Christian Thibaudeau wrote:
Well first of all the only time I really use percentages is when I train a lift for performance. When I'm doing a lift or several lifts only to stimulate muscle growth I do not use percentages since in that case the quality of the muscle contraction is the key thing to master, not so much the amount of weight lifted.
Furthermore when using intensification techniques like slower tempos, pauses/holds during the movement, drop sets, partial reps, etc. Percentages don't really apply because every body fatigues at a different level.
And the more efficient you are at contracting a muscle (comes from experience in the gym) the better you are at fatiguing the muscle because since you can recruit it more efficiently each repetition fatigues the muscle fibers more. As a result someone who is good at contracting his muscles will usually get LESS reps than a more novice lifter at a similar percentage of his max. This is especially true when using more fatiguing rep numbers (6 or more per sets).
That is why I find percentages to work fairly well with 5 reps or less but the further you get away from this, the more hit or miss it becomes.
Which is why in a program like "The Power Look" or "915" I don't use percentages for the assistance work.
There are tons of different planned progression models. Here are the rules that I follow when using one.
1. I only use a % based progression model on a lift that I'm training for strength
2. It is important to know roughly how many reps you should be able to do at certain percentages. While it varies from one individual to the next, for most people the following is pretty accurate. Keep in mind that these are for ONE ALL OUT SET. Normally the effort would be so intense that you wouldn't be able to repeat the same number of reps for a second set:
75%: 8-10 reps
80%: 6-7 reps
85%: 4-5 reps
90%: 3 reps
95%: 2 reps
100% 1 rep
If you have to do multiple sets expect a drop off after the first set. For example if you are using 80% doing 5 sets of 5 repetitions is VERY hard work even though 5 is 1 or 2 reps under the theoretical max you can do for a set.
3. While when doing typical bodybuilding work, going to failure and building a lot of muscle fatigue is okay and even desired. When focusing on building strength you should not always have limit workouts. Having a limit effort puts a lot of burden on the nervous system and might hurt strength progression. Only the 4th (last) week of a block should be a limit effort. Overall progression should be as smooth as possible.
4. Based on the old soviet literature, 80% is the lowest weight that should be used to build strength (they were talking about intermediate and advanced athletes but I still use it as my foundation). Since I'm only using percentages to peak strength in a lift I use the 80% minimum rule (I sometimes start at 75% for a gentler intro, but I typically start a cycle at 80%).
5. Once you are past the beginner stage, and that you are already technically efficient at a lift one should plan for a 10-15% progression over a 10-12 weeks period. Some might be able to get a bit more if they test themselves on a particularly good day, but planning for a 10% increase over a cycle is the best approach. If a 10% increase is reached with relative ease during the test we can attempt +12 and +15% lifts but the plan itself is for a 10% improvement. Beginners and people new to a lift will progress more than that the former because their body has a great potential for improvement and the later because just learning to master the lift will give them more than a 10% improvement. But a periodized plan should only be used by non-beginners and on a lift you are already efficient at.
6. I believe that a pure linear progression where you add weight every week is ineffective for non-beginners. You need time to master a weight before moving on up.
7. I divide my training cycle into 3 or 4 phases. The 3 main phases are as such:
PHASE 1- ACCUMULATION: The intention here is to accumulate a lot of work in the 80% zone and to become stronger in that zone. The specific goal I use is to normally work up to being able to do 4 or 5 sets of 6 reps with 80% of your pre-cycle maximum. While pre-cycle you should be able to do 1 MAYBE 2 sets of6 with your 80%, doing 5 sets with normal rest intervals would not be possible. Getting to 5 x 6 @ 80% would represent roughly a 5-6% improvement.
PHASE 2 - INTENSIFICATION: The purpose of that phase is to gradually get used to handling heavier weights. While you can build strength and size with volume in the 80% range, you need to touch heavy weights to be good at handling heavyweights. The purpose of that phase is to gradually increase the load used on the main lift to become good at lifting 90% weights. The specific goal is to be able to do multiple sets of 3 reps with your pre-cycle 90%. Depending on the progression model that would be 3,4 or 5 sets of 3 @ 90%. Again, pre-cycle you should be able to bust one all out set of 3 reps at 90% of your max, but doing multiple set in good form would not work. If you can get 4 sets of 3 with 90% (or 5) it would represent another 2-5% increase in strength.
PHASE 3 - REALIZATION: Here we want to take the strength we built and learn to apply it to max efforts; lifting 95-100% weights. The ultimate goal of that phase and the program should be to be able to hit 3 reps with your pre-cycle 100%, ideally for 2-3 sets. This would represent a 10-12% increase in strength (at least).
PHASE 4 (OPTIONAL) - PEAKING: If you decided to test your maximum on a lift you could add a fourth phase lasting only 1 or 2 weeks. Which would essentially be a deload/practice phase ending up with a 1RM test. This is only really necessary if you are competing in a strength sport like powerlifting or Olympic lifting.
Now the structure of each phase would vary. A linear progression works better with lighter weights. So for the first phase (80%) I like to use a linear rep progression. Since the goal is to end at 4-5 x 6 the 4 weeks block would look like this:
Week 1: 5 x 3 @ 80%
Week 2: 5 x 4 @ 80%
Week 3: 5 x 5 @ 80%
Week 4: 5 x 6 @ 80%
As we move onto heavy weights linear progression doesn't work as well. Furthermore since the goal of the second phase is multiple sets of 3 reps @ 90% you can't use a linear model starting at 90%, a 10% jump (from 80 to 90) is too steep for a smooth progression. So I like a step-like approach:
Week 5: 3 x 3 @ 85%
Week 6: 5 x 3 @ 85% (we don't make the sets more difficult we just do more work in the zone)
Week 7: 3 x 2 @ 90%
Week 8: 3 x 3 @ 90%
The goal is to have a smooth progression toward the end goal of each phase. If the progression is too steep from one week to the next you risk screwing up your cycle by overloading the nervous system. Which is why only the 4th week of each phase should be really difficult. The 1st week of each phase should be fairly easy and actually act as a deload/reload for the new phase.
In the third phase Several approaches can be used, again with the idea of making the progression as smooth as possible. My 2 favorite ones at the moment are:
Week 9: 3 x 2 @95%
Week 10: 3 x 3 @ 95%
Week 11: 3 x 2 @ 100%
Week 12: 2 x 3 @ 100%
Week 9: 3 x 2 @ 95%
Week 10: 3 x 1 @ 100%
Week 11: 3 x 2 @ 100%
Week 12: 3 x 3 @ 100%
That is just one model and there is more to it than that. But it's a good start.
8. The TRUE SECRET is make the smoothest progression possible from week to week. Always plan to progress weekly but using the most gentlest, easiest way to progress. PROGRESSION MODELS ARE NOTHING EXTRAORDINARY OR MAGICAL. I believe that the only reasons they work is that they force people to progress at very gradual, conservative pace and have people who normally have training ADD stay focus on the same lifts for 10-12 weeks. Most people want to progress too rapidly and that is why they are not progressing.