How Heavy Should I Go?


It’s one of the biggest questions people have when walking up to the dumbbell rack or loading up a bar.

“How much weight should I use?”

Depending on the type of personality you have, you might be one of two people. One person walks up and grabs the heaviest weight he thinks he can lift for at least two reps. The other grabs the lightest weights possible and starts a set of endless reps. Sound familiar? 
In collegiate-and-up athletics, the process typically goes like this:

  1. Test/ estimate 1-repetition maximum (1RM.
  2. Consider the training goal.
  3. Determine load and rep assignments.
  4. Determine the desired %1RM to be used for each set.

The practical problem with this procedure for the vast majority of people who want to exercise or train is knowing your true 1RM. Quite frankly, I think using your 1RM to determine load during workouts is a fool’s errand, even at the collegiate level. No one is 100% every single day they enter the gym. If you’re slightly under the weather, you may be trying to move more weight than you’re capable of handling in that moment. More importantly, if you’ve improved quickly since your test, your 1RM today would be higher than when you tested it. You’d be holding yourself back by operating off of the old number.
Additionally, different variations of an exercise (i.e. bench press vs. close grip bench press) would render the 1RM null anyway. Throw in some time-under-tension (TUT) alterations and you’re left wondering why you’re using your 1RM to begin with!
Realistically, the question (at least initially) shouldn’t be about how much weight to use. If you take a step back and look, the weight you select is sort of the last box to check when programming. You have to determine how many reps you intend to finish for that exercise/ set. Back up a little further and you’ll see that in order to figure out your rep count, you’ll have to be honest and decide what you hope to accomplish by picking up a weight.

Strength? Endurance? Power? Physique/ hypertrophy?

If you don’t account for varying rep tempos, certain rep ranges favor particular outcomes of resistance training, provided an appropriate weight was used for the desired outcome (see above). Because you can get incredibly creative with exercise modifications, set prescription, supersets, and compound sets, the rep ranges are more like the pirate’s code: a guideline. At the bare minimum, they’re an excellent jumping off point. From here, let’s simply assume all exercises will be done for 3 sets and a normal tempo.


While you can’t isolate just one benefit associated with resistance training, certain rep ranges tend to favor one over the rest.
With that in mind, let’s re-engineer the process to make it more suitable for the evolving/new lifter:

  1. Consider the training goal.
  2. Decide how each rep is to be performed (slow vs. fast)
  3. Choose the goal repetitions. Subtract 2-3 reps if you’re using higher TUT.
  4. Pick a starting weight you know will allow you to easily finish your first set.

At FSP, it’s important to us that our athletes “make their reps.” Our rough guidelines for weight selection in a 4-week cycle revolve around that goal of finishing the set, regardless of whether or not it’s a big core lift (clean, squat, bench press, etc) or an auxiliary lift (rows, lateral raises, overhead press, etc). We measure it by having the athlete ask him/ herself how many reps he/she had left in the tank following the set. Here are our rough guidelines used everyday:
Weeks 1-3

  • Core lift – You should have about 2-5 reps left in the tank. If 5+, increase load.
  • Auxiliary lift – You should have 5-8 reps left in the tank.

Week 4

  • Core lift – You should have 2-3 reps left in the tank*. On the last set, shoot for 0.
  • Auxiliary lift – You should have 5-8 reps left in the tank.

*Our week 4 is our lowest volume week, designed to allow
the athletes to use greater load.

Every now and again, it’s important to push the body past it’s perceived limits. Our week 4 is where the athletes get to improve neural drive and motor unit recruitment by using heavier loads. Missing reps on the last set is commonplace during this week. However, “maxing out” is not something that should be done regularly. Doing so can overburden your CNS, causing neural fatigue. If you regularly overburden your nervous system, you’ll limit it’s ability to recruit muscle and ultimately, become weaker.
Regardless of the desired outcome or where you’re at after your first set, you should be able to use those guidelines to determine an appropriate load for your second set. Wash, rinse, and repeat until you hit the target.

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

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