Selecting Appropriate Training Load

Published On: June 27, 2021Categories: Programming, Research

Coaches play a complex role in the development of young athletes, writing training programs, teaching movement skills, helping reinforce the team culture, and monitoring progress. One of the more overlooked and undervalued areas of coaching is the role that the coach can play in the development of durable ancillary skills, attitudes, and behaviors that the athlete carries with them through their sporting career. One of the most important of these is the ability to select an appropriate load and load progression for a strength session. 

At some point, almost every S&C coach has looked at an athlete’s training log and seen that the same load has been used for weeks or even months. Once an athlete has a basic technical competence in the fundamental strength training movements and exercises, the intensity that they use is a primary determining factor in the outcome of the program, particularly the development of strength. An intensity below 60% of 1RM is considered suboptimal for the development of strength (ACSM 2002; Kramer and Ratames 2004) although there is some research emerging suggesting that a lower intensity may be enough to stimulate muscle hypertrophy (Mitchell et al. 2012; Morton et al. 2016; Schoenfeld et al 2015). The ability to self-regulate and choose an appropriate weight and progression on any given day is an important skill that ensures optimal progression in a strength program. It involves self-awareness, goal setting, and the ability to look forward to the demands of the rest of the training week.  

Most people will not select a high enough intensity on their own. Glass and Stanton (2004) found that novice lifters self-selected an intensity in the 42-57% 1RM range while Cotter et al (2017) found the average self-selected intensity for resistance exercises was 57% in a group of young women who had been resistance training at least 3x per week for a year prior to the study. While choosing an intensity that is too low will impact the outcome of the program there are some athletes who are too aggressive, choosing loads that are beyond their physical or technical abilities.  

Factors Affecting Loading Ability 

Fear of Injury 

An overabundance of caution on the part of coaches working with high school aged athletes limits the loading that these athletes experience prior to college. Some coaches have a fear that loading or progressing the athletes will cause injuries. Strength training is a safe activity with injury rates lower than most high school sports at 2-4 injuries per 1000hrs. Even competitive lifting sports have low injury rates with bodybuilding training resulting in 0.24-1 injury per 1000hrs, strongman competitors experiencing 4.5-6.1 injuries per 1000 hrs (Winwood et al, 2014), and powerlifters having 3.6-5.8 injuries per 1000hrs (Keogh, Hume and Pearson, 2006). Overall high school and middle school sports have an injury rate of 8.5 per 1000hrs with middle school soccer and volleyball having injury rates of 13.4 and 20.7 per 1000 hrs, respectively (Barber Foss et al. 2018). When strength training injuries do occur, the majority, up to almost 80% for some age groups, occur from dropped weights (Kerr et al., 2010). Once an athlete has acceptable technique, load progression becomes the cornerstone of strength development both for performance and preparation for a higher level of competition and the increased training load it requires.  

Time for teaching 

Direct supervision of strength and conditioning programs by a qualified professional has consistently been shown to be superior to non-supervised programs. Supervised programs will typically result in a 6-15% greater improvement in strength compared to non-supervised programs (Couts et al. 2004; Mazetti et al. 2000).  

Supervision alone is not enough to ensure enhanced performance, many coaches find themselves coaching full teams or large groups of athletes, limiting their ability to provide feedback or correction. Current guidelines for coach to athlete ratios are 1:10 for junior high school, 1:15 for high school and 1:20 for collegiate or university athletes (NSCA, 2009) these ratios are related to liability and safety and not the quality of instruction, which is also related to the instructor: athlete ratio. Gentil and Bottaro (2010) examined the differences between a 1:5 and 1:25 supervision ratio on strength gains. Following the same program over 11 weeks of training, lower body strength increased by 11.8% in the 1:5 group with no change in the 1:25 group. Upper body strength increased by 10.22% in the 1:25 group and by 15.9% in the 1:5 group. Generally, a lower athlete to coach ratio yields better performance outcomes than higher ratios. With fewer athletes to watch, a coach has more time to engage in technical teaching, feedback, and the development of ancillary skills like weight selection.  

Load and Anxiety 

The selection of inadequate intensity during resistance training contrasts with aerobic training studies where self- selected intensity is more in line with typical training recommendations (Dias et al 2018). The reasons for this are unknown but state anxiety is decreased with strength training in the 40-60% 1RM range and increases above 70% 1RM (Bartholomew et al. 1998; Focht 2002). A strength coach who creates a safe training environment that includes the use of competent spotters, safety bars in rack, and creates a culture where athletes feel confident in their abilities and are encouraged to challenge themselves, will help athletes to overcome the anxiety associated with higher loads. 

Taking an Active Role 

Ratamess et al. (2008) found significant increases in self-selected load in chest press, leg press and seated row in a group of women with more than 3 years of experience who worked with a personal trainer compared to a similar group who had been training on their own.  Neither group reached 60% of 1RM for any of the exercises studied, suggesting that without a plan to specifically monitor and prescribe intensity, or to teach loading, people do not effectively learn how to self-select an appropriate load.  

Setting Daily Goals and Plans 

While the athletes are warming up I take the time to talk to each of them and ask them what their goal and plan is for the primary exercises in the training session. Expectations are that we will engage in a discussion of how the athlete is feeling, what is scheduled for practice or what has happened in practice and what the rest of the week looks like. From there we review what happened in the previous strength session and set a load progression for the current session. If there is a change in the number of reps, we use a rep max chart to determine an expected load for the desired reps based on the previous session and set a goal for the day.  

As athletes become more experienced, I ask them to show up at the session with their plan already in place. To help an athlete to develop to the point that they can make thoughtful and appropriate load choices there are several load determination methods that I teach to help them think through their loading progressions.   

RM Loading Method 

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of weight lifted and the number of repetitions performed. As the weight increases the number of reps performed to muscular failure, the point where you cannot do another rep on your own, decreases. You will often see this written as 3RM or 10RM meaning 3 or 10 reps to muscular failure. This was a very popular method of describing the load for strength exercises and was used extensively in strength training research as it set a defined finish point for each set. More recent research suggesting that training to failure is not necessary has decreased the popularity of this method of describing loading (Davies et al 2016).  

Percent 1RM Training 

Basing training on percentages of 1RM is a common methodology used in strength program design. The mathematical nature of this method makes it ideal for long term planning of training load across a season. It is particularly useful for athletes in strength and power sports like powerlifting and weightlifting who know and test their 1RM on a regular basis. For athletes with a low training age and those who do not regularly test their 1RM, percentage-based training is less useful. Low training age athletes often do not have the technical skills to do a 1RM that represents their true strength, making any load prescription based on their test less accurate.  

During periods of rapid strength increase, getting back into a program following time off or starting a program for low training age athletes, make it difficult to use percentages of 1RM unless testing is done very frequently. If an athlete had a 1RM of 100 kg and was expected to work at 80% they would be lifting 80 kg. If over the next month their strength increased by 20%, but their 1RM was not re-evaluated, the 80 kg that they think is 80% would be only 67%, resulting in a different training outcome compared to training at 80%.  

To overcome the disruption the frequent 1RM testing causes, if you are training to failure on a set, several formulae have been developed to estimate a 1RM from repetitions to failure (table 1).  

Table 1. Estimating 1RM from Reps to Failure using weight lifted in kg

Brzycki 1RM = 100 x rep wt/(102.78-2.78 x reps) 
Epley 1RM = (1+ 0.0333 x reps) x rep wt 
Lander 1RM = 100 x rep wt/(101.3-2.67123 x reps) 
Lombardi 1RM = rep wt x reps 0.1 
Mayhew et al. 1RM = 100 x rep wt/(52.2 +41.9 x exp[-0.55x reps]) 
O’Conner et al.  1 RM = rep wt x (1+0.25 reps) 

Reps in Reserve 

The Reps in Reserve (RIR) method is a modified perceived exertion rating where the athlete is asked to estimate how many extra reps they could have done with a given weight. For instance, if an athlete did 6 reps but felt they could have done 8 they would have had 2 RIR. This method is easy to use and seems to be valid and reliable for a variety of skill and experience levels. Since the RIR method is based on the athlete’s perception at that point in time it allows them to self-regulate and adjust for the fatigue they are experiencing at that point in time. RIR is most effective when the range is 1-3 RIR, more than this makes it difficult to accurately estimate the load to lift. 

The loading method that I choose depends on the age, maturity, mathematical ability of the athlete and their interest in strength training. I start most athletes with the reps in reserve method as it is the easiest to understand and leaving a couple of RIR also provides a margin of safety if technique breaks down towards the end of a set. Many athletes will stick with the RIR method but for those that have an aptitude for math I will teach estimating 1RM from formula and assign percentages for the day. 

Perhaps you should include sections on using bar velocity and RPE.  Or roll RPE into RIR.   

Teaching loading does not happen overnight. There needs to be a plan, time, and effort for the athlete to understand and practice the skill. Eventually they will learn to self-regulate and selecting loads and progressions will become second nature.  For progression through a long-term training plan this is an essential skill that coaches should work to develop. 


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