Now, I wish I had all the answers, but I don’t. Because choosing a starting weight differs from client to client and is part guesswork and part science. And it’s a question that has plagued most lifters and trainers, including myself in the past.
With a little trial and error mixed with a dash of experience, here are two methods, I pass on to trainers and clients when faced with the eternal question “what weight do I use?’
Use Ramping Sets to Determine Load
Clients (and sometimes trainers) sometimes 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 the client has a good handle on the body weight version of the movement, we use ramping sets to determine the clients starting weight.
One way of implementing ramping sets is keeping the reps the same while increasing the load until the client’s form starts to break down or they struggle. For example, the client is programmed to 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 the client feels uncomfortable or there’s a breakdown in form at a certain weight, that’s the working weight for the day.
But this isn’t a substitute for your coaching eye. Because if you notice clients struggling with submaximal weights due to muscle weakness and or they are not sufficiently recovered, there is no need to add strength on top of dysfunction and tiredness.
Instead regress the weight or the exercise to a manageable one so the client still gets a training effect while not adding to their dysfunction or stress.
Use Ratings of Perceived Exertion to Find Load
The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a way of measuring a client’s 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.
This puts more of the onus on the client when it comes to determining load after you educate them on how RPE works. Plus, combined with your coaching eye, you’ll both have a say in determining load.
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 them off at a 6 and eventually to a 7-8 for each exercise. The beauty of this method is it created more buy in from the client, helping them feel more invested in their program.
Other Things to Consider Before Choosing Load
There are few other considerations you need to think about before choosing a weight, one being training experience of the client. As a general guideline if a client has one year or less experience with resistance training, forget about maxing out and concentrate on gross motor skills like
People with more training experience tend to have confidence and want to be pushed during their workouts, whereas people with zero training experience should be progressed slowly.
It’s easier to bounce back from a training session when you’re younger, but older lifters don’t have that same luxury because the older you are, the longer the recovery. 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.
During the intake process, you should have a fair idea whether your client has any limitations. Getting a client to back squat with a history of lower back pain is obviously no-no.
If a client has an injury that prevents them from performing an exercise, perform another exercise along the spectrum (Goblet Squat) and determine load using the methods above.
Regardless of age or the limitations of the client, one thing to keep in mind as trainers is DO NO HARM.
If a client has an injury, you want to figure out their limitations, 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 achieve their goals.
Progression Is Always the Name of The Game
When it comes to making progress, whether it’s getting strong, hypertrophy 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 goblet squat or a rep in half goblet squat.
Choosing a weight is part art and part science. You constantly need to tinker and experiment to find what works best for you and your client. Progressing safely in regards to the client’s limitations, age and training experience is the key.