Many programs utilize percentages for loading schemes. To name a few, Shieko, Smolov, and The Russian Squat Routine each provide the lifter with detailed set and rep schemes based off of percentages of 1RM. For example, a particular training day might have the lifter performing 7 sets of 5 reps with 80% of 1RM. These types of programs are very convenient as they take all of the guesswork out of the equation and allow the lifter to get in and get the job done.
Sounds incredible in theory, right? Problem is, programming just isn’t that simple. My colleague Brad Schoenfeld and I recently collected data for an upcoming study we intend on publishing that examines the EMG activation in the leg muscles with heavier weight (75% of 1RM) versus light weight (30% of 1RM) to failure. While we weren’t particularly interested in the number of repetitions the subjects achieved during exercise performance, we were intrigued to find that with the 75% of 1RM loading, the ranges of repetitions achieved by the subjects varied dramatically from one lifter to the next. While most subjects performed between 10 and 15 repetitions, one subject performed a whopping 21 repetitions, and another subject performed just 7 repetitions (with 30% of 1RM, the range was 30 to 71).
This jives with my experience as a personal trainer. Thirteen years ago, I trained a very strong 107 lb female client who could squat 135 lbs for 20 reps below parallel and deadlift 155 lbs for 20 reps. Impressive, right? She could grind out reps like a champion. Guess what her 1RM’s were? 160 lbs for the squat, and 175 lbs for the deadlift. She could squat 85% of her 1RM for 20 reps and deadlift almost 90% of her 1RM for 20 reps.
Ten years ago, I trained a freakishly strong male 225 lb client who could incline press 385 lbs. He was one of the most explosive lifters I’ve ever seen. One time I wanted to see how many times he could incline press 135 lbs. He petered out at 20 reps. He could only lift 35% of his 1RM twenty times.
What does this mean for training programs involving percentages? It means that some of the lifters employing the program will receive a great training effect. The load, set, and rep scheme will be just what the doctor ordered to boost the lifter’s strength for the following week. However, for other lifters, the prescribed percentages will be too easy (and will therefore fail to elicit an optimal training stimulus), or they will be too hard (and the lifter will physically be unable to complete the reps). Something like 7 sets of 5 reps with 80% of 1RM would be very easy for the female client I described, but impossible for the male client I described.
Some lifters will thrive on these types of programs, others won’t be sufficiently challenged, and others will be run into the ground. However, a program such as 2 x 4 won’t fail any lifters because it’s centered on setting PR’s in a systematic fashion. 2 x 4 does use percentages for submaximal methods, but they are conservative percentages, and the methods can be adjusted to provide the proper dosage of stimulus.