is backed.

In fact, studies have shown that periodisation has advantages for untrained individuals (study) and leads to greater strength in the long term.

Progressive overload simply means to progress the stimulus (stress) often.

How to use progressive overload in your workouts:

  • Increase the weight on the bar from week to week
  • Keep the weight the same but increase the reps you do with that weight
  • Decrease your rest time (making you more efficient)
  • How often you train the movement (not recommended for skinny guys)
  • The volume of the workout with compound movements (study)

To demonstrate progressive overload, we'll focus on increasing the weight over time.

When starting out, it's common to see guys add weight the bar almost weekly, however as time goes on the progression slows down and this is when you've got the following options:

Slowing down: Your weight is the same as the last workout, your movement is slow, or you can't complete the reps (with good form).

When this happens the best thing to do is to keep the same weight for the next workout, but focus on reaching the correct reps with that weight.

If your movement is slow, and almost a grind during the workout, then it's best to stick with that weight for another workout (or several) until it becomes your usual speed.

Once you've nailed that, then add more weight to the bar.

That way, you can see you're still progressing with each workout, even if the weight isn't going up. This will lead to more weight being added overtime and you'll get stronger, faster and obviously bigger.

Things are A.O.K: Completed the reps, weight didn't slow, people were asking what your secret is.

In this situation, it's wise to add weight to the bar (this can be 10-20lbs when you start, to 2.5lb or even less when you're trained for a while)

Remember, any progress is better than no progress.

You'll reach a point when you move to the "slowing down" side of things, and then usually repeat the cycle.

TL;DR

The Superhuman Lab Summary

Using the above, you should now have an idea of not only what weights you should be aiming for, but how to get there and become stronger using progressive overload.

If someone asks how strong you are, you can answer.

You should now know the difference between strength types, and which matter most for your body type and training goals.

Imagine just three months from now being in the best shape of your life. Moving past your current weights and setting PBs in all 7 movements.

As a skinny guy, this is all possible. I’ve seen it time and time again.

If you want to go beyond just building strength, and consistently building superhero, athletic muscle and power as a skinny guy, then you’ll want to Join The Lab Report. 

I’m excited to see you use what you’ve learned in this article.

You’ll be unstoppable! ?

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