When and How To Adjust Your Training Max
A big thing I’ve learned through experience as a coach, and am still continuing to learn, is when and how to adjust a lifter’s training max. What seems to be the simple answer is to set their training max at whatever their best 1RM squat, bench press, and deadlift is, but that tends to be a fallacy. Most likely your current PRs were performed within a meet or on days where you were feeling very strong. As a powerlifter, you know those days where you are feeling stronger than ever are few and far between. So if the majority of your training is not under those same conditions, then basing your percentages off a number you cannot hit on a regular basis is going to lead to some issues. I included the comparison videos above of Payton I. (CLICK HERE) as he is a lifter that we very much see a distinct difference between numbers he can hit in training versus in a meet. Side by side are a 590lb. squat in the gym versus his 2nd attempt of 584lbs. at the Arnold. His current best gym squat is 590lbs., which was a bit of a grinder and probably a touch high, but his best meet squat was 606lbs. with probably another 10lbs. or so left in the tank. If I was to program Payton’s squat off of his current meet PR, that would be 3% higher than anything he’s been able to do in training. And while 3% seems small, thats the equivalent of 1 rep. So if I used his meet PR for his training max, everything I program for him would be 1 rep harder than it should be. I made the mistake multiple times of adjusting lifter’s training maxes post-meet to what they hit on the platform, and time and time again saw them getting crushed by these new numbers. After learning from my mistakes, what do I do instead? Here is a detailed breakdown of my general strategies for when and how I adjust an athlete’s training max.
1.) The first thing I take in consideration when choosing training maxes for an athlete is what I believe their baseline strength is. What this means is that even on a bad day they should be able to hit “X” number. But at the same time, I don’t want to only plan for bad days, I want to plan for the average strength level of where the majority of their training will take place. Fact is there are some training days where athletes will outperform the assigned percentages, and some days they will under perform, so as a coach I want to find that happy medium. So using Payton as an example, his top end strength looks to be somewhere around 610-615lbs. and his best gym lift is 590lbs. I am taking into consideration that I know there have been days Payton can hit more in the gym than 590lbs., as on that specific day he hit 590lbs. he was under very high fatigue. So as his training max, we will go right between the two numbers and set his squat at 600lbs. That is a number that I believe is repeatable within the gym, and I am also factoring in that Payton tends to perform very well on rep sets versus singles, so programming his training max too low will make those sets too easy. And since Payton is a fairly experienced lifter, we may not adjust this training max for months on end, unless we see specific evidence otherwise, which I will touch on later.
2.) Payton C. just started lifting 2 years ago, and he’s still experiencing those “newbie” gains. It seems like every other month he’s hitting some new massive PR on each lift, but I do not immediately adjust his training max to match that, and there are two main reasons for that. First is due to the principle of acute/chronic workload ratio (ACWR). In short, ACWR states that any training workload that is 10% more or less than the 4 week trailing average shows an increased likelihood for injury. About 6 months ago Payton hit a new PR squat of 485lbs. in a training block where his training max was set at 440lbs. If I had immediately increased his training max to 485lbs. it would have jumped his training volume by 9.9%, or just right at that upper limit for ACWR, and would have put him at a higher risk of injury. Rather I decided to split that in the middle and set his training max at 460lbs., which increased total volume by 4.3%. This then leads to the second point, which is that the 4.3% increase and new training max of 460lbs. was an increased stimulus in training over anything Payton has done. For a new lifter who has years ahead of him to make progress and increase his training workload, I’d rather eek out every bit of strength we can from less total work. Too often people just want to throw more and more volume and frequency on the table thinking they will get faster stronger. But more likely, they will get injured sooner and stall out, as we saw with many Junior lifters from 2015-2018. Recently though I think an influx in good coaches have helped to curtail that issue and we are seeing more manageable progress and training adjustments with these Junior lifters than we saw before. With Payton, over the next 5 training blocks I slowly increased that training max by an average of 5lbs. each block until we finally caught up to 485lbs. But now at this point, I am fairly confident if Payton retested his max, it would be over 500lbs., so as long as his “newbie” gains continue, we most likely will be playing catch up with his training max for a while.
3.) Everything I’ve stated so far has been directed towards percentage based programming, but RPE is an excellent tool to make these weekly training max adjustments based on how the lifter feels each day. But not everyone should or will train based off of RPE, so its important to understand when and how to adjust training maxes when the majority of the workload is percentage based. With that, RPE is still a great tool within percentage based programs. With Payton C., even though his program is percentage based, I still have him rate his RPE to track progress. If you search ” RPE percentage chart” on Google, you will see exactly how we can translate his RPE ratings to be used to calculate his 1RM. After he hit that 485lb. PR squat, we needed to see proof over the next couple blocks that the strength he displayed on that PR was repeatable before continuing to increase his training max. The training block after his average projected max on his top single squats based of his RPE ratings was 479lbs. So while it showed it was higher than the 460lb. training max, he had yet to show that 485lbs. was repeatable on a weekly basis. Fast forward 2 blocks later, and that average increased to 483lbs., and then 1 block after that it increased to 500lbs., which is then when I bumped his training max up to 485lbs. finally.
4.) For someone like Payton I. who is more experienced and seeing slower progress, more than likely we are going to be training at a truer training max throughout the year. So with that, we are less likely to make adjustments to his training max block to block. For Payton, we do use RPE top sets to account for this so that we can auto regulate and test his strength on a regular basis to allow him to outperform his training max if the strength is there. But if we did full percentage based training, we could still use the tactic above of rating the RPE of his sets to track progress. Unlike Payton C. though, I will probably need to see multiple training blocks of sustained increase with Payton I. before making adjustments. For example, let’s say for 2 training blocks in a row we see continually that he is averaging a projected max of 610lbs. The next training block I will raise his training max to 605lbs. to split the difference in half, and then if he continues for 1 more training block averaging 610lbs. or more, I will then adjust up another 5lbs. to eventually match the 610lbs. projected 1RM he has been averaging. 5lbs. may not seem like much, but it is around 1% increase in training volume. At high levels of lifting, 1% increases add up over time. If we increase his training max 3 times within a year by 5lbs. each time, thats about a 10% increase in workload within 3 years, for someone who is already handling a very high level of training volume. If we said the same about Payton’s total, and he increased his max by 3% each year, within 3 years he’d go from totaling 1664lbs. to 1813lbs. at 93kg. While a 1% increase in training volume isn’t going to correlate exactly with a 1% increase in total, when you can see those bigger numbers, it makes sense how 1% increases can add up over time.
5.) Life stress also plays a role in when and how I will adjust someone’s training max. Since Payton C.’s training max tends to be fairly sub-maximal right now, rarely do we have a day that just goes badly and he cannot perform the assigned weights. Whereas with Payton I., we have found that fluctuations in his work schedule can make a profound difference, especially since he is training at a more true training max. So based on multiple life factors, we may adjust his training max during certain times of the year to account for his baseline strength fluctuating. This most likely will not be a drastic change, but maybe we drop his training max on squat by 10lbs. during a block where we know work stress is going to be high. Those high stress times is also when RPE based training can be very useful to allow for a lifter to regulate during each training session. In my recent YouTube video, I discussed how the two athletes I have that have fully auto-regulated RPE programs are both lifters who have high life stress and large fluctuations in strength. As a coach, it would be near impossible for me to optimize a program for them based off of percentages alone. So when we see lifters who fluctuate a lot during certain times of the year, maybe during those periods we transition to more RPE based work rather than percentage based.