A Quick Primer on Using Rep Ranges vs. Percentages

   

Anyone familiar with any sort of fitness programming has undoubtedly been exposed to the concept of percentage-based training. The idea is relatively simple: complete a certain number of reps for a certain number of sets at a certain percentage of a certain max.

When it comes to programming, calculating progressions is straightforward, especially when using software like TrainHeroic. But is there a better (or at least different) way?

Science Stuff: Why Percentages?

Training with percentages is based off of your one rep max, or 1RM, of a particular lift.

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For this example, let's use a deadlift.

If your max deadlift is 500lbs, it's easy to figure out what 50%, 60%, etc. will be. We can use those percentages to determine how much we want to lift to achieve a certain training effect, whether it's strength, size, power, or endurance. The chart below, created by A.S. Prilepin, gives a pretty robust breakdown of different rep and set schemes and the training effect they are intended to create.

Do Percentages Work?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: it depends.

Think of it this way: if my goal is to increase my athlete's strength, I want them to deadlift (according to the chart) 85-95% of their 1RM for about 5 reps. What happens, though, if my athlete happens to have a pretty high level of strength endurance and can, in fact, truly lift 85% of his max for 10 reps before failure? Now percentages become a problem.

The goal I want is **strength**. The response I got (with 10 reps) is **hypertrophy**. The weight wasn't heavy enough to illicit the desired response.

You could argue the point that perhaps the athlete didn't really know his 1RM, but in all honesty we only test true 1RMs sporadically and for specific purposes. Many, many factors (especially in a tactical environment) can come into play and change the 1RM drastically from one day to the next. We need a different model to capture these fluctuations.

A Different Approach: Rep Ranges

Rep ranges operate on a similar scale to the percentages prescribed in the table above but with one key difference: they are inherently self-correcting.

We won't get too deep into auto-regulation, but think of it as an athlete adapting to lifestyle demands by adjusting his training.

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For example, if I have 10 guys execute a parachute mission the night before a scheduled strength day, chances are they won't be able to hit the weights/percentages that I've prescribed. If that happens continuously (as it often does in our environment), then my whole program is shot.

Rep Ranges Approach

What if instead of prescribing "3x5 at 85%" for strength, I instead prescribe "3x3-5 reps"? This tells my guys that I'm looking for the heaviest weight they can lift that will allow for a "comfortable failure" somewhere between 3 and 5 reps.

It could be 3, it could be 4, and it could be 5. If they hit 6 reps, they know to add weight. If they hit 2 reps, they know to take weight away.

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They may not have lifted exactly 85% of their true 1RM, but given the fact that they had a mission the night before, I was still able to provide the appropriate stimulus for the appropriate response. Make sense?

The idea can be carried beyond strength as well. For maximal effort work, we'll look for a 1-3 rep range. For hypertrophy, somewhere between 8-12 will do. Endurance? Call it 12-15 reps.

Caveats

In order for a rep range system to truly be effective, education is key.

Athletes have to be familiar with the idea of "comfortable failure" and what that really means. I don't want an excruciatingly painful final rep with terrible form. I tell all my guys to "fail" with a rep left in the tank.

Once that concept is understood, rep ranges begin to make a lot of sense.

Takeaways

Rep ranges are by no means the end-all-be-all of training. I've used programs with percentages, and I've used programs with rep ranges to equal success.

Generally, if I know my guys have a block of hard field training coming up (i.e. rucks, swims, jumps, etc.), I'll have them on rep ranges as a way of regulating their training. If I know I'll have more of a controlled environment, I'll use percentages based off of a newly acquired 1RM for a given lift.

It's all about being flexible and adapting a system to the demands of a job. When that job happens to be tactical, it often means adapting more than one system.

About The Author

Drew is currently embedded with US Air Force Special Operations as a strength and conditioning specialist, a role he has filled for several years. Prior to his work within the tactical environment, he worked both stateside and overseas with a variety of international, Olympic, professional, university, and domestic programs. In addition to his full-time gig, Drew is also the founder of Guardian Athlete, an online coaching platform designed to facilitate the promotion of tactical training knowledge and programming philosophy to the masses. He enjoys soap carving, non-competitive eating, and anything not involving cardio.

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