Picture you lying down, staring right through the bar to the ceiling. It’s the first set on the bench and you know it is going to be a grind, but you want to get this weight for the first time. You get to rep number 4 of 6 and all of the sudden you’re pinned.
This is the absolute worst feeling in the gym. Now it is time to lick your wounds and move on, or lower they weight and get your reps in (obviously depending on how bad your pride hurts). You got off to a bad start and it can really affect the rest of your session.
The problem here is that people get too aggressive with loading the bar in most exercises, with the bench press being exhibit A. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the people that have done 3 sets of 10 at 135 since the Clinton administration.
Loading the bar is a key component of proper progress in any exercise of a program. There is a method that can assist with picking the correct weight to ensure overload, progress, and success.
1. Work backwards
In Intervention, Dan John says to “judge your workout by the last set, not the first.” I really cannot say it any better. If you get 225 for six on your first set and then get pinned under 245 on the next, you wasted your energy. It was too much to start off.
Choose a reasonable weight for your last set and then take weight off for each set before that. If it is a barbell exercise, be aware of the jumps you are making. 10 pounds for upper body and 10-20 for lower body should be attainable jumps.
Most importantly, the goal is to get all of your reps. The last reps of the last set should be extremely difficult to get. If not, then next time you need to end with a higher number.
2. Avoid percentages
Percentages require max testing and that is not safe or valuable for most people. Leave the percentages to advanced athletes that have had time to make their body efficient and master their technique.
An intermediate lifter using percentages is probably going to be in a max effort during the first set. Then what? We are back to the problem. Too often I have seen percentages used prematurely and the person cannot get past the second set.
To determine if you are an advanced lifter that could utilize percentages, I have a question for you. Who is your strength coach? If you do not have one, you are not advanced and do not need percentages. *if you work as a strength coach you can be your own, but if you did not know that then I am not sure I can help you.
3. The 90% rule
When I did Eric Cressey’s Maximum Strength program, he used a loading system that I found helpful. Take the last set weight and take 90% of it. All sets must be in that range.
For example, 4 sets of 6 Back Squat. If the last set is going to be 200 pounds, 90% of that is 180. All four sets have to be within 180-200 pounds. Anything less does not count.
I have found this to be a very good system that really makes you work. The borderline sets that may too easy are now just considered part of the warm up.
The key to properly choosing weights is to work backwards. Determine your last weight first. This is important because you should be gradually adding to the bar. You also want to make sure that your last set is the hardest. You cannot track yourself by what you did on the first set.
Forget about 1RMs and the associated percentages. Use the 90% rule and start gaining some real strength.