4 Ways to Select Appropriate Weight

This week, we’re talking more fitness. Specifically, how to select weight for an exercise.

It can be one of the toughest things to manage, but once we get it, we know that it’s there. It’s one more step toward feeling confident when you step into the gym.

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Selecting a weight truly makes or breaks a workout. If it’s too heavy, we can impair our recovery in the future. We can also potentially choose a weight that’s too heavy to complete the reps and sets prescribed. On the flip side, if it’s too light, we might not feel the exercise is really doing much of anything. The workout then doesn’t deliver the stimulus that it was prescribed to deliver.

So, what can we do? Let’s look at four ways we can select weight and ways we use all of these at Unity Fitness to help our members select weights that are appropriate for them and the session they’re completing.

%1RM – Same exercise or related exercise

First, and typically most popular, is the percentage of one repetition maximum. To use this method, you’ll test for a 1-5 rep max weight for a specific exercise. You’ll then use this number to base the rest of your weights lifted during that phase, and future phases until you retest.

This is used most frequently in people who feel comfortable and have a higher training age – meaning they’ve trained for quite a few years. If you’re brand new to an exercise, that’s likely not the time to max out right away, especially not a one-rep weight.

It’s also often used if you’re working toward a specific goal weight. For example, if I want to deadlift 300 pounds, I know that I’ll have to hit X for 2 reps, or y for 5 reps in training to make that goal realistic on max out day.

This can be for the same exercise OR %1RM can be used for a related exercise. For example, a back squat should be about 80% of a deadlift weight at the 1RM level. So, sticking with my deadlift example of 300 pounds, my 1RM squat should be 240. We can use this to inform training – if it’s accurate. There can be a strength imbalance that prevents this from occurring in reality, but overall we can still use the comparison.

Rate of Perceived Exertion / Reps in Reserve

This is the most common method we use at Unity. Rate of perceived exertion is a scale used to measure intensity. It’s a subjective measure and can vary by the day, but over time, rate of perceived exertion is a great way to measure progress and ensure you’re making appropriate weight selections.

Let’s take a look at the scale.

My personal favorite is the 1-10, but there are a few options. For our 1-10 scale, 1 is a low effort and 10 is maximum effort. For the majority of our efforts in the gym, we want to be between a 7-8. Now, that is absolutely a generalization, but we’ll use those numbers for our example.

Here is where we can tie in reps in reserve (RIR). If we’re lifting at a 7RPE, we can say we also have about 3 RIR, 8 RPE = 2RIR, and so on. Using this method takes into account our lifestyle influences (sleep, hydration status, recovery, nutrition, etc.) while the %1RM doesn’t necessarily do that. It allows us to train more intuitively, but also make sure we’re lifting enough to receive the desired stimulus.

BONUS: This RPE scale can be especially helpful when we’re doing cardiovascular activity. In its original form, it is intended to match with % of max heart rate. 7 = 70% max heart rate, 8= 80%, and so on. This can be more helpful in terms of cardiovascular activity, but not necessarily the case when we look at strength training.

% Difficulty

Our next option, percent difficulty, is very similar to the rate of perceived exertion scale. We also use this one quite frequently to connect the RPE and RIR variables that we used to measure before. But this is more straightforward; there is no connection to heart rate.

Percent difficulty is exactly as it sounds. How difficult is an exercise for you? 10% 50% 90% These percentages will dictate your training weight. Again, we don’t always have to be maxing out. If you’re always working at 100%, you’re likely hindering your recovery. We want to be in that 75-90% weights for much of our training time. (Again, this is a large generalization and varies wildly based on your program, other variables, and goals.)

% Bodyweight

Finally, we have percentage of bodyweight. This is often used in strength standard measurements. At Unity, for our strength standards, we have people work toward a deadlift, front squat, and single leg RDL at a given percentage of their bodyweight based on if they are a male or female.

For people on this program who are close to their goal, we can then use percent bodyweight to assign weights that will bring them closer and closer to that goal. Out of our four variables, I would say this is likely the least utilized in training. But we do see it quite often in strength standards.

Before we close out, I want to stress that we don’t ALWAYS want to work to absolute failure. We need to have a healthy balance of easier days, more challenging ones, and days where we do work toward a 1-5 repetition maximum effort. These all vary of the course of the program and depend heavily on your goals, training history, etc.


This week, take note of the weights you’re using in the gym. What are you working with? Are you leaving quite a few reps in the tank when you could be pushing harder? Are you adding reps where you should be adding weight, or vice versa? Start to use these measures to track the weight your lifting so you can more accurately track progress over time.

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