| Why Percentages Don’t Work

Author / Levi Garrett

Novice-Athlete-Weight-lifting-percentages-Power-AthleteJust kidding, they do, but if you’re basing you or your clients’ training off percentages of a 1 Repetition Max (RM) you may be wasting everybody’s time. That’s assuming that your goal is to increase maximal strength and power. Claiming that weight lifting percentages don’t work is far fetched.  @Cali did a great job showing us how to use Prilepins chart in our training.

HOWEVER, when you are dealing with new clients or novice athletes is it in your or their best interest to test or estimate a 1 Repetition Max (RM) and immediately begin working percentages? Not if you want to ever reach your Base Level of Strength (BLoS). We’ve covered all the limiting factor bases that a BLoS program correct here, be sure to catch up as we expand upon these through out this article.

We’ve all seen it, day 1 and and the sport coach wants you to find a 1RM to see how strong you are and give them an idea of where to start you off. If they aren’t testing a 1RM they are trying to estimate it using various methods and smart people algorithms. By jumping right into percentages based on your newly found “1 RM”, are you leaving future gains on the table and potentially injuring yourself, clients, or athletes?


The Physiology

Dr. Hatfield does a great job of taking complex ideas and making them palatable to even the meatiest of meatheads. When talking about factors affecting strength, there are a few issues with estimating or testing your 1RM too early:

Fast vs. Slow Twitch Fiber Ratio

Depending on genetics and previous/current activity level/modality, you will have a certain ratio of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. If you want to be able to run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours like Forrest Gump, train the red slow twitch fibers. Those seeking Power Athlete strength status, you need to lift moderate to heavy weights fast in order to train white, fast twitch fibers.

If you forget which ones are fast and which ones are slow, default to my boy Ace Ventura. For purposes of strength, having a higher ratio of fast to slow twitch fibers is one advantage but it doesn’t come easy. In order to achieve this we need to apply the SAID Principle.

Myofibrillar Density

We’re not going to geek out on the science, but actin and myosin are the two protein filaments that attach to each other in order to concentrically contract a muscle fiber. The more actin and myosin you have inside the myofibril the more contractile strength the muscle will produce. We need to stress to progress, if loads are too light, the adaptation of strength will not be achieved because the working muscle was not overloaded.

Number of Fibers Activated

Similar to above, the more the better. If you go to battle, do you want 10 untrained soldiers or 100 that are highly trained? The fibers are there but in order for us to recruit and activate muscle fibers we need to teach them how to do so. The only way we can do that is by amassing countless reps under the bar.

Intermuscular Coordination

This is biomechanical efficiency, when muscles work together with correct timing and intensity to produce or control a movement. If your body doesn’t have the biological or chronological maturity, how can we demand a maximal effort and expect an accurate result?

Psych and Pain Tolerance

If you like heavy compound barbell lifts then there are 1 of 2 scenarios, you have never been buried under a heavy load OR you’re an absolute savage and pain don’t hurt. The bottom line is, people don’t know their limits until they’ve gone to that deep dark place where their life flashes before their eyes and they see a side of themselves they never knew existed. If you think I’m joking then you’ve never been there, if you’re pickin’ up what I’m putting down, consider yourself part of the crew. Completing 1 heavy rep yet still have the ability to do another rep is not a true 1RM.

Myofibril Density

All this to say, you need to spend more time at the under the bar to develop the CNS maturity and efficiency necessary for a true 1RM. Look, percentages can and will work, but don’t get caught up by the curse of the gifted. Just because Klokov, Lilliebridge, and Froning are working percentages doesn’t mean you or your athletes should. Maybe you will in the future but keep in mind, these dudes have been training at an ELITE level and have established all the elements above before they were able identify effective and meaningful percentages and rep ranges.

So, How Do We Get There?

We need to implement some type of Base Level of Strength Program, better known as the Amateur Progression (CFFB), PA 1 (Power Athlete), or The Basics (Power Athlete).

All of the Power Athlete coaches have heard it, “I’m not an amateur, I’ve been lifting weights for like 6 months bro and have already done Smolov 10 times.” Cool Brotato Chip, how do your knees feel, or your soul perhaps? Keep in mind that these high level training programs are designed for highly capable athletes that sleep, wake up, eat, work out, get a massage, nap, work out, given female entertainment (allegedly), go to bed and do it again the next day. This is not meant for homeboy that sits in an hour of traffic to work, chills at a desk for 8 hours, sits in another hour of traffic on their way to the gym then sleeps 4 hours a night after watching netflix.

Amateur can be a misleading term. Consider it the, “setting myself up for success” program. It doesn’t look sexy but the magic is in the simplicity, and consistency. So without further ado, here is our Amateur Program:
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Week 1

3×5 Squat
3×5 Press

1×5 Deadlift
3x Max Pull ups


3×5 Squat (+5lbs to last workout)
3×5 Bench

5×3 Power Clean
3x Max Chin Ups

Week 2

3×5 Squat (+5lbs to last workout)
3×5 Press (+2.5lbs to last workout)

1×5 Deadlift (+10lbs to last workout)
3x Max Pull ups


3×5 Squat (+5lbs to last workout)
3×5 Bench (+2.5lbs to last workout)

5×3 Power Clean (+2.5lbs to last workout)
3x Max Chin Ups

It looks basic, and it is; however, let’s break it down. Before we do, it’s important to note that you and your athletes need to start with a weight that is challenging but manageable. We will be linear progressing each lift which means you will add weight every session.

So how much should I/they start at? I don’t know, use your brain and coaches eye. If it looks and feels heavy day 1 it’s going to be devastating in a couple week. Often times people get too big of an ego and start too heavy. Be conservative knowing that you will surpass beast mode levels in a few short months, embrace the process, stay the course, (add another sweet quote that will impress people)… You get the idea.

PA Article Squat


In the amateur progression you will be mastering the BACK squat. This movement allows us to recruit the most amount of musculature possible and when trying to map our CNS to recruit and fire muscle fibers this is paramount. We squat twice a week, on day 1 find a weight that will allow you to succeed for the next few months knowing that the increase in weight will come and knock out 3 sets of 5 reps. On day 4, add 5lbs from the last workout and get after it for 3×5. Use these tools to assist in teaching squat initiation.

Press (Strict), Bench Press, and Power Clean

Since we are only performing these lifts once a week, the progression in weight is lighter to allow you more time to adapt. Once you’ve found a comfortable weight (similar to the process of finding your squat weight), crush 3 sets of 5 reps on the press and bench days and 5 sets of 3 reps on the power clean. Notice the shift in reps on the power clean, we’ve identified that 5 reps tend to get dicey. Remember, we are pulling for performance, not Olympic Lifting, so catch in your athletic position.

Additionally, when you look at Prilepins chart, this will align with our training goal and meet the SAID Principle, you’ll thank us later. Furthermore, and most importantly, you need to re pick (re set your feet, grip and spinal position) before each rep, these ARE NOT touch and go, the focus here is posture and position.


Pull a heavy 5 but make sure you leave reps in the tank because we are going to add 10lbs each week. You’ll get your volume from the warm up sets. Don’t go flacid on me and use a mixed grip or straps, especially early on. Everything should be double overhand. The hands are the end of the kinetic chain and may be you limiting factor, let’s kill 2 birds with 1 stone and get them meat claws up to rock crushing strength. Finally, we should be re picking each rep here as well (similar to the power clean).

If pulled correctly, toes forward and knees tracking through the sagittal plane, deadlifts work wonders for ACL injury prevention.

Empower Your Performance

Be patient folks, in order for us to ring out the cloth and gain every ounce of strength we can, it takes time. Are you doing the same thing at your job you were 2 years ago? I hope not or else you’re not progressing. You can’t expect maximum ability or strength in a short amount of time. This is something that develops over year of training and repetitions. However, in order for us to accelerate adaptation, we need to make sure that we have laid a legitimate foundation to prepare our body mentally and physiologically for the future!


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Levi Garrett

MS, CSCS A former collegiate baseball player that has coached in strength and conditioning for nearly a decade. He is currently training a wide range of college level field sport athletes as well as career firefighters. After experiencing the effective Power Athlete method himself, Levi became an intern assisting the crew at PAHQ.

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