Steve Shaw on 85 Percent of Your One Rep Max

Posted on 05 Nov 2015 22:43


Steve Shaw recently posted a status on Facebook about trainees calculating 85% of their One Rep Max.

Steve is an older guy who is has dropped 60 lbs in his late 40s and has been competing in powerlifting for many years. I have a lot of respect for the gentleman and even though we obviously do not see eye to eye on every single weight training related topic (nobody does, face it), I do listen when he speaks. He has recently joined Marc Lobliner’s team at Tiger Fitness and is their content editor-in-chief.

Steve posted a status about 5x5 routines and using plugged in percentages that I have some thoughts on. I’d like to quote Steve first:

If you can perform a 5x5 with "85% of your one rep max" it's not 85% of your one rep max.

This is one of those statements that makes most people debate about true maxes and training maxes. However, there is more to that. This isn’t some bogus statement – atleast not to me. I know that a lot of people love cookie-cutter programs like 5x5 and Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) among others.

I’ve been around in the online fitness world since 2004 back when Doggcrapp’s “cycle for pennies” came out. I know I’m young and I bring this up because spreadsheets about 5x5 and HST have been floating around for a long time now.

In fact, I know a lot of you who’ve seen the new workout routines by Layne Norton, Chad Wesley Smith, Brandon Lily, etc will scoff at people’s thinking back then. Would you believe it if I told you most people 10 years ago who were exposed to all these new routines used to allocate strength training and mass gaining routines in 3 month cycles for a yearly plan? People would actually do 5x5 for 3 months, HST or Max OT or German Volume Training (GVT) for 3 months, Dual Factor 5x5 or Westside for 3 months and Max OT or GVT or HST for 3 months?

Here’s the issue with using percentages even if you’re using them off an actual max – which is something most people do not practice. Most people hit a lift for 2 or more reps and then use a calculator to find out their supposed one rep max and then they discount that by 10% or so to get a working max and then they take 85% or whatever percentage from THAT.

For example, a trainee who performs 3 reps on the squat with 300 pounds will use a calculator to find his training max. This max will be 318 pounds or thereabouts and he will discount 10% off that and take 286 pounds as his working max. You’re probably wondering why this practice is in place, and the truth is that it is pushed by “coaches” under the pretext of giving the trainee a running start to the program and so they can keep hitting rep personal records at sub-maximal weights and feel good about it because they’ll be too distracted to notice their actual one rep max is stuck.

So if you take 85% off these pretend-numbers you get 243 pounds. Why would someone who has hit 300 pounds for a double be better off doing 243 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps? That drop is ridiculous. But He will be able to take 243 and keep adding tiny amounts of 5 pounds to it every week for atleast 6-8 weeks before he runs into a wall. This is a great technique for marketing middle-ground strength training and bodybuilding methods to impressionable folk.


This is one way to look at the way percentages are being used today. You do have to consider though, that not everyone who goes to the gym wants to go balls to the wall with their training. A lot of people just want to move around and feel good about lifting and for these people cookie cutter programs like 5x5 are very helpful and easy to do. I do not spite these people or find them second-grade gym goers. Good for them. But this is not how most serious trainees should be training themselves.

Another way to look at this is to understand that percentages should act as guidelines for the trainee instead of definitive set-in-stone parameters that they’ve manifested into. Here’s a look at a typical periodization program and the format is “sets x reps”:

Week 1: set one rep max
Week 2: 5 x 5 @ 80%
Week 3: 5 x 3 @ 85%
Week 4: 3 x 3 @ 90%
Week 5: 2 x 2 @ 95%
Week 6: set new one rep or assume gain of 10% and repeat from Week 2

This is an extremely flawed model yet most of you have seen many gym goers using this to train. Excluding the argument of using the same progression for lifts across the board, this model is based on the flaw that what a trainee can do right this instant is what he or she will be made to do several weeks down the line. So the ability of the trainee is not being tested.

If the trainee can do 90% of his or her max right now, why postpone it to 4 weeks down the line? How has that added strength? If a trainee is unable to convert a set of 3 reps into a set of 3 or 4 or 5 or more reps, how does one know that strength has increased? It is just simply plugging in numbers and enjoying the formulas tweaking them and providing a reasonable output. But real strength training is about pushing the envelope and breaking through limits. This is why I agree with Steve that for most people who are basing all their training off percentages, 85% of their training max is really not 85% at all.

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