How do I Know How Much Weight to Use in the Gym?
This is probably one of the most common questions I get from clients and friends alike. It makes sense, as everyone comes from a different level of strength and there isn’t really a “guide” that will tell you what weights you should be using. (Side note: Comparing yourself to other people is NOT the way to determine this.)
We are used to looking at a chart to let us know where we fall within a category.
- If we are a certain height and weight, we should ideally be within a certain body fat range for optimal performance.
- If we look at our height, weight, and activity level, we can determine approximately how many calories we should be eating on a daily basis.
- If your heart rate is at a certain level, a chart at the gym will tell you what “zone” you’re in (I have an entire post on this topic coming in the next few weeks as well)
But when it comes to the weight room, no such chart exists. It leaves people doing the same weights with the same rep ranges for YEARS and wondering why they don’t see changes. It is a factor that pushes people to “confuse their muscles” because their current program is “broken”. So let’s break this down once and for all so you can start seeing results in the gym and feel confident that you’re using the correct weights for YOU (remember, everyone is different, ESPECIALLY when it comes to strength).
A Simple Way to Determine What Weights you Should be Using and How to Progress Each Week
1. It’s important to start out by having a plan when you walk into the gym. Whether that is a program that you got from a coach, a plan you printed off from the internet, or just a workout that you or a friend jotted down onto a sticky note, always walk into the gym with an idea of what you’ll be doing.
2. Buy a journal or notebook so that you can track your weights and reps. I know many people that will say “oh it’s ok, I remember all my numbers!”. I’m sure you do….until you don’t and you end up looking like a lost puppy in the gym. Just don’t be stubborn and write your damn workouts down. 🙂
3. Be sure that at the very least, there is a number of sets and a rep range for you to follow. You could also get more technical with predetermined rest periods and tempos, but for simplicity, we’ll leave that out for now.
4. You’ll also want to make sure you can perform the prescribed movement with a full range of motion with bodyweight before you start adding weights. For example, if your workout has you doing back squats for 3 sets of 10, but you can’t do 1 barbell back squat with a full range of motion, you’d be better off backing down to either a bodyweight squat, box squat, or goblet squat to start.
5. Once you know you can perform each exercise with a full range of motion, you can start to begin adding weight.
Alright COOL. So you’ve got your handy dandy notebook in one hand, your workout program in another hand, and your coolest workout outfit on (these are the important things people). You’re ready to go!
Using our previous example, your workout program says to do Back Squats for 3 sets of 10 reps. Those are your working sets and typically do not include any warm-up sets. You’ll want to warm up for a few sets prior to starting your working sets (more on that below). Ideally, you’ll also perform some dynamic movements before starting your workout as well.
Someone who knows approximately what weights they’ll be using for their working sets will know when they crossover from warm-up set to working set. Because of this, they will also likely keep their warm up sets shorter (less reps) in order to preserve energy for their working sets. You’ll get to that point in no time, but for now, our warm-up sets will be the same rep range as our working sets so that you can determine what your working sets will be without over/under shooting.
Let’s say you put the barbell on your back (45 lbs) and do 10 reps. It’s no problem and you feel like you could definitely do more, so you rest for a minute or 2 and then add 10lbs on each side (65lbs). You perform a set of 10 reps here and while it’s slightly harder, you still feel that you could go heavier. You add another 10lbs on each side (85lbs) and perform your set. This time, you struggle with the last 2-3 reps. While you could probably go heavier, this is where I’d recommend starting. Remember, you’re not trying to be a hero on Day 1. You’ll have plenty of time to go for PR’s later on, but determining a manageable starting point will set you up for success.
Since you’ve determined that 85 lbs is a good working set for you, you’d perform 2 more sets at 85 lbs and move on to the next exercise.
The next time that back squats are prescribed at 3 sets of 10 reps, you now know that you did 85lbs for 3 sets of 10 last time (because it’s written down in your AWESOME notebook that you’re still carrying around even though you spilled coffee on it this morning, right?!)
This week, you’ll want to try to add slightly more weight. Here’s what you’ll want to do now:
1st Warm up set: 5-7 reps at 45lbs
2nd Warm Up set: 3-5 reps at 65 lbs
3rd Warm Up set: 1-3 reps at 80 lbs
1st Working Set: 90lbs for 10 reps
From here you will decide where to go:
- If you couldn’t finish all 10 reps at 90lbs, you’d go back down to 85 lbs.
- If you completed all 10 reps and it was pretty hard (last few reps were a struggle), then you’d stay here for the remaining 2 sets.
- If this felt pretty easy to you or you felt that you could do more, you may try for 95 lbs on the next set.
- You can also increase the amount of reps that you did without increasing the weight used. For example, if you couldn’t complete 90lbs for 10 reps, but you could do 85lbs for 12 reps, that is still an increase in what you did the week before.
These strategies can be applied towards virtually any exercise. The big take away here is to try to increase either the amount of weight used or the reps completed each week. I say TRY because it won’t always happen. Some weeks the weight will go up smoothly and other weeks you will easily convince yourself that all of your muscles must have been abducted by aliens. And hey, maybe that is what happens. I’m no xenoarchaeologist.
While there are about 100 different ways you can determine what weights to start with and how to progress in the weight room, this is a very simple way to do it. You can continue to apply these principles each week to your workouts and over time, you’ll get stronger.
Be aware that at some point, the weights won’t go up as easily. Strength is not linear AND has diminishing returns. This means that a new lifter will likely see quick gains in a short period of time. Someone who has been lifting for many years sees much smaller gains over time. This doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong, it is just how the body works. It’s part of what keeps it fun.
I love to keep in touch with people and am happy to answer any other questions you have. Feel free to leave a comment below OR email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it’s just to say HEY.