March 8, 2015

Numbers, Angles, Rhythm, And Symmetry

This Is Really Just A Game Of Numbers, And Angles

Super Bowl winning coach, and NFL analyst, Brian Billick has popularized the phrase, ‘professional football has been and always will be a game of numbers, angles, rhythm and symmetry’.

Numbers in this case refers to the matchups and mismatches on the field, such as when 3 receivers are lined up on the same side of the field, with the defense showing zone coverage with 2 deep safeties (the safety on the far side will presumably be unable to make a play on the side of the field that the 3 receivers are lined up on, unless leaving his position, and a huge portion of the field wide open). This would be considered a very favorable matchup for the offence to take advantage of. The numbers are the first key to running a successful play.

But all the numbers in the world, in terms of advantages in personnel, are meaningless if the receivers don’t take advantage by running routes that place themselves between the quarterback and the closest defender. If the defender is able to identify the route and place himself between the targeted receiver and the quarterback, the likeliness of the play being broken up, or worse yet, intercepted, is heightened dramatically. Therefore, the angles are the second key to running a successful play, as they enable the offence to take advantage of the numbers/mismatches.

Billick is natural statistician, and goes on to say that over the course of a given season, the offensive and defensive units will run about 1,000 plays per season. Of these 1,000 plays, roughly 45% of them will be first down plays, with roughly 20% being third down plays. 14% of plays will be within the ‘red zone’ (AKA within scoring range by most accounts), with 2.5% of plays from the goal line. These numbers heavily influence how much time is spent practicing specific situations, and with good reason – why would anyone invest a lot of time into practicing a situation that you’re only going to face 2.5% of the time? You have to get to the goal line first, and if you can’t do that, there’s not much value in practicing plays from there.

This is where symmetry comes in, as it refers to the amount of time spent on the demand of the situation – since third down plays occupy only 20% of the situations that will be faced, more time is spent practicing first down plays, which occupy 45% of the situations. Time is spent on addressing and practicing for the situation that requires the most attention, and will make the greatest impact on the outcome of the game. This is the third key to being able to successfully run a play – practicing the numbers and angles.

Rhythm is developed as a result of the symmetry, which in this case refers to successfully running plays – as situations are practiced and dealt with, and success is seen in the physical form, momentum begins to form, and things come together more naturally. As a team’s ability to string together successful plays improves, confidence is built, and more time can be spent on addressing other situations that require it the most, in the hopes of creating the most complete team as possible.

Drawing A Parallel

You’re probably wondering why I just spent the first 6 paragraphs of this article talking about Brian Billick’s football philosophy, but to me, a lot of parallels between football and strength training can be made from this philosophy. For instance, it could be argued that strength training is all about the numbers.

The numbers, in terms of how much weight is used, will determine how many reps can be performed, which determine the training effect.

It could also be argued that strength training is all about angles, as the angles, in terms of body positioning/alignment which will determine which muscles are mechanically at an advantage to perform the work.

Symmetry in this case will determine exactly how your training is structured, as symmetry in the example above suggests that the situation of greatest priority receives the most attention. In strength training, your strengths and weaknesses, and imbalances should determine how much time is spent on correcting them, and when they will be addressed.

And finally, rhythm in this case is the accumulation of all the numbers, and angles, and symmetry coming together in the form of the end result. When a goal is accomplished, the symmetry will determine what the next chapter of numbers and angles should be, and the process continues from there. As goals are accomplished, and new goals are set, confidence is built, and momentum begins to take over, in one big virtuous cycle of results!

So, before we can develop a rhythm, we need to use symmetry to determine what situation needs to be addressed, and before we can do that we need to know how to create our own favorable matchups, and how to take advantage of them with the right angles. But before this, we must first determine what specific physiological response we wish to attain from our efforts, and it all starts with the numbers.

The Inverted ‘U’ Curve – AKA The ‘Bell Curve’

Most people are familiar with what a bell curve represents – it suggests that a healthy medium, or balance, is needed for optimal performance and development. On one end of the spectrum, if something is perceived to be too easy, we perceive it to not be much of a challenge, and thus it’s hard to be motivated to put forth a lot of effort, as we perceive that the cost of our effort outweighs the potential benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, if something is perceived to be too difficult, we perceive it to be beyond our current capabilities, and thus we are just as unmotivated as if it were too easy, and thus we shy away from even trying. What does drive us to put forth our best efforts are tasks we perceive will stretch us beyond our current capabilities, but aren’t too farfetched that we don’t believe we can accomplish it. These tasks are the ones in which we get into a state of mind referred to as ‘flow’ – strength training is no different.

In strength training, it’s important to use the right loads to get the desired response. If a load is too heavy, or too light, the benefits of using such loads will be suboptimal. The right loads however, are dependent on the goal, and the desired response one wishes to attain from there training. The ‘right’ loads are relative.

Now, I realize that it’s impossible to account for how you will feel on any given day, as there are simply too many variables to take into consideration which can affect how you perform, therefore, the following numbers are simply reference points. They are simply starting points, to which you should build around, based on your current capabilities, so that you can get into a state of ‘flow’ when training, because it’s this state that provides the perfect combination of load and performance, which will undoubtedly maximize the end result – as long as you can recover from the workload.

The first series of numbers represent how much weight you should use if performing multiple sets for a certain numbers of reps. For example, the amount of weight you would use for multiple sets of 1 would NOT be the same as your 1 rep max, because your 1 rep max is a weight that you can only perform 1 time. Therefore, if performing sets of 1, the load should be no more than 97.5% of your 1 rep max. The remaining progression looks as such:

95% for multiple sets of 2

90% for multiple sets of 3

87.5% for multiple sets of 4

85% for multiple sets of 5

82.5% for multiple sets of 6

80% for multiple sets of 7

77.5% for multiple sets of 8

75% for multiple sets of 9

72.5% for multiple sets of 10

*85% for sets of 5 reps, and 75% for sets of 10 reps is average for most, but other factors like fiber type distribution, and training experience, will most definitely affect these numbers.

As stated above, the ‘right load’ is the one that allows you to enter a state of ‘flow’, and this load will vary depending on what your goal is. While some loads may be too light for some goals, and others too heavy for others, the following provides a brief outline of the loads that are generally best suited for various goals, along with some other tidbits of information associated with the percentages presented.


Loads that are in excess of 100% of your full range 1 rep max are generally best suited as a form of ‘overload’. Because of the neural demand associated with such loads, the dosage in terms of how many reps the brain and body can tolerate must be limited so that it can recover from such work. Here are some examples of parameters for such loads:

For partial reps use 100-105%, or 105-110%, aiming for 2-3 reps.

For isometrics use 110-115%, aiming to hold the weight for 6-9 seconds.

*Because of the post-tetanic facilitation effect that supramax loads have on the nervous system, it would be wise to follow a heavy partial or isometric with 3 full range reps using 85-90%, then 3 reps using 50-60% as explosively as possible, as part of a complex, to cover all aspects of the performance spectrum since performance will be enhanced following a brief overload.

For eccentric loading, use 100-105% (but anywhere between 90-110% is fine, on rare occasions going up to 120-130%), with 70-80% of the load on the bar if using releasers, aiming for 3 sets of 1, or finish an exercise with 2-3 reps of supramax eccentrics – even lowering 1 rep with 95-105% after the primary workload is complete is beneficial. If using releasers, the eccentric load should be at least 10% more than the concentric load.


Loads at, or above 90% are best suited to specifically showcase the strength your muscles can currently produce. The 95-100% range (ex. 2-5 sets of 1-3 reps) is the one in which the fastest strength gains are made, but progress slows quickly after the first 2-3 weeks. Sets of 1-3 reps using loads between 90-100% improve the capacity to recruit more muscle fibers, and this enhances the effectiveness of using even lighter loads.

The difference between loads above, and below, 95% is dramatic in terms of the dosage that the body can recover from in that up to 10 reps can be performed if using 90%, but no more than 3-4 reps should be performed with loads between 95-100% of max. That’s quite a difference because by dropping the load just 5%, you can get away with performing double the amount of reps, and it’s not like that extra 5% will build a substantially greater amount of strength.

The number of reps at 95-100% in a single workout should be limited to 3-4 – by dropping the weight 5%, and you can get away with performing double the amount of reps with virtually the same demand on recovery – as in, you can perform double the amount of reps, but won’t require any additional rest than that which would be needed to recover from performing half as many reps with roughly 5% more weight.

The number of reps at 90% in a single workout should be limited to 10 total (10 x 1, 5 x 2, or 3 x 3 + 1 x 1, etc), as the stress they place on the body is very high.

Because of the neural demand, it’s very difficult to recover from many reps above 90%, but the good thing is that not many are needed to build, or at the very least maintain strength. The minimal effective dose for in this case is to perform 1 set over 80%, and 2 sets over 90% (performed as two singles, or two doubles, or a single then a double), followed by 1 back off set with 60% for as many reps as possible (AMRAP), or 3 sets of 3-5 with 85% (because that’s between 80% and 90%), followed by sets of 3 with 75%, every minute on the minute (EMOM) for 5 minutes.


The 80-90% range is unlike any other range because in the middle of this range is the cutoff for what is considered ‘maximal’, and ‘submaximal’ loading, which is generally set at 85% – those above being classified as maximal/near-maximal loads, and those below being classified as submaximal. Therefore, the amount of work performed in this range, and on which end of the range, will be highly individualized, based on the goal.

80% is also widely regarded as the minimal load needed to stimulate rapid strength gains – if the goal is strength, you should always include work at, or above 80%, even if it’s the end of the workout (even if you can only manage sets of 2-3 reps), while avoiding training to failure.

Loads below 90%, but above 80% are best to develop either size or strength independently, or concurrently, because they are a lot less neurologically demanding than loads above 90%, but they still provide adequate stimulus so that the efforts can be integrated into your ability to showcase your strength.

Even though 80% is the minimum threshold for building strength, high frequency training (ex. training the same lift 6 days a week) should only include one day at 80% during the week – the other 5 days should consist of one at 60%, and two at 70% and 75% respectively. Something like 75% on day 1, 70% on day 2, 80% on day 3, 60 on day 4, 70% on day 5, 75% on day 6, and resting on day 7 would be acceptable, or a wider range can be used with work in the 70-80% on day 1 (high volume), 60-70% on day 2 (low volume), 80-90% on day 3 (moderate volume), off on day 4, 60-70% on day 5, and 70-80% on day 6, with another rest day on day 7 would be fine as well.

For strength:

Loads on the 90% end of the spectrum (85-90% is best most of the time, with occasional lifts around 95%) will teach you to demonstrate the strength you built working in the 80-90% range. Some examples of parameters suited for strength development are:

Sets of 1-3 reps with 80-90% are best for maximum recruitment during short efforts because they are similar to near maximal efforts, but prevent metabolic fatigue from accumulating and affecting subsequent performance.

A ‘hard day’ would consist of 3 reps at, or above 90% (ex. 95% for 1, 92.5% for 1, 90% for 1), irrespective of the work that follows, even if it’s in the 75-85% range.

Because of the potentiation effect max loads have on the nervous system, a good way to take advantage of this is to perform contrast sets – those in which submaximal loads are substituted in to allow you to fully dominate the weight, while giving the nervous system a brief downshift in gears. An example would be something like:

8 sets of 1 with 90-100%, then switch gears and perform 3 sets of 2 with 80-85% (focusing on speed), before finishing with 2 more sets of 1 with 90-100%.

90% is also the optimal range for building strength at the expense of power for the Olympic lifts, and their variations.

80% is also the optimal range for which a blend of power and strength are developed equally for the Olympic lifts, and their variations, and therefore will have a greater transfer towards maximum strength because it allows heavy loads to be used without compromising technique, facilitating a greater workload to be performed. Basically these loads allow you to specifically practice the lift in which gains are sought most, in the specific manner in which they should be performed.

For size:

Loads on the 80% end of the spectrum are much better suited for building size, or honing in on perfecting technique. An example of parameters suited for size development would be:

Sets of 4-6 reps with 80-87.5% provide the perfect blend for size and strength development.

75-85% (the optimal training zone)

Even though loads under 85% are considered to be ‘submaximal’, it’s these loads – generally between a 5 and 10 rep max, which represent the optimal training zone that most people want to be working in. Because these loads are submaximal, a lot of repetitions can be performed without risking overworking the body’s capacity to recover, and therefore these loads are best suited for high frequency motor pattern development for those looking to improve performance, as well as building size because of the increased potential to perform more reps for multiple sets with such loads.

Because of the minimal demand these loads impose on the body, they are best suited for advanced muscle building techniques like ‘rest-pause’ sets, and are also best suited for high frequency training specific to increasing performance.

A good way to break through a plateau when progress has stalled on a certain lift is to switch to a different variation of that lift, and perform 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps with 80-85%, 3-4 times a week.

For size, 75-80% should be used for rest-pause training (aiming for 6 reps or so, resting, then completing another 4 or so).

An ‘easy day’ would consist of 5 sets of 3 reps with 75-80%.

For high frequency training, in which the same lift is trained multiple times a week, a few days in the 75-85% are ideal. An example of such approach would be performing 5 sets of 3 with 75% one day, 5 sets of 2 with 80% on another day, 5 sets of 1 with 85% on a different day, and 3 sets of 8-10 with 60% on a final day, with two days in there in which you really push the envelope with something like 5 sets of 3-5 with the most weight you can handle while staying in the prescribed rep range – one of these days after the 75% day, and the other after the 85% day.


Loads under 80%, but above 70% are best suited for frequency of practice because of the minimal demand they have on the body – they’re easy to recover from, as long as you avoid training to failure, and therefore are best suited for high frequency strength training, with additional emphasis being placed on speed and technique. Generally, 80% is the range in which a lift should be trained 2-3 times a week, for submaximal reps (don’t go to failure), but loads on the higher end of the spectrum will take a greater toll on the body, and therefore require more rest between workouts, so it’s a good idea to limit the amount of work performed at the higher end of the range if performing a lift more than 2-3 times a week. There are several examples of parameters within this range that are best suited for higher frequency training, among them being:

If training main lifts like bench presses and deadlifts 5 x a week, the majority of work performed should be in the 75-80% range (70-75% for deads), occasionally going up to 90-95% (85-90% for deads – going heavy in the FIRST weekly session when fresh) just to see where you’re at, using 3-5 reps (2-3 for deads) or less, per set. The deadlift can be performed more often (ex. two, or more, times per week) as long as you avoid going super heavy and stay around 80% most of the time.

Sets of 2-3 reps with 70-80% (70% for deads, but can go up to 80% for those with good explosiveness) are best for reinforcing technique with an emphasis on speed to build explosiveness, without causing too much fatigue.

If training to failure, 80%, or roughly a weight that can be performed for multiple sets of 6, can be very beneficial for building size by either performing straight sets, or performing half as many reps as you could (2-3 at a time), but taking very minimal, incomplete rest periods (20-30 seconds at a time) to accumulate a lot of high quality reps until reaching a predetermined amount (30-50 total reps). On the lower end of the spectrum, 70%, or roughly a weight that can be performed for multiple sets of 10, or using density work stopping at 4-6 reps and performing as many sets as possible, as fast as possible, until reaching the predetermined amount can be just as effective for building size.

Because 80% is the minimal threshold for building strength, performing 5 sets of 2 with 80% can be used to maintain strength while reinforcing technique, or used as a deload because it is a very conservative workload.

Performing 2 sets of 5 with 70% at the onset of every workout, and 1 set of 10 with 50% at the end of every workout is a very effective way to increase the volume of high quality reps performed for a given lift on a weekly basis without overworking the body’s capacity to recover, facilitating the improvement of performance for any lift since these loads don’t place a large burden on the body. If using loads on the higher end of the spectrum, training the same lift at every session will be harder to recover from, in which case more sets can be performed each time, but for less days per week to facilitate recovery – an example being something like 3-4 sets of 3 (up to 5 at the most) with 70-75% (up to 80% at the most), 3-4 times a week after a workout.

Sets of 3 with 20-30 seconds of rest, using 70-75% can be used to concurrently build size and perfect technique, an example being to complete 30 reps in 6 minutes or less. Even though 10 reps can likely be performed with such a load, stopping at 3 or so will limit fatigue from negatively affecting performance, thus facilitating improved performance, which will undoubtedly reinforce proper motor pattern development, thus increasing performance. If performing triples (sets of 3), 75-80% is ideal for skill acquisition (AKA ‘strength-skill’), but higher workloads (7-10 sets of 3) can be performed with higher intensities (80-85%) as well because of the nature of the method – 85-90% can also be used for maximum recruitment, with an obvious decrease in the amount of sets performed.

70% is also the optimal range for building power/explosiveness at the expense of strength for the Olympic lifts, and their variations.

Contrast sets in which sets in different zones are performed in succession can often be very beneficial for those looking to build muscle and/or improve performance because of the wider array of stimulation/demand the muscles are subjected to. An example would be to perform a set with 70-80% for 2-3 reps using 2-3 second pause, followed by a set with 60-70% for 3-5 violently explosive reps, before finishing with a set using 80-85% for 4-6 reps – always end with the set that is most beneficial to your goal, ex. end with a heavy set if strength is the goal. Perform 2-3 rounds and one additional set with parameters best suited for the desired outcome, for example: end on a strong note by taking 7-10% off from last set and perform a double or triple explosively if strength or performance is the goal, or perform 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps at the end of the workout using 80% of the maximum load that was achieved during the workout. Another example would be 4 sets of 10 of isolation work, followed by 6 sets of 3 with a compound movement performed explosively with 50%, finishing with 1 set of as many reps as possible (AMRAP) with 85%.

If the goal is to concurrently improve more than one lift at a time, start each workout with 5 sets of 3 for each priority lift at the begging of every workout, using 70-75%, then perform a complex for one of the patterns (squat pattern, dead pattern, bench pattern, overhead pattern) on each separate day to fully stimulate the involved musculature.

A high volume, moderate intensity approach for building muscle would be to perform 5 sets of 8 with 70% for main lift (ex. bench press, or squat), then 3 sets of 8 with 20% less than that which was used for the main lift, for a less advantageous movement of the same pattern (ex. incline press, or front squat).


Loads lower than 70% are generally used as part of a warm up, to work on speed while maintaining perfect technique, or to develop strength capacity. To develop work capacity, and the ‘skill’ that is the ability to demonstrate strength, loads on the upper end of the spectrum are best – 65-70%. These loads are also generally a good starting point for high frequency speed and technique development, generally performing the same lift 2-4 times a week for sets of 2-3 reps using 65-70%. 70% is also a good starting point for paused lifts, using 2 second pauses, for 4-6 reps.


As it relates to strength and size development, loads below 60% generally have very little merit, unless performed under very specific conditions. Generally, 60% is the range in which a workout should begin – meaning that sets below 60% do not count towards the overall volume of the workout, unless otherwise specified. In most cases, a workout should begin with 3 sets between 60-80% if training for strength, with the first set being performed at 60%, followed by a set at 70%, then 80%, before moving onto the actual working sets, which in this case could be 3 at 85%, and 3 more at 87.5%.

For size, 60% loads (but up to 70%) are all that are needed to activate mTOR, which is best done before moving onto high threshold work designed to recruit and fatigue more motor units – something like a set with 85% for example, with a progression that calls for a 5 lb. increase in weight for every rep over 5 that is performed, meaning if you get 6 with 85%, next time add 5 lbs, add 10 lbs if you get 7, and 15 if you get 8, etc. After the 85% set, remove 10% and aim to perform 1 more rep, then reduce another 10% and perform 1 more rep.

60% is also ideal for pre-/post-exhaust holds of 20-30 seconds, either before, or after performing the desired amount of reps.

While 50% is the range in which power is at its peak (for 3-5 reps), anywhere between 40-60% can be used for speed work. To maintain explosiveness, something like 4 sets of 3 with 60% is ideal.

Back off sets, those in which the last set is performed with significantly less weight than that which was used for the primary workload, should never be below 50% of what was used, performed for as many reps as possible (AMRAP). A good rest-pause technique aimed at stimulating growth is to aim to perform AMRAP, then aim to perform 50% as many reps with incomplete rest (ex. 1 min rest if you got more than 6 reps). Progress can be measured by increasing number of reps performed during first leg (reps before the pause), second leg (reps after the pause), or both legs combined (the total amount of reps performed).

If performing a lift every day, a 12 week cycle starting with 45% of max, and ending around 70% in the final week, for 20 or less reps per day is ideal. Two examples of such an approach are:

Week1: 3 x 4 or 3 x 5 with 45%
Week2: 4 x 3 or 4 x 5 + 5 lbs
Week3:4x4 or 5x4 + 5 lbs
Week4:2x3 or 3x3 + 5 lbs
Week5:3x5 or 3x4 + 5 lbs
Week6:4x4 or 4x4 + 5 lbs
Week7:5x4 or 5x3 + 5 lbs
Week8:3x2 or 3x2 + 5 lbs
Week9:3x5 or 3x4 + 5 lbs
Week10:4x3 or 4x3 + 5 lbs
Week11:5x3 or 5x2 + 5 lbs
Week12:4x1 or 3x1 + 5 lbs

Add 5 lbs per week for upper body exercises, and 10 lbs per week for lower body exercises – limit eccentric stress as much as possible. Antagonist pairings can be used in an A1/A2 sequence using the same parameters, selecting exercises that teach you how to use the body to improve performance in the desired lift: ex. snatch-grip deads and reverse band bench presses would be a good pair to teach ‘lat tension’ in a specific manner to the deadlift.


The only time anyone should willingly perform sets and reps with such low loads is if they’re performing movements of a ballistic nature – those in which the resistance is projected into air. In these cases, 20-30% would be better suited for lower body ballistics, while 10-20% is better suited for upper body ballistics.

Most people are generally 20-30% stronger eccentrically, therefore overloads should be used during max lifts in the 1-5 range (88-100% days), since these loads still only manage to place the muscles under 58-80% of what the muscles are capable of eccentrically.

When performing contrast sets, the variance in load should be no more than 20% between a heavy and light set, and generally the difference between the top and bottom end of spectrum when using a wave method should be kept within 10-15%. Even when performing sets with different rep schemes like 3 sets of 3 for example, followed by 3 sets of 6, the weight should only be reduced by 20% for the sets of 6, or if performing 3 sets of 6 first, you would then increase the weight by 10-20% for the sets of 3 – generally 10-20% more is what is used for cheat reps, or less for very strict reps (in relation to looser reps).

The amount of contribution from the stretch reflex generally increases your capacity to lift roughly 10-20% greater loads. This is why paused lifts are so much harder to do.


You may have noticed some exemptions to the deadlift in some of the notes above, and the reason for that is because that is the one lift that takes the greatest toll on the body. While any lift can be trained frequently to improve performance, the deadlift is one in which it’s always best to err on the side of caution. One such approach of a high frequency program is to perform 20 reps on day 1, 25 on day 2, 30 on day 3, and only 10 reps on day 4 but with 10-20% more weight, for example:

Day 1: 20 reps, performed as sets of 2 or 3, in as little time as possible
Day 2: 25 reps, performed in the same manner, in as little time as possible
Day 3: 30 reps, performed in the same manner, in as little time as possible
Day 4: 10 reps, performed as sets of 1 or 2, in as little time as possible

Use 70-80% for the first 3 days, and repeat the progression for as many weeks as you’re progressing, but adding 5-10% to the working weight each week. When progress halts, take a week off, then retest your max.

For this progression however, the load used at the onset of the program should be 60%, not 70% or 80%, and the load would be increased by 10-20% each week, as opposed to 5-10%.

Another example in which the deadlift is the exception is if it is being used as an assistance exercise – generally an exercise like squats could be performed for sets of 4-6 reps as an assistance exercise, using 80%, but deads in this case would only be performed for 2-4 reps with a slightly lower relative amount (70-75%) because of the demand. Or, a greater load (80-85%) could be used if performed for less reps (1-2 reps in this case), since less reps are suggested anyway, so you may as well reduce them further and increase the load.


The numbers above not absolutes, and are simply staring points – just like where receivers, tight ends, and running backs line up on the field to begin a play. The play is not set in stone, it’s simply a starting point, to which necessary adjustments are made, based on what the defense give you – in this case, your body, and it’s response to the training, are the ‘defense’. If you like the matchup you see, you run the play, meaning that if the starting points above seem to be applicable to you, then go with it. But if you’re capable or either more, or less, then make the necessary adjustments to maximize your chance of success.

If you have any questions about the numbers presented in this article, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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