Percentage based training programmes have always been popular. The premise is that they allow different lifters to follow the same plan, regardless of strength. Feel the thrill as you follow the same programme as an elite athlete! Also, many of us in the West seem mesmerised by “secret” Eastern Block training systems. Finally a copy a paste style of programming will be very appealing to coaches who are able to roll out a programme en masse without further thought or effort. this makes their product suddenly become quite scalable. But can two lifters at polar opposite ends of the ability spectrum really both use the same plan?

For those who aren’t familiar with this type of routine, the percentage is based on a lifter’s one rep max (1RM) or predicted 1RM. Working out your max (predicted or otherwise) will always involve an element of ambiguity-what if you’d warmed up differently, made different weight attempts, done it an hour earlier or the following day when you’d slept or eaten better and so on? Nevertheless, if we are to base a programme around percentages we have to accept this limitation and use the best guess of our 1RM as we can.

A common but ill-founded criticism of this one-size-fits-all approach is that as the programme goes on, the percentage suggested may not accurately apply to the lifter that day and for that set. If the max has changed, then the percentage is wrong. 

However, no one should be claiming the percentage is a real time representation of what someone can lift right there and then. Most programmes at least make predictions on the effect the accumulated work may have on a lifter and make concessions for the expected fluctuations or have ways to manage fatigue. So when a programme says to lift 70%, it is a percentage off of the max you first declared, not the max you are necessarily capable of at that exact moment or a reflection of how the weight is going to ‘feel’. Remember, here, intensity refers to the percentage, not the effort.

My concern is not with the programming, but with the obvious differences between users. If we all know our maxes and all train at exactly the same percentage, we are following the same template but we will not all respond the same way nor would we really have all done the same thing.

Work capacity and recovery will vary between individuals-the amount of reps one person can perform at a given percentage can differ massively from others. Where one person can only perform 3 reps at a given percentage, another is capable of 15 reps with the same intensity. 

We should also note the difference between system weight and bar weight. Percentages usually only take into account the bar weight. The system weight adds up everything that gets moved in an exercise. 

For example, on a chin up, if you were to add 10kg to an 80kg person the system weight would be 90kg (ignoring the stationary forearms). Halving the weight hung from the lifter to 5kg would not halve the system weight, it would only reduce it by 5.6%. During the squat a good chunk of the lifter’s body is going to count toward the system weight so a heavier lifter working at the same percentage as someone lighter may well be working much harder. This is one of the reasons why people do not get linearly stronger as they get heavier.

A lifting tax for the strong

These are actually all trivial concerns compared to the real issue, which is the scalability of the training plan. Too often proponents cling dogmatically to the relative work while ignoring absolute work. to think this wouldn’t matter is somewhere between being a little idealistic to full blown quixotic. I believe stronger lifters should use a lower percentage than beginners, which will be fine for them as they will still be lifting heavier weights. This will sound like heresy to a portion of the training community, but it would be obvious in other environments and I think rigidly imposing a single percentage on everyone hampers the results that could be achieved.

Rather than the flat rate model of percentages, I prescribe a tiered system. This is how taxes are commonly collected, so let’s pretend strength is income for just a moment for the purposes of my explanation.

There is going to be some base level of strength regardless of training history but the weakest people are on the strength breadline need everything they can lift if they are to improve, so they should be taxed least and keep the majority of the weight they can lift. Conversely, stronger lifters have an abundance of strength-they are ‘strength rich’ and so can afford to lose a much larger percentage and still have plenty left on the bar to make progress with.

Superficially stronger lifters appear to do less work this way. This is true in relative terms, but in actual absolute terms, the stronger, more taxed lifter should still be lifting more. For example 70% of 200kg is still nearly one and a half times more weight than 95% of 100kg.

When exact percentages don’t matter all that much

If big percentage differences are not making meaningful changes in the bar weight then it is a level of detail too far and completely unnecessary at this juncture. The concern is not why is this lifter using the wrong percentage, but why they are playing with a calculator and not a barbell, because at that stage everything should work!

By all means follow the spirit of the programme, its general layout, the exercise selection, frequency, sets and reps but use your initiative with the percentages.

Even with a plan specifically tailored for you, there is still a huge element of luck. It was written by a trainer, not a clairvoyant, so they could not have accounted for random bad days, illness, injury and the occasional need for a rushed session. Not to mention the individual differences that we’ve already discussed between lifters. The longer and more detailed the programme, the more these blips snowball and the deviations magnified, degrading the forecast more and more. Safe to say the percentages will for the most part be based on best guesses made weeks prior and more often fall into the category ‘close enough’ than perfectly fitting what was prescribed. 

Not all percentages fall neatly in to what can be loaded onto the bar. For example, 75% of 155kg is an awkward 116.25kg. There is no need to add a couple of washers to micro load your way to two decimal places of accuracy. Either do 115kg or 117.5kg as you see fit (or do some work at both weights if you really want to be fussy).

This is especially true when dealing with lighter loads the percentages have less impact on the actual bar weight. For example, if the 1RM is 55kg the difference between 75% and 85% is 2.5kg once the weight has been rounded up or down (42.5kg-45kg). Worrying about differences this small is just splitting hairs, assuming the lifter is a human and not a calibrated set of scales. 

Due of this butterfly effect and the fact no one can with any certainty say what lifting 70% will do compared with 75% (even less so if it was not you in particular the coach had in mind), don’t fixate on analytically working to the closest decimal of what has been suggested. Trust me, the ship of accuracy has already sailed a long time before that prescriptive programme found its way to you. what’s the difference between training on a full stomach and wearing a thick top than squatting with an extra half kilo either side of the bar? Use percentages as a guideline – a kilo here or there is irrelevant and the stronger you become, the rounder your rounding up or down can safely become. 

Do not adhere so rigidly to something that was so whimsically constructed, or at least be aware if you do, the results will not be significantly different and your time will have been invested in vain. Better to allow yourself some artistic licence whilst following the underlying principles behind the percentages given. This means understanding the essence of the programme, questioning what you don’t understand and then adjusting it when necessary rather than blindly following good ideas at the expense of decent outcomes.

References

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