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How to choose a weight

Whether you're newer to lifting or have been lifting for years, you may not know exactly which weight to choose to get the results you seek. Before choosing a weight, you'll want to know the purpose behind completing the exercise. Is it to gain strength? Build muscle? Address a weakness? Improve stability? Increase endurance? Knowing the purpose behind an exercise will help drive choosing a weight and following a specific RPE (rate of perceived exertion)

You may have previously heard me talk about the RPE scale. The RPE Scale is referenced with many of my clients in regards to lifting effort, as well as aerobic effort. Although today we aren't talking about the aerobic effort, you can take a peek at how we use the RPE Scale in training.

A little background: my clients use the RPE Scale in regards to RIR or reps in reserve. This means that if something is programmed as RPE 8, the exercise should be challenging enough that you have only 2 reps left in the tank by the end of the programmed rep range.

Most of the time, my clients are training between RPE 7-9, meaning they leave about 1-3 reps left in the tank.

So using this as a guide, how do you choose an appropriate weight for the program?

Assuming you are in good physical health, meaning no injuries or physical limitations, you'll typically** (not always) use a lighter weight for your upper body exercises than you would for your lower body exercises. This is because, aside from your lats, most lower body muscles are larger in size than upper body muscles and therefore often stronger... not because you *should* or *shouldn't* use a heavier or lighter weight for upper and lower exercises, but because your quadricep and rear deltoid are completely different sizes.

When you are testing out weights and putting on feelers, ask yourself how the set felt. Did it feel easy, moderate, or challenging? If you absolutely had to, how many more reps could you do?

To be honest, most of the time people aren't lifting heavy enough. We get stuck in the RPE 5-6 range because it's comfortable. Welp, it's time to boot you out of your comfort zone!

If a squat is programmed at 3 x 8 with RPE 8 and at the end of it you're thinking, "hmm, I think I could have done 4 more reps", it's time to increase the weight. RPE 8 should feel hard and allow for 2 reps left in the tank.

It's also important to note that 95 lb may feel like an RPE 6 one week and an RPE 9 on another week. Your hydration levels, nutrition, sleep, and stress can affect how effortful an exercise feels.


- If you feel pain, stop immediately. "No pain, no gain" is not actually correct or helpful.

- If you are not recovering well between sessions (i.e., sore for more than 2 days regularly), pull back a little bit until you get your recovery in order (nutrition, hydration, sleep, and stress).

- If you are coming back from an injury, follow the orders from your physical therapist + personal trainer and start at a lower RPE.

- If you are new to lifting, start at a lower RPE recommended by your personal trainer.

Remember to always get cleared by your physician before beginning an exercise program.

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Katharine Moustakes
Hey, friend!

I'm Katharine.

I'm a personal trainer, running coaching, and nutrition coach who's stoked about lifting, the outdoors, summit snacks, and my dog.


I understand that fitness is not your whole life. Fitness is a PART of your life. I approach training in a way that adds value to your life and longevity, so you can enjoy being active whether you're romping around in the mountains, playing with your kids, or signing up for your first 10K race.

I'm here to meet you where you are, so you can train safely and effectively, and gain strength and confidence both in the gym and on the trails.

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