The Art of Load Selection

by Rijker Cox | July 7, 2022

Load selection is a key component in programming for strength. In essence, load selection is about putting the right weight on the bar at the right time. This may seem very straightforward but it can so easily be done wrong and it can often be hard to recognize these mistakes right away. So what then should load selection depend on? The goal in powerlifting is to be the strongest we can be on competition day. This is not always an easy task and it goes to show that even many high caliber lifters miss the mark here. My aim is to lay out the most important considerations and point out the potential pitfalls to help you develop the best strategy for determining the weight on the bar. 

Programming Methodology


When programming for powerlifting the traditional approach since forever has been to use percentages of 1 rep max to ascribe training loads. The pro’s of this method are the ease of use and applicability to the majority of the population. The obvious downside is that this method does not directly include autoregulation. With percentage based training you might be ascribed to do sets of 5 at 80%, a simple and effective protocol. However, 80% is not always 80%. Due to many lifting and non-lifting related factors our performance and readiness fluctuates and we must take this into account if the goal is to maximize progress and minimize risk of injury. 

RPE based training, which became popularized in powerlifting around 2015 through Mike Tuscherer, has made up for this “lack of autoregulation”, and has in essence provided the coach and lifter with a system of dictating the proximity to failure for a given set. Besides the other benefits of using this approach, the significance of RPE based training for appropriate load selection is tremendous. RPE based training gives the lifter the power to be on the money as often as possible. At the same time there is also a high potential for misuse. The two frequently made mistakes are: 


  • Going too light or undershooting. Undershooting is when we lift at a lower RPE than was programmed. We more often see lifters who are more conservative and/or analytical have a tendency to undershoot. Although less common than overshooting, it is still an issue. When we undershoot we are short selling ourselves and we can halter the intended progression of the block. One can argue that this does not necessarily have to be negative as we are simply slowing our progression and saving it for future training blocks. However, are we really giving ourselves the right message if we consistently avoid doing the hard work? Besides this, the highly competitive lifter for whom every kilo counts, doesn’t always have the luxury to take it easy and leave some progress on the table.
  • Going too heavy or overshooting. Overshooting is when we lift at a higher RPE than was programmed, whether by accident or purposefully. Overshooting is especially an issue if it occurs frequently. It is one of the easiest ways to self sabotage and will make your performance unpredictable and in most cases poorer then if you had stuck to the program. Another possible consequence of overshooting frequently is peaking early. This basically means that when we run a training block we are at our strongest before we planned to be, and subsequently have a drop off in performance in the later weeks of the block. When we think of a competition prep, the consequences of this can obviously be rather detrimental.

Prep/Block Length


So what then is the ideal prep length? Although highly dependent on the individual, in general I believe powerlifters run preps that are too long and end up training past their peak. Resulting in a “weaker” performance on meet day. This is why I favor shorter preps for most lifters (6-7 weeks) with a short deload in the middle and a small taper in the week of the competition. The only risk with a shorter prep is potentially leaving gains on the table. In my experience this is far less of a concern than training past your peak as you will likely be significantly weaker than if you cut a prep short by a week. Another advantage of a shorter prep is that we get the chance to push slightly harder without risking spending the last weeks of prep overly fatigued. 


In general powerlifters seem to run longer preps of 8 or more weeks. I personally think this is one of the reasons athletes feel like they need long tapers (7-10 days); by the end of a long prep they just feel beat and all they want is rest. What then ends up happening is they get to the competition feeling recovered but their level of readiness and fitness is down in the dumps. This gets into the topic of tapering strategies for powerlifting which is something that will be addressed in a future blog. 


Microcycle Design


So far, we’ve discussed programming and load selection from more of a top down point of view, looking at the ideal meso/macrocycle. Additionally of importance is our microcycle design, which dictates our weekly set up, and how heavy we are lifting in which session. The goal here should be to make our performances predictable. This is where the idea of setting up the week to perform on a certain day comes in. Coaches like Chance Mitchell & Sean Noriega have really hammered this point home and it is all about figuring out when we want to be strongest so we can plan our training around this. I usually like to align this “high-performance” day with the day (and even time) we are planning to compete on. Usually this will be a saturday or sunday as most meets are held during the weekend. This will mean that the heaviest loads are usually lifted on this day and that in the days prior to this session we want to be lifting slightly lighter loads to be properly recovered for our high performance day.

Time to Peak


Another important factor in guiding our load selection strategy is our time to peak. This concept was introduced by Reactive Training Systems*. Every athlete will have a different time to peak and it is therefore important to figure out for yourself how many weeks it takes to get to your strongest and at the same time also be honest with yourself when you have trained beyond this peak. Something I have also noticed coaching over the years is that while time to peak varies from lifter to lifter, the time to peak also differs between the 3 lifts. 


I have personally found that the bench press takes the longest to peak and can also be pushed for the longest on end without noticing a downtrend in performance. Squat is usually in the middle and for most will be peaked at around 6 to 10 weeks. Deadlift is a different animal altogether and takes very little time to peak if programmed well. In 4 to 8 weeks of training we can be setting new PR’s on the deadlift and if we are training it hard past that we usually begin to see a drop off. For this reason I sometimes do not even incorporate competition style deadlifts until around 6 to 8 weeks out. Keep in mind that as with most suggestions in this article, these guidelines are rough estimates and you will have to experiment with them yourself.

Load Selection for Accessories


Up until this point I have discussed how to approach load selection for our main lifts, but how do we program our loads for our accessory exercises? With our accessories we can train closer to failure, but even here there is a cost. Some accessories will carry a greater cost than others, so we must be meticulous when we pick our exercises. A popular way of going about this is looking at the stimulus to fatigue ratio of a given exercise. We essentially want to get the most bang for our buck and therefore we can not allow too much of a fatigue cost for an exercise, especially if we are doing three main lifts that are fatiguing enough. 


We can program our accessories closer to failure than our main lifts, think RPE 8-9, but the closer we get to competition the more conservative we want to be. We therefore are better off lowering the intensity of some of our accessories during the final weeks of prep. Some coaches actually like to lower the reps and increase the intensity on accessories, in an attempt to “train more specific to the goal”. I personally think this is a faulty strategy as this will generate more fatigue which we probably want to avoid during the last stages of prep. We obviously have to tolerate fatigue from the main lifts, but everything that comes from other exercises and forms of training should definitely be held in check as much as possible if the goal is peak our performance on the big 3.  


Load Selection Guidelines


I will follow with some general programming guidelines to get load selection right:

  • Stick to the RPE. If you tend to overshoot load 2.5kg-5kg less on your top sets/singles. If you tend to undershoot load 2.5kg more on the bar for your top sets/singles.
  • Don’t be afraid to autoregulate. If prescribed volume work (percentage based) is heavier than intended drop the load. You could even set or discuss an RPE cap with your coach for your backdown work. 
  • Shorter preps carry less risk than long preps with likely the same potential reward. Give them a try!
  • Set up your week in such a way your performance becomes predictable.

In Conclusion


To find the right programming approach for you there are important considerations.

Firstly, setting appropriate goals and a clear framework is key. Do we have a meet coming up? What does our competition look like? Are there injuries at play? 

Second, self knowledge will be required to optimize our approach. Here we look at our training and meet history to figure out our time to peak, which will in turn give us an idea of how long our prep should be. 

Lastly, be intelligent and learn to pace yourself. We often see athletes coming out of the gates hot in the first weeks of prep, only to put up a lackluster performance followed by a “meet didn’t go as planned” post. Don't be that guy. If you do get it right it is an amazing feeling and this does not have to be reserved to the lucky few. Everyone should strive and plan to perform better during competition than they have in the gym!




  •  Reactive Training Systems: How to manage "Your time to peak" :