With our fall TSC training already in full swing (or Snatch?), our enthusiastic athletes have been expressing more and more interest on the subject of training intensity lately. "How hard does this have to get for me to achieve a new personal record?” Fortunately, this is one of my favorite topics! The application of the art and science of programming to peak strength performance is a cornerstone of our Breakthrough training experience. Unfortunately, it can get a little math-heavy for some, and my energetic discussions with members aren’t always that easy to follow, so… Here’s a stripped down explanation of some of the guiding principles we use in our programming which can hopefully answer the age old question of:
"How hard should productive work actually feel?”
Well... right off the bat we have to address a fallacy. How “hard" the training “feels” doesn’t correlate all that much to actual progress. This applies to whether the lifts feel too easy or too hard or not fun or any other of the “feels.” Years ago, when we were training with Pavel Tsatsouline, I told him that my training on one of his experimental programs “didn’t feel great.” He answered back immediately, “Strength is not about your feelings. Can you do the work or not?” I said that I could, so he told me to carry on and, of course, I got stronger.
Surprisingly, making progress often has little to do with the perceived level of difficulty for the participant. Training cycles designed especially for peaking strength use an optimal level of intensity distributed throughout the phases or waves which are not at all subjective. The greatest results are achieved by following a program that ensures our training is “just hard enough.” Whether an athlete perceives the sessions to be difficult or too easy, is somewhat irrelevant to the process, provided that the prescribed sets and reps are successful at the assigned level of intensity for each day. Enter the concept of “training zones.” Unfortunately, the ardent novice lifter usually only recognizes 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!)
Exhaustive research has revealed that the average relative intensity for a training cycle to achieve optimal strength development is actually between 70–75%. Do you suppose a 70-75% level of intensity set of 5 or even 8 reps would feel all that hard? It depends on the athlete and their experience with the lift etc., but overall it doesn’t sound all that difficult, does it? And that’s why it’s impossible to judge how successful a training program might be by the “feel” of an individual session. Getting the average relative intensity of all the reps on training program to land right within this ideal window is where some real mad-scientist-style calculating and artistry comes into play. But to at least explain how to find a cycle's Average Relative Intensity (ARI) as succinctly as possible, here goes...
Count up all of the repetitions on the program that are prescribed for a specific percentage of an athlete’s single rep max (aka intensity), and multiply by that percentage. This will yield a product for that specific “zone” of intensity. For example, we find that the total reps at 55% of a competitor’s single rep max for the entire cycle is 45. We multiply 45 (the number of lifts) by 55 (the intensity percentage) and get a product of 2475. If we continue to do this for each of the other percentages lifted (ie. all of the intensity zones on the program), we’ll have a product for each zone. Add up all those products and then divide by the grand total number of reps across all of the zones, and we should arrive at the average relative intensity for the whole enchilada. Assigning the right number of reps to each zone can be quite the trial and error process, but when we hit the relative intensity just right, magic happens!
With all this in mind, a classic method for safely building great strength might follow a load distribution that looks like this:
Zone #0 - 40-50% of Max - Minimal (not really tracked; mostly warm up or drop sets)
Zone #1 - 51-60% of Max - Low (about 10% of our lifts)
Zone #2 - 61-70% of Max - Small (about 25% of our lifts)
Zone #3 - 71-80% of Max - Medium (about 35% of our lifts)
Zone #4 - 81-90% of Max - Large (about 25% of our lifts)
Zone # 5 - 91-100% of Max - Near-maximal and Maximal (only about 5% of our lifts)
Zone #6 - 101% - 110% - Supra-maximal 1 (rarely; only when peaking)
Zone #7 - Over 110% - Supra-maximal 2 (rarely; only when crazy peaking)
This distribution will yield a relative intensity close to 70%. Depending on the circumstances we can tinker with the number of lifts in some of the zones to throttle it up closer to 75% or lower it down as needed, but these adjustments all have to be made very carefully to avoid overtraining or stalling the athlete’s progress.
Now, when we consider the zones above, this all basically means that if our training lifts “feel” almost too easy for over a third of a cycle, challenging for about a third of a cycle and actually difficult for less than a third of a cycle, we should get optimal results! Since we can’t experience the feeling of an entire program's average relative intensity all at once, we just have to trust in our calculations and rest assured that some days will feel pleasantly easy and others will be quite difficult, but at least they will not all feel the same all the time. After thousands and thousands of recorded lifts, the research has proven time and again that if we can hit the average relative intensity just right, our feelings about the training don’t really matter anyway, and we’re practically guaranteed success!