How hard should productive work be?
For some athletes, “hard” training consists only of daunting numbers of high rep sets, lots of heavy breathing and sweat. For others, “near maximal” training has to consist of a handful of extremely heavy single rep sets, no huffing and puffing at all and almost no sweat. Then there are those for whom a training session can only be “challenging” when practicing difficult balance skills, complicated coordination work and feats of elasticity. Which one of these paradigms is truly the most productive? Well, of course, what’s best is objectively dependent on the goals of the athlete and of the training program in question.
Making progress often has little to do with the perceived level of difficulty for the participant. For most athletes and those of us just trying to be better all around versions of ourselves, we actually combine all these elements into our programming to some degree, and as such there is usually at least some element that feels challenging in each session. However, training phases designed especially for peaking a skill use an optimal level of intensity distributed throughout the phase which is not at all subjective. The greatest results are achieved by training “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.
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 and a sense that we’re being productive. “Yeah, that’s right, I’m pushing my limits, the pain you feel today is the strength you’ll feel tomorrow etc.” For the ardent novice lifter this results in 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!)
Assuming that we can all agree that the above two zones are not enough, what might be the next logical distribution? Maybe this:
Zone #1 - Easy
Zone #2 - Medium
Zone #3 - Hard
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 to make progress? How many easy reps, medium reps, and hard reps each session, each week, every month, throughout the year… can I just go back to training to failure every time, it’s far simpler?! Absolutely not! Although it is simpler, it’s also a sure path to stalled progress and injury.
Fortunately, 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 further advised: “In science and engineering, the solution that meets all the set requirements at a minimal ‘cost’ is called optimal."
In order to determine the optimal resistance, scientists determined the optimal number of each lift an athlete should perform in a four-week block of training. I feel sorry for those brave Russian athletes who were the test subjects to collect this data! Think of how may lifters deliberately performed too many lifts in the name of science and discovered the upper limits of training volume 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 each lifter’s personal best, an ideal average intensity for all this work became apparent.
We’re talking about elite athletes here, so that optimum intensity had to be over 90%, right?
It has to be over 75% at least, yes?
Actually it 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 (easy, medium, hard) are better than two zones we mentioned earlier (too light and 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
With the average relative intensity of all productive lifting proven to be between 70–75%, researchers were able to produce this table to show exactly how to distribute reps across each zone:
% of Reps
From all this experimentation we know that only 30% of our training each month should actually feel really “hard” (near maximal and above). It is also quite revealing to see that each month we should be doing 35% of our training in the low-medium zones! The perceived rate of exertion on these reps would likely feel “too light” or “barely challenging” at most.
So, if your training is feeling “too easy” 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, it is probably pretty optimal. For those of us who love “going hard” this doesn’t sound all that sexy, I know. But you know what is? Amazing results! If we trust in the science we can expect to achieve more personal bests at minimal risk and at minimal cost. Now that doesn’t sound too hard, but it does sound productive!