Relative Intensity Concept – Part One

As he warmed up Thor could still feel the effects of his last squat workout.  He knew from past experience that he couldn’t go heavy again this week.  He knew that if he did push through the pain all he would gain would be poorer and tougher workouts.  That is the exact opposite of all of his training goals with the championship competition coming up in a few short months.  As he began to load the bar Thor decided that he must back off, but he still needed to train hard.  Thus the dilemma, the paradox of training.  Thor knew the max repetition for a squat workout is about 50 reps and since he just did 5 sets of 5 at 85% he decided that he would back off 15% to only 70% for today’s load.   But, since he still wanted, no needed to train with intensity, he decided on 4 sets of 10 reps. What do you think? Did Thor accomplish his goal of backing off for this particular training session?

The concept of “Relative Intensity” is an easy concept to use and one that experienced lifters come to know and appreciate with their advanced training age.  Almost everyone becomes familiar with the basic terms of lifting early on in training.  Repetitions are each movement of the bar or dumbbell.  Sets are groups of repetitions that are clustered together such as 5 sets of 5 reps. Loads or percentages are the amount of weight that is placed on the bar or used via the dumbbell.  5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of the one rep max is the same for everyone.  If my max is 100 pounds then the load on the bar is 85% of 100 or 85 pounds.  If your max is 300 then the load will be .85 multiplied by 300 or 255 pounds.  Intensity is either load or volume.  It can also be speed, but that is another topic for another day.  Volume is expressed as the number of sets multiplied by the number of reps. Therefore 5 x 5 is a volume of 25 and 4 sets of 10 reps is a volume of 40.  Relative Intensity is different.  Relative Intensity takes into consideration the relationship of the load to the volume and the volume to the load.  More is better, right?  But the whole question is more what?  Is it more sets, more reps, more load, more volume, more speed, more rest, or more what?

What relationship does volume have with load?  Is there a relationship?  Is it an important consideration in order to reach my training goals?  YES!  Olympic lifters and power lifters spend the majority of their training reps in the 1 – 3 rep range. Why?  Because their goal is max weight lifted.  Most body builders spend the majority of their training in the 5 – 10 rep range. Why?  Because their goal is to pack on the most mass possible.  How does relative intensity relate to these two diverse groups?  Relative Intensity can smooth the transition from high to low volume and can create a common language between workouts that can be easily quantified and understood.  If Thor does 5 sets of 5 at 85%, that is a relative intensity of 97%.  Just follow the highlighted lines from 5 down to 85% and over to the left to 97% on the chart.  When he “unloaded” with 4 sets of 10 at 70% what was his relative intensity?  Go down from 10 to 70% and over to the left hand side to find . . . 97% !  So, Thor “unloaded” to 70%, but when you take the volume of each set into consideration, he was actually training at the same “relative intensity” !  Is this a critical component of training?  For a competitive lifter and body builder it is absolutely critical.  It can mean the difference between health and injury, the fine line between champion and also – ran.  According to A. S. Prilepin , the optimal number of lifts at various loads for Olympic lifting athletes are:

70% loads (3 – 6 repetitions)              18 total lifts

80% loads (2 – 4 repetitions)            15 total lifts

90% loads (1 – 2 repetitions)             7 – 10 total lifts

Prilepin further feels that if the total “number of lifts in one exercise is significantly above or below the optimal, then the training effect decreases.”*  Through his research he recommends the following volume totals (sets times reps) in relation to loads:

70% loads             no less than 12 reps – no more than 24

80% loads             no less than 10 reps – no more than 20

90% loads            no less than 4 reps – no more than 10

In building workouts it is important to recognize the role of relative intensity as the sets, reps and loads are added onto the exercises.  If the rep range is great from workout to workout or week to week then relative intensity is critical to understanding the relationship of load to volume, workout to workout and week to week.  According to Alexsei Medvedyev in  “A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting”,  as well as the USA Weightlifting manual Volume III “Training Program Design” regarding big lifts using the legs, the total number of reps divided by the all the percentage loads should equal 75%.  In other words, your average load in a squat, dead or clean for a month of training should be 75%.  This rule can be violated, but over the long haul for optimum performance and injury free workouts, this rule is inviolate.  This is due to the fact that we use our legs for standing, walking, running, jumping and changing direction.  On bench pressing, the average load can be skewed slightly higher (+2-4%).  In other words, the load should be a bell curve off of 75%.  From 70% – 80% about 35% of the reps should fall in this range.  With loads of 60% – 70% and 80% – 90% the volume of loads should be approximately 25% of the total volume for the month.  Below 60% load is 10% of the volume and above 90% is 5% of the volume.  What would change each month and with each year of training is an increase in the total volume of repetitions that can be executed with squats, deads, and/or cleans.

Now that we have a feel for the loads for the lifts, let’s examine the role of relative intensity.  If Thor did the 5 x 5 @ 85% workout, then his relative intensity was 97%.  That is extremely high.  Here is a good time to invoke the 10% rule.  Any time you feel the need to back down, 10% is the MINIMUM that is needed to create a recovery/compensation/super-compensation effect so that the strength that is being developed can be expressed.  In ranges above 85% relative intensity, the recovery workout should be more in the range of 15% off of the peak load.  In light of this, what load should Thor have selected for his load at 4 x 10?  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 55% – 60% of his 1 rep max needed to be loaded onto the bar.  This may seem too light, but remember, we must take into account the volume that Thor wants for today’s workout . . . 4 x 10 or 40 reps.  This is almost exactly 80% of what Thor knows from experience he can handle in a volume squat workout (remember, 50 reps total is the max number of reps in a volume squat workout, unless you want that workout to carry over into next week or even next month).

In devising your training programs, it is critical that your record your workouts.  As you begin to progress in your training age, you will begin to know and understand your limits.  If I decide to squat 5 x 8 @ 76%, what is that in relation to my 8 x 3 @ 85% workout from last week?  (It is 40 reps at a relative intensity of 97% versus 24 total reps at a relative intensity of 91%).  In light of this, maybe I would be better served to do 8 x 3 @ 82% with a R.I. of 88% followed the next week by 5 x 8 @ 58% with a R.I. of 79%.  According to Tudor O. Bompa in “Periodization of Strength”, all strength training occurs above a load of 80%.  Power training effects occur at loads of 50 – 80%.  The concept of relative intensity creates a common language that unlocks the relationship of volume to reps and reps to volume.  Incorporating this tool in building your workouts enables you to train harder, train smarter and train longer with fewer plateaus and less staleness and injury.  After all, isn’t that what it is all about? More is better.


Baker, Gene  USA Weightlifting Coaching Manual Volume III “Training Program Design”  USA       Weightlifting  Colorado Springs, CO 1980

Bompa, Tudor O.   ‘Periodization of Strength’,  Veritas Publishing Inc.  Toronto, Ontario Canada 1993

Fleck, Steven and Kraemer, William “Designing Resistance Training Programs”  Human Kinetics Books

Champaign IL 1987

*Laputin, Nikolai and Oleshko, Valentin “ Managing the Training of Weightlifters” Sportivny Press

Livonia MI 1982

Medvedyev, Alexsei  “A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting”  Sportivny Press  Livonia MI


Fleck, Steven and Kraemer, William “Designing Resistance Training Programs”  Human Kinetics Books

Champaign IL 1987

Leave a Reply