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Why Percentages Fail Some Lifters

The following is an excerpt from 2 x 4: Maximum Strength

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.


  • stephen says:

    I would think (and this is just me) the variation in reps comes down to the variation in muscle fibre type, whether they’re predominantly fast or slow twitch. I do use percentages often even if a client struggles as they adapt to it sooner or later. However, whenever I use this approach the key is always – can he lift the weight based on the given % with good form for 70% of the set. If the prescription asked for 5 reps but he could only 3 reps I would still keep him on those percentage. But obviously if the clients form suffered on the first 3 reps I’d drop the weight until form could be held and build gradually from there. If the % was too easy I’d add bands or chains or increase %. Anyway sorry for the ramble – and kudos for the research you do 🙂

  • Patrick O'Flaherty says:

    Hey Bret,

    Interesting findings indeed! Unfortunately I can do 18 reps at my 75% of 1RM with the hex bar deadlift. Unfortunate in that I love to run short sprints and occasionally race in the 100 meter dash in masters track and field competitions which indicates to me that I have….

    The strength curve of a long distance runner rather than of a sprinter

    More slow twitch fibers than fast twitch fibers

    More strength endurance than max strength / starting strength

    More metabolic efficiency than neural efficiency

    You stated that 10 to 15 reps was the most common range among your test subjects. In the few standardized rep charts that I have seen, 75% = 10 reps. Statistically, among all the test subjects, what was the exact….

    Average Reps?

    Mean Reps?

    Thanks much!


    • Doug Richards says:

      This is interesting. I have a feeling you might be well suited for 400/800, but I doubt you would excel at long distances. I think this really speaks volumes about you lactate threshold and not as much about you strength curve. I am far from an expert.

      • Patrick O'Flaherty says:


        Thanks for your input and that prompted me to do some analysis! Although my current training for the last 12 years is geared towards just the 60 & 100, I trained for the 1600 about 17 years ago.

        So I compared both my actual race times and best time trials (practice races by myself) over this time span for the 60 meters / 100 meters / 200 meters / 400 meters / 800 meters / 1600 meters to both the national age group records and the All American Standards. My best race is a tie between the 60 and 200 versus the All American Standards. My best race is the 200 versus the national age group record with the 60 a close second. My worst events were tied, the 800 and 1600. Another tie occurs right in the middle with the 100 and 400. So it’s odd to me that I am best at the medium sprint, 200, and depending on the comparative data, also the shortest sprint, 60.

        Could be that the 60 is almost entirely a measure of acceleration with most non-world class sprinters reaching max velocity in about 50 meters or less. Usain Bolt did not achieve max velocity until the 60 to 70 meter segment (splits are only available in 10 meter increments) when he ran his 9.58 world record.

        Whereas the 100 allows everyone to achieve max velocity and then sustain most of it with speed endurance for the remainder of the race. Likewise the 200 is very dependent on maintaining speed endurance for the majority of the race. So perhaps I am a better accelerator (quad dominant) and maintaining speed endurance than achieving top speed (hip dominant)? Unfortunately I enjoy the 60 and 100 much more than the 200!


  • JD says:

    Individualized coaching always trumps cookie cutter programs.

  • Shane McLean says:

    Excellent observation Brett. This shows people who are slow twitch dominant or fast twitch. Right?

  • Jeremy says:

    155 for 20 reps but a max of only 175? I’m assuming the max was tested after she completed those reps?Vice versa for the 385 incline.Scientifically,this doesn’t sound right.Scientifically,this isn’t correct plain and simple.

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