Home Blog How to Select a Weight to Use in a Resistance Training Program

How to Select a Weight to Use in a Resistance Training Program

Written on November 11, 2010 at 12:30 am, by Eric Cressey

The question of what weight to use in a resistance training program comes up very commonly not only among beginners, but also intermediate and experienced lifters.  So, when I got this question from a reader recently, it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to cover this in a detailed write-up.

Q: I have a question about how to select weights to use within programs like yours that may fluctuate the sets and reps from week to week.  For example, if it’s 4x3 in week 1, 4x2 in week 2, 4x4 in week 3, and 3x3 in week 4, are there are certain percentages that I can use based off my one-rep max?  This would make it easier to know exactly what weight to use each week.

A: Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to paraphrase a bit from chapter 2 of the Show and Go main guide. Let me preface this explanation by saying that the goal of all my programs – and indeed any good strength and conditioning program – is to get stronger. And, I fully expect you to do so.

sag-main

Now, if that’s the case, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to select what weight to use based on percentages of one-rep maxes that were taken before the program even began. By the time you get to phases 2, 3, and 4, you aren’t going to have sufficient overload to make optimal progress.

So, to that end, I rarely assign training percentages. All sets should be to one rep shy of failure; basically, go hard but never attempt a rep that you won't complete on your own. Each session should be somewhat of a test of your new strength as you work up to heavier loads and listen to your body along the way.

As a frame of reference, on your first (main) exercise(s), just work up to your heaviest set of the day (in perfect form, of course), and then find 90% of it. Anything you did above that 90% number "counts" as a set. Anything done before it is a warm-up. So, imagine you had 4 set of 3 reps planned on the bench press, and you worked up to 300 on you heaviest set using the following progression:

Set 1: 45x8
Set 2: 135x5
Set 3: 185x3
Set 4: 225x3
Set 5: 275x3
Set 6: 295x3
Set 7: 300x3

That puts you at three sets (275, 295, and 300) above 90% of your heaviest load for the day (300). So, to get a fourth set in, you just need to get one more set somewhere between 270 (90%) and 300 (100%). By the next week, this 90-100% range may have shifted up by 5-10 pounds, so you have to accommodate it – and prescribing percentages on an old one-rep-max just doesn’t do the job justice.

It really doesn’t matter what rep range is in question – whether you’re doing heavy singles or a 5x5 workout.  You can really apply it to just about every set in every training session when you're wondering what weight to use.

For more information, check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

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  • Serguei

    my problem here is in what steps should I approach my day’s max, since it would affect the max itself. For a press e.g. 300×4 I can rapidly go through the first warm-up sets 135, 225 and then begins the fun: what are the further sets? 240 – 265 – ? I can definitely say that doing 275×4 will affect the final set..So should I keep the steps @10% of a just done set? Or should I correlate it with the last done session?

  • Mike

    Does this apply to the speed sets done at 50% of max as well? For example, if doing 6x 2 at 50% on front squats, do you first work up to a 2 rep max for that day and then take 50% of that? Or are you using a general idea since the focus is on speed?

    Thanks!

  • I think what I have found with prescribing % is that you might not have it in your complete the exact percentage stated. The focus should be progressively increasing your weights while staying in the 90% range that Eric mentioned. The more you use these type of programs the more you will learn about what works for you as you look at your old log sheets. The quickest way to improvement is knowing when to go for the gusto and when to back away. Eric wrote a great book on the Art of the deload. The answer is never the same for everyone. Just my take. Thanks.

  • Designing a weight-rep-set cycle is part art, part science. Basing this cycle on percentages is not the most accurate method. The percentage method is mostly useful for strength coaches programming large numbers of athletes. Although not particularly accurate, it is time efficient. Creating a personalized (PPR)pounds per rep ratio for individual athletes can more reliably predict a max single, while avoiding over-training. For more info, contact Saul Shocket

  • Mike – this would not apply to speed sets.

  • I would base it on the previous session, Serguei.

  • I get questions like this all the time as well. I really like how you broke this down and made great and easy-to-understand sense out of it. Thanks for taking the time to make this available to us Eric!

  • I get questions like this all the time as well. I really like how you broke this down and made great and easy-to-understand sense out of it. Thanks for taking the time to make this available to us Eric! …and sorry if I submitted this comment more than once, I had trouble with the Security Code feature…looks like I need to get my eyes checked again lol!

  • Gavin Heward

    Another way to assist this is using a tendo unit which allows for auto-regulation on any given day so you work to what your body is capable of on the day. By looking at bar speeds I believe you can more accurately determine your “true max” which can take out a lot of guess work. I really like this approach although it may be beyond requirements of “joe public”. Without the use of a tendo though, this article offers great advice – thanks!

  • Mark

    Mr.Cressey,

    Is it alright to lift upper body after throwing a bullpen? This is the only time I can fit it in.

    This would be after a proper recovery of course

  • Mark

    Also, is it alright to lift heavy and to keep making gains in-season? Im thinking it would be bad for the joints

    Thanks a lot

  • Mark,

    Shouldn’t be a problem to lift upper body after a ‘pen. And yes, many athletes can continue to make strength gains in-season.


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