The Problem with Percentage-based Programs


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.


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.


2 thoughts on “The Problem with Percentage-based Programs

  1. Soon we’ll probably have access to really accurate velocity gadgets that then can combine % and RPE in fancy ways (fastest rep = load intensity and slowest rep = exertion intensity), as long as you try your best to move fast every rep. Interesting times! -PrimalAeon


    • chadhydro says:

      Yeah I hope the issues with those do get solved. It’ll be nice not to have to spend a fortune on a tendo :). Although Mike has said he still uses the subjective RPE but sort of integrates the objective reading in with the subjective


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