Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Intensity-Effort Table for Strength training

Intensity-Effort Table for Strength training

Continuing on my rant on three parameters of intensity in strength training I decided to update my Percent-Repetition Chart from August, 2012 that seems to be quite popular (I have seen it in couple of blogs and some recent books – I don’t mind – au contraire – I feel pride).

I have modified and updated this table over the last year mainly using ideas and work of others like Dan Baker, Michael Tuchscherer, Joe Kenn and Donnell Boucher.  

The table features Intensity zones (% of 1RM) and Effort zones (proximity to failure; see Intensiveness). Effort zones could be based on Tuchscherer’s RPE levels, but for this table I have chosen Dan Baker effort zones (which he presented in is Wave-cycle approach to In-season training at this year’s NSCA conference).

The table is read starting with Intensity level and then you choose Effort level. This way you get amount of reps that should be done in a given set. 

Training cycles can progress in couple of ways and one can use this table in most of them (at least for compound movements, not for Olympic lifts and power/ballistic movements). 

Just for the sake of example I will present couple of different progression schemes over a cycle. Some of the variations can be called intensification, accumulation, “effortification” (my word  ), depending on what are you progressing and what are you trying to keep same. All of these represent Level Three – Programming in Tool of Three Levels™ approach.  

Increasing intensity and effort over cycles, while keeping the same reps and volumes (written in brackets)
Week 1: 80% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [HE]
Week 2: 82.5% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [HE]
Week 3: 85% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [NME]
Week 4: 87.5% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [NME]

Increasing number of reps and effort over cycles, while keeping the same intensity
Week 1: 80% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [HE]
Week 2: 80% x 4 reps x 6 sets (24) [HE]
Week 3: 80% x 5 reps x 6 sets (30) [NME]
Week 4: 80% x 6 reps x 6 sets (36) [NME]

Increasing the volume (number of sets) while keeping everything else the same
Week 1: 80% x 3 reps x 4 sets (12) [HE]
Week 2: 80% x 3 reps x 5 sets (15) [HE]
Week 3: 80% x 3 reps x 6 sets (18) [HE]
Week 4: 80% x 3 reps x 7 sets (21) [HE]

Increasing the intensity while keeping effort the same by decreasing number of reps. Keeping the volume pretty same
Week 1: 75% x 5 reps x 5 sets (25) [HE]
Week 2: 80% x 3 reps x 7 sets (21) [HE]
Week 3: 85% x 2 reps x 9 sets (18) [HE]
Week 4: 90% x 1 reps x 12 sets (12) [HE]

One could probably come up with dozen versions utilizing different combos, rep and set schemes, etc. 

The point of this table is using it to understand certain progressions in certain programs, to allow us easier progression and to see how much we are pushing it in certain cycles. Use Prilepin table as a guideline for volume, but keep in mind that this table is used in Olympic lifting, so it could be a bit ramped up with general strength goals and it could be ramped up a lot with hypertrophy goals.  

If you are interested in velocity-based approach modification of this table please refer HERE

I wish to thank everyone who have used it in their blogs, books and work. That keeps me motivated to share and contribute more to this field. 

Intensity-Effort Table with rep ranges

Intensity-Effort Table with exact number of reps for easier reading

Click HERE for Excel workbook. 


Andrew McGunagle asked a good question in the comments and I wanted to address it in the article since I planned covering it. 

If athletes are getting stronger from week-to-week and the percentages are becoming slightly less-accurate, would the prescribed effort levels begin to take precedence for weight selection?

The table above is useful for shorter cycles (up to 6 weeks IMO) without adjusting either percentages or 1RM. 

With shorter cycles (4 weeks), last week might be something 6x3 w/85%, while in longer cycles (12 weeks) it might look like 6x3 w/95% because 1RM improved during that longer cycle.  This again depends on the duration of the cycle and "expected" improvement in 1RM (which depends on the level of the lifter). 

So, ones needs to either adjust 1RM used in planning the weights or adjust the percentages for the long cycles. 

This is pretty similar to work by Jim Wendler and his 2x5/3/1 plus unload week (7 week cycles). 

Between each 5/3/1 cycle, Jim Wendler recommends  adjusting (increasing) your 1RM for 1,25-2,5kg for upper body and 2,5 to 5kg for lower body (make sure to remember that he recommends starting 5/3/1 with 90% of 1RM). 

Using absolute 'jumps' instead of percentages work better because it adjusts for the level of the lifter automatically. This means that beginner will improve more from phase to phase in terms of percentage, than advanced lifter (e.g. 2.5% compared to 1.25%). If you put this to numbers, hypothetical beginner squatting 100kg gets improvement of 100x2.5% = 2.5kg, and advanced lifter get 200x1.25% = 2.5kg. Hence, if someone uses 1RM 'jumps' it is better to use absolute weight than percentage. If I have used same percent jump, the advanced lifter (since he is using more weight) will get unrealistic jump in 1RM.

"Better" option might be to test 1RM using open sets in the last part of the cycle and adjust 1RM accordingly (see Juggernaut method). In the example above (6x3 @85%) this might take a form of 5x3 @85% and 1x3+ @85%, where one tries to perform more than 3 reps on the last set. If one uses 2 reps in buffer (i.e. 5RM) and the athlete performs 8 reps, then 1RM needs to be adjusted for the next cycle. 

One could also use 'subjective approach' and use RPE levels (effort levels) as Andrew pointed out to adjust loading. This is how Mike Tuchscherer autoregulates his training. 

Third and novel option might be to use velocity based approach, since velocity is most stable from cycle to cycle and doesn't demands re-testing. I have wrote about this extensively - just check the Velocity-based strength tab.




  1. Good stuff, Mladen! Just a quick question regarding the progression schemes: If athletes are getting stronger from week-to-week and the percentages are becoming slightly less-accurate, would the prescribed effort levels begin to take precedence for weight selection?

  2. Thanks for the answer! While my initial reaction was that the 'subjective approach' would be most accurate, I do see the usefulness of the other options. It takes time to learn how to correctly use RPEs to adjust training, and the learning curve might be too daunting - especially in team settings. When managing athletes who are not well-informed about - or invested in - the training process, predetermined adjustments and increases seem to make more sense.

  3. Unbelievable stuff!

    Andrew, even if you use RPEs, this intensity chart can be a great learning tool for that. For example, you tell your athlete to do an exercise at 8RPE and provide them with roundabout numbers.