Can we talk about my irrational fear of doing any dumbbell exercise in front of people? For years, there was an invisible line at the gym that I dared not cross. That line was the divider between the familiar cardio equipment and the terrifying jungle of strength training equipment.

Sometimes you have no idea which weight to use for your dumbbell exercise. This guide will help give you the confidence you need to master free weights. Click for a free printable progress tracker or pin it for later!

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar to you?

What if I choose a weight that’s too heavy and look ridiculous trying to lift it?

What if I choose a weight that’s too light and look like I’ve never exercised before?

Everyone will know I don’t belong here! I’ll just stick to my side. Over here… on the elliptical for one more day.

OK, that hot guy over there definitely knows that I don’t know what I’m doing.

And so on….

The truth about that dumbbell exercise you’re tryin’ out

It sucks to walk into the free weight area of your gym when you have no idea which weight to use for each dumbbell exercise. You think everyone is looking at you and laughing when you pick up the 10lbs weights and you realize it’s way too easy, or you grab something too heavy and fail on rep number two.

Although we’re very confident that no one is paying attention to you, no one is judging you, and no one actually wants to see you fail; we understand that some guidance will help you boost your confidence so that you can get started.

Always start small

Pick a weight like a 10 or 12.5 and make that your starting weight for everything. Consider it your warm up even if it’s way too light. Doing this will allow you to get a feel for how heavy your weight needs to be after you finish ‘warming up’.

Say you’re doing a dumbbell squat. You knock out 10 reps with 10lb weights and it was super easy. Well duh… it was supposed to be. That was your warm-up! Even better, now you should have an idea about how much weight can be added to give you a tough, but manageable workout.

Big muscle groups equal bigger weights

Legs, Chest, and Back are all big muscle groups. This means you should be able to use more weight when you work your chest compared to when you work your biceps. It means your legs can handle more weight than your triceps, and so on.

Don’t be afraid to give up

Don’t worry, we’re not getting all un-motivational on you here. This just means: don’t work your biceps until you can’t feel your arms anymore (and so on). This will prevent you from dropping weights on your head and actually looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.

If the weight is too heavy, you have two choices: you can stop your reps early or you can drop down to a lower weight. By not going to failure, you will decrease the chances of performing the dumbbell exercise incorrectly and possibly hurting yourself. Plus, you have the added benefit of not looking ridiculous. Score!

Lateral raises are hard

This dumbbell exercise is commonly done with way too much weight. Unless you want to look like a sad bird trying (and failing) to lift its wings, we recommend you start VERY small on this one. Lateral raises should be done with very small weights like 5 and 7.5 to start with. You can add weight later, but until then, lift your wings high little bird!

Add weight when you can

As long as your form is good with no knee knocking, rounded backs or flaring elbows you can add weight infinitely. Small increases of 5 lbs. are best. You should make your muscles work and feel the burn, but don’t go so heavy that you’re doing the exercise incorrectly.

Track each dumbbell exercise

The best way to keep track of how much weight you can handle for each dumbbell exercise is by logging your progress in each workout. If you continue to work your muscles, you will inevitably find yourself growing stronger.

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