The fitness industry swings on a pendulum.
You’re either a “bro” eater or a flexible dieter.
A powerlifter or a bodybuilder.
A “strength guy” or a “corrective exercise guy.”
And you either follow percentage-based training or auto-regulation.
In most cases, it’s this “this is my side and that’s your side” mentality that hinders people from reaching their true potential.
Everything works on its own.
But everything works better when combined with a different – yet often complementary – school of thought.
And, when it comes to programming – and deciding whether or not you should use percentages or auto-regulation to govern your progression scheme – this cannot be overstated.
Related: Is Periodization Necessary?
What Is Percentage-Based Training?
Percentage-based training revolves around the use of percentages of your one repetition maximum (1RM) – the amount of weight you can lift one time – on a specific lift to determine the weight used in each particular workout.
For example, if your 1RM on the back squat is 400lbs, a basic four-week training cycle, using percentages, might look something like this:
|Week||Sets x Reps||Percentage|
|Week 1||4x5||75% (300lbs)|
|Week 2||4x4||80% (320lbs)|
|Week 3||3x3||85% (340lbs)|
|Week 4||4x2||90% (360lbs)|
In each workout, the weight is dictated for you.
There is no guesswork.
You simply go in to the gym, and strive to hit that particular number.
What is Auto-Regulation?
Auto-regulation, on the other hand, is more or less “instinctual training.”
Instead of planning your weights in advance, you choose a weight based on how you feel in each particular workout.
Usually, this is done through the use of the RPE scale, or the “rating of perceived exertion.”
This was made popular by Mike Tuscherer and Reactive Training Systems – so I suggest you look there for more detailed information – but just as a quick overview, the RPE scale goes as follows:
- RPE 10 – Max Effort Lift
- RPE 9.5 – Not a true max, but no reps left in the tank
- RPE 9 – 1 rep left in the tank
- RPE 8 – 2 reps left in the tank
- RPE 7 – 3 reps left in the tank
The majority of the time, your training will fall between an RPE 8 and an RPE 9.
This means you’ll strive to leave 1-2 reps in the tank on most exercises, and you’ll choose a weight based on what feels like an RPE 8 or RPE 9 in each workout.
What Are the Benefits of Percentage-Based Training?
The main benefit of percentage-based training is that it holds you accountable to constant progression.
In order to make progress, volume (sets x reps x weight) must go up over time.
This is because your body’s a survival machine that adapts to the stresses imposed on it, so each time you train – and your body adapts to a specific workload (by getting bigger and stronger) to better handle that workload the next time around – you have to provide an even greater workload to re-stimulate progress (this is known as progressive overload).
If you just go in to the gym and train – without a plan – you may or may not increase volume on a consistent basis (trying to add weight, reps, or sets each week is a daunting task).
If you map out volume and intensity in advance, you guarantee that volume is rising from one training week, month, or year to the next.
What are the Benefits of Auto-Regulation?
The main benefit of auto-regulation is that it allows you to adjust for day-to-day fluctuations in fatigue and performance.
Strength gain isn’t linear, and our levels of stress and fatigue change on a daily basis (based on a TON of factors).
This means our 1RM changes as well.
Your all time best lift on a back squat may be 400lbs, but that doesn’t mean you can just walk in to the gym and hit 400lbs whenever you like.
Fatigue masks performance, so on days that you’re more fatigued (because you didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t eat enough food, had a bad break-up with your significant other, etc.), your squat 1RM may be closer to 380lbs.
On days that you’re less fatigued (because you got a good night’s sleep, ate a ton of good food, aced your final exams, etc.), your 1RM may be closer to 410lbs.
Because your 1RM changes on a daily basis, your percentages change as well.
Some days 90% becomes 95%, and other days 90% becomes 85%.
If you stick to the percentages on your training plan regardless of these fluctuations in fatigue and performance, you could either
- Create a disproportionate amount of fatigue – because you’re training too close to failure – that hinders performance throughout the rest of the training cycle, or
- Miss out on opportunities to really push the envelope and boost progress.
If you auto-regulate your training – and take what your body’s giving you – you decrease the likelihood that this will happen.
The Hybrid Approach
As you can probably tell by now, each approach alone is not ideal.
Percentages are great for making sure you’re providing your body with sufficient overload, but because they aren’t flexible, the overload may be too little or too great in some training sessions, and could negatively impact the rest of the training cycle.
Auto-regulation is great for allowing you to make timely adjustments based on how you feel. But because some people don’t know how to accurately gauge how they feel – and therefore may make the wrong adjustment, or make adjustments when they’re not needed – they end up spinning their wheels.
So, instead of using one approach or the other, your best bet is to blend the positives of each approach together.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Use percentage ranges on your main lifts
I stole this idea from Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems.
Your main lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls, carry’s, etc.) use the most muscle mass, have the greatest loading capacity, and give you the most bang for your training buck, so you want to progress these lifts as much as possible.
Therefore, use percentages (so you can control the magnitude and rate of progression), but instead of aiming for 3 sets of 3 at 90% (like normal), a better option would be to aim for 3 sets of 3 at 85-90%.
If you come in to the gym and the weights feel light, use loads closer to 90%, and if you come in to the gym and the weights feel heavy, use loads closer to 85%.
Either way, you’re still using loads heavy enough to get stronger.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Stronger
But, while the percentages allow you to map out volume and intensity for constant – and ensured – progression, the range allows you to adjust for daily fluctuations in fatigue and performance.
2. Use RPE on your Accessory Lifts
Most people don’t know their 1RM on accessory lifts – nor should they necessarily test for one – so there’s really no need to use percentages.
Instead, use the RPE scale.
Aim to leave 1-2 reps in the tank on most exercises (RPE 8 or RPE 9), and adjust the weight based on how you feel in each workout.
3. Always listen to your body
Lastly – and regardless of whether or not you use percentages, RPE, or a combination of both – you should always be auto-regulating your training.
Because auto-regulation extends far beyond just the load on the bar.
As much as we may like to think we can accurately predict how our body will react to a training plan, we can’t.
Have a plan that points you toward your destination.
But determine, and change, the specific route to that destination as you go along.
As I said earlier, the fitness industry swings on a pendulum.
A lot of people get good results staying on one side of the pendulum or the other, but it’s the people who hop off the pendulum – and learn to see the positives in every approach – who come away with great results.
If you’re fine with “good,” use auto-regulation OR percentage-based training.
But if you want “great,” use both.