The Charm of Percentage Based Routines

Posted on 29 Nov 2015 13:38

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Picture this scenario: a trainee meets a more experienced lifter. Trainee is not a beginner and has been dabbling in some mainstream defined “intermediate” programs. His total fits the bill. What will the experienced lifter most likely advise him?

We see this happening on a day to day basis all over the internet. The experienced lifter who has picked up a few common Strength & Conditioning books will tell the trainee to either try Smolov or Sheiko or Coan/Phillippi or if he has been truly adventurous, he will ask the trainee to do the Magnusson/Ortmayer routine. But all of these popular routines fall into the category of “Percentage Based Routines”.

I was recently discussing my training with a close friend of mine and he happened to mention how much he loves certain percentage based routines and how he thinks I should give one of them a shot. I almost dismissed the idea right off the bat for a plethora of reasons but as I sat back and thought about it, it occurred to me that these fancy sounding Percentage Based Routines really do appeal to a wide group of people and it got me started on writing this article. Many trainees start these highly rigid numerically inclined programs and a few walk away uninjured and stronger and people take this as a prestigious challenge for greater glory. Percentage Based Routines have a certain charm to them but they aren't what “experts” mesmerize you to believe they are.

What are Percentage Based Programs?

When I refer to "Percentage Based Programs", I am talking about set-in-stone programs which work off estimated or performed One Rep Maximums on select lifts. They are rigid routines for set periods of time and each workout is meant to be performed in a certain way with no variation. The drawback of using these types of One Rep Maximums is that more often than not, trainees simply estimate these maxes or the maxes are their absolute maxes over time – as in they might have set that “Personal Record” many months prior to actually beginning the training routine. So, an outdated or estimated maximum actually ends up playing against them in the long run because these Percentage Based Routines use these maximums as cornerstones in their protocols.

The way these routines are written is: the trainee plugs in a 1RM which may be old, estimated or just plain qualitatively wrong, but nonetheless the 1RM is plugged in and the routine is generated. The routine comprises of workouts based on percentages of this 1RM which has been plugged in. Volume is standard and not altered to fit the trainee’s ability.

Which Percentage Based Programs are we discussing?

There is a large array of Percentage Based Programs out there from the Metal Militia Bench Program to Brad Gillingham's Deadlift/Squat Cycle. For the purposes of this article, I am going to discuss the following four routines:

  1. Smolov Squat Cycle
  2. Sheiko
  3. Magnusson/Ortmayer Deadlift Routine
  4. Coan/Phillipi Deadlift Routine

I'm choosing these 4 because they cover a wide programming base. Smolov focuses on Squats alone and is based on Frequency and Volume using Submaximal Loads. Sheiko is based on all the three lifts (for the most part) with Squats and Bench done twice in a week. Magnusson/Ortmayer is strictly for the Deadlift and is based on volume progression to maximal loads. Coan Philipi is also for the Deadlift but it is based on minimal direct Deadlift training and a heavy emphasis on assistance lifts.

Each of these routines is available online for free with excel spreadsheets, etc. I'm going to discuss a little of each to put things into perspective.

What is the General Overview of these Routines?

The Smolov Squat Cycle

The Smolov Squat Cycle is comprised of 4 "Mesocycles". The first Mesocycle is a preparatory cycle of 2 weeks, the second is a Base/Foundation Mesocycle of 4 weeks, the third is a Speed based Mesocycle of 2 weeks and the last Mesocycle is a 4 week intensity based cycle. So totally, this covers 12 weeks of training. Wikipedia has the entire program listed on its site.

Mesocycle 1: Preparatory

The trainee performs Squats 3 days a week for these two weeks. The first week focuses on 65% to 80% of his/her 1RM for a volume of 29-34 reps per session.

The second week is easier with the trainee working up to 80%-85% of his/her 1RM for a single set of 5 reps over 3 workout sessions.

Mesocycle 2: Base and Foundation

This Mesocycle spans a 4 week time period.

Week 1 focuses on training Squats 4 times that week. The Trainee is meant to use 70%, 75%, 80% and 85% of his/her 1RM over 4 workout sessions for volumes of (sets x repsx) 4 x 9, 5 x 7, 7 x 5 and 10 x 3 respectively. This volume stays constant for the first 3 weeks of this Mesocycle with Week 2 having 20 lbs added to these percentages and Week 3 having 30 lbs added to these same base percentages.

Week 4 is a deload week where the trainee performs a Maximum Attempt twice in the week. This max is used as the 1RM for the remaining Program.

Mesocycle 3: Speed

While Mesocycle 2 focused on volume of 30-36 reps broadly, Mesocycle 3 focuses on 18-25 reps done in "speed" fashion using 50%-65% of the trainee's new 1RM. This cycle is spread out over 2 weeks.

Mesocycle 4: Intensity

This Mesocycle spans 4 weeks and the trainee is meant to Squat 3 times each week. The volume is heavily waved using intensities ranging from 65% to 80% in the first week and then building on that to 70% to 95% in the last week. The volume is also waved from 20-24 reps each workout in Week 1 to 32 reps each workout in Week 4 till it pyramids up to minimal volume with the heaviest weight (at 95% Intensity).

Test Week

There is an additional last week which involves setting a new 1RM which would ideally be just pre-contest or even on Contest Day.

Sheiko

There are many many routines listed by Boris Sheiko and the most popular ones on the internet are #29, #32 and #37.

His routines are designed around training the Squat, Bench and Deadlift over a 3 day frequency per week for 4 weeks. Deadlifts are done on Wednesdays and Squats and Bench are done on Mondays and Fridays with each one being heavy/light. All of his routines can be found on EliteFTS.com.

I was going to elaborate on his routines but after going through them, they have a similar pattern. The trainee Squats twice a week, Benches twice a week and never does any direct deadlift but the deadlift is broken down into partial Deadlifts to the Knees and Rack Pulls. The minimal intensity used is 50% and the highest is 85%. This is classic high volume low intensity training with big compound movements. Volume is sometimes as large as 100+ reps per week just on one exercise. But you are always using submaximal loads.

Magnusson/Ortmayer Deadlift Routine

The history of this routine is slightly vague. The routine was originally published on the forums at BodyBuilding.com where Travis Ortmayer is a poster. Magnusson has never commented on this routine and it still has his name on it.

Ortmayer has discussed this routine and has claimed it put him into the Big Boy League of Deadlifters pulling 850+.

The routine is very basic.

Week 1 involves the trainee performing
4 sets of 4 reps with 70%
2 sets of 2 reps with 80%
1 set of 8+ reps with 70%

Week 2 involves the trainee performing
4 sets of 4 reps with 70%
2 sets of 2 reps with 80%
1 set of 2 reps with 90%
1 set of 8+ reps with 70%

Every week after this, if all the reps are done completely the week before, 10 lbs is added to the Intensities. This cycle keeps repeating itself till the trainee starts missing lifts in which case a deload and a reset of sorts is recommended.

Of all the Percentage Based Routines out there, this one has the trainee hitting 90%+ of his/her 1RM most often and I think that comparatively that puts it above the rest, although it is not sustainable.

Coan/Phillipi

Tsampa.org has this routine. To begin with, the user has to enter in their current Deadlift max and then their desired Deadlift max (please make note of this feature because the desired Deadlift max is almost guaranteed). Once the user enters in these two figures, a routine is generated. The routine has 10 weeks of training and an 11th Test week session.

The overview is 1 top set of Deadlifts for 2 reps (and later 1 rep towards the 10 week mark) followed by assistance work involving Speed Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Bent Over Rows, Lat Pulldowns, Good Mornings and Power Shrugs.

When a Current Deadlift Max of 500 lbs and a Desired Deadlift Max of 525 lbs is entered, the top set of Deadlifts begins at roughly 80% of 1RM and increases in 25 lbs increments over the 9 remaining weeks.

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What is the Common Theme in these Routines?

The first similarity is the heavy emphasis on high volume at submaximal loads and a general avoidance of maximal lifting. I define submaximal loads as anything less than 90% of 1RM. Apart from the Ortmayer/Magnusson routine, none of the routines ever truly focus on heavy lifting for more than 1-2 workouts and even the Ortmayer/Magnusson routine has a disproportionate level of reliance on its volume work being in the lower weight ranges.

Second, none of these routines were originally meant to have such rigid percentages. This rigidity has come about with their popularity online. Originally, these routines were conceived for specific trainees and the weights were guidelines - not set in stone numbers. They revolved around weight ranges. These percentages that most people cling to were only meant to serve as guidelines for the trainee.

So, for example, in the Smolov Squat Cycle, the percentages were just meant to serve as guidelines. The trainee takes a reasonable weight, performs some volume work, then adds some weight, performs more volume. Next session, try to build on the second volume and reduce the first one a little. This is simple in principle. With Sheiko it was also the same principle spread out over 3 lifts over 3 workout sessions. Magnusson/Ortmayer is glaringly the same; take a lightish weight and do some volume. Add some weight for a double and add some more weight closer to your max for a double again. Then, every week keep adding weight to the bar and see if the volume gets negatively affected. If it does, build on it. Coan Phillipi is similar: minimal heavy lifting and maximal reliance on assistance and secondary exercises. This has been illustrated in the routine descriptions above.

If this is true, why are so many people successful using these routines and why are they so popular?

This is a common question which arises regarding these routines. So many people do them so obviously they have to work, right?

Wrong. There actually aren't that many people who actually complete any of these routines. First, as a general principle, no matter what routine you do, if you shift from what you are doing to absolutely anything else you WILL see results for the first few weeks. So, the short 4 week routines like Sheiko will provide that illusion of it working for the trainee. But, there are not a large number of trainees that end up without injuries doing these programs again and again. They are not sustainable. Smolov usually ends with most people lifting really heavy loads invariably getting injured or over-reaching and just quitting. Sheiko practitioners don't just go through the programs indefinitely. Same deal with Magnusson/Ortmayer because it is impossible to meet that volume just through linear progression of adding weight to the bar and keeping volume constant. Coan/Phillipi goes the same way because of the subjectivity of the "Desired" max. Some of these programs are even considered “peaking” programs that are used just prior to a competition and the rest of the time (referred to as the “offseason”) you will find the trainee doing other types of workouts.

Regardless of how the new lifters and armchair experts would like to reason, lifting submaximal loads will not get most regular people strong in the long haul. All the lifters who have been training for 15-20+ years, who have experienced much more than the new upcomers will swear by the importance of training the key lifts heavy and in a sustainable manner. One such advocate that comes to mind is Bob Gaynor. However, since I do not want to perpetuate anecdotal evidence, let me put this logically. You want to get strong. That means you have to actually lift heavy weight. This means that the various aspects of lifting a heavy weight have to be experienced by you. When someone does a heavy bench or squat or deadlift, there are many factors which play a role. Arousal, preparedness, ability to fight and not give up, grinding it out and sticking with it being some of them. If you don't lift heavy, you will never train these aspects. And the difference between a failed lift and a successful one ARE these issues. If you train around at least 85 to 100% of 1RM on a regular basis, with a heavy emphasis on 90% plus, you are much better prepared to lift it versus someone else who trains at 80 or lower for the majority of their training. To get strong you have to get good at lifting heavy loads.

Another point about why some people are actually "successful" at these routines is that most of them have never really trained to get strong. You take someone who has been doing typical bodybuilder training and you put him on any of these routines and boom: he will get stronger. Makes sense, right? He or she has never really trained to get strong so absolutely anything he/she does is going to be successful. There is a good reason that these routines find their most devoted audience on bodybuilding forums.

Apart from these reasons, some people need their training to be highly detailed and planned. Usually, it is when everything else in their lives is up in the air that they try to find that stability factor in training. But, I genuinely believe that no matter how much comfort these trainees get in these rigid programs, if they were given some flexibility in their training - some flexibility with guidelines and directions; they would prosper much much more.

Eric wrote an article which discusses this aspect in greater detail. The article can be found here: Why Programs Work. Training programs should be written with specific goals in mind. However, almost all the conventional popularized programs out there have it backwards: the coach comes up with a fancy routine and then decides to allot a particular goal to it. This often leads to trainees running around switching programs and not really “training” but cycling through various routines: they adopt the mindset that “the best program is the one you’re not doing” which is counter-productive to them achieving their goals.

So What is my Take Home Message for You?

Percentage Based Programs have a certain charm and appeal to them: they appear legitimate with their catchy names. But one should not be lured into these traps. They provide the illusion for success while potentially placing you in harm's way.

To get strong you have to be able to lift heavy regularly. This means going back to the original basis from which all these routines were born: training within a weight range and mastering it before moving on to the next weight range.

In all routines, percentages are meant to serve as guidelines to help direct the trainee. At the end of the day, programs have to be sustainable and in order to do that, the progression has to be flexible for each trainee in order to adapt to the trainees needs and safeguard the trainee from injury.


Resources

"Smolov Squat Cycle." Smolov Squat Cycle. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://ontariostrongman.ca/resources/training/smolovsquatcycle.htm>.

"Powerlifting Heads-Up." Powerlifting Heads-Up. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.joeskopec.com/smolov.html>.

"Beginner Sheiko Training Programs." EliteFTS. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.elitefts.com/sheiko/>.

"Thread: Magnusson/Ortmayer Deadlift Routine." Magnusson/Ortmayer Deadlift Routine. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://forum.bodybuilding.com/showthread.php?t=142194651>.

"TESTOSTERONE NATION | Magnusson/ Ortmayer Deadlift Routine - Page 1."TESTOSTERONE NATION | Magnusson/ Ortmayer Deadlift Routine - Page 1. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://tnation.t-nation.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding_strength/magnusson_ortmayer_deadlift_routine_>.

"Coan/Phillipi 10 Week Deadlift Routine." Tsampa.org: Coan-Phillipi 10 Week Deadlift Routine. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://tsampa.org/training/scripts/coan_phillipi_deadlift/>.

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