Everybody likes to have a plan. A well-written, well-designed workout means you don’t have to think too much when you go to the gym. You just show up, do what the plan says, and go home.

I won’t lie; I like a good spreadsheet. It’s fun to fiddle around with the numbers and see how things crunch when you put them together in a program. It’s a useful way to track progress and see how things work together.

Here’s what prompted me to write this piece, though. What I want to know is how you’re using a spreadsheet to calculate percentages for the 5×5 routines, when those programs specifically state they don’t use percentages to calculate weights.

Clearly this is heresy. You’ve downloaded the Intermediate 5×5 spreadsheet we’ve all got, and seen mad gangsta gains. You downloaded that Stronglifts 5×5 workout and now you’re way stronger than you were doing bodybuilding workouts. I must be stupid.

Or not. Bill Starr’s original 5×5 programming made no mention whatsoever of percentages. Neither do the newer 5×5 workouts that are all the rage these days, whether you’re talking the Starting Strength novice routine or the Texas-method intermediate system.

Let me transcend the 5×5 for a moment. It’s been specifically reiterated over and over again that percentages are inherently inaccurate. Percentages are somewhat useful to more advanced lifters that have to plan things out and track progress over large swaths of time. Percentages are useful for those that have to peak for a contest on some planned date. For the rest of you, those of you without competitive goals and those of you in the off-season, percentages lose their shine. Even at their best, they’re a guideline, not a hard and inviolable rule.

Bill Starr’s writings mention percentages occasionally but he never really seemed to use them. In his widely-known workouts, you work up in sets of 5 to a heavy set, one day each week, and the other two days use your third and fourth set, respectively, to establish top weights for the day. So if you did 135×5, 185×5, 205×5, 225×5, and 255×5 on Monday, you’d do the first three sets on Wednesday (the light day) and the first four sets on Friday (the medium day). Simple. Effective. Not a percentage in sight.

That same simplicity carried over through all of his different levels of programming, using exercise choices and other variables to plan workouts instead of calculations. Whether you were doing 5×8 or working up to a heavy triple, Starr seemed to use that same basic, simple approach to figuring out the weights.

The same applies to the newer 5×5 workouts that are the big hits now. If you’re using the “Starting Strength”novice program, you don’t necessarily know your 1RM and linear progression doesn’t require it anyway. With that approach, you just do 3×5 each session and add more weight each workout.

If you’re using the Texas method – the variant with 5×5 on Monday and one heavy set of 5 on Friday – you don’t particularly need to know it either. The same idea applies: you add weight as you can, and when you hit a new PR you back off and start over with 80-90% of your previous bests. Or you shift gears to emphasize the Monday session or the Friday session, instead of both at once. Again, not a percentage in sight; you’re using other strategies to regulate progression and workload.

I understand why the spreadsheets have come about for these programs. People are addicted to numbers, and to precisely-planned workouts. There’s something about having a written plan in front of you that gives a psychological safety net, a kind of certainty that you’ve got something there to back up what you’re doing at each workout.

That’s well and good except for one crucial problem: your body doesn’t give a shit about your plan.

The 5×5 systems, whether Starr’s or Rip/Pendlay’s, are based around informally planned training cycles. That is, there is no set length of time to spend any given training cycle. You just add weight as you go; you might peak in three weeks, or you might peak in 12 weeks as progress allows.

If you’ve got a spreadsheet telling you what to lift and when, then you’re forcing your body to adapt to the program. Unless you have an upcoming contest, it is always preferable to let your body dictate the program, rather than letting the program constrain your results.

Don’t take away the impression that I’m saying these planned routines won’t work. If you’re showing up at the gym and busting ass, of course they’ll work. It’d be stupid of me to say planned approaches “won’t work”. I’m arguing over relative efficiency here, and that’s easy to demonstrate.

You may actually be limiting your own progress if you’re using planned-out 8-week cycles. What if you’ve got 12 weeks of progress in you and you stop at 8 because the program says? Or what if you’ll benefit from shorter cycles and more frequent peaks? In that case 8 weeks ends up being too long. In both cases, your 8-week program has failed you from the standpoint of efficiency; yeah, you almost certainly saw gains, but they weren’t the best you could have achieved.

Of course, the caveat to that is obvious: sometimes “the best you could have achieved” isn’t on the table, due to injury, outside commitments, what have you. And that’s a fair enough excuse, too. If you’ve got some mitigating factor like that and a planned-out routine works for your situation, by all means have at it. We have to temper our drive for efficiency and effectiveness with reality, too. Beat up old men have different needs entirely.

But if you’re not in the “beat up old-man” category, if you’re a youngster or otherwise a relative novice to strength training trying to complete the quickest line between the two points of “beginner” and “pretty strong dude”, then you need to keep this in mind. There is no such thing as “an 8-week routine” for you to finish before jumping to the next fad workout. There’s only training and incremental changes to your training with time. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.

If you want to use a spreadsheet…

There actually is a good way to do use spreadsheets that doesn’t involve locking yourself into percentages. The good news is that you can still get all anal-retentive about tracking your numbers and precisely-measured loads. The bad news is that you’ll still have to adjust it pretty regularly based on what you do in the gym. I know, it’s horrible to have to think and write things down, but this is the price we pay.

With something like original Bill Starr routine, this is simple enough to do. What you need is to establish your working weights on the heavy session, since that sets the tone for the week. Assuming you’re working with the suggested 5 sets of 5 reps, ramping up to a heavy set with roughly equal increments, that’s simple enough to code in to Excel or OpenOffice.

Input a starting weight (probably 60kg or 135 lbs for most exercises), then input your targeted weight for the heavy set. To determine your working sets, you need to get an idea of the increment for the jumps between each set. So subtract your starting weight from your heaviest weight, and then divide by the number of jumps. With five sets, you’ll be making four jumps.

So if you’re starting with 60kg and wind up at 125kg, you get a difference of 65kg. Divide that by four, because you’re making four jumps, and you get 16.25kg per jump. Most gyms can’t support that kind of awkward weight increment, so you’d want to round to the nearest increment of plates. In this case you’d jump 15 to 17.5 kg per set. Your numbers for this workout will look like so:

Set 1    60
Set 2    77.5
Set 3    95
Set 4    112.5
Set 5    125

This way you get nice, even jumps. To determine the light and medium days, you just use the first three and four sets, respectively. Light day would go 60×5, 77.5×5, 95×5. Medium day would go 60×5, 77.5×5, 95×5, 112.5×5. Simple. Effective.

That gives you the weights for your week. To plan progress over time, well, that’s easy too. If you’re doing a big lift like a squat or deadlift, you can probably get away with 5kg/10lb increases per week. Smaller lifts will probably need 2.5kg/5lb increases. So add that to your weekly lifts. When it gets hard and/or when you’ve reached a personal best, reduced those weights by 10-20% and start over.

Or you can use the recommended micro-loading strategy, by getting special small-increment plates, and reduce your weekly progress to a more manageable rate. In the long run, I’m not sure you’ll see a huge difference. Some people will prefer grinding it out with small increments; others will prefer to cycle the weights. This will probably change as you get stronger, too.

Note that this strategy applies to the Texas method and most anything else, too. If you’re just unable to calculate an extra 5-10 lbs on your lifts each week, you can plug this into a spreadsheet and it will tell you the answer. You can see right off the bat that this isn’t going to give you an “eight week cycle” or whatever; you won’t know when to back-cycle until you get there.

Frankly I think most of you need to get into that mindset anyway. Your body doesn’t operate on pre-programmed cycles, and neither should your training. Auto-regulation is where it’s at, folks. Work up each week, preferably building to a new PR, then back it off and start over. No fancy math required.

But I used a spreadsheet and…

Yes, yes, I know. You got great gains. I don’t deny that spreadsheets and planned training cycles can work. I’d never say they can’t, because they do, and my dirty secret is that I use loosely-planned training cycles myself. There is something to be said for planning out weights, even if it’s just as a starting point, in some circumstances; this is what we call “cybernetic periodization”, and while it’s not as cool as time-traveling kill-bots, it’s still pretty awesome.

My point here, as it almost always is, is that there’s a time and a place for everything. I have specific targets in mind and because of that need, semi-planned cycles are the best fit. If my goal was “just get stronger over time”, then I’d not bother with them; I’d use something informal like I described with the Starr workouts and the Texas method. Pick a program, add weight when possible, then back-cycle and start over when you hit a peak.

In fact, even my planned blocks use some of that informality to a degree. I predominantly use auto-regulation to develop my workouts, adjusting each workout according to what I did in the last session, but I also use spreadsheets to plan out starting points and estimated goals for each workout. I also like to make use of double progression schemes that have you building up the workload each session before adding weight; that’s another viable strategy to use.

This all ties in to most of my ranting in general: your body is too chaotic a system to plan in advance with precise numbers. Percentages and weekly/monthly plans are largely an artifact of Soviet ideology, not any real biological wisdom. Virtually every progressive, and optimally effective, periodization method (defined as “system of organization of training”) does not rely exclusively on hard-wired plans, but on adjusted workouts planned by feedback from the coach and athlete.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Sheiko is a big glaring exception; but even there, I think it can be improved upon with a little auto-regulation. In my opinion, a planned workout should never be more than a starting point. Which means that spreadsheets and plans are far from worthless. You just have to use them when they’re needed; and they aren’t needed for every workout strategy you’ll find out there.

It makes very little sense to use a planned spreadsheet for a 5×5 workout, and I’m honestly confused as to why anyone would find that to be optimally effective. I understand that the vast majority of you out there are used to thinking in terms of precise plans, so I don’t hold that against you. I just want to get the point across that you’re using the programming equivalent of training wheels when you do that. Yeah, it gets you on the bike and it gets you moving, but sooner or later you have to learn to ride on your own.