STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

In this blog, we’re going to delve into percentage based training which is a very common way of illustrating how certain training programmes are put together.

PERCENTAGE BASED TRAINING: CONFUSING OR USEFUL?

I’ll start by saying…. I hate mathematics – mainly because I suck at it (which is a shame considering mathematics is said to be the language of the universe).

The only maths I want to concern myself with is meathead arithmetic or how much money I have left in my bank account.

In layman’s terms, I generally only use maths when A) figuring out how much weight is on the bar or B) I’ve got bills to pay.

So what is percentage based training?

For some of you reading this, you may have come across this before concept before and perhaps you’ve read something along the lines of “You need to lift 80% of you 1RM @ 45% contractile tension so engage x+y amount of type II fibres and bla bla bla”….so let’s try to cut through the confusion here –

Percentages based training simply relates to the weight the person is lifting in a given exercise in relation to their maximum capacity. For example – if a person is performing bench press with 100kg, and his known 1RM (1 rep maximum) is 110kg, then the percentage is 90%.

Simply put, you determine the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time (1RM), then you use that figure to base your future workouts on for the required amount of reps and sets.

Examples:

• 3 x 10 @ 70% – Three sets of 10 reps at 70% of the 1RM
• 8/80%, 6/85%, 6/85%, 3/90% – Eight reps at 80%, two sets of six reps at 85%, and three reps at 90% of the 1RM

These examples at least offer some type of guidelines for lifting and I dare say are much better than simply “winging it”.

Here is a very rough breakdown of how percentages relate to a certain repetition maximum.

100% – 1 rep

90% – 3 reps

85% – 5 reps

80% – 8 reps

75% – 10 reps

70% – 12 reps

This isn’t set in stone and will vary from person to person as well as the exercise being performed, but hopefully this will give a clearer illustration of the general concept I’m trying to convey here.

PROBLEMS WITH PERCENTAGE BASED TRAINING

The biggest issue with these kind of prescriptions where rep and sets are assigned to percentages is that they don’t typically factor in the cumulative stress on the body of doing multiple reps at this given weight nor to do account for variations in a person’s physical state or ability.

Let me try to clarify.

You’ve probably seen a program, let’s say, prescribing sets 5 reps of squats at 80% 1RM.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? Well, let’s take a step back and think for a second.

5 reps at 80% 1RM means that the first rep of this set is the ONLY rep that represents 80% of 1RM!

Every rep after in a given set is then additional stress applied to the body that is greater than the demand of 80% 1RM. This is assuming, once again, that the program is based off a true 1 rep maximum and not a multiple repetition max. So if you’re doing more than one set at a given weight, this idea kind of goes out the window somewhat.

A person’s physical state may vary on any given day as well. Say you went to the gym, didn’t have much sleep, had a stressful day at work…etc. that 80% may no longer represent 80% of your maximum capacity/strength THAT day. 100kg for 5 reps on one day may represent 80% of your maximum capacity, on another it may be 85% and so on.

Using a percentage method is unpredictable simple due to the fact the human body is unpredictable.

Now, some programmes have tried to work around this by having you work off a sub maximal “training max” rather than a true max, but we’re still left with several issues when it comes to using mathematics with weight training….

• Genetic differences. Due to a host of genetic differences between people (muscle fibre ratios), there is no accurate way to determine a perfect number of repetitions for a specific percentage. That is, if 80% of a 1RM for 8 reps is the prescription, it could be unattainable for one person, dead-on for another, and not challenging enough for a third person. The exercise being performed will also vary. You might be able to do 80% for 8 on squat, but 6 with that same % on bench press. A number of studies have shown the variance in rep possibilities with various percentages of a 1RM.
• Rep speed & Technique. Example: Let’s say you’re following a programme and it calls for 85% for 5 reps. Joe Bloggs uses poor form – heaving and squirming – and gets the 5 rep goal. John Doe on the other hand uses impeccable form – a more controlled movement, no momentum, optimized muscle activation and all that jazz – but only obtains 3 reps. What data do they record? What about the next set or next workout goal based on the result of this set?
• System weight: System weight is the total load lifted including a person’s bodyweight moved during the exercise. For example, when you’re doing bench press, you’re also lifting the weight of your own arms to some degree, so if you weigh 80kg and you bench 80kg, your bodyweight doesn’t really move much, therefore your system weight is probably actually closer to that 80kg mark. If on the other hand, we took someone squatting, then we have to factor in not only the weight on the bar, but also what % of that person’s own body weight they’re moving through space, which is even more complicated given the fact everyone is built differently. Most percentage based programmes only account for bar weight and not the overall weight being moved through space.

ALTERNATIVE TO PERCENTAGE TRAINING?

Before I go on, I want to make clear that I’m not throwing percentage based training under the bus and the truth is, percentages can be a useful way of illustrating a training programme and any training system that has a certain amount of structure is going to be better than no structure at all. However, I’d like to offer an alternative to percentages and it’s actually something very simple that doesn’t require a calculator.

Rep Ranges

As opposed to the unpredictable and inaccurate percentages of a 1RM, rep ranges use a range of reps to provide reasonable progression. For example, a 8-12 rep range would entail the selection of a resistance where at least 10 repetitions could be performed but no more than 12 when the exercise is taken to the point of volitional muscular fatigue (VMF) or muscular failure.

When the upper end of the range is obtained, the goal in the next workout would be to increase the resistance reasonably.

Rep ranges allow a little more leeway to account for fluctuations in performance on any given day.

Here are a few key reasons why I would recommend using rep ranges vs percentages:

1. Rep ranges account for variations in genetic variability due to the wide range of repetitions possible with different percentages of a 1RM. It does not matter what the exact percentage is with rep ranges. Using 80% of a 1RM may result in 7, 8, 9, or 10 reps. The only thing that matters is what performance was obtained at that point in time and how you build on that performance.
2. Rep ranges can be varied for different cycles such as heavy, moderate or light resistance training protocols. Heavy could be rep ranges of 5-7 or 3-5, moderate might be 8-10 and light could be 12-15 reps. The ranges can be anything you like, although generally, a 2-4 rep bracket is a good bet for multi joint, compound exercises and you may want larger ranges for smaller exercises.
3. Rep ranges are objective. They show you exactly what to do in forthcoming workouts to assure progression. Perform 120kg x 9 in an 8-12 reps range? Next time you put that weight on the bar, you have a goal – 120kg x 10 or more. Very objective and simple to understand.
4. Rep ranges do not require exasperating thought when creating a training plan, even when using multiple sets.

If you wanted to do 5 working sets with a set weight, you can simply use a rep bracket. 5 sets of 3-5 reps. Once you can hit all 5 sets of 5, you move up in weight and so on. Week 1 you might get 5, 5, 5, 4, 3 and then you have something to build on. No calculators needed – very simple to follow.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: SETTING UP A TRAINING CYCLE

There are various ways you can plan or map out a training cycle using rep ranges that are beyond the scope of what I can write in a short blog post (that’s already getting too long), but I want to share a couple of very simple ones here….

Firstly, I would encourage anyone reading this to start making notes of the workouts you perform. Write down the reps you did, the sets, with what weight…etc. rather than just going to the gym and winging it by making everything up as you go.

I’m not saying this is always a bad thing – but if you have no clue as to what weights you can handle, the rep ranges or why you’re perform a certain exercise…etc. then it’s very difficult to know what you need to do in order to make further progress or how much weight to load on the bar.

Lift the resistance (weight) for as many good repetitions possible. Attempt to do more work in the next workout”

It’s pretty simple: force your muscles to do more work over time = progression.

This isn’t difficult to comprehend – but once again, if you have no clue as to what you actually did last time, how many reps, sets, with what weights…etc. then how do you know what you need to do this time?

With that said, here is a simple way of setting out a basic training cycle. Please note, I’m not going to get overly specific here in terms of how many sets to do or particular exercises, but hopefully this will give a rough illustration of how rep ranges can be used within the scope of a progressive training programme.

LINEAR

Week 1: 8-10 reps

Week 2: 6-8 reps

Week 3: 5-7 reps

Week 4: 3-5 reps

With a linear overload approach, the loading increases as the repetitions decrease. At the end of week 4 in this example, this person would repeat the cycle by either aiming to reach the top end of the rep scale or increasing the weight slightly depending on how well they did the first cycle. They also have the option of “peaking” (which we won’t cover now) to test a new 1 rep maximum.

So as an example; let’s show what weights this person might do –

Week 1: 90kg for 8-10 reps

Week 2: 95kg for 6-8 reps

Week 3: 100kg x 5-7 reps

Week 4: 105kg x 3-5 reps

2nd wave/cycle

Week 1: 95kg for 8-10 reps

Week 2: 100kg for 6-8 reps

Week 3: 105kg x 5-7 reps

Week 4: 110kg x 3-5 reps

Alternative, if someone wanted to stay within a set rep range, say 8-10, it might look like this.

Week 1: 95kg x 8 reps

Week 2: 95kg x 9 reps

Week 3: 95kg x 9 reps

Week 4: 95kg x 10 reps ß top end of the rep range achieved, increase the weight by a small amount next workout.

Week 5: 97.5kg x 8-10 reps….etc.

Hopefully you can see the pattern of progression from these examples.

UNDULATING

Week 1: 6-8 reps

Week 2: 8-10 reps

Week 3: 3-5 reps

Week 4: 5-7 reps

With an undulating approach, you can see that the rep scheme varies week to week (or session to session) by alternating between different intensities and training volumes.

Many people fall into the trap of only training within a certain rep range all the time. You don’t even have to use the same rep range on every exercise you do. So for legs for example, you might do some heavy squats in the 6-8 reps range, then move onto a hack squat or leg press for 12-15…etc. this is something I’m a fan of with my own training but the combinations are endless.

SUMMARY: KEY POINTS

• Percentages are a way of illustrating a concept, not teach someone how to train. There is nothing “advanced” about using them. Your body doesn’t work like a calculator so don’t treat it like one.
• Use rep ranges as an alternative way of fixed percentages/numbers.
• Keep a note of what you’re doing in the gym and strive to make small, consistent increases over time.