Training Intensity Percentages as Used in Weightlifting

In Weightlifting, it is a common practice to use percentages (of best lifts) as a means to set the desired intensity of the athlete’s training in any given day. Intensity is measure of how hard or how difficult the training is. The following table provides an example of how words like “heavy” or “light” can be quantified by using training intensity percentages:

Table of training intensity in Weightlifting

The  percentages in the left column are worked from the athlete’s personal best lift. Thus, if following the percent bands in Figure 1 above, for an athlete who has a best Snatch of 100Kg, the very heavy range begins at 93Kg, the heavy range is 88-92Kg, and so on. The actual boundaries between each of these percent bands are arbitrary. By this I mean that other coaches will likely have different ideas as to where these boundaries lie. As always in the sport of Weightlifting, there is great delight among experienced coaches in finding some aspect of training methodology to debate, and certainly the above training intensity percentages will suffice in this regard!

There is a great need to provide athletes with guidance on how heavy to train (i.e. training intensity). If an athlete trains heavy on a very frequent basis, the likely result is a build up of stress, a failure to adequately recover between training sessions and a collapse of the athlete’s wellness. On the other hand, if the athlete’s training does not present sufficient stress, there is a likelihood that the athlete will make no improvement. Some level of stress is therefore vital for improvement of the athlete’s form, and training methodology is built around trying to get the level of stress just right. Hence, there is a need to quantify, in some way, the level of training stress experienced by the athlete. The use of training intensity percentages not only allows a coach to set limits on the level of stress to be experienced by the athlete but also enables intensity to be modified and manipulated relatively simply.

In this article, two methods for using percentages to quantify intensity will be discussed:

  • Method 1: Working percentages from an athlete’s best result on each and every exercise they undertake in training. This will require the athlete to have knowledge of their best result on more or less every exercise in their training schedule.
  • Method 2: Irrespective of whatever exercise is being performed, percentages are calculated according to the athlete’s best results on the competition platform. For example, percentages for squats are calculated from personal best Clean & Jerk.

In Method 1, if an athlete is assigned to train at 80% on a given day/session, they may perform all exercises at 80% of their best result for that exercise. Let’s say that athlete is scheduled to do Power Snatch, Jerk from Racks, Clean Pulls and Back Squats. Then, for each exercise, the athlete will need to know their personal best and calculate what is 80%. Here is another table to help:

Typical Method for Calculating and Using Training Intensity Percentages

This method has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is simplicity, particularly when the program writer uses a spreadsheet to develop training programs. Provided the athlete’s 1RM is known for each of the scheduled exercises, it is simple to apply an training intensity percentages across a whole day’s training. In Figure 2 above, 80% (medium intensity) is applied across the whole training session and this saves time for the coach writing the athlete’s program.

The main disadvantage, and it is potentially a big flaw, is that this method has the potential to perpetuate the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Let’s suppose the athlete is relatively good in the Snatch but weak in the Clean and Jerk due to lack of leg strength. If the athlete is assigned to train at 80% (which is perhaps the most frequent training intensity) they will train equally hard on all exercises and the comparative strength issue will not be resolved. What is required is to skew the athlete’s training a little more towards improving their specific weaknesses. This can be achieved by simply prescribing a higher intensity of training on those exercises deemed to be the athlete’s weaknesses (see Figure 3 below – back squat percentages increased).

An example of assigning different training intensity percentages to different exercises

But now the simplicity of describing the intensity of the training session with just one figure is lost. Pretty soon, there will be a temptation to assign different training intensities to each exercise because of the athletes eccentricities e.g. good in the power snatch but not so good in the snatch, can clean more that the can jerk, strong when doing pulls compared to how much they can lift overhead, etc.

But perhaps that’s best! It is perhaps sound coaching to alter intensities according to individual strengths and weaknesses but there may be a better way.

In Method 2, the method preferred by the author, the training intensity for each and every exercise is worked from the athlete’s actual competition best lifts. Every snatch exercise is worked from best result on the platform for the snatch, and every other exercise (including squats) is worked from the athlete’s best competition clean & jerk. This method is more time costly in writing programs but reduces the problem of perpetuating weaknesses. Thus the athlete does not work percentages from personal bests for the clean, and for the jerk separately. Similarly, working percentages for back squats off their personal best clean & jerk, means the athlete with strong legs is less likely to expend unneeded effort on squats. For example, a gold standard is for the athlete to be able to perform ‘full depth’ Front Squat 100% (for 3 reps) of their competition best clean and jerk. Importantly, it is important to understand what full depth actually means for this standard to be relevant. But if any athlete can already Front Squat 110% of their best Clean & Jerk for 3 reps easily, Method 2  below will restrict them from putting additional effort into squats. Figure 4 below provides a standard for percent bands for performing 3 reps on the Front Squat.

Front Squat Intensity

Criticisms of Method 2

Of course, there will be many who will say that in Weightlifting you can never have enough leg strength, and of course they are correct. But the training capacity and time resources of every athlete is not infinite and therefore continuing to devote the same time and energy to one’s strengths in comparison to one’s weaknesses is not an optimal training strategy. If an athlete has already surpassed the markers for superior leg strength then some time and energy can be withdrawn from squatting and better spent elsewhere.

Another criticism of relating all the training percentages for all exercises back to the athlete’s best lifts on the competition platform, is that it still does not change situation for athletes who are weak in the Snatch compared to their Clean & Jerk, or weak in the Clean & Jerk compared to their Snatch. However, this method does have two features that can assist in rectifying individual weaknesses.

  • Feature 1: Method 2 enables the athlete to identify their weaknesses. For example, if an athlete generally struggles with the lift off the floor when performing Clean Pulls with 110% (3 reps) of their best Clean & Jerk, then there is evidence that pull strength is a major limiting factor. Yes, of course, this is common as many athletes struggle to get the bar moving off the floor but manage good acceleration later in the pull. But nonetheless, it is easier for the coach to see differences between athletes, some of whom have no difficulty lifting 110% off the floor while others struggle.
  • Feature 2: Method 2 enables the defining of training intensity percentages that will serve to create standards for all athletes in the gym. When the coach programs many athletes, for example, to perform Front Squats with 90% (3 reps) of best Clean & Jerk in a given training session, the result is that some athletes will struggle while others will find it easy. This is perhaps how it should be – those athletes that need to work harder on their Front Squats will do so.

For more information about using Percent Bands, click here.