How Much Weight Should I Lift?

At Brentwood Barbell, we are primarily concerned with the long-term success of our clients. When working with a new athlete, we help them develop short and long term goals. Once the goal-setting process is complete, we write short 4-week programs (we them call blocks) that move the client in the desired direction. As with most gyms, folks come to us with a variety of goals. Some common goals include (1) increased strength, (2) weight loss, or (3) increased function / decreased pain. These goals are all appropriate reasons for starting barbell training and keep the job of coaching interesting.

Much to Learn

One of the more skillful tasks one can undertake in the weight room is to learn how to properly use a barbell. At our gym, we use 15 lb., 15 kg., and 20kg. barbells for our clients. The weight of the barbell is dependent on the strength level of the athlete when they walk through our door. We like barbells because they are scalable to every client. A new athlete will never be too weak or too strong to use a barbell, making it the obvious choice for the job of getting stronger.

Programs at our gym use a multitude of templates and exercises. We prioritize the training templates and exercises that most directly correlate to the client’s goal(s). When we get an athlete on the platform we need to teach them:

  • What bar to use
  • How to set up the power rack for optimal safety / performance
  • Where the weights are
  • When to clip plates onto the bar and when not to
  • How to warm up

These are all very simple things but we treat each client as though they’ve never seen a platform or performed any of these tasks. What results is an athlete training productively most of the time.

Our platform assessment will include examinations of bar path, breathing patterns, mid-foot balance, and moment arms. All of this information is distilled down into a useful exchange so athlete can get to what he/she came for, productive training.

Lastly, there will be discussions on equipment like shoes, belts, wraps, knee sleeves, etc. Many of our clients don’t use this gear (other than the shoes and belts) but we like to make sure they’re aware of the tools available to them.

In the Beginning

As the athlete begins “learning the lifts”, the coach will determine the appropriate weight to be lifted that day. This is because the coach has seen more squats than you have. You’re new, and the coach is experienced. Beginner athletes are uniquely bad at accurately determining appropriate weight selection, but it’s to be expected. How often are people good at something the moment they begin?

For training at this level, we keep it simple. We give the athlete a rep and set prescription, starting weight, and fatigue stop. Let’s examine each of these ideas more closely.

Fatigue Stops (descriptive RPE)

The first day an athlete works with one of our coaches, he/she will work up to an appropriate weight for the day. Typically, this weight is where the coach sees the bar speed drop slightly toward the end of the set. This decrease in bar speed is a useful metric as it tells us the athlete is doing some “work”. This level intensity is appropriate for the new trainee as technique has been maintained but effort has been put in. Here is the concept in action.

Sample Squat Session for Beginner Trainee

  • empty barbell (20kg. or 45 lbs.) x 7 reps x 2 sets
  • 95 lbs. x 7 reps (no change in speed)
  • 115 lbs. x 7 reps (no change in speed)
  • 135 lbs. x 7 reps (slight decrease in speed)
  • 135 lbs. x 7 reps (slight decrease in speed)

For the athlete above, 135 lbs. for a couple sets of 7 represents his “work” for the day. Our prescription for this athlete would be to plan on adding 5-10 lbs. the next session (145 lbs. x 7 reps x 2 sets). This meets the the athlete perfectly where he is. His prescription is simple and direct, he just needs to show up and work hard.

Once the athlete has completed a few weeks of training in this manner, he will begin to move much more slowly during his work sets. This is evidence that the weight is “heavy” and thus the athlete is working much harder than he was in the beginning. At this point, we like to ask the athlete to begin “assessing” his work sets with an overall estimation of exertion. We use a simple scale known as RPE (rating of perceived exertion) developed and by Mike Tuscherer of Reactive Training Systems. While Mike uses this scale in a more “prescriptive fashion, our beginner trainee isn’t quite ready for that task. Instead, we will assign the weight (typically 2.5 to 5 lbs. more than last time) and ask him/her to tell us how hard it was (after the set has been completed). This is a great way to provide external loading prescriptions AND receive feedback on how the athlete perceives the prescription.

As the athlete becomes “less novice”, he/she will require a new dispensary of information from the coach and the “how much should I lift” question will be a common task for the coach to manage. This becomes particularly difficult if the athlete hasn’t been assessing his/her effort along the way. The argument for novice / beginner trainees not use RPE is they don’t know how to accurately assess their effort / potential. This is true, but being bad at something isn’t usually a reason to not try and get better. Would you never play guitar because you couldn’t play Eruption on day 1? It should go without saying, the training process tends to run much smoother, and be more productive in the long run, if both the coach AND the athlete have some input.

Internal / External Loading

If an athlete front squats 315 lbs. for 3 sets of 5 the external loading would be 315 lbs. completed for a total of 15 reps. This is good information, objective, and tells us quite a lot about the session. However, there is an important piece of information missing, how difficult was this session for the athlete? Without an assessment of exertion (the internal load for the athlete), we simply have no idea. If he rates the session at an @7-8 for all sets we can feel pretty good about how the next session will go. However, if the work sets were rated @9, 9.5, 10+ then we might need to have a conversation with the athlete. It doesn’t mean the program has to change but we do need to talk about the program intensity (internal in this case) and the reality of performance fluctuations (a topic for another day).

Fatigue Management

The idea of RPE is largely to better understand athlete fatigue. As an athlete trains, he/she will be developing both fatigue and fitness (2 Factor Model). In a perfect situation, we would develop a lot of fitness while acquiring little fatigue (not uncommon for beginners) but in order to understand this interplay, we need the athlete’s input of internal loading. Continued sets @9+ RPE will take their toll, particularly if we’re referencing squats and pulls.

As the program continues, the athlete will become more responsible for giving his input (estimation of internal load) so the coach can make programming changes. Fatigue Stops and RPE concepts offer the coach and athlete an additional language with which to communicate the utility of a program.

You might also enjoy: RPE in Novice Training


Narvaez, Izzy. 2018. Programming to Win, 2nd Edition.

Zatsiorsky and Kraemer. 1995. Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2nd Edition. Human Kinetics, Champaign Il.

Reactive Training Systems.