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Finding Your Perfect Weight: How to Determine and Progress Your Lifts

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

As fitness professionals we get asked how to determine the right weight to use when strength training. We also get asked how and when to safely increase the weight. These are great questions and you don't necessarily need a personal trainer to apply the answers into your workouts.

Here we discuss three common strategies focused on muscle building through traditional strength training. Specifically, how to establish working weight, what is quality over quantity, and how to safely increase weight.

#1 How to determine your weight

Form is king (or queen), when talking about exercise. That's important to understand upfront. Don't get hung up on how much weight you are working with.

Proper form when exercising is more important and has several benefits. The first being we reduce our risk for injury. The second is the building of foundational muscle.

This is true for every exercise. Most agree that squats, lunges and deadlifts need proper form. But I have clients who cannot perform a bicep curl properly due to shoulder tension or other ailments. Regardless of the exercise, make sure you can do the movement on your own, without weight first.

Once you feel confident with the movement, you can establish what weight to do it with.

  • Choose a weight you are confident you can complete ten reps with

  • Pay attention to the muscle group you are working. Do you feel an intesity as the reps increase?

  • The last few reps is when the magic of muscle building is happening. You want to feel the last 3 or 4 reps of each set challenging you.

  • If you don't feel a good challenge in those last reps, wait a minute or so and try the next weight up.

  • If you aren't able to get to at least 8 reps, you need to lower the weight

For example, if you are doing an exercise that calls for 3 x 10, on rep 8 - 10 you should feel a good challenge - but able to maintain form.

You want to have to think about what you are doing. If it's "mindless", you need more weight. If you are losing form, you may want to consider lowering the weight (more on that to come).

#2 What happens if I can't finish all the reps in a set with good form?

We never sacrifice quantity for quality. Don't keep going just because a workout calls for more than you can safely do.

.This scenario can happen for a few reasons. You could be at the end of your workout and simply fatiguing. Perhaps you started with weight that is to heavy for you. Or you could be using a weight that is good for you, you just struggle to get to the rep count the workout calls for.

All of the above scenarios have the same answer, quality over quantity, every time.

Going back to form, you never want to finish a set that you're obviously losing form on. If you can feel yourself fatiguing, here are a few gauges to pay attention to.

  • Did you get to 8? If so, you are well within muscle building. Technically, muscle building starts at rep 6. But unless you are a proficient lifter, I recommend the conservative benchmarks of 8.

  • If you are fatiguing early in your workout and unable to get to at least 8 reps, you may want to consider lowering the weight.

  • If you are able to get at least 8 reps, but struggle to get to however many the workout calls for, complete as many as you can with good form. Note how many you completed to see improvements over the next few weeks of consistent lifting.

  • If you are at the end of your workout and fatigue before the set ends, simply note how many reps you were able to get. You will see improvement as you are consistent in the gym.

#3 How do I know when to increase my weight?

The standard measurement I use personally as well as with clients is 2 x 10. If I can complete an exercise with perfect form for two sets of ten, the weight goes up.

Here are the patterns to follow:

  • If you can get to 8, you have found your new weight. You will work this weight until you can do sets of 10 - 12 reps with perfect form.

  • If you can't get to 8 reps at your new weight, go back to the lower weight and start adding more reps or even sets. This should bridge the gap and try increasing again in a week or so.

  • If you are a proficient lifter, your threshold can be 6 reps, but make sure you are executing your form, every rep.

  • Before increasing your weight, consider having someone watch your form to ensure excellence. This is especially important for big, compound lifts like squats and deadlifts.

Recapping the main take aways are:

  • To determine your weight, You want to feel good muscle challenge/ engagement on the last 3 - 4 reps of your set. You want to have to think about what your doing, it shouldn't be a mindless movement

  • Form is King and Queen - not how much weight you are using

  • Quality over quantity, everytime. Don't complete a set if your form suffers

  • 2 x 10 of perfect form before you increase weight

  • If you are unable to get to 8 reps after a weight increase, return to lower weight and increase reps / sets

No matter how many reps a workout is calling for, you only do as you can with excellent form.

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