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Using percentage based programming to achieve calisthenics skills

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

UPDATE: I've just completed an excel RI% calculator for mantle chin-ups with functionality allowing you to select your own current 1RM progression. The sheet will then calculate estimations of %1RM that the easier progressions are. A very useful tool if you're training towards the one arm chin up.... DOWNLOAD IT HERE!

Before jumping into the meat and potatoes of strength training let’s first set the scene of a calisthenics athlete that might want to start using percentage based training. You’ve been training for a while and have got your pull ups, dips and bodyweight squats nailed. Maybe you have a muscle up or two in the bag as well. Now you’re looking to level up and start to train more advanced skills. The handstand push up, one arm chin up and other impressive feats of strength are calling! There’s only one problem, you can’t perform even close to one rep of these exercises so how can you create a program that will eventually get you these skills? Let’s first discuss some of the principles of strength training to help us get to our answer.

If you fit into the description outlined above you’re probably not a ‘beginner’ athlete so may be familiar with the principle of specificity, or as some call it the S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands). In a nutshell your training needs to be ‘specific’ to what you’re trying to achieve. Specificity fits onto a spectrum from most to least specific. For example when it comes to specificity relating to exercise selection for training to unlock the handstand push up (HSPU) the MOST specific way to train it, is to do handstand push ups (rocket science I know 😊). However, if you can’t do HSPUs yet the next most ‘specific’ exercise option might be chest to wall HSPUs with your feet touching the wall for support, this is because it’s the exercise that looks and feels the most like a freestanding HSPU. Gains made in this exercise will transfer over better to the freestanding HSPU than a less ‘specific’ exercise. The next slightly less ‘specific’ exercise might be HSPU negatives, then after that feet elevated pike-push ups, etc. etc…

So the above is not ground breaking info. Most people who are looking to achieve the HSPU have been told a million times they need to train pike push ups. But the issue you may run into now could look something like this… You can do only a single chest to wall HSPU with feet on the wall and this is your absolute one rep max (1RM). Or maybe you’re not quite that strong yet and your 1RM is a pike push up with your feet elevated to knee level. So should you be training this exercise every session? Training only at your 1RM i.e. 100% ABSOLUTE INTENSITY (AI) is not a good idea. Similarly only training at any other rep max (2RM, 3RM, 4RM etc.) all the time is not a good idea either as this also is equivalent to training at 100% intensity, but a different kind of intensity called RELATIVE INTENSITY (RI). The difference between these two intensities is important and we will discuss why later in the article…

So why can’t you train at maximum RI or AI every workout? If you want maximum strength gain isn’t it best to train at max intensity all the time? A few things to consider here. Firstly, if you were doing relatively high volumes at max intensities it would be so fatiguing that at some point subsequent workouts would see a dip in performance. That’s to say after a certain point if you’re training at your 1RM or any other rep max every session no matter whether you are a beginner or advanced trainee, you will eventually plateau. Eventually your performance would even start to go down as you can’t recover in time for your next workout.

The next thing to consider is part of being ‘strong’ in a movement or exercise is how efficiently you can perform it. To put it another way, are you moving the load (whether the load is your bodyweight or an external load), the shortest possible distance, using the strongest and biggest muscle groups possible and giving your joints the shortest possible lever lengths? To get good at these elements of efficient movement we need to practice them i.e. do lots of repetitions overtime. Why does this matter in the theoretical context of you training at max intensity all the time? Because you get much less practice with the movement/skill. Reps per set will inevitably be fewer at Max AI, or close to max AI. The higher AI is, the fewer reps your muscles are physically able to accomplish in a set compared to a lower AI. This is a simple fact. So can you train at, say, your 4RM, 5RM etc. all the time, rather than 1RM to get this ‘practice’?Again not a great idea. You run into the recovery issues outlined in the previous paragraph. These issues probably become worse as the number of the RM goes up. Performing a true 5RM is more fatiguing than a 1RM. But also your ability to perform a 2nd and definitely a 3rd set for the prescribed number of reps at any true rep max in the same workout is severely hampered. You are likely in these subsequent sets to reach failure before the end of the set, which is shutting down your ability to get the ‘practice’ you need.

OK, so should you train at low intensity and high reps all the time, say, 8 or more, to get lots of practice? There is a time for that but, if we are in a period of training dedicated to max strength, most of the time the answer would be no. This is because producing a large amount of force to move a weight that is near, or at, your 1RM is a skill that also needs to be practised, just like movement efficiency. This fits with the general specificity principle outlined earlier; if you want to move heavy weights the rule of specificity states that training with heavy weights is more ‘specific’ to that goal than training with light weights.

Furthermore, when training at higher reps and lower weight, the motor units in your muscle fire in sequence. A motor unit is a group of muscle fibres that contract as one unit, a muscle as a whole is made up of many of these motor units. At lower weights some motor units of a muscle are contracting while others are recovering then vice versa, which keeps a set going. This repeats until you decide to stop the set or all motor units are fully exhausted and you can’t do any more reps (i.e. you reach failure). When you lift closer to 100% AI you are training your nervous system to allow your muscles to contract more of its motor units at the same time rather than in sequence. This is important because the more motor units that contract at the same time in a muscle, the greater the force output will be, which allows greater loads to be moved.

OK, so if we look at all of the above we can see the following: we need to train with an exercise that looks as similar to the skill that we’re trying to achieve as possible. We need to spend some time training at a weight/progression/intensity that lets us get efficient at the movement pattern by practicing multiple reps. We also need to do some training at higher intensity to train our nervous system but not so much that it impacts our ability to recover for our next workout(s). In short, we need to strategically vary volume (reps x sets) and intensity.

Now lets loop back to the difference between AI and RI alluded to earlier. The table below shows the maximum percentage of your 1RM that is possible to perform at a given number of reps. If you’re interested in strength training you’ve likely seen this before.

So, if we have AI, why do we need RI as well? RI is a way of rating the ‘effort’ or ‘difficulty' of any given number of repetitions at any given %1RM. All of the above rep and %1RM pairs represent 100% RI because they are at the highest difficulty or the max ‘effort’ that you’re currently capable of i.e. you can’t possible perform another rep. If you complete a set at 75% RI you have 25% of your possible ‘effort’ left to give (if you wanted to, but as already discussed we don’t want to use all our available ‘effort’ all the time). So RI is a percentage of an AI percentage, at that AI percentage's associated rep max (AI percentage is the same as %1RM). Let’s look at the calculation below to demonstrate this.

Lets say you want to do a set of 5 reps @ 80% RI and you know your 1RM is 105kg, your calculation would look like this:

5 reps is associated with 87% or 1RM (as per the table above) so multiply 105kg by 87%, then multiply that by the 80%. In a formula it’s:

So now we have a system in which we can think about programming exercise as follows:

“I want to work at 80% of my total available effort in today’s session with my main exercise. I know my 1RM for the exercise is 105kg. I also need to get some practice in with the movement for multiple reps so want to do 5 reps per set. What weight should I pick for the exercise?”

The above formula has informed us that the answer to the above question is we should use 73kg. The next question to ask is how many sets of this should I do? In order to keep this blog post at a reasonable length I will cover this in my next blog post, but if you want to research further for yourself right now you can Google Prilepin’s Chart. To subscribe to my blog and be notified of when my next post is live click HERE.

But we are using un-weighted calisthenics movements, not kg weighted movements. We need to figure out a way to assign intensity to unweighted exercises (e.g. pike push ups) so we can vary it during a program of exercise and ensure we aren’t working at 100% RI or very close to 100% too often. You can of course use weighted and bar bell movements that train the same muscle groups to support the goal of achieving a calisthenics skill. You could use the bar bell overhead press to support HSPU training. Assigning intensity is much more simple here, just test your what your 1RM in weight on the bar. Once you know this 1RM you can vary the % of that weight workout to workout as needed (while applying the RI principle previously outlined). This is not necessarily a bad idea, and in some circumstances a good idea, but as we see from our earlier discussion on specificity a pike push up or wall supported HSPU is more specific to our goal as it looks and feels much more like a HSPU than a bar bell overhead press.

The way I assign intensity to unweighted exercises for programming purposes is to test what progression of that exercise a client can do for max reps to failure (this shouldn’t be done too often but every few months to help write the next phase of a training program is fine). Then I assign %1RM values to each progression based on the reps they achieve. I also don’t have to test them with all progressions, and it’s not advisable either as the 3rd set to failure and beyond are likely to be less reps than they would normally achieve due to fatigue limiting their performance. As long as you have a rep max figure for two different progressions you can estimate approximate reasonable intensities for the other progressions you didn’t test.

N.B. For this estimating to be reasonably accurate you need some level of training experience and understanding of the clients abilities as they relate to various progressions of an exercise, but as we mentioned at the start of this article we are talking about athletes beyond their ‘beginner’ stage who want to achieve advanced skills, so they should fit this description.

The table below shows how intensities could look for pike push up progressions at different feet elevations in relation to the body for a given athlete. The higher the feet are in a pike push up, the higher the difficulty is, therefore the higher the %1RM is.

In the above example the subject achieved 4 reps at knee height and in the 2nd test achieved 1 rep at hip height. As you see, some of the %1RMs associated rep maxes are ranges. This is because the tests were done at hip height and knee height only and other %1RM values were estimations. These estimated %1RMs were between 2 possible rep maxes, hence the use of a rep range. So the system isn’t perfect, but the margin for error is only one rep so we still have a very powerful tool to start calculating meaningful RI percentages, and having a very close estimation is much better than guessing. Furthermore the fact that there is a margin for error inherent to the system is good! As we all know, people aren’t all the same. It may be better to prescribe the lower rep number for one athlete given their set of circumstances, and the higher rep number for a different athlete.

The table below now takes the above data we’ve created a step further and calculates RI percentages for the seven different pike push up progressions in the blue row, for any number of reps up to 8. The red cells represent a RI% that is over 100% so therefore impossible at the athletes current strength level. The RI numbers have been calculated by the following formula:

X ÷ Y = RI%

X = % of your 1RM that a given progression is

Y = %1RM associated with a rep max (as per the earlier rep max table i.e. 2RM=95%, 3RM=93%, 4RM=90% etc.)

Now we are able to ask questions like:

“My main strength exercise for the session is Pike Push ups. I want to work @ 85% RI for 3 reps. Which progression should I use?”

We can see how to calculate the answer in the table below. Find 3 in the reps column on the left, scan across to the right until you find 85% (or use the number in that row that is closest to 85%) and track up to the top of the table to see what progression you should use, which in this case is pike push ups at foot height (i.e. no elevation of the feet at all).

As you can probably see this eliminates the need for going by feel and programming sessions in the following way:

“What progressions should I do today in my workout? Well feet elevated to upper quad height pike push ups are pretty hard for me but it’s not my max, I know my max is at hip height… OK, so I’ll do 3 reps per set with upper quad pike push ups. I’ll get some hard work in that’ll help train my nervous system for max strength, and I get 3 reps of practice per et, which is much better than 1 rep. Yeah…I think this is a pretty reasonable way to train today”

Oh dear… We can see from the table below that if our initial testing was correct and we haven’t gained any strength since that test, we would fail even the 1st set if we tried 3 reps of pike push ups at quad height as it is more than 100% RI! If we know all our RIs we can avoid this situation.

So to wrap up…

RI can be confusing at first, at least it was for me, but as you can probably see the system I’ve outlined takes a lot of the guess work out of knowing how hard you are actually working when you pick a progression and number of reps using that progression. This is very comforting if you are a data driven type of person, but even if you aren’t maybe you have a client that is. Plus the more advanced you become the more likely it is that you’ll need a RI % based program to continue to gain strength. As you get more and more advanced purely going by feel can leave you in a situation where you feel lost and unsure if you’re doing too much or too little in your training. This can lead to frustration and stress surrounding your training that could be avoided. Now this is not to say you have to use percentages to rate your RI. Two other common methods of assigning a ‘difficulty rating’ to a set at a certain weight are RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and RIR (reps in reserve) which some athletes and coaches might prefer to use. They’re all doing the same thing, they’re just different ways to ‘skin the cat’ (pardon the calisthenics related pun 😉)… Something else to note is that you don't need this kind of system if you're a beginner to make good progress. But it's worth knowing of the concept of RI so you can build your understanding overtime for when you may want to apply it at a later date.

If you want a coach to take care of all these numbers for you, head over to my COACHING page and have a look at the options available. Alternatively drop me a message HERE if you have any questions. In the next blog post I’ll discuss how to use RI to create logical programs that progress you towards an advanced calisthenics strength skill like the HSPU, one arm chin up etc.

Thanks for reading and happy training!


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