If you have ever found yourself looking at a strength training program, you have probably seen a written up version of percentage-based training. Verbiage like “5×5 @ 85%” or something similar to that is a frequently used method of building a program. This type of programming does have a lot of merit and a lot of positives. Percentages within a program (or within an individual session) help us: 

As Athletes As Coaches
Track progress over days, week, months etc. Monitor athlete progression and growth
Stay organized Stay organized throughout competitive seasons
Let us know exactly what is coming Gives us a way of preparing athletes for sessions ahead
Gauge how tough a session may be Gives us control over how tough a session is

However, within all of the positives of this style of training lies a number of negatives that can make this style of training very hard to keep up. First and foremost is the fact that “percentages are percentages”. An athlete can (and in most cases) and will feel upset/disappointed if they are not hitting their programmed numbers/percentages. Secondly, while percentages let us know what is coming in terms of training, it can also bring about dread. I have fallen into this hole myself. When we see a daunting number of reps at a given percentage or just an intimidating percentage, we may feel doubt or worry that we will not be able to achieve. Lastly, percentage-based training does not allow for wiggle room to help athletes adapt to any given session. If the standard is “5×5 @ 85%” and that’s it, that does not really help each athlete individually as much as it should.

So, how do we utilize percentage-based training in a way that promotes success, adaptation, individuality, consistency, and results? The answer is simple: Use percentages as a learning tool and as a guideline. Find a way to bring in other ideas and methods to ensure that your programming yields success. So, how do we do that? That answer is significantly more complex.

Let’s use the same example from before (5×5 @ 85%) and add in some other ways of going about training with (or around) this percentage and rep range. One way we can train with this percentage is to add in a movement intention. Let’s use speed as an example. We can go about this via hard data, or via a feedback loop between coach and athlete. Hard data from a tendo unit or some other accelerometer would give us instant feedback on if the athlete is moving the given weight with enough speed. If not, the solution is to lower the weight. The same can be said for simply having a short conversation with your athlete post-working set. If the agreement is that the weight moved slowly, we would lower the weight and move faster on the next set.

Another way to work around percentage-based training is to use a RIR (reps in reserve) method. An RIR method would tell us to leave a few good reps “in the tank” after our working set(s). So, if we use the “5×5 @ 85%” example, we could tell an athlete to move whatever weight they feel (which essentially eliminates the percentage), as long as they are able to have a fixed number of “reps in reserve”. This method lets the athlete dictate their own intensity, and allows them to become more in tune with what they can do on any given day.

The last method (that I have done some digging on) that we can pair with percentage-based training is called “session RPE”. RPE (rating of perceived exertion) is a value that represents how hard something is. So, if we have the “5×5 @ 85%” listed on the program, and we pair it with a session RPE of 6, this again allows the athlete to dictate their own session. This method also “eliminates” the percentage and forces the athlete to acknowledge how difficult something really is.

At the end of the day, a program is just a program. It takes a full effort from the coach, from the athletes, and from everyone else on the S+C team to make it all come together.  That being said, an adaptable program that benefits the athlete on any given day is going to be superior to a program that is “one way or the highway”.


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