03 Sep How To Pick The Right Weight
One of the most common questions I get from new online clients is:
‘How do I know what weight to start with?’
If you’re used to training with a PT, or you’ve never had a structured plan before, knowing what weight to start with can be confusing.
In the first week of a new program, it’s critically important you pick the right weight in order to set yourself up for success in the future.
I know the feeling of enthusiastically reading a new program and wanting to tear it up in the gym immediately.
The problem with this is you’ll end up compromising technique and reaching a plateau before the end of the training cycle, and short-circuiting progress.
The First Few Weeks
Let’s use an example…
On your first day of a new program, you have to bench press 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
If it’s been a while since you’ve bench pressed, or it’s a new exercise for you (which I highly doubt!), you want to start light.
This means that you should be able to complete 3 sets of 8 with 2-3 reps in the tank on each set. It should be comfortable as your focus should be on learning (or relearning) the correct movement patterns and execution.
After this, you’ll want to steadily ramp the weight up. Depending on how easy the first week was, you can make jumps of 2.5-5kg each week. For exercises that involve more overall muscle groups, e.g. squats and deadlifts, you can make 5kg jumps. For those with less muscle mass involved, e.g. rows and presses, you’ll want to make smaller 2.5kg jumps.
What do you do next?
If you started with the right weight on week 1, you should be able to milk this progression for a few weeks before reaching a point where you can’t increase the load every week.
At this point you’ll find you’re coming closer to failure more often, and will start to see drop offs in reps in your 2nd and 3rd sets.
So what was previously 3 sets of 8 may now become 8,7,6. This is fine, and what should typically happen.
Why I Use Rep Ranges
In all my programs, I always prescribe a rep range, rather than a specific rep target.
The reason for doing this is because people will vary in how well they can handle weights across multiple sets.
It also takes the pressure of reaching a particular number, and builds confidence by staying on target.
If in the above example I wrote 3 sets of 8 instead, you might fight tooth and nail with no regards to form to reach 8 reps on the last set, when you should have stopped at 6.
If you can get all your working sets at the same weight, by all means do it.
Continuing with the 3 sets of 6-8 of bench press example, this is how it may look over the course of 8 weeks…
What if I always drop off in reps regardless?
Some people, as above, can eventually end up at the top end of the rep range on all sets after a few weeks of work. I’ve found this particularly true for beginner lifters.
Others, like myself, find their reps will always drop off in subsequent sets regardless of weight.
If this sounds like you, you’ll never get 3 sets of 8 in the above example, and will always be stuck at perhaps 8,7,7.
In this scenario, don’t wait for the day you get to 3 sets of 8 to add weight. As soon as you get 8 reps on the first set with a rep or two spare (i.e. you’ve dominated the weight), add weight.
Here’s an example straight out of my logbook with the floor press, trained for 3 sets of 3-5 reps.
|4||102.5kg||4,3,3 (felt heavy)|
|8||105kg||4,4,5 (freak last set!)|
As you’ll notice, patience is key.
I typically like to stick with weights for a few weeks, work on improving the rep quality and technique, and then when the first set hits the top of the required rep range (and feels good), I bump it up.
You’ll also see that in the first two weeks, I was lifting sub maximally to ‘break in’ to the new program – to make sure I didn’t plateau too quickly.
What I’ve found is that some people can’t handle a weight across more than one set and stay inside a rep range.
If this sounds like you, an option is to warm up to your heaviest set, and then pyramid down on the next sets to stay in the rep range.
Taking the bench press example further, a workout could be as follows: 70kg for 8, 67.5kg for 8, 65kg for 8.
To progress, your main focus should be on improving your first set, and then on making sure your overall workload is going up.
When you can achieve the top end of the rep range for your first set, you’ll increase the load. For the sets after, typically a 5-10% drop works wells, and these should be progressed independently as needed.
How Do I Make The Jump Between Dumbbells?
Where this method is particularly useful is with dumbbells, where the jump in weight is often too large to warrant being able to perform multiple sets with it.
For example, let’s say your workout calls for 3 sets of 10-12 on the incline dumbbell press.
Last week you got 20kg for 3 sets of 12. The problem is, the next ones up are 22.5kg and it’s too large a jump to be able to perform all 3 sets with.
So instead, here’s how you can ‘break in’ strategically to transition to heavier weights and create progression:
This is just an example of how it may look. People vary massively in how they respond to multiple sets, so it’s important to listen to your body and notice how/if it drops off.
When you figure out the best strategy that works for you, you’ll notice your strength in the gym week to week will begin to take off.
Advanced Use Of Reverse Pyramids
If you enjoy training with a higher intensity style, and live for PRs in the gym, training with ‘reverse pyramids’ can be a useful method to adopt.
When I write Adam’s training programs, I’ll typically program 2-3 sets per exercise but will instruct him to use a different weight for each set.
For example, a portion of one of his ‘push’ workouts from the week is as follows:
- Smith Shoulder Press – 1 set of 4-6, 1 set of 6-8
- Dip – 3 sets of 8-10 – use a 10% drop off each set
- Machine Chest Press – use a 10% drop off each set
When he executes this workout, his first set will always be the heaviest and the ‘money maker’.
After progressively heavier warm up sets (with low reps to conserve energy), he’ll go for it on the first set, stopping at or maybe 1 rep shy of failure.
On the sets after, he’ll drop the load 10% and aim to stay within the same rep range.
When you perform this method of training, it’s easy to think you have to go to failure on every set to make it work. Personally I’ve found better results with picking one set to go hell for leather on, and then keeping a rep in the tank for the others.
This way you’ll keep neural stress lower and prevent any early burnout on a training cycle.
Picking the right weight is a critical aspect to optimally executing and setting yourself up for success on a training program.
The key takeaways you need to be aware of are:
- Always start a new program on the lighter side
- Milk linear progression for what it’s worth
- When you can reach the top end of the rep range with good form, increase the weight
- Learn how your body responds to multiple sets
- If you tend to always drop off, make your first set your gauge on when to increase the weight
Consider using reverse pyramids if you struggle with maintaining loads across more than 1-2 sets, or you’re more advanced.