What the Prilepin Table can teach us about training for strength
By Christian Thibaudeau
One thing that made the former Soviet lifters great was their meticulousness about logging every variable of every training session performed by every athlete regardless of their qualification. This allowed their coaches and sport scientists to analyze in great depth the various relationships between all the main training variable and how they affected training results.
The main training variables when it comes to strength training are the intensity of the load, the volume in terms of total repetitions performed for an exercise and the volume in terms of repetitions per set.
The intensity of the load is the factor that has the greatest impact on the physical quality that is being trained. Will the training have a more profound effect on strength, hypertrophy/muscle gain, power or resistance is mostly dependant on the relative intensity of the load. And in strength circles intensity is expressed as a percentage of your maximum on a lift. For example if your best bench press is 315lbs then a weight of 225lbs represents an intensity level of 70%.
The actual magnitude of the gains will be determined mostly by the volume of mechanical work performed. If you perform too little work, even at the correct intensity level, you will not stimulate a positive adaptation (gains) unless you are a beginner. If you perform too much work you can actually have a negative impact on your performance and gains (more on that later).
The former Soviet coaches saw things this way: the exercise selected determined what was strengthened (either a specific muscle/group of muscle, a movement pattern or a weak part in the range of motion). So selecting the proper exercise to fix a strength (or size) issue was kind of like picking the right medicine to cure an illness. They only selected exercises that would have a positive effect on their performance as lifters.
When the exercise was selected the proper intensity of load was chosen to target the type of gain desired. An athlete who was seen as lacking muscle mass (either overall or in certain specific muscle groups) would use a different intensity of load as an athlete with sufficient muscle mass but who lacked functional strength.
When the means (exercise and intensity) were selected it was a matter of planning the proper volume of work to get the adaptation desired as rapidly as possible without exhausting the adaptation reserves of the athlete. And this is where the Prilepin table comes in an becomes interesting.
The Prilepin table was designed after analyzing the training logs of thousands of high level weightlifters to see what was the relationship between the volume (total reps per exercise and reps per set) of the lifters who had the best results.
It gave the following table. Note I took the liberty of making some minor changes to make it more user friendly. For example the original table have the following ranges 70-80%, 80-90%, 90% which can get confusing since 80% is then in 2 zones and both zones have ideal volume numbers.
SOME THINGS ABOUT THE CHART
IT’S BASED ON STRENGTH DEVELOPMENT: The volume and intensity relationships are based on developing strength which is why the volume is somewhat lower and the sets aren’t to failure with the given rep per set number. I wouldn’t use the Prilepin table to plan an hypertrophy workout.
STRENGTH IS NOT JUST ABOUT BIGGER NUMBERS, QUALITY COUNTS: The first time I saw the Prilepin table many years ago the first thought I had was “the sets will be too easy”. For example 3 reps at 80% isn’t exactly an all out set since most people can use 90-92% for 3 reps. That was before I understood the concept of strength-skill. The key isn’t just the numbers, but HOW you are lifting the barbell. On each repetition you should focus on technical perfection, controlling the barbell and being able to accelerate/dominate it on the way up. The rep numbers are selected so that the load is heavy enough to be challenging but not so demanding that you can’t be technically perfect and dominate each repetition. It’s one thing to be “strong”, it’s another to be strong on a perfect, fluid, movement.
TOO FEW REPS PER SET WON’T LEAD TO ADAPTATIONS: I’m a low rep guy. I even once went on as far as to say that my favorite rep range is “1”. And I confess that in the past when I did (Olympic) lifting training I stuck to mostly sets of 1 or 2 reps. It worked for about 2 weeks. But after that my strength started to go down and I lost muscle mass. The reason is that I rarely did a set that forced the body to adapt. 1 or 2 reps per set, it it’s below 90% won’t lead to adaptations. So in a workout if I did 4 sets of 2 reps between 70-80%, 3 sets of 1 with 80-89% and 2 sets of 1 with 92% only two sets actually forced the body to adapt. At first I progressed simply due to technique and coordination improvements, but I never stimulated any actual gains. And after 2 weeks I started to actually lose adaptations/size because none of the sets provided the stimulation to help me maintain or add muscle. If you are training for strength you still need to stimulate the muscles, you canÃ??Ã?Â¢??t get strong on the nervous system alone. So you can either always stick to loads above 90% and do sets of 1-2, which can fry the nervous system, or do sets of 3 reps or more (closer to 5 with the low part of the range) between 70-89%.
TOO MANY REPS PER SET WILL HURT YOUR GAINS: At 82% (for example) most people should be capable of doing 7-8 reps if they go all out. Yet with the Prilepin table if you use 82% you should not do more than 4 reps in a set. This is why my first reaction years ago was that training according to the Prilepin table was “too easy”. In reality what happens is that if you do reps that are too close to failure you lose speed and technique and the wrong recruitment/coordination pattern is developed. It will build muscle and if all you are interested in is getting bigger that’s fine. But if your goal is excelling in displaying strength on some movements, you want each repetition to target the optimal pattern and dynamics. Doing too many reps in a set will hurt that. Plus, you can actually do more total volume in the training zone by reducing the reps. For example if you use 82% and go to complete failure on your first set, let’s say 7 reps and you hit failure. Then it’s likely that you will have a rapid drop in performance on the exercise. But if you do sets of 4 you’d be able to do many sets without losing any quality and end up doing more volume overall with less negative effect on the nervous system.
TOO LITTLE MECHANICAL WORK WILL NOT LEAD TO LASTING GAINS: To stimulate gains you need a certain volume of overall work. Too few “work repetitions” and you won’t develop the capacity of the nervous system to recruit muscle fibers in an optimal pattern and you won’t stimulate the muscles to get stronger. The table provides an effective range, and ideal number of reps to perform on one exercise for that movement to stimulate a positive adaptations. If you go below that number of reps it is mostly effective as a deload or as “practice”, but it won’t have a strong stimulatory effect.
TOO MUCH MECHANICAL WORK WILL LEAD TO RAPID STAGNATION: Similarily you can kill your gains if you do too much work. I’ve been guilty of this; everybody who is passionate about training has too. Doing a VERY high volume of work on an exercise will “work” for a short period. A blitz approach. But if you keep up with it, it will lead to stagnation and even regression.
THE TOTAL MECHANICAL WORK IN THE SELECTED INTENSITY ZONE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN USING A SPECIAL LOADING SCHEME: The key is doing the right dose of work in the selected intensity zone. “HOW” you are getting the work done isn’t that important as long as it fits the bill as far as reps per set and total reps. For example doing 4 x 6 @ 79%, 6 x 4 @ 79%, 12 x 2 @ 79%, 8 x 3 @ 79%, two 6/4/2 waves, etc. special loading schemes are mostly effective for psychological reasons. YES some special schemes (especially those using reps from many different intensity zones) can have a special effect over the short term, but to stimulate physiological adaptions it takes a backseat to doing the right amount of overall work in the selected intensity range.
IT ONLY PROVIDE GUIDELINES PER EXERCISE NOT FOR OVERALL VOLUME IN A SESSION: That’s the thing: The table gives you a very solid starting point for each big movement in a session. But it doesn’t tell you how many exercises you should be doing. And obviously even if it’s good to know how much volume you should be doing for an exercise, if you don’t plan the proper number of exercises you might fall well outside the proper overall volume for your session. I personally find that when training for strength using mostly compound lifts, 3 or 4 lifts work well the Prilepin guidelines.
9: ITÃ??Ã?Â¢??S EASY TO USE WHEN YOU ONLY DO ONE INTENSITY RANGE PER EXERCISE. MUCH HARDER IF YOU USE 2 OR 3 (FOR EXAMPLE DOING SETS WITH 75, 85 AND 90% FOR AN EXERCISE): You don’t always use straight sets in a workout or even stick to one intensity range for one exercise. You could do sets at 75%, then at 85% and finish with 90-92%. Three different intensity zones. The table gives very precise guidelines, but only if you only use one training zone to do your work sets. So if you decide to use 2 or 3 it can be harder to use the table.
IT CAN CONFUSE SOME PEOPLE INTO BELIEVING THAT ALL THE RANGES HAVE THE SAME EFFECT AS LONG AS YOU RESPECT THE CORRECT VOLUME RECOMMENDATIONS: From the look of the table it can easily be thought that as long as you do the recommended number of reps per set and total reps, you will get the same training effect. That’s not the case. We are training to get stronger, obviously sets using 60% of your max will not have the same impact as sets using 95%. So you have to understand the role of each intensity zone for a strength athlete. The first zone (less than 70%) is more for technique and speed work. The second one (70-79%) is a good zone to develop the muscular component of force production while also perfecting technique with a decent weight. The third zone (80-89%) is the one where the most volume should be done to DEVELOP strength and the last zone (90%+) is the zone you use to learn to display the strength you have built and to peak it.
IT WORKS FOR BIG COMPOUND MOVEMENTS WITH A SKILL COMPONENT: From my experience the more skill an exercise requires, the more the Prilepin chart applies. This is not surprising since it was based om the study of the log of Olympic lifters. So snatch variations and clean & jerk variations were the biggest part of the volume studied. I find that it is also highly applicable to movements like squats, front squats, deadlifts, pulls (snatch pull, clean pull) and push presses. It is also useful but not as much as the preceding for exercises like the bench press, military press and rows which have a lower skill component and it is pretty much useless for isolation exercises and machine work. On these you can normally do a higher number of reps per set and total volume to no ill effect because of the low neural component.