How much weight should I be lifting?
We are going to address one of the most common questions we get as coaches during a strength portion of a workout session, and for Mixed Modal Conditioning pieces.
"How much weight should I be lifting?"
It is a very sincere question from anyone who asks, yet it is a very hard question to answer. As a coach who has a very high touch point with all of our members and an oddly good memory of their strength in certain lifts, I can often provide a close estimate. But there is a much better way to figure this out and it comes from you understanding what we're looking for, and listening to your body of how it feels.
First, let's talk about some uncommon prescriptions that you may see in our programming:
Low/Moderate Load - This should a weight where you can work on your technique and make small changes without a worry of missing a lift.
Challenging Load/Set - This should be a weight that feels a little bit 'heavy' and where you have to really focus on your movement. You should feel like you can definitely add more weight, but this feels challenging enough. This is also where we need YOU to understand the feeling of a lift and we can only tell you if it's way too light, or if it's way too heavy.
Tough Load/Set - This should be a weight that is definitely challenging for you to lift. You should feel like you could add a little bit more weight or 1-2 more reps, but it would VERY hard and probably a maximum effort.
Maximum Load/Set - This should be a weight that you would be unsure to add any more weight or do any more reps. Depending on the context of a day, you may push your limits and fail a lift - in which case we now know for sure that your preceding set was your maximum effort.
One thing you will notice here is that there are NO PERCENTAGES. We may offer some percentage ranges but will often be a 10-20% range which really only gives you a ballpark and you still need to follow the rules below. The reason there are no percentage prescriptions is because it should be reserved for someone where training and lifting is one of their top priorities and they have a specific training plan written for them so we know how much volume they are doing and what their frequency and consistency is of training.
This falls inline with our tag line, especially for new-comers. Just show up and workout. It can be stressful and intimidating if someone tells you what weight you NEED to lift and how hard that might be. All we ask is that you give us 100% of what you have to give, and that may only be 70% of what you're capable of, especially if you're working 40+ hours a week, have a relationship, maybe you have kids and some other hobbies.
OK. Now to the real part of how we get to determining how much we lift.
Now this process will differ slightly for someone who is less experienced as they are still learning. So certain weights may not be physically challenging or tough, but it challenges their technique more than their posture and position. Mind you this is more of a precaution of learning proper movement patterns as well as the fact that having a young or immature training age requires very little stress to yield an adaptation.
Now without any context, the question of "how much weight should I be lifting?" is practically irrelevant. This is why it is important to understand that there is purpose behind every set of lifts that is prescribed. It is not necessary for you to understand completely the science behind the desired stimulus of each given rep range, tempo and intensity, but what does need to be understood is how to decipher a weight range for prescribed reps and sets.
There are two main factors which can drastically change the answer to our infamous question. There are also a few other very important factors often overlooked that will have an impact as well.
This is your main underlying factor of how much weight you should lift for a given movement. It is often a difficult concept to comprehend for a novice lifter as they are not familiar with muscular fatigue, nor have they truly expressed the effort for a max effort set, whether that be for 10, 5, 3 or 1 rep(s). They have only lifted to learn and practice form - which is the goal and is what we want. Now there is no denying that as a muscle, or muscle group, works, that it will fatigue and therefore weight (also can be referenced as load, stress or resistance) must be reduced.
The answer for how much to lift for a 2 Rep Max (2RM) can be relatively straightforward if someone has a 1RM to base it from. Answer: A little bit less than a 1RM. But as we increase that rep number, it can change drastically given someones training age and characteristics. Working anywhere from a 5RM to a 10RM is really a guessing game for anyone who has not done one before. There can be some relative percentage ranges that one can aim for, but everyone is different and there is no one answer, but merely some suggestions.
This addition to your training can really throw a wrench into the mix if you've never trained with it before or have immature movement patterns. Tempo in its' simplest form is the prescribed speed of a given movement. Here is a brief breakdown if you are unfamiliar with Tempo:
The tempo prescription is a combination of 4 numbers/letters, each representing a phase of a movement where numbers dictate seconds and letters represent a specific action.
Example: Back Squat x 6 reps @40X1 (See a breakdown of each below)
4 - The first number always represents the eccentric phase of a movement, not always the beginning. This would be the descent of a squat lowering into the bottom position, but it would also be the lowering of your body down from the pull-up bar.
0 - The second number always represents the bottom position, where a movement transitions from eccentric into concentric. This would be the bottom of squat, and also the hanging position of a pull-up.
X - The third number (or letter) always represents the concentric phase of a movement. There is commonly a letter prescribed here such as 'X' for dictation of explosive. Alternatively you can utilize an 'A' for dictation of assisted where overloading is the desired stimulus, ie: jumping eccentric pull-up
1 - The fourth number always represents the top position, where a movement transitions from concentric into eccentric. This would be the top of a squat and also the top of a pull-up.
Now that you understand how to read tempo, you can understand how that may make a movement much harder that it typically may be if there is no tempo prescribed. With the squat prescription above, that would mean you need to slow the eccentric phase of your squat to equal FOUR SECONDS! When it would typically take about 1 second, or maybe even less. The reason it makes it harder is that it creates a higher stress on your muscles therefor inducing fatigue, not to mention the time under tension which can simulate similar, sometimes greater, stress and adaptations than just performing higher rep sets.
WHY we prescribe tempo will be another article.
As mentioned, those are the two main factors that will be in question when you are thinking about how much weight you should be lifting. But there are a few more to consider as they will change the circumstance.
Desired Stimulus - This is almost one of the most important factors to consider. It makes a BIG difference whether we are looking to have you work to challenging set of 5 reps, or work to a max set of 5 reps. The difference could be 20-30lbs in some cases! Sometimes we just want to stress our body enough to ensure we're maintaining good movement patterns without creating a huge tax on our Central Nervous System.
Sets - If you are supposed to be lifting 5 sets of 5 reps at a given weight, you'll have to tone the weights back a little bit as there will be fatigue throughout your sets.
Rest Time - This matters whether you are doing multiple sets at a given load, or solely increasing to a single 'heavy set' for the day but for a desired stimulus have limited rest periods, ie: EMOM style.
Workout Fatigue - We've mainly been discussing this in the context of strength training (lift, rest, repeat), but it is important to realize that during Mixed Modality Training and Conditioning, the overall level of fatigue will become a very large factor, which is why prescribed loads during this type of training is much lower. So just because you can Clean and Jerk 135lbs in warm-up, doesn't mean that you will be able to when your heart rate is 160BPM and your core is fatigued.
Lifestyle Factor - This is often overlooked, and unknown to a coach unless it's noticeable or you bring it to our attention. If you only slept 4 hours last night, skipped lunch, and didn't get a great warm-up in, that should be your number one factor to tell you to take it easy and go by feel.
Hopefully this brings a deeper understanding to what it means when we say "Overhead Squat x 6 reps, work to a challenging set"