Progressive overload is one of the guiding principles of weight training and sport performance. The idea of progressive overload is gradually overloading your body with a stimulus (i.e. heavy resistance training) to elicit a positive adaptation (i.e. getting stronger). This overloading can be done through various methods. In our Performance Fitness classes, intensity is one of the easiest variables to manipulate and to use to your advantage. You can manipulate intensity by feel or by percentage based increments. When working with percentages, intensity will refer to as a percentage of 1-rep max (1RM). A 1RM is a weight you can only accomplish one time and then you fail.

Percentages are easy to figure out when it comes to grocery coupons, buying clothes, and when dealing with money in general, but it can get a little fuzzy when working in the weight room.

Lets look at a quick example. If your 1RM back squat is 100kg, and you squat 80kg in the workout, you just squatted 80% of your 1RM. Simple, right?

When your 1RM is 127kg, maybe it gets a little tougher, but the principle equation stays the same. If you wanted to lift 80% of your 1RM (127kg) you would multiply 127 by .8 (or 80%). The  product is ~102kg.

How do I use percentages in the context of a workout?

If the workout calls for “back squat 6×4”, you should have an idea that your 4RM is 90% of your 1RM (according to the percentage charts in the weight room). You can use this information to figure out where you want to end up for your last few squat sets.

We can’t expect you to max out every day. You would break. A good guideline to follow on a daily basis is to be 0-10% below your respective rep max. For this particular squat day, an appropriate weight selection would be anywhere from 80-90% of your 1RM depending how you’re feeling (90% minus 0-10%). If you’re feeling great in this particular session, push yourself to set a new rep max (go above 90% on the last set). There’s no shame in missing a lift when the effort is clearly there.

If you don’t want to bother with percentages or don’t know your 1RM, don’t fret, another nice way to gauge intensity is by feel.

What does “lifting by feel” mean?

Lifting by feel is just that. A weight either feels heavy or it feels light. It takes a little bit more tinkering in terms of adding weight to the bar, but you can benefit by using this method as well.

Simply put, the harder a weight is to lift, the higher the intensity. The easier a weight is to lift, the lower the intensity. To see long term gains in the weight room, you would want to try to make the lift to feel as challenging as possible (especially the Olympic lifts and squats). “Challenging” can be best defined as a spectrum. On one end you may be able to eek out 1 or 2 more reps at the completion of the set. The other end of “challenging” may mean to working to failure on a particular lift. Continuously using challenging weights will help spur adaptations.

You certainly don’t want to get used to failing on every lift, but once in a while isn’t a bad thing. This just means your pushing to your physical capacity and overloading your body.

If I’m lifting heavy all the time, how am I supposed to work on technique?

This is a very common question and a valid concern. While we do want you to push the weight, we also want you to lift with optimal technique. When we program Olympic lifts and squats, we will typically program five or more sets. This is the perfect time to use the first two or three sets as “warm up” sets to hammer home some important fundamentals and perform technique work in the respective lifts.

As always, we record the following 1RMs for you during the respective benchmark days (Power Clean, Power Snatch, Back Squat, and Front Squat). I would suggest using the percentage based method for your squats and Olympic lifts. Feel free to look in the training binder for these 1RMs as needed.

Just as you expect superior coaching on a daily basis from us, we expect full commitment and effort on a daily basis from you.

John Grace

John Grace

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Sport Performance Coach | NSCA-CSCS | USA Track & Field L-1 | Avid Blogger | Voracious Reader
John Grace


Orlando City SC | S&C | Sport Sci | I tweet about all things sport science, coaching, training, and athlete development.
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