At the recent Starting Strength Coaches' Association conference, I ran into Nick D'Agostino. It turns out that we are running the same sort of programming, DUP or Daily Undulating Periodization. It's an intermediate program where the rep ranges are varied each time you train. It's a bit like block periodization if the blocks were shuffled together. You probably don't need it. Anyway, back to the story.
I regularly run my training in the range of RPE 9, which means that I could probably get one more rep, but not two. RPE=Rate of Perceived Exertion. This can be a useful way of monitoring training intensity for experienced and mature lifters. Nick said that whenever he tried to do sets at RPE 9, it beat him up for the next week or so. I can do RPE 9 every day of the week. What's the reason for this difference? Maybe I'm just tougher than he is. If you knew Nick, you would know that this is not true. He's a very strong man who is also an accomplished athlete.
What does it mean to be an athlete? You will hear talk on the radio or television about players who display a lot of athleticism, and announcers aren't really clear on what that means. Let me propose this: Athletes jump high. But how do you jump high? Let's dig a little deeper.
Motor units (motor neurons plus the connected muscle fibers) are activated according to the size principle. Smaller Type I fibers are activated first, and then the super-strong Type II fibers are activated. Good jumpers are able to overcome this limitation, to tell more of their muscle fibers to contract right now. They aren't necessarily stronger, but they are able to display their strength faster.
There is also the matter of neuromuscular efficiency. We all know that men are stronger than women, even when adjusted for mass differences. The man is better able to use the muscle he has. Watch a powerlifting meet and you will see this demonstrated in the attempt choices, which may be quite broad for the men, but will be clustered for the women. A female lifter may blow through a 120lb bench press, but be pinned by 125. A man may struggle on a 550lb deadlift and still hit 580 on the third attempt. This is why we recommend 5 sets of 3 to women lifters, because sets of 3 will be closer to their muscle's absolute strength, and they will get a better training effect. You will also find, if you have trained women for a while, that they can tolerate volume better. My wife does lots of sets across on press at a percentage of 1RM that would bury me.
So, better athletes are better able to recruit muscle fibers fast, and are better able to use the maximum potential of those muscles. How does this relate to Nick and me? I am not a good athlete. I tested my vertical jump this weekend and came up with 20", which is average, not impressive at all. Nick has more than a 30" leap. He's a very rare individual. I suspect he is also able to work closer to his absolute limit strength. In other words, he's closer to the upper limit of masculine neuromuscular efficiency, and I'm closer to the bottom limit.
There are programming consequences. Let's take 100% as the total limit of strength, which may never actually be displayed in action. Nick is able, when he wants, to work really close to that 100%, perhaps at 95%, where I can't get above 90%, and my wife can't get above 80%. This means that when he's working at RPE 9, he's really pushing his muscles. When I work at RPE 9, it's not nearly as stressful, and I can do it pretty much every session. Nick has to reserve RPE 9+ for meets.
You may need to take this into account for your own programming, if you are a natural athlete. You'll know, if you are one of these wondrous people. If you are just average, continue as usual. But, if you are exceptional, in your intermediate and advanced programming you may need to keep some reps in the tank as a matter of self-preservation.