In Strength & Conditioning, like so many fields, we learn from those who came before us. That’s how it works. When selecting our own strategies and behaviors, we refer to those who have been there, done it, and accomplished what we too would like to accomplish. Youth coaches often look to high school coaches for strategy. High school coaches look to college coaches, who may or may not look to the professional ranks. It is the memetic progression of strength.
Most college strength programs are built from percentages of a single rep maximum effort (1RM). The Olympians train off of 1RM percentages. The best in the business train off of percentages, so we should be doing that at the high school level as well, right? The answer might not be so obvious.
RPE vs 1RM
There is a growing body of research which compares training based on Rate of Perceived Exertion scores (RPE) with percentage-based training based off single repetition maxes (1RM). Those studies identify that both RPE and 1RM “are effective. However, RPE-based loading may provide a small 1RM strength advantage in a majority of individuals.” (Helms et al, 2018)
In the Helms study, results indicate higher improvements in the RPE group, which outperformed the 1RM group in all cases, but most notably in the total gain in combined Bench Press and Squat maxes. The 1RM group improved 23.6kg (51.92lbs), while the RPE group improved 27.8kg (61.16lbs) on average.
Another interesting finding in the study was that the RPE group’s improvements were more consistent. The RPE group had significantly less variability (+/- 17.38lbs) than the 1RM group (+/- 22.88), suggesting once again that a trained lifter, when a high level of self-awareness has been cultivated, can see greater and more consistent gains when using an RPE training – which we call the “Appropriate Load” method.
The Appropriate Load Method
The Appropriate Load method is an athlete-centered approach to strength training, designed to optimize safety and performance, with added emphasis on empowering athletes with self-awareness. Volume (total reps and sets) is prescribed, and intensity is selected by the athlete based on their self-perceived capacity in the context of their current training state.
The method was developed with a few core concepts in mind. First, training percentages based off of a 1RM of is neither safe nor accurate for an untrained athlete. Maxing out an untrained athlete is dangerous. Projected maxes (entering a multiple-repetition max effort into a formula to predict a 1RM) for a novice athlete can be used to measure improvement over time, but it is not an accurate representation of maximum output. Percentages based off a novice athlete’s projected max is not an accurate measure.
The second point of consideration in the Appropriate Load Method is the wide variety of training states in which our athletes enter the room. As an example, consider the training of a sleep deprived student-athlete. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have detrimental effects on strength performance (Reilly & Piercy, 2007; Souissi, et al, 2003). When that athlete enters the weightroom, the coach could hypothetically drop percentages from 80% to 70% in order to accommodate a degraded physiological state. That is a valid approach, and it might work for one person. But what if there are two teams in the weight room, 70 total athletes, and 85% of them are sleep deprived – will the coach adjust 60 programs? If that seems like an exaggerated hypothetical, note that the National Sleep Foundation reports that 85% of adolescents are in a chronic state of sleep deprivation. In other words, this is not a hypothetical at all, but the day-to-day truth of our population. Therefore, instead of asking a coach to make adjustments, we ask the student-athletes to adjust for themselves. There will be discrepancies between the Appropriate Load one uses on their best day and their worst day, of course, and we leave it up to the athlete to decide what they are capable of in the moment. This requires – and helps build – self-awareness. Athletes are directed to pull back in a degraded physiological state, or increase challenge when they are feeling on top of their game and their early sets seem relatively easy. The development of this skill takes time, but it is worth it.
Self-awareness is the first step to behavior analysis. The ability to objectively analyze one’s own behavior lends itself to self-assessment, situational adaptability, and growth. Ultimately, the goal of enhancing a healthy version of self-awareness is to lead an athlete down the path to self-reliance, where agency, confidence, and empowerment flourish. If we are able to cultivate those abilities in a young athlete, they will perform better in competition; if we are able to cultivate those abilities for young people in general, we may be able to positively alter their likelihood of success over the course of a lifetime. (Welzel & Inglehart, 2010)
Addressing Common Concerns
Coaches who first try this method often begin with the assumption that “young athletes can’t do that,” referring to the self-awareness it takes to adjust intensities between sets depending on how their bodies are responding. Fair. But only because we have never asked them to.
In our experience, athletes rise to meet the challenges we set forth for them. Like any teaching, this will have to be scaffolded (van de Pol, et al, 2015) and individualized (Bloom, 1984). No two learners are the same. No two lifters are the same. And for those who think this sounds like too much work, preferring the more scalable method of percentages, consider that exact point: if no two lifters are the same, how can a specific percentage (say, 83% of 1RM) possible be accurate for both?
So we teach our athletes to be self-aware. On a given day, we might add an extra warmup set so that they can judge how they are feeling – they might find that they are not operating at their usual level, in which case they might limit the weight for the prescribed reps (where they would usually do 225lbs for a set of 5, the Appropriate Load for that day might be closer to 205lbs). An athlete might also find that, although they did not get the sleep they needed or had a stressful day of classes, they are still able to perform at a high level. In either case, there is room for the athlete to be empowered. If they pull back, they can experience increased agency in the form of self-directed resilience in spite of obstacles (I worked hard, even when I wasn’t at full strength); if they press forward they can experience increased confidence in the form of self-directed performance (I hit my numbers, even after a stressful day). And in both cases, athletes are practicing self-awareness.
Another common concern is that coaches sometimes lack confidence in their athletes’ willingness to challenge themselves. That has not been our experience. Yes, sometimes our novice athletes undercut their max output due to fear or shaky form – but when an athlete is not psychologically and physically prepared (afraid and unstable), then full-exertion reps are not what they need anyway. They need stability, they need to work on movement patterns, they need to build confidence in the weight room – they need coaching.
And yes, certain unmotivated athletes might cut their reps short or fail to push themselves with a challenging load – that too is acceptable, since from that observation we can then identify one absolute and essential idea: we as coaches need to do a better job motivating and holding young people accountable. A tough pill for some coaches to swallow, but it is the truth.
It is our culture and coaching that allows an athlete to improve through the Appropriate Load method, or any other sort of training. The disengaged athlete will perform no differently when the prescribed workout is (4×4 @AL:5) or (4×4 @ 80%) – if they do not want to be in the gym that day and are not being held accountable, the workout on the board does not matter.
We also make the programmatic distinction that our methods should cater, as often as possible, to the best case scenario. The Appropriate Load method works best with committed athletes who are fully invested and willing to put in work. That is true for any program. We believe that those dedicated athletes will receive more benefit in the areas of safety, self-awareness, and performance when using Appropriate Load than many other training methods, especially at the High School level.
There is proof of the method on display at New Trier High School, located in the north suburbs of Chicago. For the past decade, they have trained thousands of athletes using the Appropriate Load method. During that time, the teams they trained have won more than 100 conference championships, dozens of State Championships, and finished in the Top 10 in the Nation in multiple sports. Admittedly, those victories are due to talented athletes and coaches, supportive families, and an exceptional culture within the athletic department – strength is not the only predictor of success on the field. Performance numbers do not win championships, Athletes and Coaches do. But New Trier also competes in powerlifting – a sport where success is measured almost exclusively in strength. The New Trier Powerlifting team has won multiple State and National Championships, in both Boys and Girls divisions. The method works.
Applying the Appropriate Load Method
For purposes of application, we will imagine a single macrocycle consisting of three mesocycles (Volume, Strength, and Power) which aligns with physiological concepts regarding best practice.
In the initial Volume phase of training, athletes perform a large number of repetitions. During this phase, the athletes will focus on developing championship-caliber technique. From a safety perspective, this is essential. Body control and consistent movement patterns are prioritized, keeping in mind that technique is a learned thing, dependent on patterning and muscle group recruitment (Rutheford, 1988).
If a squat session includes a block of (12,12,10,10,10), then the athlete has 54 opportunities to perfect technique at an Appropriate Load. If the athlete cannot complete the assigned reps, or is straining so hard that their form falters, then they aimed too high. If the athlete does not feel challenged at the back end of their set (felt like they could have done 10 more reps), then the load is too light.
All the while, they will be tuning in to the feedback their body and environment are providing. This state of self-awareness will allow them to adjust the weight (load) for their next set. They will be the agents of that change with the support of a coach’s guidance, as needed.
Once the program leans into a Strength phase, the same logic applies to those heavier sets – technique should not waiver. If an athlete is directed to perform 6 repetitions, but can only perform 5, or if the athlete’s technique begins to falter, then that might not be the appropriate load. The reasons for this will vary. Coaches should assess and provide guidance, motivation, and technical assistance as needed. Safety depends significantly on the quality of repetitions performed during these early phases.
Any other methods to adjust tempo would fall into a coach’s chosen strength pedagogy. For example, at the back end of our Strength phase, before we truly progress to Power, we might have a Squat workout that looks like this
(8,5,5,3,5) final set at an AL: 8
The athlete will perform a set of 8 reps, then of 5 reps – the second set of 5 will include more or less weight, as an athlete determines the Appropriate Load based on the feedback received from the first set. The big set of 3 should be very challenging, and the final set of 5 will be lighter (and faster, which we indicate with the underline). When we want the challenge to shift from high RPE to high bar speed, we adjust the Appropriate Load and keep the reps under that number. In this case, the athlete would select the weight on the bar based on what they believe they can do for 8 repetitions – they will only have to perform 5 reps, keeping speed on the bar and never asking the athlete to reach full exertion.
Another variation might look something like this
(8,5,5,1,1,1) final sets at 1:3:1 tempo, keep AL: 5 on the bar
The first three sets look the same as the first example. Whatever the athlete has determined to be an Appropriate Load for 5 will be kept on the bar. Tempo, in this case, calls upon existing programs which highlight the value of isometric contractions (the 1:3:1 tempo is done at a pace of 1 second down, 3 seconds paused at the bottom of the squat, and 1 second up). Looking to program using Cal Dietz’s TriPhasic method? Brandon Lilly’s Cube method? These too can be done using the Appropriate Load method within a high school population. The point is, limitations on performance are not an issue – there is plenty of room to get creative and replicate high quality training programs.
It is clear to use, as proponents of the Appropriate Load method, that this is one way – but certainly not the only way – to achieve positive outcomes in the weightroom. We believe that the Appropriate Load method accommodates a wide variety of experiences and training states, making it a safe approach to lifting. We believe that it promotes self-awareness in athletes, ultimately providing agency and empowerment, all serving as essential psychological components for success. And we believe that performance can be accomplished through this method, as supported by research (Helms et al, 2018) and seen in practice (the powerlifting team at New Trier High School).
Still, to be clear, the Appropriate Load method is a concept – it is a strength pedagogy, a single approach. What truly matters in the weightroom is that the coach creates a culture to uphold the values of the institution. Coaches, this is on us. No program, based on percentages or self-assessment, can outperform the trappings of a toxic culture. Work on that first.
Our most clear goal is for the lessons learned in the weightroom is to go Beyond Strength and support athletes in all areas of their lives. We believe the Appropriate Load method offers a fantastic opportunity to do just that.
With questions/comments, or to take a look at sample programming, reach out to us on Instagram @coach4kindness.