The Efficacy of Percentage-Based Training Programs

Jesse Irizarry

Coach

Strength and Conditioning, Strength Training

I’ll defend percentage-based training program's efficacy for powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting until the bitter end, or when I’m muttering to myself on a park bench wearing a sleeping bag as a sport coat.

 

I’ve tested, to the best of my understanding, most methods of building strength for myself and my athletes. And I haven’t found a more reliable way to continuously improve in power other than using stable markers based on maxes, even if those maxes are estimated.

 

 

Time after time, I’ve seen programming based on perceived efforts confuse and limit progress in everyone except the very experienced lifters who had excellent physical discernment. Beginners and early intermediates don’t know how to gauge their feelings and their capacity accurately.

 

If you were to tell them to do two reps short of failure or to work at some level of difficulty based on a number, the chances of them doing this one time is very slim. They’d think it was impossible if you were asking them to do this over multiple training sessions with all of the routine, daily, physical fluctuations.

 

When we’re talking about percentage-based programs, we have to understand that, as with all training programs and methods of periodization, it has flaws. If you plan out a well-organized training block, you should:

 

  • Lay out eight-twelve weeks of training
  • Include two-three training cycles
  • With de-load periods

 

If you take three months of training and stay consistent, your potential max in any lift will increase, and the number you are basing percentages on will no longer be a completely accurate value. If you take the same three months but are instead inconsistent, you may lose strength over the training block, and as time goes on, you will be working at a max that isn’t sustainable. As you continue through the plan, you’ll be working at an intensity past your capacity to recover.

 

How then do we make sure we’re using the correct weights as we base percentages off of a max that may change during a two or three-month-long training block?

 

The Efficacy of Percentage-Based Training Programs - Fitness, fitness, power lifting, olympic weightlifting, deadlift, maximal muscular power, weight gain, periodization, deloading, work capacity, front squats, training programs, peaking, training shelf

 

Submaximal Should Be the Long Term Play

How long you’ve been training effects just about everything you do with programming. At the beginning of your training shelf-life, your strength increases so rapidly that working off the same max for twelve weeks isn’t practical.

 

But after some years, your strength won’t increase as much over a training block so that you’re not working at a high enough intensity to cause the physiological disruption needed to force adaptation for the duration of the cycle.

 

 

Even if your max does increase over a four or six-week cycle, it typically won’t be over 5% if you’re a trained lifter. In part because of this, submaximal training (where you vary loads that are not a 100% effort) is always a better method in building strength potential and more manageable for continual improvement.

 

If your program calls for three reps at 85% of 1RM and this weight is technically now only 80% of what you could potentially do because your max has increased, you’re still working at an intensity that causes change. And in fact, it’s better to be at this lower range than arbitrarily increasing your weights and working with a weight that you can’t recover from over time.

 

Programming ranges in your percentages with top and low ends are a helpful way of making sure that you always work at an intensity that’s high enough using this method. Your program could call for three reps at 85-90%. If you choose to work at 90%, even if your max has increased, the 90% will be closer to the intensity that you need to see the improvement in performance.

 

These ranges also help with the opposite. If training isn’t going well and what you’re capable of lifting decreases, sticking with the low end can keep you from pushing too far. Using a range instead of an overly rigid single value can once again ensure you’re not working with weights that are too close to your max and just too heavy for you to recover.

 

With all these fluctuations in potential max that can occur during a training cycle, many might question why an intermediate or advanced level lifter wouldn't just try to work as heavy as possible as long as they feel secure and then adjust percentages to this number. The problem becomes changing the percentages you’ll need from week to week, and things becoming convoluted.

 

If you or your coach plan for you to do 5x5-80% for the squat on week three of your program, but you felt good on week two and worked up to a new max, the volume at that weight-based off your new max will be just too much to handle. Even if the new max you set wasn’t a fluke because you ate your Wheaties that morning, you didn’t have three weeks before build work capacity based on that max.

 

Week one might have been 3x5-80% and week two 4x5-80%. But now you’re not only going to increase the volume higher on week three but also the weight because you maxed out last week. Increasing both volume and weight on the same week will be too much stress to handle.

 

But now you’re not only going to increase the volume higher on week three but also the weight because you maxed out last week. Increasing both size and weight on the same week will be too much stress to handle.

 

It would be smarter to set your mind on building strength potential for a later time. You don’t need to be working at your limit each day and every week. Keeping it submaximal, even at times on the low end, will provide enough volume and intensity to build a higher capacity for force while allowing for recovery more often and over a more extended period than maxing out all the time.

 

But sometimes things happen, and you do need to increase the max over a training cycle because the weights are no longer heavy enough to cause a change. There are a few ways to address this without throwing off the entire training cycle.

 

The Thoughtful Approach to Increase Max

Most of the time, intermediate level and advanced lifters won’t increase their maxes significantly enough during a long training block to make the weights their percentages relevant. But it can happen under particular circumstances if the lifter is going through a period of intentional weight gain.

 

It also happens much more frequently with early intermediate lifters. If you face a situation where it feels like every session is just a warm-up, there are some steps you can take to alter your program.

 

De-load Test Weeks

Say you have a training block composed of three training cycles:

 

  • Each of the three training cycles is four weeks long.
  • The first three weeks of each cycle increase in difficulty and the fourth is a de-load.
  • During one of the training cycles, you can plan to test over one or two days at the beginning of the de-load week.

 

If you’re a powerlifter and feel like you’re squat max is far too low, test one lift and work up to a quick max at the start of the week and then do your planned de-load for the remainder of the week. If you feel like all three lifts need to be re-assessed, you can test them all in one day or do a quick max out of squat and bench on day one and deadlift on day two. Then once again, do the rest of the de-load week as planned.

 

Think of this as a test rather than an actual max out. You may not lift what you’re truly capable of if you were to do a proper peaking cycle and de-load, but that’s not the point. It isn’t meant to be your best effort. It’s intended to be a way for you to adjust and have a more accurate marker to base percentages on and progress through the rest of the training block.

 

Increase by Five Percent

In my experience, if weights need to be adjusted, increasing the percentage for that day by 5% is better than just arbitrarily increasing the max. Sometimes you feel like your baseline is higher than it is, we all have days that we feel unbreakable. But if you increase your max based on how you think on one day, there's no guarantee you’ll be able to continue to recover from every session after using this more substantial number.

 

Your baseline strength may not have actually increased and although you’d be able to handle the weights and recover from the intensity on that one glorious day because you slept nine hours and ate all the good food your mom told you to eat. You won’t be able to catch up and recover during the following weeks.

 

If you increase the weights you’re working with each day suddenly during accumulation weeks where intensity, volume, or both are growing; you may put yourself in a position where you cannot keep using the same weekly progression, become too fatigued, and maybe even get a little weaker.

 

Increasing a max for an entire training cycle should be done during the deload week no matter how good you feel working through the period. But even if the high end of your percentage range makes you feel like you’re just doing some loaded stretching, increase the daily weight by 5%. So if you were to do 6x2-80-85% try 6x2-90% instead.

 

The Thoughtful Approach to Decrease Your Max

There are cases in which maxes do need to increase during a training block, and there are particular circumstances where they also need to be decreased. So we need to set guidelines for this, too.

 

Adjust Based on Daily Assessment

While making daily adjustments may not be the most proactive method in dealing with temporary strength loss, sometimes you need to roll with it. None of us live, and train in a bubble and life sometimes has a way of adding stresses that make training so tricky that we do need to take things day by day.

 

So if you’re working through sets at your given percentages and you miss a weight (i.e., you can’t complete all of the reps in the set with the planned weight):

 

  • Lower the weight for that exercise by 20%.
  • This means if you’re doing sets at 85% of your max, you will lower to work with 65% of your max instead.

 

Decreasing it so much may seem a bit dramatic, but necessary if your focus is genuinely on your overall development. Our whole development is the point of a training program. Recovery from cumulative stress that’s beating you down needs to be the priority so that the following sessions can be productive.

 

Missing weights is very stressful on the system as a whole, and the impact of it should not be dismissed. There’s a reason behind why you can’t complete your work sets, and the best course of action is to focus on what to do to recover from that day.

 

Reducing the weights any less than 20% also usually backfires, in my experience. Any reduction less than this is not significant enough to allow for you to complete all the volume you planned for that day, and if you’re missing weights, fitting in the amount is most important.

 

There is a pretty significant psychological stress to missing weights that will make your perception of even the reduced weight seem more difficult. Fail to complete another set because you didn’t take off enough weight on the bar and you might as well skip the next three training sessions.

 

Adjust After Consecutive Bad Days

If you do reduce the weights in a given training session by 20%, but you keep failing to complete your sets for three or more consecutive days, it’s time to adjust the number you base your percentages off for the rest of the training cycle. Taking 90-94% of your max and basing all of your planned percentages off of this value is a safe plan.

 

If you start to feel better after a week or so using this decreased max, don’t increase the weight again until the next training cycle. If you feel better, that means the plan is working. Stick with the program so you can recover better this cycle and be more suited for long term training and development.

 

Look at It for What It Is

A training program is a map.

 

  • You have to plot out where you’re going to go.
  • That’s the point of calculating volumes and intensities and arranging them within training cycles.
  • Then, combining these training cycles into longer training blocks.

 

Percentages allow you to plan things out in detail. But don’t become so rigid in them that you keep yourself from making the adjustments along the way to get where you want to go. Sometimes detours get you there faster than trying to push through on a route that’s all uphill.

 

Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.

 

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