You’re all psyched up to start your new training program, ready to torch some body fat and get strong. You kick-off your first session with your new trainer, and there it is: the old 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Anti-climax or what?
Here is an assessment I use with clients with a little more pizazz, that customises your training program from the outset.
Why Training Programs Must Be Individualised
The issue is that simply prescribing sets of 10 reps ignores inter-individual variability. You have different genetic strengths, likely making you more suitable for either of strength or endurance biases within your training (1).
The different types of muscle fibre across your body account for these inter-individual differences. Specifically, these are the type I, type IIa, and type IIb muscle fibres. The proportions you have of these are largely genetically determined.
Type I muscle fibres are slow-twitch and type II are fast-twitch. The slow-twitch fibres are better at performing endurance training, whereas fast-twitch do well with explosive contractions as in strength training. As such, weightlifters and sprinters typically have a more fast-twitch dominant profile, whereas marathon runners are typically more slow-twitch dominant (2).
How does this relate to your training program? Essentially, your individual distribution towards fast or slow-twitch fibres can influence how many repetitions you can do at a given weight (3).
The 4 Steps To Customise Your Training:
The Muscle-Specific Hypertrophy Method
This method aims to customize your training program to your individual muscle fibre-type distribution. Here’s how it works as part of an assessment I do with clients:
- I find your 1-5RM (repetition maximum) for each exercise. This is the maximum number of repetitions you can do at a given weight, such that you fall within the 1-5 repetition bracket.
- I then plug these results into a calculator to estimate your 1RM, which is the maximum weight you can lift for 1 repetition, i.e. your current maximum strength level for each exercise.
- I then take a percentage of that 1RM number (anywhere from 60-85%) and prescribe that as the starting weight for each exercise in your program. This percentage is known as intensity (explained further below)
- You then do as many repetitions as you can manage at the prescribed weight for each exercise. Whatever that number comes out as determines your starting repetition target for each exercise.
You may achieve something like 13,12,10,9 repetitions across sets on a given exercise, whereas another individual could get 9,8,7,7. Your repetition target would thus be 13, whereas his/hers would be 9. This is one way that your program is customized to your individual muscle fibre types.
How To Select The Right Intensity For You
In fitness circles, the percentage applied to your 1RM weight lifted is known as intensity. I mentioned earlier that this percentage could be anywhere between 60-85%. Evidently, the percentage chosen correlates with the repetitions you are able to achieve. It’s common to get around 8 reps for an 80% intensity, for example, and roughly 15 reps with a 65% intensity.
The intensity prescribed to you is a function of two things:
- Compound movements (like squats) lend themselves better to higher intensity, lower rep training
- Isolation movements (such as dumbbell curls) are better suited to lower intensity, higher rep training
2. Level of training experience
- Beginners won’t require as high a training intensity. They are able to build muscle without having to reach the high levels of muscle activation achieved with lifting heavy.
- Advanced trainees, on the other hand, are able to achieve higher levels of muscle activation at high-intensity strength training, and so lifting heavier makes sense (4)
To illustrate, say you’ve been working on your bench press (a compound movement) for a few years, and have an intermediate level of strength (determined in step 2 of the 4-step process mentioned above). You would then apply 80% to your estimated 1RM (due to your higher level of advancement) as the starting weight to test for your repetition target number (as per step 4).
There you have it, a roadmap to truly individualise your strength training. Enjoy the results from true customization.
About the author
After years juggling a senior banking career with my passion for fitness, I left finance to help busy professionals transform their bodies inside and out. As an online coach, I use a science-based approach to get you the lean, healthy physique you deserve.
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- O’Hagan, F. T., Sale, D. G., MacDougall, J. D., & Garner, S. H. (1995). Response to resistance training in young women and men. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(5), 314–321.
- Andersen, J. L., Schjerling, P., & Saltin, B. (2000). Muscle, genes and athletic performance. Scientific American.
- Douris, P. C., White, B. P., Cullen, R. R., Keltz, W. E., Meli, J., Mondiello, D. M., & Wenger, D. (2006). The relationship between maximal repetition performance and muscle fiber type as estimated by noninvasive technique in the quadriceps of untrained women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 699–703.
- Ahtiainen, J. P., & Keijo, H. (2009). Strength athletes are capable to produce greater muscle activation and neural fatigue during high-intensity resistance exercise than nonathletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(4), 1129–1134.