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3 Methods to Determine How Much Weight to Lift

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One subject that is often neglected with beginners is explaining how to determine how much weight to lift on an exercise. When following a training program you might see something similar to this for an exercise: “Barbell Bench Press 4×8” — This means you are supposed to do 4 sets of 8 repetitions on the barbell bench press. This description can leave a beginner with a lot of additional questions like, “do I use the same weight for every set?” or “should I go to failure on every set?”. A good training program will tell you how much intensity and effort should be applied to each set. Intensity is the amount of weight lifted and effort describes how hard a set feels.

There are 3 methods you can use to determine how to find the right weight to lift on an exercise.

Percentage of Your One-Rep Max (1RM)

Using a percentage of your 1RM for an exercise is very popular with powerlifters and strength-based training programs. You will typically see this method written as follows: “Barbell Bench Press 4×8 @70%” — This means you would do 4 sets of 8 repetitions at 70% of your 1RM.

The advantage of this method is that there is never any doubt how much weight you should be using for your work sets on an exercise.

Disadvantages: one drawback with this method is that it does not allow for any autoregulation in your training. Autoregulation simply means adjusting the day’s training to fit the body’s needs. Some days you may be off your game for a variety of reasons. When following a rigid percentage-based system you may be unable to use weights you were supposed to reach. This can lead to frustration with the training program as well as an increased risk of injury if you attempt to “power through” your workout.

RPE Scale

The RPE scale is used to measure the perceived intensity of an exercise, or how hard an exercise feels. Each number has a specific meaning:

Utilize a 1-10 Scale:

  • 10 — Max effort, could not complete 1 more rep;
  • 9 — Stop 1 rep shy of failure;
  • 8 — Stop 2 reps shy of failure;
  • 7 — Stop 3 reps shy of failure;
  • RPE’s below 7 are considered warm-up sets.

You will typically see this method written as follows: “Barbell Bench Press 4×8 @8RPE” — You would use a weight that is challenging for 8 repetitions, but realistically you could have gotten 2 more reps before reaching failure in that rep range.

Advantages: the RPE scale allows for greater autoregulation of training than the percentage of your 1RM method.

Disadvantages: some people may find the RPE scale too distracting in their training. There is definitely a bit of a learning curve when incorporating the RPE scale into your training.

Defined Progression Method

A defined progression method lays out a specific set of instructions to follow when determining how much weight to use for an exercise. Here’s a common progression method you can utilize.

Pick a specific exercise — Barbell Bench Press 4×8. The goal is to do all of your work sets using the same weight for the target reps. When you can do that, you increase the weight.

Let’s say you do 4 sets of Barbell Bench Press and warm up to a work-set weight of 225 pounds. The first week you get the following rep count for your 4 sets: 8, 7, 7 and 6. You were able to achieve 8 reps with 200 pounds but not on all your sets. Since you did not reach 8 reps on all your sets, next session you must still train with 225 pounds. If, at your next session, you’re able to get 8 reps for all of your sets, you can move up in weight the following week.

Advantages: having a defined progression method makes it easy to find the right work-set weight for all of your exercises.

Disadvantages: you are not always going to be able to add more weight or do more reps each week. If that were the case you’d see a bunch of guys who could bench press 1000 pounds.

Final Thoughts

Each of these 3 methods has it’s place in a training program. Beginners should follow training programs that focus on a defined progression method and possibly some utilization of the RPE scale for primary movements. Using the percentage of your 1RM method is more advanced and should be saved when you have reached a level of competency with the primary movements after a few years of training. The most important takeaway is that you should follow a training program that actually gives you instruction on how to perform the exercises contained within. Simply writing, “Barbell Bench Press 4×8”, without providing further instruction is insufficient in determining proper training weights.

Author: Jon Mahoney

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