Ever gone into the gym and wondered where to start when it comes to choosing the right weight for a particular exercise.
You have your workout program ( or at least I HOPE you have one! ) and it calls for 4 sets of 10 reps on squats.
You think “okay well, I know the squat, but how much weight should I be lifting?”.
Trust me you are not alone. On top of that it is a very valid question to ask.
You don’t want to pick a weight that is too light or you will be wasting your time.
You also don’t want to pick a weight that is too heavy causing you to get injured or do the movement incorrect.
By the end of this article you will have full confidence in how to select the weights you use not only for the first time doing the exercise but forever in your exercise career.
My only plea to you is to read from top to bottom. I want you to have total confidence next time you go into your workouts.
The more confidence you have the harder you will push. The harder you push, the better results you will see.
Let’s dive in.
Prerequisite For Lifting Weight
Before you get under the barbell for a squat or pick up the dumbbells for a shoulder press there has to be some sort of prerequisite.
This prerequisite is making sure you can master the movement with your own body weight and or very light weight.
If you cannot do the movement right without weight what makes you think adding weight is going to be any beneficial to you at all?
Not only from the perspective of preventing injury, but a step beyond that you won’t be using the right muscles.
If you aren’t able to use the right muscles with either body weight or light weight, the weight you choose to use won’t matter because regardless you will be limiting your results.
If you are doing movements that allow you to use bodyweight, for example a squat, I highly suggest mastering this movement with bodyweight.
I would much rather you wait an extra week or two to really hammer down your form and be confident in what you are doing.
If you are confident in the movement you will be able to put forth more effort when you do choose the right weight for you.
More effort = more results long term.
If you are saying “well how can I deadlift or over head press with no weights Eric”, don’t worry I got you.
You can easily use things like a PVC pipe or broomstick for a barbell deadlift or overhead press.
Video yourself to be able to check your form. This is something I do all the time with my online coaching clients so we can ensure their technique is where it should be so they can see results.
If you are needed to do an exercise involving dumbbells, you can either make fists as weights or simply just use very light weights.
This is something I still do to this day to make sure I can go through the movement correctly, feel the right muscles, and get maximum output for my body.
That is me being the “coach” telling you I still do that. You are never too advanced to continuing to master your form.
There is no shame in going a bit lighter, especially at the beginning learning the movement, to really down the form.
I promise it will be the backbone of your successful fitness career 5, 10, 20 years from now.
Selecting The Right Weight For You
When you get confident in the movement and feel as if you can start to add weight there a few things in knowing how to choose the right weight.
Let’s cover some here now.
The image above dictates something called an RPE scale.
This simply means Rate of Perceived Exertion.
Often times you want to “work hard” but how can you quantify your effort? “Working hard” is more of an emotional feeling rather than a factual, data driven point.
This makes it hard to tell how hard you are actually working.
This is exactly why the RPE Scale was created. The levels above display what effort levels are being truly exerted.
It gives you actionable things you can hold onto and take to examine how hard you are working.
Aka if you are able to hold a conversation then you probably not working that hard.
RPE Scale With Reps In Reserve
So what does that mean for choosing the right weight?
The figure above now shows the RPE Scale with something called reps in reserve.
When selecting which weight you should use you may think that you are at an 8, 9, or 10 on the first scale. You think you are working super hard, you really feel like you are putting forth max effort.
Again this can be left up to emotional decision making. The chart above now gives you quantifiable rep numbers to attach the exertion levels to.
For example if you think you are working extremely hard during a given set but you could have done 3 or 4 more reps, you are only at a 5-7 on the scale.
When choosing what weight you want to use for a given exercise, I give all of my online coaching clients guidance for each exercise in each workout where they should fall on this scale.
Since I don’t know you and or work with you one on one I cannot necessarily tell you exactly where you should be but I can tell you this.
You should be spending the majority of your time in the 8-9.5 RPE Scale. This means if you truly want to see results you should be spending most of your time stopping your sets knowing you could have only done 2 or less reps.
This means if you are doing a set of 10 on squats that 8th, 9th, and 10th reps should be hard. They should require a lot of your effort. They should require a lot of focus. They should require you pushing yourself outside of your normal comfort zone.
If you are finishing your sets being able to have a Starbucks coffee and chat about the current political situation, you are not working hard enough.
Not hard enough if you want to see results that is.
What About Form?
Now that you know you shouldn’t be picking weights that leaves you able to sip on Starbucks coffee mid set, what about form?
You need to push yourself but should you be compromising form to get that extra push?
The answer is no.
The moment your form breaks down is the moment you know that you have reached a failure point.
If you continue to push through after your form has gone not only will you risk injury but you won’t be getting anything beneficial out of it.
If a set of squats calls for 8 reps and after 3 reps the weight is too heavy it causes your form to break down, you need to go lighter weight.
I know it is not always the best thing to hear that you can’t do something but let me explain it to you like this.
Say you were doing squats with 100 lbs for 8 reps and your form was breaking down after 3 reps.
After the third rep your muscles are not getting worked on anyway. It will be your lower back, your knees, basically anything other than your muscles.
From a results standpoint this is sub par. You will not see results from doing this. That would only make sense right?
As opposes to dropping down to 80 lbs and being able to do the entire 8 reps with correct form. Yes the last one or two reps were tough but you were able to keep form.
From a results standpoint this is optimal. This will yield you the best results. This will allow you to get your muscles stronger to then be able to lift that 100 lbs in 4, 6, 8 weeks for the 8 desired reps.
Which will ensure you are seeing strength progression and body changes.
That Being Said..
I am not about to tell you it is okay to use bad form so don’t worry.
What I will say this if you are so worried about never breaking form you mentally will not push yourself as hard as you can.
Truth is you can’t have perfect reps every single time especially as you get close to your failure points.
That set of 8 reps for example, if you are getting to your 7th 8th rep the weight is going to get heavy. You will start to get exhausted.
Obviously it is your priority to keep as perfect form as you can but the reality is you will have form slip ups especially as you push yourself.
The goal should be to maintain as perfect form as possible while still trying to push yourself / the weights you use.
The truth is this is just going to take time of you experimenting and learning where this line falls.
I can’t tell you where that line is for you. This is something you will have to experience yourself to find out.
Yet using these above tactics thus far, and knowing that form should be top priority but will never be 100% perfect, you will be on the right track.
No that was not your mom screaming at you while first beginning to drive don’t worry.
Thus far you have a few ways to decide what weights you should be using in the gym.
Let’s cover another.
One way to choose what weights are appropriate for a particular exercise is focusing on the speed at which you are completing the reps.
Let’s take a bench press for example.
Let’s say you have to do a set of 6 on bench press.
If the bar moves up and down quite swimmingly for the first 5 reps, call it 1 second down 1 second back up.
When the 6th rep rolls around the bar still goes one second on the way down but now takes you 3 seconds to push it back up, this is a good indicator you are getting darn close to a failure point.
That would be an appropriate time to probably end the set, or if you have a spotter, try one more.
This reduced speed of the movement indicates that you are reaching a point of failure for your muscles.
Which again, going back to the RPE scale, means you maybe have one or two reps max left you realistically could have down without breaking form.
This is exactly where you want to be in terms of weight lifting and that can be another great indicator of if the weight you are choosing is appropriate or not.
If you are doing those 6 reps and throwing the weight up and down without any resistance, the weight is too light for you.
Again, too light if you want to see change that is.
How To Know When To Increase Weight
You have your weights picked out. You have confidence that you know how to pick the right weights.
Now comes the question of when should you increase the weights you are using?
Great question! So glad you asked!
When talking about getting stronger, building bigger or stronger muscles, or changing your body in general, the over arching theme you need to be aware of is called progressive overload.
The progressive overload principle basically states: In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.
As you can see, this principle states your body needs to have a stress put on it that it has not yet adapted to to see results.
This means if you were doing 4 sets of 8 squats at 100 lbs that stress your body has adapted to. This is not to say it is not difficult but your body can handle this stress you are putting on it.
To see change in your physique you need to provide a greater stress to your body for it to change.
This can be many ways but I will cover the two main in this article, adding weight or adding reps.
The most common way to add a new stress to your body for the progressive overload principle is to add weight to what you are doing.
Let’s continue with the 4 sets of 8 reps at 100lbs example.
As mentioned above if you are able to complete that then your body has adapted to that stress. That is no longer enough stress to elicit a change in your body.
One easy way you can provide a new stress is to simply add weight.
Here is the best part, it doesn’t have to be a lot of weight, and actually the best progression schemes don’t have you progressing 100’s of lbs at a time.
Now it will differ if you are a beginner versus an intermediate.
If you are within the first 6-9 months of actually following a structured strength training program you are considered a beginner.
No, zumba or orange theory does not count.
After that you will be considered an intermediate.
Beginners will have a faster progression scheme. It is not unlike a beginner to add 10 20 30 lbs to their lift every time they enter the gym.
Whereas intermediates will be more towards the 2.5 5 lb range.
So a beginner could go from 100 lbs one week, to 110lbs the next week, 120 the next, etc.
An intermediate would go something like 100 lbs one week, 105lbs the next week, 110 the next, etc.
That being said regardless it is still a new stress your body has to adapt to.
If you give your body a new stress it has to adapt to it will grow stronger, it will grow bigger muscles, and you will see progress as a result of it.
Alright while the idea of adding weight to an exercise every single time is great that is just not reality.
If that was true we would all be behemoths walking the earth lifting cars and buildings.
At some point you will get to the point where you cannot add weight to an exercise every week.
Not only that some exercises simply won’t require it.
Take a bicep curl for example.
You won’t go 10 lbs one week, 20 the next, 30 the next, and by week 10 you are curling 100 lb dumbbells.
That is just absurd.
For both of these reasons above you can choose a different progression scheme and that is adding reps to your sets.
Continuing with the 4 sets of 8 reps on squats at 100lbs, let’s go over how to use the rep progression scheme.
Week one you do 4 sets of 8 reps at 100lbs.
The second week you do 4 sets of 9 reps at 100lbs.
The third week you do 4 sets of 10 reps at 100lbs.
Over a three week span you increased each set by 2 reps.
You did 32 total reps week one, 36 reps week two, and 40 reps week three.
This increased your reps with the same weight by 8 more reps.
This is effectively using the progressive overload principle we talked about above because you are eliciting a new stress on your body that is has to adapt to.
I use this one a ton with my online coaching clients and it continues to provide great results.
If you want someone to help you with your workout program to ensure you stop wasting time in the gym to get the results you deserve, feel free to head HERE.
Importance Of Tracking Weights
Now that you know how to do the exercise, you know what weights to use and how to progress those exercises, let’s cover the importance of tracking your weights.
This is because after one workout you won’t see change. After one week you won’t see change. This stuff takes time to progress and see results.
All of that to say tracking your workouts is important.
Now that you know the progressive overload principle I want to ask you a question.
Are you lifting the same weights, for the same reps, on the same exercises you were 6 months ago?
If you answered yes to that question I have another one for you.
Has your body not changed much in the last 6 months?
I can assure you if you yes to both of those questions there is a correlation.
If you are lifting the same weight for the same reps today as you will be 6 months from now do not expect your body to change much.
This is why tracking your workouts can be such great direction for you.
It will ensure you can look at what you were doing, what you are doing now, and what you should be doing in the upcoming months.
Not only will it give you direction but it can give you motivation.
Knowing you have a certain weight to hit, or certain number of reps to perform.
The more guidelines you can have within your workouts the more you become data driven as opposed to emotion driven.
Bringing it full circle “working hard” is emotional.
Yet looking to your log of workouts saying “ Okay 2 months ago I was deadlifting 200 lbs for 4 sets of 5 now I am doing 4 sets of 5 with 250 lbs.” That my friend is progress. That is working hard.
That is how you will see results.
To sum up there is no perfect equation to figure out what weights you should be choosing.
There are certain principles, guidelines, and progression models that allows you to be able to make educated decisions on this topic.
I know a lot was covered here. If you want someone to handle all of this for you, head HERE to fill out the form to see if we could be a good fit for online coaching just like my other clients have been.
I will take all of the guesswork out of it. I will give you exactly what exercises, sets, reps, to do. All you have to do is execute. If you think you can do that, incase the link above didn’t work head HERE to fill out the form for my online coaching.
If you have questions or comments on the article feel free to leave them below. Would be happy to help.
Happy lifting and talk soon.