Are you in the zone? Unravelling the mysteries of training intensity…
When most of us embark upon the exciting journey of becoming stronger, we usually have a great deal of enthusiasm for the work that feels hard. When we feel that struggle to complete a rep or a training session and we get those concerned looks from our training partners, we feel a touch of pride. “Yeah, that’s right, I’m pushing my limits, the pain you feel today is the strength you’ll feel tomorrow etc.” In lifting, just like many other walks of life, that touch of pride usually goeth before… an injury! As such, for the ardent novice lifter there are usually just two training zones:
Zone #1 – This is too light!
Zone #2 – I can’t lift this! (or if I can… it looks a lot like I probably shouldn’t!)
Quick quiz: when it comes to strength training, how many levels of intensity should we actually use and how should we distribute the work across each level of intensity? Assuming that we can all agree that the above two zones are not enough, what might be the next logical proposal? Maybe this:
Zone #1 – Light
Zone #2 – Medium
Zone #3 – Heavy
That would appear overly simple, but consider Occam’s Razor… simple isn’t necessarily bad. Maybe those three zones are enough to get started, but then there’s the task of figuring out how much of our training should be in each zone? How many light reps, medium reps, and heavy reps each session, each week, every month, throughout the year… sheesh!
If this is starting to sound like too much math, you’re right. Get a coach to help you. For a few of us strength coaches, reviewing training logs, planning periodization, calculating percentages of single rep maxes and making projections based on repetition maxes is like doing Sudoku puzzles; oddly stimulating and satisfying. There are, of course, quite a few methods for getting stronger but as a StrongFirst accredited gym, at Breakthrough we favor only using the good ones. Ha! There’s that pride again, I’d better watch out! Or at least explain.
Soviet era weightlifting research yielded quite a lot of useful results that take the guess work out of such programming. Arkady Vorboryev, who set 16 weightlifting world records between 1950 and 1960 asserts that:
“Determining the optimal average weight that leads to the highest increase in results is one of the main tasks for the coach and the athlete.”
He also warned:
“In science and engineering, the solution that meets all the set requirements at a minimal ‘cost’ is called optimal.”
In order to determine this optimal resistance, scientists had to also discover the optimal number of lifts an athlete should perform in each four-week block of training. I feel sorry for those Russian athletes who were the test subjects to collect this data! Think of how may lifters performed too many lifts in the name of science and suffered the consequences… (ouch). But thank goodness they did enough lifting for us to now know the safe monthly rep range to get the best results. Armed with the optimum volume of lifts for a month, the task then became how to determine the intensity of those lifts. Fortunately, researching the top lifters training logs for over half a century revealed an answer. After adding up thousands of lifts and looking at them in relationship to the lifters’ single rep maxes, the average intensity of all this work came out to somewhere between 70-75%; proving that the lion’s share of the productive lifting is actually done with moderate weights!
Although the three zones we cited above (light, medium, heavy) are better than two zones we mentioned earlier (too light, failure), the Russians gave us a much more robust system; a whopping eight levels of intensity!
Zone #0 – 40-50% – Minimal (this zone is so light, we don’t really have to track these lifts much; mostly warm up or drop sets)
Zone #1 – 51-60% – Low
Zone #2 – 61-70% – Medium
Zone #3 – 71-80% – Large
Zone #4 – 81-90% – Near-maximal and Maximal
Zone #5 – 91-100% – Supra-maximal 1
Zone #6 – 101-110% – Supra-maximal 2
Since the Russians also knew that we need the average relative intensity of all our lifting to be between 70–75% they produced this table to show exactly how to distribute our reps across each zone:
% of Reps
From all this fantastic research we can clearly see that only 30 out of 100 lifts each month should actually feel really “hard” (near maximal and above). It is also quite revealing to see that each month we should actually be doing more reps (35% total) in the low-medium zones! The perceived rate of exertion on these reps would likely feel “too light” or “barely challenging” for many a novice lifter.
So, if your lifting is feeling “too light” for over a third of the month, “challenging” for over a third of the month and “hard” for less than a third of the month, your training is probably pretty optimal. For those of us who love “going heavy” this doesn’t sound all that sexy, I know. But you know what is? Personal records! If we trust in the science and can be honest with ourselves as to our perceived rates of exertion, we can expect to achieve more PR’s, and at a minimal cost. Now that sounds sexy! This certainly adds new meaning to the phrase “I’m in the zone.” When it comes to strength training, that optimal zone might be lighter than you think.