The Rule of 90%: 2.0

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The rule of 90% can be applied to almost anything.

One of the best examples, with special emphasis to health and wellness, stems from Dr. John Berardi and the crew over at Precision Nutrition.

Simply stated, if you eat “clean” or follow the rules 90% of the time, good things tend to happen.

By focusing the bulk of your diet or nutrition plan on things like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, “healthy” fat, whole, minimally processed foods, going “off the grid” 10% of the time, and eating foods you enjoy – hello mint cookies-n-cream ice cream! – won’t really make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

Life will go on, you’ll stay more consistent with your plan (and you’ll keep your sanity).

The Rule of 90% can also be applied to co-habitation (put the toilet seat down 90% of the time, and your girlfriend won’t strangle you) strength and conditioning, albeit in a different context.

I wrote an article on what seems like eons ago (2006!) titled, coincidentally enough, The Rule of 90%.  Catchy, right?

In it I discuss how, if your goal is to improve maximal strength, it’s important to incorporate lifts at or above 90% of your 1-rep max.

Cliff Notes Version:  lifting maximal weight (90%+) has a number of effects:

1. Maximal number of motor units are recruited.

2. Fastest MU’s are activated (high-threshold motor units).

3. The discharge frequency (rate coding) is increased.

4. Activity is synchronous.

5. Potential for future hypertrophy gains (especially when you revert back to a “hypertrophy” specific training phase).

6.  While some argue whether or not the research is efficacious – it goes both ways – lifting heavy things helps to increase serum Testosterone levels.

7.  Girls will want to hang out with you (<=== it’s science).

How It’s Applied (Watered Down, Like A Lot)

Lets say someone’s bench press max is 275 lbs, and the goal for a particular training session is to hit 4 singles at or above 90%.  It may look something like this:

Bar x whatever

95 x 8

135 x 5

185 x 3

225 x 3

250 x 1

265 x 1 (feel good! Eff it, lets go for a PR).

280 x 1 (it was a grinder, but you got it).

From here, it’s important to note that ANY lift at 90% or above (275 lbs), counts.  Doing the math, that means any lift which was heavier than 247.5 lbs.

So now we have ONE more single left.  I’d opt for a clean rep with good bar speed.

260 x 1 (Nailed it! Lets go pound a protein shake).

The Rule of 90%: 2.0

Hitting lifts that are 90% or above one’s 1RM isn’t something I’d recommend for beginner or even most intermediate lifters.  It takes a lot of experience and “time under the bar” to get to the point where handling that much weight is safe.

To that end, this approach IS NOT something I advocate for those with little training experience (lets say less than a year of consistent, no BS training).

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still apply the principles to great affect.

Something we implement a lot at Cressey Performance (because we don’t go out of our way to test 1RM right off the bat) is the idea of ramping up to a 3 RM (rep max) – for that day – and then using the same approach as above, hitting a certain number of sets at or around 90%.

There’s a fair bit of autoregulation and “feel” involved, and results will vary depending on one’s status for that day, but it gets the job done.

I’ll simply have someone work up to a challenging triple (set of 3) for that day, and then once they hit it, aim for “x” number of sets at or slightly above 90% of THAT number.

Lets stick with the bench press. Goal is to hit 4 sets at or above 90% of 3RM.

Bar x whatever

95 x 5

135 x 5

185 x 3

225 x 3 (bar speed is still good)

245 x 3 (starting to slow up, but still passable)

265 x 3 (last rep was a bit of a grinder. We’ll use this as our marker or “top set” for the day).

Doing the math, 90% of 265 is 238.5.  So, any lift above that counts (245 and 265, respectively).

As always, I’d opt for clean, fast reps from here and would encourage someone to stick in the 245-255 range for their last two sets.

And That’s, That

Hopefully that makes some sense, and, of course, this is a strategy that could be applied to all the “big lifts” (squat, deadlift, bench press, chin-up, rows).  Tricep kickbacks are off the list.

Too, I’d be conservative with how often it’s applied.  1-2 sessions per week would suffice (maybe use it for one lower body movement, and one upper body movement), but once a week would be a nice option for most.

Week 1: ramp up to a 3RM deadlift, hit 3-5 sets at 90%+
Week 2: ramp up to a 3RM bench press, hit 3-5 sets at 90%+
Week 3: ramp up to a 3RM squat, hit 3-5 sets at 90%+

Week 4: ramp up to a 3RM deadlift (try to beat your previous number), hit 3-5 sets at 90%+

So on and so forth.

All in all, I find this is a much more “user friendly” way to implement the Rule of 90% and something that most trainees could easily implement into their training.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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Comments for This Entry

  • rich t

    That is real interesting. I (somewhat naively, in retrospect) didn't realize there were so many benefits to getting up near your max. (I will add #8 - it's kind of fun). BTW, this illustrates one of the reasons I like being in your workout group. Before, I would have read this article, and then been puzzling at how I should fit this kind of stuff in without disrupting the program I'm already doing. Now I can just relax and know that you will include this kind of work when it makes sense to do so. It just makes life a little simpler...

    June 26, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Love my triceps kickbacks though :) Nice work mate. Easy to follow advice. About to to 3-2-1 wave. Like?

    June 29, 2014 at 9:18 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brandon S.

    Great stuff Tony! Believe it or not, I use a VERY similar approach with many of the college powerlifter I coach and program for (and myself). It's yielded amazing dividends with many PRs, without crushing those I work with week in and week out. Feels great to see something similar by someone of your caliber. Do you use Preplin's chart to determine the volume as well? Thanks!

    July 1, 2014 at 11:26 am | Reply to this comment

  • 2 things to watch out for when you read fitness articles | FountainFit

    […] Optimal/Ideal - Oh, how I have grown to hate the word optimal. Saying something is optimal implies one thing: it cannot be improved upon. I’m pretty sure every supplement or exercise plan will be improved upon at some point – and don’t forget that what is “optimal” for you will change over time. But the even more insidious aspect of the use of “optimal” is that instills doubt in whatever you are currently doing, no matter how well it is working! “I gained 10 pounds on my squat last week, but I guess I could have gained 12 if I had been supplementing optimally. Shit, I’d better buy this new pre-workout powder!” OR “I gained a 1/2 inch on my arms last month, but this arm program says it is ideal for muscle growth. I’d better switch over.” The VAST majority of the population does not want to do their fitness optimally – AND THAT IS A GOOD THING! The ideal, even if it is just the ideal way that we have thus far discovered, takes a helluva a lot more commitment and/or a helluva lot more money. Unless you are a professional athlete or an Olympic hopeful, what in the world are you doing spending $300+ per month on supplements for? Maybe a gym with dumbbells to 200lbs would be “optimal” for your strength development, but what if that gym is 10 miles further and $25 more per month? The fitness industry (pertinent word) will not stop trying to convince you that you need to do things 100% right to get the results you want.  So we need to recognize their attempts and then use some 80/20 principle to guide our decisions. Supporting my point, both Dr. John Berardi and Tony Gentilcore have written posts about using “The 90% Rule”. (1)(2)(3) […]

    August 13, 2014 at 5:15 am | Reply to this comment

  • Gerald

    Hi Tony! Been reading your blog for the past couple of months and I want to thank you for your experiences as it has help me alot! I would just like to ask you when you mentioned "3-5 Sets at 90%+" Whats the rep range should I go for?

    October 24, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Forest

    In this context each set is one rep ... a submaximal heavy single

    December 2, 2021 at 9:52 pm | Reply to this comment

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