What weight to use?

Do you have a hard time knowing what weight to use or when to progress or regress weight? This is a question I often get from my members. With a little trial and error mixed with a dash of experience, here are two methods, I pass on to clients when faced with the eternal question “what weight do I use?’

Use Ramping Sets to Determine Load

Some people jump straight to their working sets without regard to how they’re feeling. If the weight is too light, it’s not a problem. But if the weight is too heavy, then safety becomes an issue.

Once you have a good handle on the body weight version of the movement, you can use ramping sets to determine the best weight for the day. 

One way of implementing ramping sets is keeping the reps the same while increasing the weight until form starts to break down or you struggle. For example, if your goal is 3 sets of 8 reps on the dumbbell bench press.


8 reps- 20 pounds

8 reps- 30 pounds

8 reps- 35 pounds

8 reps- 40  pounds

8 reps- 45 pounds

8 reps- 50 pounds

At any point when there’s a breakdown in form , the weight is too much. Instead regress the weight or the exercise to a manageable one so you get a training effect while not adding to dysfunction. A little muscle discomfort is normal towards the end of the set. 


Rep Ranges

Rep ranges are simple. You choose a range of reps, and see if you can challenge yourself within that range. I often go with between 8 and 15 reps, depending on the exercise. With this range, even if you are off a little with the weight, you still get a benefit without harm. I usually reserve lower reps(3-8) with more weight for more experienced lifters. I usually don’t do higher reps on technical exercises because the risk of injury is too high. 


Lets say you choose a range of 8 to 15 reps for 3 sets. When you are able to do 3 sets of 15 reps with a given weight, it is time to add more weight to that exercise. 


Use Ratings of Perceived Exertion to Find the correct Weight

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a way of measuring intensity level. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working, taking in account all factors and not just the weight used. 

On a RPE scale of 1-10, a 7 means you could have gotten 3 more reps, an 8 means you could have gotten 2 more reps, 9 means you could have gotten 1 more, and a 10 means its max effort.

The goal here is to start off around 6 and eventually get to  7-8 for each exercise. 


Other Things to Consider Before Choosing Weight Training Experience

There are few other considerations you need to think about before choosing a weight, one being training experience. As a general guideline if you have one year or less experience with resistance training, forget about maxing out and concentrate on gross motor skills like

–         Squat

–         Push

–         Pull

–         Hinge

–         Carry

People with more training experience tend to have confidence and can  push harder during their workouts, whereas people with zero training experience should be progress slowly.



It’s usually easier to bounce back from a training session when you’re younger, but older lifters don’t have that same luxury. Muscles and joints take more time to bounce back after a tough training session.  This is when ramping sets and R.P.E are your best friends when determining load for the older client.  

Injury History

The first rule is always  DO NO HARMIf you have an injury that prevents you from performing an exercise, perform another exercise along the spectrum and determine load using the methods above.  

 Stay away from painful ranges of motion, and work around the injury. It all comes down to weighing the risk versus reward of each exercise, and whether it helps the client you achieve your goals. 


Progression Is Alway the Name of The Game

When it comes to making progress, whether it’s getting strong, building muscle or fat loss, progression is the name of the game. Does that mean that you need to go up in weight from set to set? Like a lot of things when dealing with the human body, it depends.

There are many ways you can progress an exercise without having to add weight. You can execute more reps, sets, cut the rest periods, or change the tempo with the same weight. For example, adding a pause at the bottom of a  squat or a rep in half squat.


Wrapping up

Choosing a weight is part art and part science. You constantly need to tinker and experiment to find what works best for you.   Progressing safely in regards to your individual circumstances is the key.

Interested in other ways to reach your fitness goals? Give us a call. We provide support, community, and expertise to help inspire a stronger and happier YOU!

Detric Smith, CSCS, ACSM Exercise Physiologist, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach 

Email or text 757 589 7028 to schedule your Free 1 on 1 Success Session to learn more about our Personal Training Services- 1 on 1 , Semi- Private, and Group Fitness