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Percentage Strength Training Programs

Percentage strength training programs -using certain percentages of your 1 repetition maximum for various numbers of sets and reps-are nothing new. They’ve been around for decades and have been used successfully by everyone from Olympic athletes to the non-competitive strength enthusiast “clanging and banging” away in their garage gym.

Percentage Strength Training Programs

Legendary strength and conditioning coaches at the high school, collegiate, and pro levels have used percentage strength training programs to develop top tier athletes. We’ve also seen percentage strength training included as a foundational tenet in many popular programs over the years, such as Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1.

There is a reason percentage strength training programs have stood the test of time and some of the top minds in the strength and fitness game have relied on them and continue to rely on them: they work.

Now, are they the only way to skin a cat and the only type of programming you need to have in your toolbox? Certainly not. Is it the best type of program for all people to take at all times? No. Does it have flaws and drawbacks? Sure. But they can be extremely beneficial to periodically implement and take advantage of over the course of your training year(s).

What I’m going to present here is not the only way to incorporate percentage based strength training. I’m not saying it’s perfect or optimal or it’s how <insert Soviet sports scientist’s name> said to do it in a specific book or training program manual. I know there are many coaches, academics and trainers who have forgotten more about this topic than I know or will ever know. I’m not saying it’s right for every person, for every goal, at every time and in every circumstance.

So, what’s below is just the way I incorporate percentage-based work both personally and with certain clients at certain times. I’ve had a nice track record of success with it dating back to the 90’s. It’s just another way-in a long list of ways-to implement smart progressive overload. It’s practical. It’s easily understood and easily implemented. It’s structured. It’s repeatable. It’s progressive over time.

It’s great for those interested in building more pure strength and improving the neurological elements of it. One can learn how to sanely “take the breaks off” of the nervous system if they’ve traditionally trained in higher rep ranges. It’s great for building technical expertise on compound barbell lifts (and it could be used on machine movements as well). It can be a nice change of pace for someone who has been over complicating things, has had training program ADD, and/or just needs to get back to basics.

I don’t think anyone would argue all of those things are not “good”. The fact of the matter is, most average gym goers who want to get more out of their training need more of this kind of basic and straight-forward as it may seem.

So, here is what you are going to do:

  • Pick 3–4 main/indicator movements and insert them into your training split. Select an upper body push, upper body pull, some type of hinge movement, and a more quad- dominant movement (could be single leg too).

  • You are going to start each training session with one of these main exercises. You are going to do it first in your workouts. You are only going to use the protocol I present below on this one exercise (it’s time consuming) and no more.

  • Estimate a realistic 1 repetition maximum for each movement. Not a hyped-up, Slayer blaring, smelling salts 1 RM you think you could do after 12 hours of sleep. Something you know you could walk into the gym right now and confidently do. Then you might want to knock 5% off of that number. If you don’t know, think about what you could do for a really hard set of 8 reps, then divide that number by .80.

Once you have your estimated max, you are going to do the following in a 5-week progressive block:

  • Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps @ 65/70/75/80% of 1 RM (Ex: 200 lb. max multiply by .65, .70, .75, etc.)

  • Week 2: 4 sets of 4 reps @ 67.5/72.5/77.5/82.5% of 1 RM

  • Week 3: 4 sets of 3 reps @ 70/75/80/85% of 1 RM

  • Week 4: 4 sets of 2 reps @ 72.5/77.5/82.5/87.5% of 1 RM

  • Week 5: 5 sets of 1 rep @ 90–95% of 1 RM

You’ll rest around 2:00 between sets on weeks 1–4 and around 3:00 or so on week 5. On weeks 1–4, the last set of the day at the highest percentage can be a “+ set” where you go beyond the reps called for if you are able.

What’s more, if you like and want a blend of both strength and muscle building, you can do 1–2 sets of higher reps to muscular failure using a “first set last” approach after the final heavy set of the day. For example, on week 1, you’d drop back to 65% after your heavy set at 80% and rep out.

After the 5th week, go back to week 1, estimate your theoretical max 5 or so pounds higher (that’s going to be individual), tweak the percentages accordingly, and go through it again. If you don’t achieve the prescribed number of reps on your last set, during any week, you’d be advised to repeat that week again before moving on. Keep in mind, if you were realistic when estimating your initial 1 RM on a main exercise, you should not be stalling out for quite a while.

Frequently Asked Questions

“How many cycles of this should I do?”

I have no idea. If it’s working, it’s fair to say you are probably going to want to do more of it yes? If you are able to hit the set and rep targets at the listed percentages week-to-week and you are estimating your max a bit higher during each subsequent 5-week block, keep doing it until the progress runs its course.

“How long do I stick with the same main exercises?”

Again, I have no idea. If you are progressing on the exercise(s), why would you change it? You certainly could swap out main exercises that are similar or in the same movement class (barbell bench press to a close grip floor press for example) every couple cycles but my best advice would be to milk what you are doing for all it’s worth before you get antsy. Be logical: if it’s working…keep doing it. Yes, eventually it will make sense to honor the General Adaptation Syndrome after a certain number of exposures and change up something to present a new stimulus, but most people jump the gun on that.

How long would I use this type of percentage strength training approach on the main exercises before I went a different direction towards more hypertrophy-based work?

Again, as you might have guessed, I don’t know. This is all situation and perspective and very individual. You can easily use this protocol as a “mainstay” as there are plenty of ways to incorporate hypertrophy work into the rest of your workout (I’ll give an example below).

Also, even though you are working with lower time under tension and this is more neural-based training, if you are moving up your weights on the main exercises over time, it’s not as though you are not getting some type of muscle building stimulus…especially if your other exercises are being performed in more traditional hypertrophy rep ranges (and you can use the “first set last’ approach I described above as well). There is still progressive overload and heavier absolute loading involved, and I think history has proven plenty of people have gotten quite large using lower reps too.

When can I test my 1 RM?

I honestly don’t think that’s necessary or worth the risk. If you are moving up and completing all the set/rep cycles as written, you can be confident your 1 RM is improving without having to test it. If anything, you could do a 6–8 rep max test after every 2 cycles with 80% of your new estimated 1 RM before starting another cycle and see where you stand. If you are getting 7–8 reps with around 80% of what you are estimating, you are on track. Beyond that, on the fifth week, where you are handling 90–95% for singles, you’ll have a pretty good idea if your limit strength is improving based on feel.

How many warm-up sets should I do?

On weeks 1–3 you won’t need many. Because if we look at it, the first 3 sets of each week are kind of warm-up sets themselves and they cause just enough fatigue to make the last set of the day tough-but not impossible-to complete. You might do 2–3 ramp up sets of 1–5 reps to the first percentage of the day. On week 4 and 5 (week 5 in particular), you’ll want more. The warm-ups should prime you but not take away from the heavier work. For example, week 1, if your set at 65% is at 200 lbs. on the barbell squat, you might want to do 135x5, 155x2, 185x1 then go into it.

Before I go any further, there will inevitably be some readers who think this isn’t very demanding, they could do far more reps than what’s listed for each percentage, etc. I 100% get that. I do. But you’d be missing the point.

We are not chasing “pump and burn” here. Nor are we looking to grind to the maximum to complete the sets. Yes, eventually, as you progress through more cycles, you will inevitably reach a point where you are grinding hard, training to failure, and missing reps…but we want to avoid that for as long as we can put it off. We want crisp, clean, precise reps. Surgical rep performance and great body alignment. Again, this is largely neurological work and we are not chasing fatigue here.

We want the body getting used to handling heavier absolute loads without completely frying ourselves. As I said, there is plenty of room in the rest of the workout for more traditional hypertrophy work and this can all be blended: you can have elements of both strength and hypertrophy work in the same program. It doesn’t have to be so black and white.

Example Upper/Lower Split

It would be impossible for me lay out every conceivable training split and well beyond the scope of a single article. What I will say is you can easily implement this type of percentage strength training into any training split out there. Again, you are just choosing 3–4 main/indicator exercises and placing them first in your workouts (one exercise each workout) following the instructions I outlined above.

With that said, here is an example of a very basic 4 Day Upper/Lower Body Split (only the first 2 days are shown):

Day 1

· A. Barbell Incline Press:use the 5-week block outlined + one back off set using the first percentage listed for that week

· B. *Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns:4 sets of 8

*use a 12–15 rep max weight and go to failure on the 4thset (90 seconds rest)

· C. *Hammer Strength Flat Seated Chest Press:1 set of 10–12 reps

*Double rest-pause: go to failure, rest 20 seconds, do as many more reps as possible and repeat

· D. *One-Arm Dumbbell Rows:1 set of 10–12 reps

*Double rest-pause: go to failure, rest 20 seconds, do as many more reps as possible and repeat

· E. Incline Side Lateral Raise:2 sets of 12–15 (60 seconds rest)

· F1. Some Type of Curl Variation:2–3 sets

· F2. Some Type of Pressdown/Triceps Extension Variation:2–3 sets

Day 2

· A. High Bar Back Squat:use the 5-week block outlined + one back off set using the first percentage listed for that week

· B. *Seated Leg Curls:4 sets of 8 (90 seconds rest)

*heavy set first and reduce weight as needed to stay at the rep target

· C. *Bulgarian Split Squats: 1 set of 10–12 reps

*Double rest-pause: go to failure, rest 20 seconds, do as many more reps as possible and repeat

· D. *45-Degree Back Extensions:2 sets (2 minutes rest)

*Progressive Isometrics: do 1 rep and pause up top for 1 second. A 2ndrep and pause for 2 seconds. A 3rdrep and pause for 3 seconds. Continue until you don’t come out of the bottom and/or can’t hit the timed hold

· E. *Leg Press (feet low on board and narrow):1x20

*total failure

· F. Core & Calf Work:3–4 sets apiece

You could use a similar format on days 3 & 4, prioritizing an upper body pull on day 3 and a hinge/posterior chain movement on day 4. Again, this is purely an example. This protocol could easily be put into a push/legs/pull split, an upper/lower/total split, a “bro split”, or anything else you could think of.

Wrap Up

Again, percentage strength training programs are nothing new or the “end all be all” of training methods, but they can be a very productive tool to periodically pull out of your toolbox. Whether it be for a dedicated strength phase, a hybrid strength and mass phase, or you just want to break out of a training rut and dial it back in using a sensible, time-tested, back to basics approach…give it some consideration in the future.


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