• Alex

Improving Strength Using The 1% Rule

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

It’s no secret that for many of us, the last 12 months have resulted in a serious abundance of free time on our schedule. So, in an attempt to start the lockdown on a productive note, I began brainstorming a list of projects to keep me occupied and pass the time...

I quickly realised this was the perfect opportunity to reassess my own training plan and try something new as I had been stuck at a plateau for a couple of years now with my career and life goals having taken priority.

Building my business was a great experience but that success led to having less free time to work on my own goals. Eventually I found myself spending so much time at the gym training clients that my own training became less than consistent (which if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you will know I preach about the importance of consistency regularly). As a result my training progress had stagnated.

So, in an attempt to rejuvenate my own training plans, I started doing some research and I stumbled across an article that caught my eye. It proposed that "If you try to test the very peak limits of your strength ability too often, you will hinder recovery and stall your progress".

"Measuring Strength with The 1RM"

This concept suggested that you shouldn't test your 1 Rep Maximum (1RM) more than twice a year. Your 1RM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for just 1 repetition. If you are currently not doing this, it’s a great measure of strength ability, and you can calculate your 1RM by reading this article.

But if you’re like me and have already been doing this, you may have been doing it TOO OFTEN, on a much more regular basis than twice a year. For me, I tended to test my 1RM once every few months, eager to see some measurable progress.

“So, how can we use the 1RM?”

Instead of constantly testing your max, the time should be spent cycling between different percentages of your maximum lift (between 75%-95%) while trying to increase the amount of repetitions you can do.

First, pick the exercises you want to improve at. I chose 1 exercise for each of the 4 essential movement areas and decided to train each one once a week using this method. I chose Barbell Front Squats, Weighted Chin Ups, Deadlifts, and Overhead Barbell Press. (This eventually split into 5 workouts a week when I added in a day for Barbell Bench Press but I did already tell you I am notorious for “adding things in”).

After figuring out your 1RM for each exercise, you can use it to calculate the different percentages of that weight required in order to plan your sessions. (you can use this online calculator) The premise of the theory is that whatever weight you can do only 1 rep for, you should be able to do 2 reps at 95% of this. At 90% of your 1RM, you should be able to 4 reps. At 85% of your 1RM, you should be able to do 6 and so on. “How do we put this into practice?”

All that is required is focusing on one exercise per session (so that you can give it your all) and then doing 2 warm up sets followed by 4 working sets each with 2 or 3 minutes rest between. In the first week you would do 3 working sets at 75%, 77.5% and 80% of your 1RM trying to get 10 reps at each set. Each week you start at 2.5% higher but for a decreased amount of reps. This continues each week until your final set is at 95% and you should be able to do ONLY 2 reps. Try to do as many as you can to failure. If you find you can do more reps than the predicted 2 from your original calculations then you have become stronger in the process. The 1% Rule On that final set at 95% of 1RM, we can assume a 1% Strength Increase for every additional rep over the predicted 2 reps. You can use this to calculate a New Theoretical 1RM. Just take your original score and multiply it by "1.0#" with the "#" being the amount of additional reps above the expected two. If I got 5 reps in total then that is 3 more than expected so I would multiply my original 1RM by 1.03.

We can then use this new score to calculate the new targets for the next 6-8 week cycle of the program without having to put your body through the strain of maximal testing. Get it?

But before you put your phone down and go lift some weights, lets look at my results testing this program on myself...

So “How’d it go”?...

Overall, the answer to this question is that for me, it went well.

The first glowing review is that it is the longest time I have stuck to the same training programme and my results are certainly better for it (again: "Consistency is Key”). I enjoyed the strict structure of the programme and it was a good way of keeping myself consistent. The clear targets and regular measurable progress also helped to keep me motivated week after week.

I also liked that all of the workout sessions can be completed in under 30 minutes if you are short of time, which fits with most lifestyles well. Usually once my target was reached this would then lead to me getting carried away and doing extra supplementary isolation work afterwards if I was enjoying myself, spending on average 45-50 minutes working out. But I never felt I had to, it was always easy to reason with myself to make the minimum 20 minutes of time to just get out there and get the required number of reps done for the day. The cyclical nature of the programme helps you avoid burning out by understanding you don't have to give it your all, all the time.

I should mention here that for the first 6 months of this experiment, I had access to my own home gym setup and stuck with the original 5 exercises. During this time I managed to complete 3 full cycles through the program on each exercise and saw a good strength increase on all exercises. At the start of October, I moved out to Spain and I didn’t have daily access to a barbell, being a long cycle ride away from the nearest gym. Due to this I decided to trade the weightlifting exercises for working on equivalent bodyweight skills that I could do without equipment, such as the Muscle Up, Handstand Push Up and Pistol Squats (all which were made drastically easier by my increased strength!)

In the past as the writer of my own programs, I had always held the power the rewrite and adjust them whenever a new idea or concept came my way, which meant that I didn’t always practise what I preach about consistency!. This method worked much better as I had to follow it through to each test day to see if it really works, and it did.

“But what are the facts and figures?...

For all the five exercises that I completed 3 or 4 cycles of the program, I saw an average 10% increase in my 1RM scores over 6 months. Then for the two exercises that I stuck at all year (completing 7-8 cycles) that progress continued, reaching an average of 22% stronger than my starting tests back in March / April 2020.

The original lockdown phase lasted 6 months and in that time I saw a 8% increase in my Bench Press 1RM and 8% increase in my max Weighted Chin Up and a 10% increase in my Barbell Front Squat.

The results I am most impressed with are my Deadlifts, which started at 120kg (down from a previous lifetime best of 130kg) and now after 7 cycles I am at 147.5kg 1RM that is a 23% increase in just under a year.

My Overhead Barbell Press started at 50kg 1RM and now it is at 60kg, which is a 20% increase. This score is with slightly less consistency due to taking a break when I first came out to Spain for maybe 4 - 6 weeks, and therefore had to regress in the program by a couple of weeks and repeat a few sessions until I got back into it.

To conclude…

I think that this is a very effective program that works very well for my mindset, schedule and available time. Having just 1 clear primary challenge required to complete for each workout makes it much easier to stay consistent and "just get it done”.

The knowledge of upcoming Performance Test Days helps to make the distinction of when its worth making that extra effort to prioritise your sleep, nutrition and mindset in order to perform at your best on those important days.

This method seems to yield a consistent 2% per cycle rate of improvement. On exceptionally good test days I could rack up a 3% increase but even when I wasn't feeling it, I never failed to at least get that 1 extra rep required to increase my score by 1%!

After a taking a rest and recovery week, doing some mobility-focused work I fully intend to continue with it and see how far it will take me. Hopefully next year I can do a follow up article to compare if the progress continues at the same rate. Watch this space…

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