For anyone getting into resistance training or olympic weightlifting in particular, there’s a good chance you’ve done some research on programs and found something which prescribes reps, sets, and loads. The reps and sets are indicative of the goal of the program and the loads that are prescribed are almost always given as percentages of one-rep max (1RM, maximum weight lifted for one repetition).
Percentages are based on a solid body of research which gives the best estimates as to which loads are appropriate for a given number of reps for the general population. If I do not know anything about your training history, quality of movement, or other lifestyle factors, then prescribing percentages is the safest way to prescribe training loads.
But I personally don’t use much percentage training at all. Why?…
1. How Neuromuscularly efficient are you?
Neuromuscluar efficiency (NME) is a measure of capable you are of using your nervous system to excite your muscles and produce force. Typically, very stronger athletes have high efficiency so their ability to perform repeated efforts at sub-maximal loads is not very good, e.g. an athlete with a 250kg 1RM deadlift may struggle to perform multiple reps at 90% or 225kg compared to someone with a 180kg 1RM who only has to lift 162kg. But 1RM is not the best indicator. If you want to test your NME use the following protocol:
- Build to 1RM (usually back squat or bench press)
- Rest 10mins
- Perform as many reps as possible at 85% of your 1RM at a 3011 tempo. This means 3 seconds in the lowering phase, no pause at the bottom, a normal concentric portion, and then a 1 second pause at the top, before starting your next repetition.
What does your score mean? Here’s a rough guide:
1-3 Reps = High Neuromuscular Efficiency
4-8 Reps = Moderate Neuromuscular Efficiency
9 or more reps = Low Neuromuscular Efficiency
Again, high NME means the training percentages will inherently be on the lower end or what would “typically” be prescribed. Low NME would justify the use of higher percentages or increasing training stimulus with things like tempo or pause reps.
2. The goal of the session should determine the weight you lift.
If the goal is to improve your ability to move 70% of your 1RM then use 70%. Otherwise, the reps and sets to be performed in that session should dictate what load you put on the bar. This will then account for daily variation in energy level, motivation, and fatigue.
If you walk into the gym needing to perform 4×4 Backsquats at 90% of your 1RM but your body is feeling beat up from yesterday’s workout, you got a crappy sleep, and you didn’t wear your lucky socks, that weight is going to feel like it’s crushing your soul. Similarly, if you wake up one day after an amazing sleep, had a good breakfast, and walk into the gym ready to wrastle an alligator you might find that 90% feels like a feather.
In the first instance (where you feel beat up) you should still aim to hit your 4×4 but instead dial the weight back to make sure good bar speed and technique are maintained. In the second instance (when you feel invincible) you shouldn’t feel bad putting an extra 2.5-5kg on the bar. Remember, the body requires mechanical load to adapt and build stronger tissues so if you feel good and can increase the mechanic load without comprising form then it will only make you stronger.
P.S. For all the serial ‘max-out’ lifters, feeling good on a 4×4 or 3×10 or even daily 2RM is not a good reason to find a new one rep max. If your program is structured well you will have days where you are allowed to max out or even taper to allow for some super-compensation and hopefully huge PRs. Always keep in mind the goal of the session.