Weight selection is one of the most fundamental aspects of training. How much weight you use on a given exercise seems pretty simple. I mean, pick a weight and get after it, right? Wrong. There is a little more to it than that.
Loading parameters that determine how much weight to put on the bar might be the most important part of a well constructed training program.
Weight is all relative.
For instance, take the words “heavy” and “light”.
Alone they mean next to nothing but in context they can mean everything.
6 sets of 3
3 sets of 15
The difference between those two number sets is the difference between heavy and light. “6 sets of 3” would represent a “heavy” weight whereas “3 sets of 15” would represent a “light” weight.
Taking it a step further, there are two main ways to determine how heavy or light weights actually are – percentages and the RPE scale.
It’s this idea that forms the basis for specific loading parameters, or in other words, how you choose what weight to use.
Percentage Based Training
What is percentage based training? Percentages are just reference numbers. Percentages represent how much weight you should use on a given exercise. The “percent” is typically based off from an established 1 Rep Max.
The best way to explain this is through an example.
Let’s say your squat max is 400lbs and the program calls for 5 sets of 5 reps at 75%.
First, you need to find out what 75% of your max is.
==> 75% of 400lbs = 300lbs
300lbs therefore would become your training weight for that exercise.
So in this example you would use 300lbs (75%) for the programmed 5 sets of 5.
Seems simple enough…what are the benefits?
Built in Progression
A quality training program is going to have a built in method to cause progress. Basically what I am talking about is periodization.
Periodization in basic terms is just having a plan that goes beyond one week of training.
The driving force behind periodization is progressive overload. In order to make progress, you need to cause the body to adapt. One way this happens is by applying more stress over time. An easy way to do this is by increasing volume and or training intensity as the program progresses.
Volume = Sets x Reps x Weight
Intensity = weight on the bar
You need to do more work over time to make progress. That much we know. But it’s not as simple as just saying lift heavier each week or add a set here or there.
The progression needs to be calculated or the progress won’t last long. You don’t have to use percentages to create overload, but percentages make building in progression very easy.
The benefit is in the numbers.
You know that if you follow the numbers from week 1 to week 8 you will have done more work.
More work = progress
Specific and Measurable Numbers
Another benefit to percentage based training is that it provides specific and measureable numbers to follow. Percentages take the guesswork out of training. When you walk into the gym you know exactly what you have to do.
It doesn’t matter so much how you “feel”, you do what you’re supposed to do. You just follow the program as it is written.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a ton of benefit to incorporating autoregulation into programs to account for good and bad days. But unfortunately for most lifters (especially novices) sometimes how you feel is actually a lie. Being tired, unmotivated and lazy can be an excuse NOT a reason to take it easy.
This also leads me to the downside of percentages. Sometimes you really do have a bad day. Some days 75% actually feels more like 85%. On those days you just need to dig deep and figure out a way to get it done.
Autoregulation / RPE Scale
If not percentages, then what?
Go as heavy as possible as frequently as possible?
Do 3 sets of 10 with a random weight?
Just add tons of drop sets, supersets and other “intensity” principles to make training harder?
Most people train like that…with no rhyme, reason or structure. That is not optimal.
If an entire training program can be written in the notes section of an iPhone, it’s not a training program, it’s just a list of exercises.
The difference between well structured programs and randomly going about your business is HUGE. It can make all the difference in the world to your training and progress.
Like I previously mentioned, there are other ways to determine load besides using percentages.
Another great option is to use an autoregulation method like the RPE Scale.
Autoregulation refers to the ability to change a program based on your responses to different stressors in your life. Training is a stressor, but so are family problems, lack of sleep, increased workload in school, etc.
It’s important that a program takes these into consideration, and one way of doing that is through RPE.
RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion, and it is a scale from 1 – 10 that you can use to rate how hard each set was for you to complete. An RPE is a subjective measure of how hard you feel you are working during an exercise, set, etc.
The scale translates as follows:
*As strength athletes we don’t typically use RPE’s under 7 except for de-load training. “Light work” such as speed/power training is better suited for percentage based loading.
- RPE 7: Speed was fairly quick, very easy set
- RPE 7.5: You could maybe have done 3 more reps
- RPE 8: You could definitely have done 2 more reps
- RPE 8.5: You could maybe have done 2 more reps
- RPE 9: You could definitely have done 1 more rep
- RPE 9.5: You could maybe have done 1 more rep
- RPE 10: Absolute maximal effort. No more weight or reps are possible.
This concept allows you to easily adjust work for less than optimal days, in addition to adjusting for volume and intensity blocks, among other neat ways of changing programming.
You are always going to have good and bad days. While it’s true sometimes you need to push through the “bad” days, other times it’s just not possible.
Depending on a number of factors the external load on the bar can feel a lot heavier or lighter than it actually is.
Some of these factors are:
- Fatigue from previous training sessions.
- Cumulative fatigue from entire training cycle.
- Lack of sleep the night before.
- Lack of calories the day before or day of.
- Work stress.
- Different training time.
In my opinion using RPE’s are a great as a stand alone method of weight selection or a nice addition to percentage based work.
I personally like to incorporate both percentages and the RPE Scale in my training programs.
Rate of Perceived Exertion in Practice
So how do you use the RPE scale? Again, I feel this is best explained through an example.
Let’s keep the same numbers as above.
The workout calls for 5 sets of 5 on squats. Instead of it being at 75% of a 1 rep max, it could say complete the sets at an RPE of 8.
In our above example, 75% was 300lbs.
For the RPE based program you would select a weight that you could only complete 2 more reps with (RPE of 8). See the RPE scale above if you are confused where I came up with that number.
300lbs might be too light or too heavy, depending on the day.
Maybe 315lbs is the weight where you can only get 2 additional reps with…or maybe you didn’t get much sleep the night before and 285lbs would be more appropriate.
As you can see there is going to be some interpretation involved.
Using autoregulation creates a lot more variability workout to workout. It takes a little practice to get dialed in but once you get comfortable with it, it can become a great tool.
It doesn’t matter if you use percentages, RPE scale or a combination of both. The main point is that you need to have a means for determining how much weight to use.
It’s unacceptable to just “wing it”. That may work for a short time but long term it’s not a feasible way to continue making progress.
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