The Many Faces of the PR: Programming for Data and Feedback

The One Rep Max (1RM) is the ultimate PR and, rightly so, receives the lion’s share of attention. A sole focus on the 1RM, however, leaves a lot of useful data just sitting there, begging to be put to good use. By tracking PRs across multiple rep ranges, we not only have more to celebrate, but we also can better understand someone’s readiness, work capacity, and recovery status. We can use that information to help us make better decisions about training.

The Many Faces of the PR

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC and Editor in Chief

At Barbell Logic, we talk a lot about celebrating PRs, because PRs matter. The personal record (PR) feels good, and it embodies a big part of what strength training is all about. Every time you hit a new PR, you demonstrate to yourself and the Universe that you are stronger today than you were yesterday. At that moment, there is nothing theoretical about the success of your training.

PRs also serve other purposes. They are essential data points in your training, helping track successes, failures, changes, and training advancement. Every lifter and every coach should track PRs, but many people only track one kind.

The One Rep Max (1RM) is the ultimate PR and, rightly so, receives the lion’s share of attention. A sole focus on the 1RM, however, leaves a lot of useful data just sitting there, begging to be put to good use. By tracking PRs across multiple rep ranges, we not only have more to celebrate, but we also can better understand someone’s readiness, work capacity, and recovery status. We can use that information to help us make better decisions about training.

Data and Feedback

Strength programming is an ongoing experiment, essentially the scientific method applied to an individual, with the gym as our lab. As with any scientific inquiry, strength programming starts with a question. The right question leads to the correct experiments and the right kinds of data. Data is feedback on this strength-experiment, letting us know how well it’s working and giving clues about what may need to change.

Too many lifters skip ahead and ask questions about the end results: “How much should I lift?” “If I can lift this much, how much do you think I can do for a single?” “How strong should I be?” The right question is not concerned with some future end state but with the process of getting stronger. What we really want to know is this: can past progress predict the future, and if so, how?

As lifters, we ask this question all the time, if just implicitly. When getting ready for a new and challenging PR, you might think about your last workout or your last PR to help prepare for the new attempt. You reasonably assume that previous workouts foreshadow today’s workout. For lifting, recent history is the best predictor of the future.

We ask this question for programming as well. We’d like to use past data to make informed choices to get unstuck or make changes. Programming for strength is about creating the circumstances for predictable improvements. If the past doesn’t predict or inform the future, our changes are little more than shots in the dark.

The evidence of all the people who have ever trained seriously for strength and the physiology of training tells us that past performance can predict future success, as measured by the PR. So, what kinds of data do we need?

Above, I said that improvements are measured by PRs, but the improvements themselves may come in many forms. Absolute strength, for sure, but improvements may also be observed in other ways, including a person’s readiness (the ability to produce a high percentage of force or power right now), work capacity for training (the ability to hand volume loads, measured by tonnage and rest between work sets), and recovery (the ability to return to a baseline of fitness following hard training). We could probably think of several other ways we might observe someone’s improvements from training, and much depends on the lifter’s goals, but these are common observable physical improvements that come from regular strength training.

In the case of strength programming, every workout generates data about a complex and changing system: the lifter. Every lifter starts at a baseline with unrevealed factors that will affect training. Everything from anthropometry to personal preferences may cause a person to respond to training in ways that affect specific aspects of the program.

People also change as they develop. The stronger a person gets—the more trained—the harder the work to set new PRs. Work capacity improves significantly with consistent training, helping to cultivate that additional volume and stress, but it can also fall off quickly with layoffs, illnesses, and other obstacles.

Regarding whether the past can predict the future, this suggests that the recent past may be indicative of current abilities. If you go too far back into someone’s training history, the data is less predictive, but it is useful for programming. Lifters with athletic backgrounds or long training histories respond to training differently than someone picking up a barbell for the first time in their lives.

This should highlight the challenges or limitations of templated training. Plugging a lifter into a template is a great way to generate data, but a template is not a programming choice based on the lifter’s current or recent training data. For lifters just starting or new to training, the choice of template or training framework should anticipate the kinds of data that will be useful later on—as they make progress, reveal their preferences, and change.

Everyone comes to their training as-is, not as we would like to be, should be, would be under optimal circumstances. Programming should generate useful data for the lifter, which should be used to inform and modify changes to programming as needed and one’s expectations.

The Many Faces of the PR

There are many kinds of data that we can get from training. There is the hard data of a completed workout. A lift completed with the proper range of motion for the programmed sets and reps at the programmed weight tells us a lot about one’s abilities on the day the workout was completed. The same workout might also generate subjective data. While we do not typically have our lifters fill out surveys after workouts, their comments (“that sucked” or “this felt really good” or the ubiquitous “hard, but doable”) provide insights into their training. Having them assign an RPE to their lifts may standardize this feedback somewhat. Since Barbell Logic coaches review every lift of every workout, we also generate some observational data—e.g., bar speed and form as judged by the coach’s eye. There are other opportunities to generate other data with each workout. Some coaches will estimate 1RMs or use models to normalize the data. We might assign metrics for the length of workouts, body weight, sleep and recovery, and anything else that might be useful.

Completed reps and workouts are the best data. They are proof of what the lifter could accomplish on that day. We can assume that anything less than that is within the lifter’s abilities. Anything more is subject to an extrapolation of the data, but with enough training history, a lifter or a coach develops a good sense of what the lifter can do based on what they have done.

There are problems with subjective data. People tend to exaggerate or downplay their perceptions, telling coaches what they think we want to hear. Comparing the RPE estimations across many lifters will reveal chasms of interpretation of the scale. One lifter’s subjective information tempered by the hard data of their completed workouts can help give meaning to their subjective inputs. Video is also extremely useful for context, making subjective comments more valuable.

Subjective and hard data will reveal preferences, patterns, and habits in a lifter’s training. Preferences include the ability to perform at different rep ranges. Some lifters enjoy 1RM attempts and thrive under the challenge of lifting at near-maximal efforts. Other lifters prefer hard sets of 2s, 3s, or 5s, making 2RMs, 3RMs, and 5RMs useful data points for tracking maximal strength.

So, we should track 1-5RMs to give us a good picture of the changes to a lifter’s strength over time and to observe the relationship between these different PRs. Seeing how a lifter develops, paying attention when progress slows, using training history and experience to connect completed workouts to successful PR attempts, these things give us a good idea of both the lifter’s current strength and some ideas of what types of training changes will work, helping create predictable improvements from those programming choices.

If 1-5RMs help show and predict absolute strength, what about the other types of improvements mentioned earlier? Tacking other PRs can help keep an eye on lifters’ work capacity, readiness, and recovery.

What Types of PRs

One of my lifters recently hit a deadlift PR of 500 pounds for three solid reps. The bar moved like he could have hit five reps with good form. Four or five weeks later, he went for a milestone attempt of 515 for a single rep. He had suffered an injury exactly one year previously on the deadlift, and 515 would close the loop on what was a long recovery. So, what happened?

Any lift that rises to the level of an event in the lifter’s mind, exceeding the workaday, nose-to-the-grindstone, “hard but doable” type of work, carries the potential for failure. That potential might be in their approach, between their ears, or in their stomach. If the lifter is prepared, failure is unlikely due to a lack of strength.

All a near maximum effort lift tells us is how well the lifter performed that day. If the PR is successful, we can assume that their absolute ability exceeds what they completed by at least a little bit. If they failed the lift, we can conclude only that they couldn’t do it today or perhaps that the lift falls at the far range of their ability to perform under those exact conditions.

Few would question whether my lifter could lift 515 for one rep just a few short weeks after lifting 500×3, with no significant breaks in training and nothing out of the ordinary. But, alas, 515 just wasn’t there. The reason was not a lack of strength or experience or a deficit in the lifter’s form.

If, in our programming, we only measure 1RMs, then our data is inadequate for anything other than guessing at the lifter’s maximum ability on that lift under those conditions. For my lifter, a failed single at 515 doesn’t tell the whole story. By paying attention to his recent 500×3 and programming another 5RM PR soon after the missed single, he and I can better understand what was behind the miss and what to do going forward.

PRs across rep ranges give you context. We can control for performance issues by measuring other PRs (Twos, Threes, and Fives). Relative to the lifter’s 1RM, these will give you a more complete picture. A lifter who lifts >90% of their 1RM for their 5RM is likely either pretty new to lifting or not great at 1RM attempts. There may be other factors as well—they may be older or less explosive, for example.

The same reasoning goes for tracking work capacity for training, with useful data points being PRs for strength volume work. Strength volume tends to fall in the three to eight rep range, with sets of five being the most commonly used among Barbell Logic coaches. Rather than tracking a 5RM for strength volume, we might track PRs for three sets of five (3×5), 4×5, and 5×5. A volume PR in the context of overall progress shows an improvement in the ability to handle increasing training loads and stresses—something that translates well to strength outside the gym. So, in addition to tracing RMs in the 1-5 range, training data should also capture PRs of three to five sets of three to eight repetitions.

I also like to track PRs that are pertinent to a lifter’s readiness. Readiness is something you might notice after a short layoff from lifting, when a lifter has not really lost strength, but everything feels heavier than it should for a little while when they get back to training. Readiness is the result of consistent lifting and high-intensity sets. High-intensity sets generally fall in the 1-3 rep range for 1-3 sets. So, I will regularly program and track workouts with 2-3 sets of 1-3 reps and celebrate PRs in those ranges as much as new 1-5RMs.

Absolute Strength Work Capacity Readiness
1RM, 2RM, 3RM, 5RM 3-5 sets x 3-8 reps 1-3 sets x 1-3 reps

 

The types of PRs you track change with different goals, and you can track almost anything. The top half of a Barbell Logic Client’s PR list might look something like the following:

The key is to know what questions you will as of the data and to program to generate it. Not all of the data we generate when we train is useful, but it is all relevant. At a minimum, track and celebrate many types of PRs, because they represent hard work and change. Later, we will discuss how we use all those PRs to evaluate training, overcome plateaus, and manage programming changes for different challenges.

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