First, if you are past the trial phase (generally the first 4-6 weeks) and you want to continue with this kind of training and get the most out of your time at the gym, you need to focus on perfecting the mechanics of the lifts, gradually adding weight and writing down EVERY instance of each lift: The lift (Power Clean), the scheme (5×3) the load (115#), how you warmed up to that weight and any notes. This will teach you about the relationship between volume and load, how you best warm up for various lifts and about your current ability in that lift.
FYI, new folks tend to start their progressions too heavy. Occasionally it’s possible they will start too light. The reason we want you to start “so light” is so that you can continue to practice and refine the lift for the next 6 weeks before the weight starts to come on. Then you are better prepared to bear the load and you have somewhere to go – meaning you’re not going to fail on a 3×5 five weeks in (it should take you somewhere around 4 months before you start failing). As a guideline we tell clients to go by feel in establishing their first 3×5 number for the back squat for instance. At the end of 3 sets of 5 reps, on a scale of 1-10 (1 lightest, 10 heaviest) I want them to tell me the weight was a “5”.
As you continue to progress, it’s important that you resolve to get your 1 rep max’s (1RM) established and recorded. This is basic. Some of the programming we write, particularly for veteran or advanced athletes, is relative to your maximal ability in the lift/movement. I.E. Back Squats programmed at 80% of your 1RM. In order to get the most out of the programming, you need to know 80% of WHAT??
Certain requirements must be in place before you go for a heavy single but once a base level of mobility/range of motion, stability and strength in the position have been established it’s time to move forward. There may be lifts for which you have no business attempting a 1RM yet because you’re physically not capable of assuming the correct position. Which is fine. I would say the Back Squat, Deadlift and Press are a good starting point. They are fundamental for strength, some of the least dynamic and technical lifts and are generally achievable for most clients fairly quickly. They are also the building blocks of the Olympic lifts and their derivatives.
Generally the first time you will do a 1RM is when you reach failure in the various lifts that constitute the foundation of our strength program (ie you can only add 5 lbs to your back squat for so long before you fail). Once you fail, then we test your 1RM the following week. If you started your progression light, at the proper place, generally most people will fail at the lifts somewhere around 4 months (*if you’ve been coming consistently!*). This is not an absolute, it’s just a starting frame of reference.
Once you have competence with these lifts and have established your 1RM’s, you can progress to getting 1RM’s for other common lifts we do as your ability/technique allows. For the Olympic lifts specifically, your coaches may have you spend the first few months working from the hang so that you can learn correct mechanics in the 2nd and 3rd pull and then progress to pulling the bar off the floor. So certainly it may take longer to get a 1RM Power Clean number than it does to establish your 1RM Press.
SO NOW BACK TO PERCENTAGES
80% means 80%. Not 75% and not 85%. And certainly not some random weight you used in a metcon/WOD 2 months ago. The load you use should be within 1 lb of the exact percentage written. (of course if your body is telling you otherwise, let your coach know)
Now let’s cover some of the most common ways we write numbers:
5-5-5-5-5 – This means 5 sets of 5 reps, generally progressing in load each set, ending in a maximal lift for 5 reps in the 4th or 5th set. The dashes are the key to letting you know to add weight each set. Also, the first set of 5 is NOT A WARM-UP SET. You do all your warming up prior to that. It’s a “working set”, let’s say somewhere around 70% of the heaviest load you finish with.
3×5 – This means 3 sets of 5 reps, all performed at the same load. All of your warming up is done prior to the first set of 5. As you mature in the progression you may very well wonder if you’ll be able to get through 2 more sets at that weight after you rack the first set. When you’re new it’s easy to overestimate or possibly underestimate what load is appropriate. Your coach can help you get the load for your first 3×5 established. Remember we are looking for a “5” in terms of intensity for your starting weights in each lift. NOT HEAVY.
Here are the lifts in the gym and a general suggestion with how to progress:
- Back Squat, adding 5lbs each week
- Press, adding 2.5 lbs each week
- Bench, adding 5lbs each week
- Pull-Up Work, first assisted, then bodyweight, then weighted adding 2.5lbs each week
5RM – This means the heaviest load you can move for a continuous set of 5. (In the case of the deadlift/Olympic lifts, don’t bounce the load or carry momentum into the lift when training for strength or technique. That’s for metcons. ) 1RM’s, 3RM’s, and 5RM’s are basic touch points to reference your strength in any given lift. They can be training tools in and of themselves and they are markers for your ability in that lift.
I hope this helps explain some of the crazy numbers and schemes you see everyday. The better handle you have on this stuff the more productive you will be when you’re lifting.
And if you are really taking this in and trying to get it all figured out, congratulations for not quitting and sticking with something that is both very hard and very rewarding. Most people won’t so don’t forget to give yourself the credit you deserve.
Here are a few other acronyms just for fun:
UB – unbroken
ME – max effort. Seriously. 110%.
BW – body weight
ROM – range of motion
OMEM – on the minute every minute
EMOM – every minute on the minute (same as above!)
AMRAP – as many rounds/reps as possible
C2B – chest to bar (pull-ups)
T2B – toes to bar
HPC – Hang Power Clean
HPS – Hang Power Snatch