Managing Training for Strength

In my last post I discussed some of the shortcomings of pre-planned training. This inspired a conversation between myself and a friend about percentage based training. Today I’d like to talk about some thoughts I have on this topic. Additionally, I will offer some potentially better strategies to help manage and adapt your training on a day to day basis.

To be clear, percentage based training (in the context of this discussion) refers to planning training loads based on a percentage of your 1 rep max in a given lift.

For example, if your 1 rep max in the Bench Press is 300, you know that 50% of this is 150. Strength is generally believed to best be built by working over 85% of your 1 rep max. From our example, 300x.85=255 and therefore 255 is 85% of our 1 rep max of 300. The purpose of using percentages is to control the level of intensity, effort and fatigue placed on the body to create a desired effect. Generally, you can perform only 1 rep with 100%, 2 reps with 95%, 3 reps with 90% and so on.

% 1RM

100

95

90

85

Reps

1

2

3

5

I think that percentage based training is most effective for novice to intermediate level lifters. This is because they are nowhere near their strength potential. Progressing from workout to workout is much more feasible for them. They can adapt better and faster to the loads because the loads simply aren’t that great yet.

Now for a more advanced trainee, percentage based programs can be less beneficial for several reasons.

  • Percentages are based off a 1rm (or a calculation of a 2-5rm) that were taken on a given day. Your strength levels can and will vary day to day based on recovery status, stress levels, nutrition and several other factors. Therefore a percentage based off the 1rm recorded on a previous day will unlikely be a true reflection of present strength levels.
    90% of your 1rm can easily be 100% on an off day. We’ve all had workouts where the weights felt heavy. We’ve also had days where the weights felt light. If you grinded out 85% for 3 hard, sloppy reps, was it really 85%? In reality it was more like 90%. This can create problems in the program because 85% x3 should generally be a very manageable lift and therefore not tax the body too much. However, since the weight was actually much heavier than 85% on that given day, we’ve created more stress and fatigue then was called for. This is how we set ourselves up for missing lifts in subsequent workouts and nothing is more frustrating than missing lifts.
  • Pre-planned percentage based training is basically telling your body that it must adapt to the training rather than allowing your training to adapt to you. Unfortunately, we do not have conscious control over how we adapt or when. Therefore, it would be much wiser to plan according to the current strength and adaptability levels of our body. We can’t force our body to get stronger.. often times when we try and do this our body tells us to suck it and we regress, or worse, we get hurt. I’ve been down that road.

How do we adapt our training to our body?

1.

I’ve become a big advocate of using RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) to manage training loads. I first learned about RPE when studying for the CSCS exam several years ago. However, it wasn’t until I read Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Systems Manual that I really started to incorporate them into my training. Essentially, with an RPE system we plan to work up to a given RPE for a given amount of reps and sets as opposed to using a percentage of a 1rm. This allows us to “pre-plan” our training in accordance with our most current strength level. The following chart shows how a RPE score corresponds to effort level.

RPE

Reps left in the tank

10

0

9

1

8

2

10 is an all out effort. It can be a 1 rep max, a 5 rep max or any number really. As long as it was an all out effort where you are unable to perform another rep. An RPE of 9 means you had 1 rep left in the tank. There is a huge difference between an RPE of 9 and 10 due to its effect on the CNS. It takes much longer to recover from a 10 than a 9. This is what makes RPE’s more accurate than percentages.

This system eliminates missed reps at a given percentage because the selected weight is now much more accurate and fits your present strength levels for that day. For more info on RPE’s check out Mike’s book and free articles on his site.

2.

Pay attention to indicators. Things such as sleep, stress, nutrition and restoration work can all have a pretty drastic effect on your strength levels and adaptability. The following is a list of different indicators you can start to monitor if you don’t already.

  • Sleep: I rate my sleep on a scale of 1-5.
    5 = 7-8 hours of sleep, no wakes or disturbances, morning wood, etc
    4= 1 disturbance or wake up during the night
    3= less than 7 hours of sleep, and/or multiple wake ups
    2=Usually if I’m sick and can’t fall asleep
    1=no sleep
    Supplementing with ZMA really helps improve the quality of my sleep.
  • Stress: Primarily for this I use HRV measurements. I’m not going to elaborate on this since I’ve written about it extensively in previous posts. If you’re unfamiliar with HRV then I highly recommend you click here and start with “HRV Explained Part 1″.

    If HRV isn’t an option for you there are other way’s to monitor your stress. I have to thank Simon Wegerif (creator of iThlete) for introducing me to this method in a conversation we had over Skype. Stress can be classified as; physical, mental or chemical.

    Physical Stress = training, labour, etc.

    Mental Stress = financial problems, fighting with a significant other or parent, travel, death in the family, etc.

    Chemical Stress = Alcohol intake, poor or inadequate nutrition, etc.

    You may not perceive things like poor nutrition or mental stressors as significant stress, but I assure you, they play a big role in how strong you’ll be on a given day and how much further training stress you can handle.

    Rate each one of these on a scale of 1-5. You’d be surprised what you discover by monitoring stress and how it relates to and effects your strength levels

    I love the HRV app because it plots your stress levels on a chart so you can see trends over time. Looking back over the trends with your training log and indicators tell you a lot about what’s working and what’s not.

  • Restoration Work: Foam rolling, stretching and moderate aerobic work can have a huge impact on your recovery and fitness levels. I will reserve writing about the benefits of aerobic work for strength athletes now since I plan to write an entire post on it in the future, but understand that a little cardio (in the form of jogging, sled dragging, etc) goes a long way in contributing (indirectly) to strength gains. I simply keep a log of what type of aerobic work I do, for how long and if I use a sled I track the weight.
  • CNS Test: Finally, I like to perform a quick CNS test after my warm-ups but before I start lifting. This can be in the form of a vertical jump, broad jump, grip test or whatever else you can think of. It’s important to be consistent. Compare your daily result to your baseline or average and that will usually indicate how your workout will go. I’ve actually found that skipping (yes, jumping rope) is a good indicator for me. Some days I can skip like a 3rd grade school girl with flawless technique. Other days I can’t get into a rhythm and stomp the rope every ten jumps. I’ve found that this has a correlation to my strength performance that day.

The longer you train and more advanced you get, the harder it is to make progress. If you haven’t adopted any of the above strategies to help monitor your training I encourage you to consider some. You have nothing to lose and only strength to gain.

Thanks for reading.

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About hrvtraining

I hold an MS in Exercise Science and am a CSCS with the NSCA. I"m currently working in the Human Performance Lab at Auburn University (Montgomery) completing several research projects on HRV and exercise. I will be pursuing a PhD in Human Performance this Fall (2014) at the University of Alabama. Formerly, I worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Cal U in PA. I have an extensive athletic background including hockey, rugby and collegiate football. I now compete in raw powerlifting and was the 2010 Canadian National Champion (amateur). I am interested in all aspects of strength and conditioning however my research interest pertains to heart rate variability and its application to monitoring the training of athletes.
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3 Responses to Managing Training for Strength

  1. Mladen says:

    Cannot agree more. The thing we forgot is that all programs should have (a) physiological aspect (planning the training load based on athletes level, work capacity, trainability, etc), and (b) behavioral aspect.

    I tried ‘learn a man how to fish’ strategy when I started working with soccer players – I tried to teach them PRINCIPLES, FLEXIBILITY (using RPE), in hope that they will workout harder, based on how they feel that day and that they will enjoy training more. Guess what happened – chaos! They were doing jack sh*t and they were unsatisfied.

    Then I learned that happiness and satisfaction with training (and everything in life) does not come from having too much choices and flexibility (see Stumbling onto Happiness and Paradox of choices).

    With these guys sticking to a plan, being complaint and doing the basics hard is the way to go. Now, EVERYTHING is based on percentages and THERE IS NO CHOICE in choosing reps/sets/weights. Everything is pre-planned in advance. Of course, there is some flexibility within these constraints – if they are too fatigue or injured I change something. We keep track of maxes by utilizing AMRAP tests every couple of weeks and then calculating new training max for (1) squat, (2) bench and (3) pull-ups and we based all other lifts on those.

    With this, contrary to ‘democratic’ viewpoint, we got higher compliance, higher satisfaction, higher workload, better atmosphere and lifting hard 🙂

    Again, there is NO THE SOLUTION, or the BEST program, but one needs to find that is custom-made for his (1) characteristics (both training wise and behavioral), (2) goals, and (3) context (constraints).

    Keep up the great work!

    • hrvtraining says:

      Mladen,

      Thank you for the response.

      I have experienced the same thing with athletes. When I allow them to select their own loads via RPE, the majority of them do not work nearly as hard as they should. I agree that predetermined loads in a team setting is usually a much better way to go.

      I feel that having a Plan A and a Plan B for the athletes is a happy medium between both methods (pre-determined vs autoregulated). If they appear healthy and ready (according to HRV, CNS testing, etc) then they stick with Plan A. If an athlete appears to be experiencing high stress, he will use Plan B (a reduction in training load). Both Plan A and Plan B are pre-determined. For example the pre-planned loads for a given day are 85% for 3×4 (Plan A). If it’s decided the athlete should not be training too intensely he will perform 75% for 3×4 (Plan B). That is just an example.

      This article was mostly directed at individuals who possess a high motivation to get stronger (powerlifters and other strength athletes). It was not intended for use with teams for the exact reasons you provided. I should have made that clear at the beginning.

      Thanks again, I’m always interested in hearing your thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Good Reads of the Week: Edition 5 | LaVack Fitness

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