Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Problem with Percentage-based Programs

percentvsrpe

The majority of training programs you’ll find online will use percentages do dictate the level of intensity for a given set or workout. This is understandable, percentages are easy to understand, easy to implement, and work real nice in an Excel spreadsheet. But when rubber meets the road sometimes what’s on the spreadsheet doesn’t have the desired effect. Lets explore why this is true, some alternatives to percentages, and also a way to combine various intensity prescriptions.

The Training Effect

When a program gives a prescribed percentage along with sets and reps the intent is to develop a training effect. The coach is mixing a certain level of volume and intensity to fit within the overall context of the program. The percentage is not the end goal, just a tool used to produce the required effect. The closer these tools can get the trainee to the effect, the better. Percentages can be very accurate given how close their current level of strength matches the maxes used to calculate the weights. However, they can just as easily miss the mark.

This is why percentage-based programs can have wildly different effects for individuals (given similar levels of volume adaptation). The maxes two individuals use can differ quite a bit in their accuracy. Of course, the most accurate will be frequent max testing but that’s not always possible. One individual might use a very conservative max and the program might end up being too easy. The next person might use too high of a max and suddenly the program is grueling and too much fatigue is developed.

Autoregulation

Another drawback to percentages is the lack of an autoregulatory framework. Percentages don’t take into the day-to-day fluctuations of us carbon-based lifeforms. More specifically our “max” is fluctuating and while on some days might echo the number used to generate the program, other days it can be off significantly. Without any autoregulation a lifter can do too much on a bad day and do too little on a good day. Autoregulation helps us get to that “just right” amount of work. The goldilocks zone.

Autoregulation is something all top athletes do in some form or another. Perhaps they have a coach who will regulate the training load and intensity based on their past experience and their observation of the athlete they are training. Or if not coached the athlete will have a well of experience to draw upon when designing a program such that they know what they should be able to accomplish at certain points throughout the cycle. In addition to planning, the athlete can adjust the load and volume on any given day depending upon their performance on that day. This is why you’ll rarely find a high-level individual plugging maxes into a spreadsheet and just “doing the program”.

The Alternative

I’ve talked a lot about RPE around here. It should be fairly obvious that I think it’s a really useful tool. Using RPE we take into account the day-to-day strength fluctuations and know when to drop weight or go heavier. While it is mostly subjective it’s based on in-training performance rather than how you’re “feeling” emotionally on a given day. You can even use more objective means to enhance the accuracy of your RPEs, such as video or tendo units.

Another advantage of RPE is that it can be added on top of an existing program. With a little fannegling you can be doing 5/3/1 with RPEs rather than percentages and take what’s there rather than sticking to straight percentages. There are a few examples of traditional percentage-based programs that have been translated to use RPE. Mike Tuchscherer’s got a few. Bryce Lewis has a 5/3/1 example. And of course I wrote an Autoregulated Texas Method.

Drawbacks of RPE

RPE is not without potential drawbacks. The first and most apparent is that it takes time to be accustomed to rating your sets immediately after you complete them. This could be strange especially if you’re used to just performing the set without thinking about it. Rank novices also will have a hard time with RPE. They’re so completely new to the movements that they really won’t have any breadth of experience to draw upon.

Another drawback, less obvious to an athlete but maybe more apparent to a coach, is that predictability is lower using a fully autoregulated program. Weight and volume could potentially be changing on the fly. Of course, that’s the whole point of autoregulation, and one could make the point that’s gonna happen anyway. There are some lifters, Coan comes to mind, who will literally plan out every topset up to a meet. Letting RPE always dictate their topsets probably wouldn’t jive with their style of planning.

Best of Both Worlds?

So there are drawbacks to both RPE and percentages… what do? Just remember that they are both tools, not the end all be all. There’s a reason we have both hammers and screwdrivers. There are cases in which percentages are better suited and the same is true for RPE.

Can we combine the two? I think it’s quite possible to blend the two in programming. Here’s how I’d probably do it:

Lift Percentage RPE Reps Sets
Squat 80 8 5 3
Bench 85 8 3 6

…etc. Okay so obviously nothing groundbreaking here. If the individual is unfamiliar with RPE they can simply use the prescribed percentage along with the sets and reps and just get the work done. As they start to become more accurate with RPE they can start using it as a guide rather than just using the percentage. For example, they can work up to the percentage and depending upon how the RPE is working out they can subtract 5% or even add 5% depending upon the day. Eventually they can just let the RPE determine the weight rather than the percentage.

The RPE can also be used to modulate the volume done. If they go from an @8 to an @9 before the number of sets reached, they can subtract 5% and keep going until they hit the number of sets. Another way to autoregulate the number of sets would be to use the RTS TRAC system. It will assess the individual’s adaptability and make on-the-fly volume recommendations such as adding or dropping a number of sets from the programming prescribed. You could also use fatigue percents. In which case it helps to have a trusty RPE chart handy to figure out how the RPE will need to progress to achieve the percentage of fatigue required.

Personally I’ve been using a similar approach for my sets-across type work. I’ll go into the session with a “target number of sets”, similar to having a target topset when working up to a heavy sets. I still following the RPE but a little less rigidly than before. I like the predictability when it comes to volume. You have an idea of what you’ll be hitting coming out of the session. This is simply what’s working for me now, at this point in time.

In short, RPE and Percentages both have their uses. You shouldn’t think in terms of which one is better, which one is more optimal. You should ask, which one is the right tool for the job.

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Autoregulating the Texas Method Part 4: Periodization and Final Thoughts

This is the last article in a series on Autoregulating the Texas Method.
Click Here for Part 1: The Basics
Click Here for Part 2: Fatigue Management
Click Here for Part 3: Template and Exercise Selection

The author and his deadlift face

The author and his deadlift face

 

Series Finale

My series on Autoregulating the Texas Method is far and above the most popular set of posts on this blog. Altogether the previous three posts have received almost 2000 unique views in 2014. For this small blog that’s saying a lot. So I wanted to thank you all for spreading these blog posts around the internet. At the end of the last post I said that in this final entry I will give some final thoughts on the program and also provide a downloadable PDF with an example of the program. I’ve finally got off my bum and finished this series. What follows is my final thoughts on Autoregulating the Texas Method. At the bottom of this article you’ll find a link to sign up for the forceXdist mailing list. We’ll then send you downloadable PDF which contains an updated copy of the entire Autoregulating the Texas Method series as well as an example template and program.

Periodization

Personally I think one of the best modifications to the Texas Method is to periodize the intensity day. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest periodizing the Texas Method. Justin Lascek uses a form of it in his ebooks. Chad Wesley Smith has also developed a form using it. In my opinion, programmed drops in volume and increases in intensity will be better than dropping reps when you fail to achieve the desired amount. This is because you will generally accrue more fatigue when going to failure. If you program it instead you’re less likely to run yourself into the ground with fatigue.

Here’s an example Intensity day setup. Let’s say we’re programming an 8 week cycle:

Week 1 & 2

x5 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 3 & 4

x4 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 5 & 6

x3 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 7 & 8

x2 @9, 5% fatigue

For this example we’re gradually increasing the intensity over the course of 8 weeks. Every two weeks the reps are dropped by one which will have the effect of increasing the intensity. The trainee should be trying for reps PRs every friday. 9 RPE is a guideline but if the individuals goes higher with the RPE it’s probably okay. We’re just not looking for gut-busting grinds for the most part. Why not start with higher reps and then go down to singles? If we start at fives the trainee will probably lift a good deal heavier than the volume day and we really want the focus to be on heavier weight on this day. We don’t move to singles in this example because the understanding is that the trainee would then have a test week where they’d taper and then have a mock meet at the end of the week. It’s conceivable that you could also treat Week 9 as a normal training week and then do singles @9 or @10 on Friday as a sort of test. You’d probably expect results to be slightly lower in that case than if the trainee had tapered.

The Texas Method in Context

I want to take the time now to discuss the Texas Method within the context of the trainees overall development. I do feel the TM is a fairly good program for an intermediate trainee as it allows for weekly PRs immediately coming off of a novice program (where one is generally hitting a PR every day). This will help to keep them motivated and also give them an understanding of a more delayed PR-type scenario. I also think it’s good in that it’s generally an individual’s first introduction to higher intensity, higher RPE style lifts which is certainly important for the intermediate trainee.

At some point, pushing PRs every week will not work and it’s time to move to a more sustainable style of training. The TM template we developed here is not a bad layout for an individual pushing past intermediate but there will be several modifications required. The first change is for the weekly fatigue distribution. Rather than accruing a bunch of fatigue on Monday we’ll rather spread the fatigue throughout the week, so that each day is set at 5% fatigue. The effect is separating the idea that Monday is driving Friday’s progress. That’s true to an extent but the truth is they work in tandem.

Another big change is to spread the intensity and volume slots throughout the week. Because we lump the volume and intensity work all on the same days it can take a long time to get through all of that work the day of. Here’s an example of this sort of template:

Monday Wednesday Friday
Intensity Squat Intensity Bench Intensity Deadlift
Volume Bench Volume Squat Developer Bench
Volume Deadlift Shoulders/Triceps Developer Squat

With the spreading of fatigue the volume slots should be a lot more manageable time-wise. Eventually, though, it might take too much time to get through the work required. This may be a good time to shift towards a 4 day a week template. With a 4 day a week template the trainee will have less time in the gym, initially, and allow for the addition of new slots to increase volume when necessary to continue progressing. This is an example of what a four day template might look like:

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday
Intensity Squat Intensity Bench Intensity Deadlift Volume Squat
Volume Bench Developer Squat Shoulders/Triceps Developer Bench
Volume Deadlift

As you can see we didn’t change any of the slots, only added a day and shifted the existing slots around. The first three days should be shorter sessions with Friday (or maybe Saturday) as a longer session to maintain and develop conditioning. At this point this is a sustainable template that a trainee can “grow” into.

Conclusion

This concludes our series on Autoregulating the Texas Method. The intent was to give you all of the tools to build your own customized autoregulated version of the Texas Method, rather than just handing you a program to run. If you click the link below you can sign-up for the forceXdist mailing list. By signing up you’ll receive notifications on new articles and offerings from this blog. You’ll also receive a link to a downloadable PDF containing the full Autoregulating the Texas Method series as well as example program setups that you can use when designing your own versions. If you’ve enjoyed the series please take a moment to like our Facebook Page. We always appreciate when readers share our articles!

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