Strength 101: Reverse Engineering with Prilepin’s Chart

One of the great aspects to working in the strength and conditioning industry is the endless discussion comparing one training system to another. The reason these talks are so fruitful is because there really isn't any one perfect training system for all athletes and yet, many work.

When putting together a mental checklist of pro's and con's, the biggest factor to assess is "What is the intended purpose of the program?" Once you've established the intended training effect, you can then decide whether or not it makes sense for you as an athlete. Interestingly enough, if your goals are sports performance, power, size, or even work capacity, the strength component to virtually every training system follows a ubiquitous set of rules.

This is Strength 101.

Prilepin's Chart is a simplistic breakdown of how the accumulation of sets and reps, based on a given intensity (percentage of 1RM), will stimulate various physiological adaptations. This is a concept that anyone who is following a program or creating a strength template should be very familiar with as it will guide your understanding of "intensity" and help to determine appropriate sets and rep ranges.

Prilepins-ChartLet's first acknowledge that many athletes do not have a "true" 1RM. Due to either immature training age and coincidentally, an inefficient central nervous system, their ability to apply true maximal force on an object is less than that of an experienced lifter. Another factor that may contribute to an inefficient CNS is lack of testosterone, as is the case with ladies and youth athletes.  Similarly, athletes who have spent the majority of their training years in the muscular endurance realm likely have a high percentage of slow twitch Type I muscle fibers (think marathoner versus powerful sprinter) further blurring the traditional use of percentages.

Ben-Johnson-1200

It's important to note that Prilepin's Chart does not care if you are a youth lifter, a woman or man with low T, or an experienced lifter with predominantly *slow twitch muscle. What you need to know is that if you are able to perform 9 continuous reps at 90% of your alleged "1RM" for instance, that shit is not optimizing your strength training. This is why for novice athletes, percentages are a dicey way to develop strength.   Although Prilepin's Chart was based on over one thousand highly adapted weightlifters from the 1960's and 1970's, it is still the most potent and widely used formula for effective strength training.  A good coach's eye will determine, based on bar speed and mechanics, whether the intensity meets the criteria for given rep range.

While the above chart might seem familiar to some, it should absolutely be a constant reference when analyzing an effective program.  When someone asks you "Why are we doing 3 sets of 5 reps?" you should be able to answer them with confidence.  I usually answer something like, "We are attempting to work within approximately 85% of our max weight, accumulating a total of 15 reps which will in turn make you a jacked badass.  Next question."

427068_341421289242710_2092092483_n"How do I reach these keeeedz?"

Another important takeaway from Prilepin's Chart is the intended total number of reps over the course of that given exercise.  If an athlete is continually failing on, say, their 2nd rep of a set of 2 and we are working at around 90% for a 5x2, that is a total of 5 failed reps.  Suddenly we've managed to avoid doing half of the work that was required that day (10 reps total is optimal) and that's bullshit.  As a coach, your options are obviously to drop the weight and make up a few doubles at a slightly lighter weight or continue to work singles with the intention of keeping the intensity very high.  Either way, we need to be loading the system with daily matrix mindset.  This is loosely tied with our belief in reverse engineering as the most effective way to drive adaptation.

Using a combination of Prilepin's Chart and a more concise training variable table featured below**, you can extrapolate the necessary information for correctly reverse engineering your training.  At the very least, you may determine if another one is full of shit.

Rep Range              Training Effect

  • 1-3                           CNS (power)
  • 4-7                           Hypertrophy - Myofibrillar - Higher Force Producing
  • 8-12                         Hypertrophy - Sarcoplasmic - Size: "The pump"
  • 12+                          Muscle Endurance

Reverse Engineering Theory 

  1. I am training for A
  2. A requires B as a physiological adaptation.
  3. To achieve B I need X number of reps at % intensity.
  4. An effective training day will require around Z repetitions.
  5. Therefore, I will complete Y sets of X repetitions to achieve Z.

 

Example:

  1. I am training for rugby.
  2. Rugby requires strength and power as physiological adaptations.
  3. To achieve strength and power I need 3 reps at 85% intensity. 
  4. An effective training day will require around 12 repetitions.
  5. Therefore, I will complete 4 sets of 3 repetitions to achieve 12.

rugby-yoga_2729841bIt is my hope that you will go forth with a very basic understanding of how and why strength training works.  Taking the mystery away from training empowers you with a vested interest in your workouts and helps you to intelligently adjust your sets/reps if you have a shit day or conversely, an amazing day.  Not only can this information help you maximize your time and hard work, but it will give you the know how to sift through the ever present noise.  Remember, there are many ways to skin a cat (I'm told), which is why many different strength programs work.  The effective ones follow these universal guidelines and never promise abzz.

*Muscle fiber types can differ dramatically from muscle group to muscle group.

**No single physiological adaptation happens in a vacuum.  We can merely bias the training based on the given rep ranges and corresponding intensities.

CALI

CALI

A strength and conditioning coach since 2009, Cali has worked with numerous athletes spanning from rugby players to cross country skiers.Almost immediately after finding CrossFit in 2010, she was introduced to a program that better suited her athletic goals.With her existing background in powerlifting and football, she became a natural devotee to CFFB/PowerAthlete and testament to it's effectiveness.In 2012, she left D.C. and headed for the state named after her to be a part of the CrossFit Football Seminar Staff and a Jedi of Power Athlete HQ. Cali currently resides in Seattle where she works full time in law enforcement.
CALI

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22 Responses to Strength 101: Reverse Engineering with Prilepin’s Chart

  1. Rich

    Great summary. Go the Bunnies!

  2. you so smart!
    seriously, though, this is great stuff. This is something I talk a lot about with fellow coaches.

  3. Interesting how the chart goes from “strength (85-95)” to “endurance (75-85)”, then back to “explosive power (65/75)”. I would think EP would follow “strength”, basically changing places with “endurance”, since lighter weights translate to higher volume. To me, 75-85% seems light enough to move fast, but heavy enough to 1) force that explosive movement out of the end position and 2) restrict max reps to 4-7x .

    Or has my dizzying intellect totally confused myself?

    And for some reason, I kept reading “athlete” as “asshole”, but I blame that on knowing how you articulate yourself.

    • I actually agree, Ingo. That threw me as well. One thing you can note from looking at older tables and strength training jargon is that the terms have evolved over time. Here is another version of the original as transcribed by Yuri Verkhoshansky but taken from “Special Strength Training: A Practical Manual for Coaches” that falls a little more in line with our use of the terms.

      Verkhoshansky

  4. Mark

    I love Cali.

  5. @Cali great article as usual! Love the pic of the dudes doing yoga. I think they called that pose “reverse warrior”. Been doing 1x a week myself. I do believe it helped me feel more solid in those heavy ass squats yesterday.

    • Glad to hear the yoga is working for your strength training. I struggle big time with yoga. I find it very difficult…to stay awake. I know I should go more often but it’s sooo boring. Good on you for having the patience.

  6. TomC

    Great article, thanks Cali.

    Picking up on the yoga thread- my body is beat up from years of training and not enough maintenance/mobility. I do mwods etc now, but am thinking of yoga also, what are peoples experiences with it?

    Paula, what kind do you do/would you recommend?

    Thanks

  7. @Tom yoga is not my area of expertise–and something I only recently added back in because I sucked at it. A couple of weeks ago while on vacation I did a Power yoga class. Wow. Never would have been able to do it if it hadn’t been for all the Iso Stab work we’ve been doing in FS. And I noticed a subtle but immediate difference in my training. Perfect for the weekends.

    When I returned home I searched out a few local classes and anything labeled Power, vinyasa or flow and sometimes ashtanga seems to suit me better. The instructor also will make a difference.

  8. Gavin

    So what is the intent of these two accumulation weeks we are doing, given the chart in the article?

    For example, the power clean. We are doing 2 sets of 6 reps, with a rep every 30 seconds. I’m working at 82% of my 1RM (or what we suspect to be my 1RM). Is that viewed as hypertrophy and endurance because it’s 12 total reps in short order, or do we also view that we are doing that 2×6 a total of 3 times, which is 36 total reps during the training session? Granted they are separated by time and other lifts (squatting), but 36 reps at 82% is high volume and doesn’t nicely fit into the chart.

    Trying to learn here…

    • Great question. There are few things that account for the higher volume and higher percentage in this cycle. We are on a high volume cycle – remember, that cycle will only last 2 weeks. The volume is “off the charts” so to speak, but knowing it’s not sustainable, we have reigned in the duration.

      Some other variables that dictate the cycle are the feedback on the vertical jumps. With an average vertical jump of around 19″, one can extrapolate that the demographic is relatively untrained- going back to your point about being unsure that you are working with a true percentage of you 1rm.

      Lastly, the squat clusters, for instance, have allowed for that additional rest while when the world class lifters were tested for this chart, all reps were performed within a very finite amount of time. I’ll be honest, the exact number escapes me right now, but I’ll search around for it. So, although the perceived intensity is still high, it’s not as difficult as performing continuous reps.

      I hope that helps.

  9. Gavin

    I neglected to mention the obvious: this was another great article. Thanks, Cali.

  10. Tom C – I recommend the yoga class with the hottest chicks.

  11. I want a bumper sticker that says “Prilepin is my homeboy”

    Seriously.

    Also, the first thing I ask a person who comes to me and wants to work at my gym is “what’s prilepin’s chart?” If said applicant cannot explain in detail the entire chart from memory, they clearly don’t know shit about strength training and are useless humans. When a friend asks me advice on picking a gym/trainer I tell them to ask the same question. If the dude training you is unfamiliar with Prilepin, you should not become familiar with their gym.
    Well done Ms Cali, keep up the good work.

  12. TomC

    Paula, Ingo, both valuable tips! Thanks

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  15. F! Reading articles like this just reminds me how stupid I was 10 years ago, how little actually changed 5 years later (ignorance + ego + stubbornness = shit results), how I wish I’d read these articles when they first were originally written, and how fucking awesome this site is in general!

    Thank you for these!

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