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.
Let’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.
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.”
“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 5×2, 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
- I am training for A.
- A requires B as a physiological adaptation.
- To achieve B I need X number of reps at % intensity.
- An effective training day will require around Z repetitions.
- Therefore, I will complete Y sets of X repetitions to achieve Z.
- I am training for rugby.
- Rugby requires strength and power as physiological adaptations.
- To achieve strength and power I need 3 reps at 85% intensity.
- An effective training day will require around 12 repetitions.
- Therefore, I will complete 4 sets of 3 repetitions to achieve 12.
It 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.
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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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