I posted a short blog and video the other day on programming for strength (read it here). I have been developing a ton of free content on this topic because I see so many lifters come into the gym that are putting in hard, but ineffective training sessions in. I wanted to go into a little more detail on understanding how many sets/reps to use when programming for strength. There are so many variables to consider when programming for strength such as how many days per week you are working each exercise and how well you recover from training.
One guide that can be easily utilized in programming is Prilepin’s chart. Prilepin was a Soviet Olympic Weightlifting Coach that created this chart. Yes, I know Olympic weightlifting is not powerlifting, but many of the same principles apply and if you look at many successful programs, they align closely with this chart.
Prilepin’s chart does a good job of breaking down total training volumes at given percentages of 1 Rep Max. Many successful programs align closely with this chart. Is this chart absolute fact? No, but it does a very solid job of giving some guidelines. The art of programming happens when you can get the right mix of sets, reps, and training volume for an individual.
Most successful strength training programs spend a considerable amount of time in the 70%-85% range of 1 RM. Knowing this is great, but applying it appropriately is crucial for success.If you are pushing 75% for 8-10 reps across multiple sets you are building a high amount of fatigue in your muscle. If your goal is bigger muscles great! If you’re looking for maximal strength you will want to choose lower reps across multiple sets. A more appropriate way of building strength with 75% would be hitting 4 sets of 6 reps or 5×5. Your last set should be challenging, but not crushing your soul. There is a time and place for grinding out hard reps in strength training, but it isn’t the cornerstone of building strength.
What about working with bigger weights? Isn’t that important? Yes, feeling heavier loads and over loading your system is important. You just don’t need to hit heavy as much as you think. When lifting above 90%, effectively hitting 1 or 2 singles is way more effective than trying to grind out a set of 3-4 reps to failure. Usually the philosophy with working with higher percentages is, get in, get out. Use the bigger loads to learn how to lift heavy with good form, see where you weaknesses when lifting heavy, and work on those weaknesses at the lighter loads. You are not going to get stronger my continually loading more plates week after week. I shake my head seeing gym goers miss a lift on Monday and show up on Wednesday to redeem themselves, then act like they don’t know why they are getting “weaker”. It’s because you are lifting from ego not from a base of reality.
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