Any of you who have used a training program written by someone who doesn’t coach you personally (and likely doesn’t know you at all) have probably discovered that often prescribed intensities based on percentages of your 1RMs can vary quite a bit in accuracy—in other words, 80% may feel impossible to you, while your training partner on the next platform is banging the reps out without breaking a sweat. I always laugh when I see people discussing my programs online and one person will complain about the weights being way too heavy, and the next will complain that they’re too light (it’s also funny to me because it makes it clear they haven’t read all of the information I put on the site to help them make the programs more effective—see this
if this describes you).
This is one of the many reasons that coaching and programming needs to be done in person with athletes the coach isn't already intimately familiar with for optimal results. But since if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in that situation, I want to try to give you a better understanding of what causes this variation and some suggestions on how to make a non-personal training program work better for you.
There are a few reasons why a given percent of 1RM isn’t a consistent level of effort for all lifters:
This one is pretty obvious, but you might be surprised how often it goes overlooked. If you don’t have an accurate 1RM in a given lift, why would the prescribed intensities based on that 1RM be accurate? This can go both ways—some lifters have trained a while and gotten much stronger, more technically sound, and more consistent but either haven’t tested a 1RM recently or for whatever reason, had a bad testing day that didn’t accurately reflect his or her true ability. This will make their intensities relatively easy.
On the other hand, I see a lot of athletes continue using old 1RMs that are, for various reasons, higher than their present abilities. This can be for reasons like an injury they’re still recovering from; circumstances like work, school or a gens-busting significant other draining their energy and focus recently; or even things like weight loss, which a lot of lifters seem to believe shouldn’t have any effect on their strength.
When starting a new training cycle, do your best to determine accurate 1RMs first. If you don’t have recently tested numbers, you may have to estimate. Take the things I mentioned above into consideration and estimate based on reason, not ego.
A restriction in movement from immobility or pain can limit a 1RM, especially in lifts like the snatch, clean or jerk. That restriction may not affect related exercises such as pulls, deadlifts, presses or squats. This means that an intensity prescription for pulls, for example, may feel far too light because the lifter’s snatch is limited by this restriction, not pulling strength, of which there is consequently a surplus.
In the same way, technical proficiency will affect these same types of exercises. The more technically proficient a lifter is with the competition lifts, the greater the percentage of his or her basic strength he or she will be capable of tapping in to for the competition lifts. If one lifter cleans 95% of his best front squat, and another cleans only 80% of his best front squat, clean-related strength work is going to feel extremely different for those two athletes.
Strength vs. Explosiveness
Different lifters possess varying levels of basic strength and explosiveness. Generally speaking, the more explosive a lifter is, the higher percentage of his or her basic strength lifts he or she will be able to access for the snatch and clean & jerk. That is, the competition lifts will be higher percentages of the squat for a more explosive lifter, and smaller percentages for a less explosive lifter. A very explosive lifter may be dying with clean pulls at 100%, while a lifter who is less explosive but very strong may feel like pulls at 100% are a waste of time because they’re too easy.
Neurological efficiency in simple terms describes how well the nervous system can use the muscle in question to perform a task—this is based on factors like motor unit recruitment, rate coding, synchronization, GTO inhibition, intermuscular coordination, etc.
The lower the neurological efficiency, the lower the 1RM will be, but the greater the ability to perform repetitions at a given percentage of 1RM (because that 1RM is farther below physical potential). For example, a less neurologically efficient lifter may be able to perform 10 reps in the back squat at 80%, while a more efficient lifter can only hit 5 reps with a struggle.
These factors are influenced by training experience and extent of athletic development to a large degree. That is, a novice lifter will have very low neurological efficiency and consequently not be capable of lifting as much, whereas an advanced lifter, through years of specific training, will have much higher neurological efficiency and consequently be capable of lifting considerably more by tapping into more of the potential strength of his or her existing musculature.
Gender also has an effect on neurological efficiency due to the influence of various hormones—males tend to have higher efficiency than females, even among equally trained and developed athletes. This is the reason that it’s typical for women to be able to perform more reps at a given intensity than their male counterparts.
Knowing all of this, how do you modify an out-of-the-box training program to suit you better? There isn’t a formula, and it will require some guesswork, experimentation and clear goals, but it can be done.
Let’s use snatch and clean pulls
(and deadlifts) as an example since this is probably the most common group of exercises to be affected by this issue. Take a look at the program and get a sense of where it’s going—e.g. how many weeks are you expected to increase the weights of your pulls before backing off or changing exercises. From that, you can get a better idea of the range of weights you can expect to be using. If the goal of this phase of the cycle is to emphasize pulling strength, likely the pull and deadlift variations are expected to be fairly challenging. Adjust the weights the first week by feel until you reach a weight that seems appropriate with the previous information in mind—e.g. if you’re supposed to increase the weight for 3 weeks, you probably shouldn’t be giving a max effort on week 1. Once that’s done, do the math to get the weights for the following weeks. For example, if the pulls were at 90% on week 1 and you ended up doing 105%, just add 15% to the pull weights in the subsequent weeks of the program.
With the competition lifts or variations, or squats, in which multiple reps are prescribed, again, adjust by feel. If you’re supposed to do snatch triples with 80% or back squat sets of 3 at 90% and there’s no way it’s going to happen, find the weight at which it will happen and build up from there as the program progresses, adjusting subsequent weeks’ weights proportionately.
Adjustments can be best made when you understand the purpose of any given piece of the program. If you’re able to get in touch with the coach who wrote it to ask, do it (we answer all questions in the comments of our workouts and programs—take advantage of it). This will get you where you need to go a lot more quickly than guessing and trial and error.
Simply put, follow the spirit of the program rather than the letter. As a lifter without a coach, you have to rely on your judgment and experience to shape programs to suit you as well as possible. The only way to do this is to learn over time how you respond to the various elements of a program and to continue refining your prescriptions in turn.