Basics of Pure Strength Development
resurrected from AskScooby Forum from excellent posting made by user dodothebird
So you’re an athlete who needs some strength, though you are happy with your size which suits your sports, or you want to specialize in strength, possibly planning to work with powerlifters, but now you need a guide, or simply you’ve put on plenty of mass but you feel bad when much smaller guys warm up with your 1 rep maximum? Maybe you’ve been stuck in hypertrophy ranges, can not make progress, want some change and go into a pure strength phase instead of incorporating plateau busting techniques into your workout? Maybe you don’t even care about your strength, but you just like reading about this stuff. No matter what your reason is, here are basics for pure strength training for you.
First of all, you should know what you’re supposed to improve when you go for strength. There are a lot of myths and incomplete things going around, like “You need hard muscles for amazing strength.”, “You need to put on huge muscles for beasty strength.”, “Just do low reps”, some people even go as far as saying you need to put on fat.
To put it simply, you’ll need to jack up the efficiency of your CNS, in order to get better at recruiting high-thresold motor units – fast twitch fibers. CNS is pretty complex, as many components make it up and each of them is integrated just to carry out one simple action. As complex as it is, when working on the efficiency of your nervous system, you’re not building new structure. Strength is a skill, so take it as if you’re learning a skill. Despite the fact that CNS recovers relatively slower, since you’re not reconstructing anything, but you’re improving a structure you have, strength gains will be rapid.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not, but if you train in front of a powerlifting coach, he’ll probably tell you you’re using 20% ,30%, if you’re lucky, 40% of your potential (Not mass potential, it is strength potential in comprasion to your current size). Well, for an average lifter with average fiber makeup, it has some truth. Our body will prevent us from using our potential if it thinks that we’re messing with a weight that it thinks not safe. So even if some people push it to limits, they can only use as low as 20% of their potential (not intentionally, of course). But you can use more of your potential through CNS adaptation, and this adaptation will be faster when you use a routine which uses CNS structure over muscular structure.
Before I get to it, a few words on experience levels. Below I’ll mention beginners and advanced lifters. Keep in mind that by “Beginner”, I’m talking about people who have never gone into a strength phase. You can be lifting for years, but have never gone below hypertrophy zones, so you can still be in this cathegory. If you’ve never touched weights, there is no point in doing pure strength routine. In the beginning, most gains come from neural adaptations anyway, so you don’t have to go for pure strength training to get stronger. In fact, a hypertrophy routine is more beneficial because your body is not ready for heavy loads. First of all, Understand the proper forms of exercises, then get your joints and tendons stronger and put on some size (Every program, every basic movement is going to work at this point). Even though the principles I’ll talk about are based on getting CNS more efficient, you can not get strong if there is no muscle to lift those weights. It’s why there are weight classes in olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. Now let’s get into it.
Dominant Elements of a Strength Routine
You can base your program on a few elements. These are mainly intensity, volume, frequency, density. For a hypertrophy program, it’s best to consider all of them, but for a pure strength program, the dominance is shifted. You’ll have to give priority to two of those elements: Intensity and frequency.
Intensity is obviously required if you want to get stronger. When it comes to strength, we don’t mean “Working hard, pushing beyond limits” by intensity (That meaning would suit HIT type of training). By intensity, we mean the amount of weight you use in relation to your maximum. So if you’re using 80% of your 1RM, your intensity level is 80%. On a maximum strength day, you should aim between 80-90%. This does not mean you always have to lift heavy for strength. There will be times when you go as low as 30% to 70% of your 1RM, as I’ll descirbe below.
As for frequency, it is best to train each muscle group more frequently than a hypertrophy-based routine (Up to 4 times a week), but during the week you should take more days off than hypertrophy training. The reason is simple: You’ll place the emphasis on CNS development, not muscle building. Therefore, there will not be muscle damage/fatigue and you can train each muscle group more frequently. But since CNS takes more time to recover than muscles, you’ll need about 3 days off per week. Another reason to train a muscle group frequently is the fact that development CNS is kind of learning how to use your muscles, improve your intermuscular and intramuscular coordination and all of these are skills. So the more frequently you practice a lift, the more efficient you’ll become at it. If you wanted to improve your shooting skills, you’d shoot as often as possible, instead of just shooting for 7 hours straight on every sunday. If you want to learn a language, you should practice it as often as possible, 1 hour everyday is better than 7 hours once a week. Just to simplify it, consider CNS development as teaching yourself how to use your muscles in a similar fashion (It does not mean you always need to train a muscle group less frequently when you go for size, you can train frequently and still gain size but when it comes to strength, this is more crucial). Well, just like any other sports, to get better at a lift, you need to improve your practice as well. Everytime you lose/gain weight, you get tired, come from an injury, etc, your technique is affected. So you should practice it as often as you can in order to get better at a lift.
Volume is also to be considered. If you don’t use enough volume, you can’t stimulate anything. If your volume is too high, you’ll burn out. So the volume is going to be somewhat lower than hypertrophy training, but not too low, unless you’re doing a detraining week or your competition is around the corner. Density is another component, but I’ll mention it later.
Splits for Strength
I think it’s clear to understand that when you go for strength, you need to focus on compound, money exercises. I’ll talk about exercise selections below, but for now it’s enough to say that you should focus on less exercises per muscle group. You don’t want to “focus on a muscle group”, you want to become efficient at what you’re doing, improve a skill, and cause CNS adaptations for strength gains. The more muscles you train on a session, the better. You should train at least 3 muscle groups on a single session. An upper body / lower body split can work for 3 muscle group per session, but then you’ll have to complete more lifting sessions per week to achieve the desired frequency. For example lower body in the morning and upper body in the evening so that you can still take some days off, but not everyone has such a schedule; it’s more of a competitive lifter’s approach but that’s their job. Training 6 days a week is another option (3 upper body/3 lower body), but then you are not giving your CNS enough time to recover. That’s why I believe what suits for pure strength is full body training. Again, if you’re a competitive powerlifter who focuses on bench presses, squats and deadlifts on different days with supplementary movements, then that’s another story. If you want to be strong overall and focus on more than 3-4 lifts at the same time, full body training is the way to go.
Exercise Selections for Strength
Of course the main exercise you focus on should be a heavy compound. It’s not necessary just for improving the CNS structure, it’s also essential for intermuscular coordination (Which is something single-joint movements don’t help). Bench presses, push presses, military presses, pullups, olympic lifts, deadlift variations, back & front squats, rows, etc fall into this cathegory. If you choose a second exercise for a muscle group(*), it can be another of those primary movements, but it can be compounds which don’t fall into this cathegory. These exercises are still compounds but less taxing on the nervous system. Examples would be leg presses, pulldowns, lunges, chest press, etc.
What about isolation movements? They’re not necessary, in fact they can do more bad than good in a strength routine. But that’s a general rule for those who have no problem part, not always practicable in real life. Remember, you’re as strong as your weakest link. So feel free to add isolation movements if you have a weak point (Could be core, hips, shoulders, hams, etc), or safety movements such as rotator cuff work if you’re having problems about that. But the intensity of these will be low.
*I don’t like calling an exercise to be for a specific muscle group, especially when it comes to strength and the main focus is compounds, so the best thing is to cathegorize them according to the mechanics of exercises (i.e Pushing/pulling movements for upper body, quads/hips dominant for lower body).
Finally, how would you order exercises? Just a few things to remember:
1. Olympic lifts before conventional lifts (Snatch before clean, clean before jerk)
2. Deadlift before squats (If you do them on the same session)
3. Primary exercises before secondary exercises (i.e Squats before leg presses), or to put it simpler, more demanding movements before the less demanding
4. Larger muscle groups before the smaller (Legs-> Back-> Chest)
As for the upper body, you can still pair pushing/pulling movements, but the difference from hypertrophy training is that, you don’t do it as supersets. For example; If you want to do one set of rowing and one set of pressing, you’d wait for 90-120 seconds between exercises, so between each rowing set, you still rest 3-4 minutes.
Exercise, Set, Rep and Rest Zones for Strength
When it comes to the amount of exercises, the rule of thumb for strength is 6 exercises per session. So if you’re doing upper/lower body split, you should do 3 pushing, 3 pulling movements on upper body day, and 3 quads dominant, 3 hips dominant movements on lower body day. But if you do full body training (My recommendation), 2 pushing, 2 pulling and 2 lower body movement would be good. You can auto-regulate this for your needs of course. You can also do full body movements such as olympic lifts. A third movement can be still accepted for full body training (For weak links), but those will be auxiliary exercises with much less intensity so they don’t really count. Just don’t overdo them or you can hinder your process. Again, this is not a mirror training, it’s for pure strength.
As for number of sets, go for 9-12 sets per movement pattern (Not per exercise. For example, your pushing movements should be 9-12 sets in TOTAL). So that is approximately 4-6 sets per exercise. Of course you don’t have to do same amount of sets for all exercises. Let’s say you have 2 pushing movements: Bench presses and incline bench presses. If your main focus is flat bench presses, you can do 7-9 sets of bench presses and only 3-5 sets of incline bench presses. The rule of thumb: Less exercise, more sets (Compared to hypertrophy training).
So we covered sets and exercises, but how many reps? Well it’s no secret that rep range for pure strength is usually 1-5. But it’s not as simple. You can do sets of 3, but still get bigger. The key to pure strength is to allow your CNS to recover 100% from a set. And remember that CNS recovers relatively slower. That’s why, you’ll need 3-4 minutes of rest between sets of the same exercise depending on the exercise and intensity. I’m saying “sets of the same exercise”, not just “between sets”. I explained why before, as you may not do straight sets but pair exercises. Then you’d rest less between sets, but rest time between the same exercise would be still 3-4 minutes. Also keep this in mind, you should never train to failure while going for pure strength.
Progression for Strength
I’ve already said that most of the time we’ll shoot for 80% of 1RM or above, now it’s time to be more specific. You should be careful about your intensity level. You want to be strength, you want to go super heavy all the time, but the fact is; Train with 90% or more for 3 weeks, and your CNS will start to get weakened. That’s the opposite of what we want. So what to do? Your rep range can be between 1-5 per set, but the load you will use should be between 3-7 1RM.
Believe me this is heavy enough for gaining strength as much as possible. Remember, it is about improving your motor “skills”, it is not about going super heavy (It’s a training day, not competition). When most of competitive lifters start practicing for a specific competition, they start with as low as their 60% of 1RM 2-3 months before their competition (And reps are as high as 5-6 per set) As weeks go, they’d increase the load but do less and less volume, by the competition week, the load is as heavy as 95-100%, but reps per set is reduced to 1, and the amount of sets they perform can go as low as 3.
But of course even their 60% of 1RM is a huge task, since they’re already able to use most of their strength potential. There will not be huge strength differences between competitions for an elite lifter. In fact, some of them are lucky if they can just maintain their strength. Your 80% of 1RM may feel hard to you, but their 60% of 1RM is a lot more taxing. So for an average lifter who has not mastered his/her motor skills, staying at 80% and above is less problematic. But the key here is, you pick a weight you could do multiple reps with, but always leave a couple in the tank, as weeks go, you increase the load but do less reps. Similar approach. Here is a sample:
Workout one: 3 reps per set with 5RM
Workout two: 2 reps per set with 4RM
Workout three: 1 rep per set with 3RM
Then in the workout four, you’d increase the first week’s weight by 2-5% (depending how hard it felt), and do 3 reps per set with it. You’d do the same for workout five and six. This approach can be used at all levels. Since it doesn’t cause much fatigue, it can be done twice a week. I suggest basing your strength routines on this kind of a periodization. It is a great way to acquire motor skills, and I’ll incorporate this into sample workouts below. Remember, it is not getting ready for a competition so it is a modified version of what powerlifters and olympic weightlifters do and you shouldn’t go above your 90% of 1RM. I’ll call this training “motor skill development” days, so keep it in mind.
As much as how many exercises/sets/reps you do, it also matters how you perform reps. For going strength, a set shouldn’t take more than 15 seconds (Preferably keep it at 3-10 second range). So if you do 5 reps, it means each rep should be about 2-3 seconds. Always lift the weight as fast as possible while maintaining the proper form, lower it in control. Unless you’re doing forced negatives, negatives should not take long either. Of course, if you’re in the 1-6 rep target, no matter how hard you try, you can not lift it fast because it’s heavy. But I’m talking about your effort to lift it fast. Don’t hold back yourself to slow the weight down. In fact, lift it as fast as you can. That opens a new subject. Let’s move on.
Explosiveness and Power
When you train for explosiveness, forget the heavy weight. It can be as low as 30-40% of your 1RM, or as high as 70%, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is how fast the weight moves. If you’re having hard time to accelerate your 70% of 1RM, then lower the weight. But low weight doesn’t mean low effort. The load could be half of what you could lift, but you’ll push the weight as if it is your 1 rep maximum. So maximum effort on a non-maximal lift.
Why would we do such a low weight if we wanted to increase our monster heavy lifts? Well, this is not your main training for development of maximum strength. This is for developing the rate of force, learning how to synchronize the performance of your muscles, in other words, better activation for your strength potential through neural activation. As I said in the beggining, we don’t even use half of our potential. Development of the rate of explosive force is critical for the activation of your potential. Even though some powerlifters and olympic weightlifters may seem fat, they know how to create explosive force, trust me.
Another reason I like explosive lifts is the potentiation effect they cause. I’ll get into it further, but now let me tell you that when you perform an intense muscular contraction as pre-activation technique, you become more effective in the following heavy set. That’s why I like pairing an explosive lift with a heavy movement. For example, if I’m going to perform heavy squats, I’d do some relative explosive exercise before that (Jump squats, explosive squats with my 50-60% of maximum back squat, vertical jumps, etc). Before a heavy deadlift variation, I’d do one of the olympic pulls (clean or snatch). But of course if your main focus is one of those olympic lifts, you’ll have to perform other workouts in which you go heavy with them, keep in mind I use them to activate my nervous system and assist my other lifts, therefore I go light. Same goes for upper body workouts. Before heavy military presses, some explosive push presses would be good, and plyometric pushups would be fine before a heavy bench press set.
Of course this is a technique for advanced lifters that’s already good at explosiveness. If you’re not advanced, or if you’ve never tried explosiveness training before (Or similarly, you may have quit them for a while), you can devote a whole day to improve your explosive force. It’s going to teach you to bring those fast twitch fibers into action. Once a week would be good.
By the way, even though you go light for explosiveness, the rep range will be still low. This is not high rep training. 1-3 for a complex lift can be enough, but for simpler movements such as plyo pushups, a bit higher is acceptable. Remember, the weight can be low, but your effort will be maximum, as if you’re lifting a maximal load. The good news is that it doesn’t cause any muscle damage. But set zone will be high. 6 sets per exercise is ideal, and your progression for explosiveness will be increasing sets, not weight. Once you complete 9-10 explosive sets with no fatigue, add some weight and go back to 6 sets.
Now the question arises: Do we have to do a few straight sets of 1-5 reps, heavy twice a week, explosive once a week and get super strong? For the beginner and the intermediate, yeah, simply 5×5, 5×3-5 will work. But what if you’re an advanced lifter and already able to lift some serious weight? That’s where some fun begins. I’ll explain really effective methods for gaining strength below; But use them only when you need them. Just because they sound cool, don’t use them when you don’t need them. Our body is really good at adapting, and if you use these up too early, they won’t work effectively when you actually need them. But when you do, they work. There are countless of methods, but I’ll share what worked best for me. So here we go.
Neural Enhancement Techniques for Immediate Strength
As the title says, those techniques do the opposite of fatigue methods, beyond-failure techniques which leave you dead on the floor. These techniques prime your CNS, causing immediate strength gains, and that allows you to get a better workout. To understand why it works, you should first know that we can put our body in a state of muscular activation after a brutally intense muscular contraction or a long contraction. The idea is simple: By doing so, you can get more effective at the following activity. I’d talk about the science behind it (Such as myosin regulation, Ca release which those techniques cause and the relation of those to increase in maximum effort you can produce) and give some reference, but it’s rather complex and not that important so I don’t want to get into it at the moment. Just think about supercompensation, the period you’re in a few days after training (You come back stronger), and these techniques get you stronger in that one session 2 minutes after doing them (And the effect lasts for a few minutes, up to 7-10 minutes). Now I’ll get straight into the practicable methods and talk about how I took advantage of this effect in real life. I used 3 techniques: An explosive lift before a heavy lift for activation, isometrics above my 100% of 1RM and load waving. I mentioned explosiveness above, so I’ll talk about the other two.
I find isometrics best of all. Not just for this effect, but for more reasons: Firstly, we’re stronger at isometrics than concentric lifting. Secondly, it doesn’t damage muscles so the benefits comes with least muscle fatigue as possible, that’s extremely desirable for pure strength. Thirdly, more high thresold motor units are recruited during a supramaximal isometric hold, and once your CNS gets effective at it, its overall efficiency at regular lifting will also increase. Finally, intra-muscular tension of isometrics is greater than dynamic work. So you don’t have to use isometrics above your 1RM just to prime your CNS and cause immediate strength in following 5 minutes to be able to lift heavier loads, you have other reasons to do it. The only con is that strength gains it’ll bring for regular lifting will be about 15 degrees above and below the point you do the isometric hold. Also keep in mind that the isometric hold shouldn’t last longer than 10 seconds. Going above 1RM and forcing fast switch fibers, you shouldn’t be able to keep it longer anyway. A simple example would be doing isometric bench presses an inch above the lockout with 115-125% of your 1RM, rest for 2 minutes, do your heavy bench presses. Rest 2 minutes and repeat. So the rule “Rest for 4 minutes between each exercise” rule still applies.
Those who want to get better at explosiveness can pair isometrics with explosive lifts instead of heavy lifts. It makes a nice contrast, as you do above your 1RM in isometric holds, but then you move to explosive lifts in which you use no more than 70% of your 1RM but focus on speed and dynamic, full ROM work. Such a training has almost no damage in your body, whereas it’s great for developing motor unit recruitment.
The other technique, load waving, is simple. You’d do sets of 5-3-1. Each set you increase the weight (5RM, 3RM and 1RM), that is also a way of priming your CNS and keep it ready for heavier loads. As you finish the first wave, add some weight to the load you did 5 reps with, start the second wave. Even though you go heavier in each set in the second wave, most of the time you still manage to complete the second 5-3-1. By now you should see why I don’t recommend these for beginners. Not to mention that your tendons and CNS are not used to holding over your maximums, or actually lifting your 1RM once and adding weight to it to try heavier than that, you will not even be able to tell if these methods work unless you’ve regularly trained above your 85% for a long time and know the feeling of a CNS structure dominant workouts.
A quick note on load-waving method; You go above your 90% of 1RM on a regular basis. This is very taxing, and will not work forever for an advanced lifter. For beginners, it is not necessary (or beneficial) to go that heavy either. So if you’ve done some pure strength training for quite a while, you’re used to it but still not at advanced level, this is best suited for you.
Rest & Pause for Strength
Rest & pause technique is used often in hypertrophy routines; Once again, often as a killer technique to go beyond failure. You lift till failure, rest for 10-15 seconds and lift that weight to failure again. When you go for strength, that’s a suicide. But you can use this technique as a potentiation method as those above; Pick a weight you could lift for four times. Do only 1 rep. Rest for 10 seconds, do one more. Another ten second, final rep. It is one set. In the second set, use a weight you would lift for 3 times, do the same. And in the final set, do these 3 reps in rest & pause fashion with a weight you could lift only twice in a row. It’s just an example. You’re not limited to 3 reps, you can do it up to 5 reps as well, your choice. This technique worked best for me in the beggining of my workouts.
Partials for Strength
I like partials for many reasons. First of all, they let you use heavier weight than you could normally use full ROM. This is also going to increase your strenght for full range of motion. When I do partials for this specific reason (More weight than I’d normally use), I like to incorporate the rest & pause technique into it, so I do partial reps using rest & pause technique. Another option is that you do partials for your weaker part of the lift. Most of us are weaker at the bottom of the squat, so bottom part squats can be used to get better at that portion. Same applies to isometrics. While it is perfect to use it in the strongest portion to prime CNS, it is also great to use it at the weakest part. Quick note on partials: Use it to increase your full range of motion strength, don’t turn into those guys who feel super strong because they just moved the weight by a couple inches, yet they don’t know it was not a full rep.
Forced Negatives for Strength
We all know forced negatives for biceps. But the fact is that this technique gives more dramatical results in compounds. The thing is, most of them requires somebody to assist you. Bench presses, for example, you’d pick a weight you could easily lift (70-80% of 1RM) but your partner would push it the way down, push hard enough for you to lower it in no more than 7-8 seconds, no less than 4-5 seconds. While 3-5 reps for this would be enough, only one negative for deadlifts is enough in my opinion. Again, notice that we’re using this technique to force our CNS to recruit more motor units, not to kill muscles. So don’t confuse this with hypertrophy training, in which you’d train to failure and continue with forced negatives. This can be great on your heavy days, could replace isometrics.
Maximum Effort Method
This method is used often by powerlifters. This is simply maxing out. You’d start with 50% of your 1RM, work the way up with about 3 reps per set. Once the weight feels heavy, you start doing only one rep, and continue until you hit the heaviest weight you can handle. Your goal is to increase your best every workout. This can work for beginners and intermediate lifters; However, if somebody is already benching twice their bodyweight, they can not break a new personal record every week. And as I said, working above your 90% for more than 3 weeks straight weakens your CNS. So this method will work only for a while for advanced lifters.
Density in a Strength Training
So far I’ve covered other main elements: Volume, intensity and frequency. As for density (Total amount of work done in given period of time), I’d say it best suits for a fat loss program. Doing more work in less time is good for a metabolic structure-dominant routine, which is very good for fat loss. But you know, you have to rest between sets of an exercise pretty much when it comes to strength-focused training. Well, you can make changes in exercise orders, design giant sets and perform them in a circuit fashion. But you’d rest between exercises longer than you would while going for fat loss. For example: If you choose to do deadlifts, incline bench presses, leg presses and upright rows in a circuit fashion, you’d rest for one minute before moving to the other exercise. So you’re still taking 4 minutes between two sets of the same exercise (Say deadlifts). But you have to be careful about the exercise choices. If you do squats, deadlifts, split jerks and cleans back to back, you’ll burn out even if you take a minute rest between each exercise. Keep a few keys in mind:
1. Only one primary exercise per circuit is enough (Deadlifts, bench presses, squats, olympic lifts, etc)
2. One lower body exercise should be followed by an upper body exercise, no two upper or lower body exercises in a row
3. If you do a taxing lower body movement such as deadlifts, the other lower body exercise should be less demanding, such as a machine exercise (Same goes for upper body).
4. Two secondary movements for a bodypart in a circuit is allowed (Remember, these are compound movements that are not very taxing on the body
Still, no matter what you do, if you have a low recover capacity, or if you’re lifting monster weights, you may have to take straight 4 minutes of rest or you’ll reach fatigue. We don’t want that, so don’t follow such a method.
Techniques to Avoid
By now, you’ve probably noticed that I’m emphasizing the workouts should be designed in a way to avoid fatigue (Both CNS and peripheral fatigue) as much as possible. It’s why training to failure should be strictly avoided while going for pure strength. It is not always to be avoided, but please avoid it when you train your muscles frequently and especially when you go for pure strength. Also avoid any other techniques that cause fatigue. Drop sets, burnout methods, pre or post exhaustion techniques, rest and pause after sets in which you’ve already completed 5 reps, extended sets, 21s, zero rest workouts, all should be avoided. Do them when you go for hypertrophy, not in a strength routine.
Putting It All Together
So I’ve talked a lot, but have not given a sample workout. That’s okay, with these basics you can design your own. But still, a bit detail could be good because there’s too much to do at once. In fact, there is more to it, I didn’t talk about most of other techniques. As I said, if you’re a beginner or have never gone above your 80-85% on a regular basis, you don’t need to do anything complicated. A simple routine would be 2-3 days of motor skill development, and one day of explosive training. 6 exercises per session, 1-5 rep range on motor skill development days, not training to failure, resting 3-4 minutes between the same exercise. You can alternate vertical upper body/squat days with horizontal upper body/deadlift days.
Squat (7-8 sets of 1-5 reps)
Leg Press (3-4 sets of 4-6 reps)
BB Row (5-6 sets of 1-5)
45 degree chest supported row (4-6 sets of 4-6 reps)
Bench press (5-6 sets of 1-5)
CGBP (4-6 sets of 4-6 reps)
On your deadlift/horizontal upper body day, you could pair deadlifts with goodmornings, shoulder presses with arnold presses, chinups with upright rows, etc. Straight sets like that with correct progression will work (Any routine which is in 4-8 set and 15-25 total rep range per exercise will work at this point. 5×5, for example). Once you’re at intermediate level, you can maximize your gains with load waving and maximum effort methods. So a week would be like:
Day 1: Motor skill development day (As I explained under the subtopic “Progression for Strength” and gave a sample workout day done in this fashion for begginers above)
Day 2: 5-3-1 load waving (6 sets for the focused exercises, 6 movements in total, 1-3 auxiliary movements if necessary)
Day 3: Off
Day 4: An explosive movement paired with a conventional lift done in motor skill acquisition fashion
A-1) Jump squat (Sets of 3 explosive reps)
2 mins rest
A-2) Squat (1-5 reps per set, as I explained under “Progressive for Strength” subtitle)
2 mins rest between each set
Repeat 4-6 times (Once a set feels harder than previous ones, stop. Or you can’t avoid fatigue. That point should be between 4 to 6 sets)
B-1) Plyo pushups
B-2) Bench presses
C-1) Explosive inverted rows
C-2) BB rows
Same fashion as A exercises.
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Maximum effort day (3 exercises at most, no more than one rep once sets get heavy, 3-4 minutes between each heavy set, keep going until you max out, as I’ve explained)
With such a training, you’ll need a deloading week every 3 weeks. Please do not claim to be different or superman. Just do your deloading weeks before your CNS goes on a strike (Do half amount of sets for motor skill development and explosiveness days, skip max effort days).
If you’re advanced, then I’d still recommend motor skill development days twice a week, but incorporate isometric holds and rest & pauses those days. By now, you should have good intermuscular coordination to do full body lifts so you don’t have to go in the “lower body/upper boddy pulling/upper body pushing” fashion, you can go for full body lifts. You could go heavier once a week, through forced negatives and partials (The reason being 5-3-1 or max effort methods on heavy days could be too taxing and hinder your process at that point, whereas partials and forced negatives don’t cause much fatigue). Since you’ll be getting close to your potential at this point, focusing on explosiveness on a separate day could be beneficial (And a good way to avoid fatigue).
A-1) Deadlift isometric holds for 7-8 seconds before lockout (115-125% of your 1RM)
A-2) Deadlift (1-5 reps per set, done in motor skill acquisition fashion as I explained above)
2 minutes rest and repeat for 4-6 times before you move to B exercises
B-1) Top squat isometric holds for 7-8 seconds before lockout (125% of your 1RM)
2 minutes rest
B-2) Full squat (1-5 reps per set)
2 minutes rest and repeat for 4-6 times, and move to C exercises
C-1) Bench press isometric holds for 10 seconds an inch below lockout
C-2) Bench presses (1-5 reps per set)
This is an intense workout, so I’d suggest taking the day 2 off. Day 3 would go like:
A-1) Deadlift isometric holds
1.5 – 2 minutes rest
A-2) Power clean (Explosive, 3 reps per set)
1.5 – 2 minutes rest and repeat for 6-10 times (A quick note: As I described earlier, on an explosiveness day, you can do more sets per exercise and the progression would be increasing sets rather than weight)
B-1) Top squat isometric holds
B-2) Jump squat
C-1) Military press isometric holds
C-2) Push presses
Similar to day 1 but instead of isometric holds, do the first exercise of every pair using rest & pause technique, 3-5 reps per each set. Example: Half squat rest & pause, 10 seconds between each rep, 3-5 reps in total. That’s one set. Then move to full squat and do your regular 1-5 reps per set (motor skill development)
You’ll need a day off before day 6. Because it will be heavy.
A-1) Rack pull from knees (You can call this partial deadlift): 3-5 rep
Rest 2 minutes
A-2) Deadlift forced negatives (Set the rack to lockout position, so you just grab the bar, since it will be heavier than you can deadlift. Step back, lower it slowly, ideally in 4-6 seconds. Be really careful with the form. If you’re not convenient, don’t do it). One rep is taxing enough so stop it there.
Rest 2 minutes and repeat 4-6 times.
B-1) A partial upper body pulling movement (Say chinups): Load heavy enough to go only halfway up, slow the way down. Aim for 3-5 reps.
Rest 2 minutes
B-2) Again, say chinups. Load more than your 1RM, get to the top position with a chair, lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Again, one rep is enough.
Rest 2 minutes and repeat 4-6 times.
C-1) Partial bench press (top): 3-5 reps
C-2) Forced negatives bench press (Load 70-80% of your 1RM, lift the weight as fast as possible, and have a partner push the weight down, heavy enough for your to slow down in 4-6 seconds. Since you’ll have a partner, you can do a couple more reps in that fashion.
Now this advanced routine is really for advanced and serious people, it requires an experienced partner, preferably a coach to use all techniques (Along with a power rack). Of course that’s just a sample. You have endless options; Such as focusing on less exercises instead of trying to get better at a lot of movements (Some Eastern olympic weightlifters practice nothing but competition lifts, along with some squats). In that case you can devote whole day on improving only one lift, even specific parts of that lift (For example; Focusing on bottom portion of bench press one day, and top portion the other day). You can even suck at the bottom portion of a jump squat, so you work on that part on your explosiveness training. You can focus on the bottom portion of bench presses in a session, by doing some assiting chest, lats and shoulder exercises, while you work on the top part on another session, mainly strengthening triceps. You can use other techniques, order exercises according to your own needs, equipments, weak points, personal schedules and preferences. Even one technique at once can be enough for you, you don’t need to do a lot of things at once. This is why I don’t like writing routines, because you’re not supposed to mimick any routine. Auto-regulation is a must.
A lot of coaches design programs and explain their philosophy, but most of the time it is not explained how to warm up. It’s why many people at the gym are on stationary bikes, stretching, etc to “warm up”, even though it does not get your body ready to lift weights. Personally I don’t like those heavy rep, low weight warm ups either. So what to do?
I didn’t mention how to warm up in the beginning, because I’d have said sometimes you wouldn’t need a warm up and you may not have understood what I meant. Well, methods like max effort which I’ve mentioned do not require warming up. The reason is simple, you already start light and work your way up. As for regular training, I prefer a simliar approach. That’s how I do my warm ups (Quoted from my progress dairy):
“I’ve always believed long warm up sets are grueling, so I keep warm up sets short. Starting with 50% of my working set, increasing the weight by 10% each set, 1-5 reps per set. So it’s like 5 sets of 1-5, but I don’t rest between warm up sets, just add weights and go on. So for 100 kg bench sets it would look like:
50 kg – 5 reps
60 kg – 4 reps
70 kg – 3 reps
80 kg – 2 reps
90 kg – 1 rep
Then I’d rest a couple minutes and start my working sets. I can also estimate my working sets that way, say if 90 kg felt too heavy already, I’d auto-regulate the workout and decide not to go for 100 in working sets. If it felt too light, I may go heavier than 100, which was the number I expected to use as I hit the weight room.”
This kind of warming up can be applied for most routines. But of course if you’re going to do isometric holds over your 1RM, you can’t start warming up with half of the weight you’ll use for that. But still you can start light, low reps, increase the weight gradually, feel how your working sets is going to be, and you’re ready to go. Of course some movements can be too intense from the start, such as glute ham raises. Then you may warm up with related exercises: Light goodmornings, back extensions, ab movements, light deadlifts / romanian deadlifts, etc.
Cardio and Strength Training
First of all, I’m not one of those “Cardio gets you weaker” guys. But let me tell you that if you want pure strength, go for pure strength. Pushing your personal bests, going heavier than you’re used to and doing this 4-5 times a week is not something you can handle unless you give your body enough nutrients. No room for feeling bad, dizzy, weak. So avoid significant calorie deficits during this phase. And outside the weight room, you should reduce stress as much as possible. Massage, shower, whatever makes you feel good. So on your off days, if cardio gets you fresh, lets you loosen up, then do it. If you feel stiff (Even though it’s not a hypertrophy program you’re following), you can also do really high reps (50 something) to loosen up on your off days also. It can help recovery, it is also said to get tendons stronger. So do what makes you feel better, but if you do cardio it should be soft, steady pace, freshening cardio, and you should avoid extremely draining activities. For instance, HIIT on off days is not wise (Even if it makes you feel good afterwards because you feel like you’ve achieved something). It’s taxing on your nervous system as well as your lifting, so if you want to do HIIT, do it on your training day, not on your off day. Also keep in mind that as weight classes go up in a competition, weights used also go up, it is not other way around. Now of course I’m not telling you to gain weight to lift bigger during this phase, since what we need is CNS activation, not extra weight. But I’m trying to say that, don’t be on a significant calorie deficit. You can gain strength on a calorie deficit as well, but then your routine would be designed accordingly; Less heavy training days, more time to recover for them, etc. For pure strength, you need nutrients to follow a beasty program.
Conclusion (Still reading this?)
So you may be an athlete, a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, or just a regular guy who wants to get stronger. These principles will get you there. Many sports demand strength, force (football, basketball, etc), powerlifting is already based on strength, bodybuilding is highly related to it. “Can I gain size by following such a routine?”, you may ask. Well, you could gain some size, depending on many factors such as your current routine, condition, fiber make up, genetics. But I can guarantee you that you won’t lose size. So if you want to maintain your size (Not increase or lose muscle), you can use these principles (Doesn’t have to be advanced ones, just safe basics will work for a long time). But if you find yourself gaining size by doing this -our body can be interesting-, you can just decrease the volume and density of your workouts, by resting more between sets and doing less sets in total.
Would pure strength training help bodybuilding? Of course. If you go for a pure strength phase for 4-8 weeks, you’ll come back much better at recruiting the high-thresold motor units, and once you’re back to hypertrophy range, you’ll be able to go much heavier, but this time your routine will be based on the use of muscular structure more than CNS, so you’ll take advantage of all that strength gains you made. Think about going on a war; You’re teaching your body to bring all the boys into the action. Well, one disadvantage is that you’ll be needing much more plates to stimulate those boys (You can gain size with low weight as well, which can be what you want if you’re working with limited equipment, but strength does maximize growth). It won’t only help for hypertrophy, you’ll also have developed body, not just well built and looking good, but also strong and fast.
Can you incorporate strength methods into a bodybuilding routine? Well we already do, by doing heavy weeks, using some of these advanced techniques, etc. Or likewise, can we incorporate hypertrophy basics into a strength routine? That’s also possible (There are times when powerlifters need some size too), simply if you keep doing low reps, but rest less and keep the volume higher, you can get bigger in 1-5 rep range as well. But then you’ll have to keep an eye on peripheral and CNS fatigue, re-design the frequency, volume and intensity accordingly. Do not misinterprate my words; It’s not like high frequency only works for strength, or working in hypertrophy range will not get you strong at all. But these all would be a subject to another article. Understand that this article is based on getting impressively strong as fast and much as possible. I know basics in this article could be summed up even in half a page, but I wanted to let you know why you do these and avoid some others, instead of just saying “Do this, not that”.
Finally, a few words on safety. Rep range is low enough, you do fast reps, sometimes you go above your 1RM, so I get it when they question the safety. But keep something in mind, unlike hypertrophy training, you NEVER train to failure, and even though it is based on pure strength, I’ve kept saying not to go above 90% of 1RM for more than 3 weeks in a row. Let alone training to failure, you stop your sets once reps feel too hard, you don’t even wait until your form gets sloppy. As for going above 1RM, as I said we are stronger at isometrics, so your 1RM for full range of motion is not your maximum for isometrics. If you can hold a weight for 10 seconds under constant tension, it’s like doing a set which lasts 10 seconds. So in fact you’re using about 75-80% of 1RM for isometric holds, even though it is above your maximum for full range of motion. Same goes for partials and forced negatives. It may be above 1RM for lifting concentrically and full ROM, but we’re stronger at negatives and partials. I hope I made this clear. And remember, these are techniques for advanced people and the intermediate who know what they’re doing, have no mechanical problems and has come to a point where they need them. You must have noticed, things are supposed to be calculated, planned and easily achieved since you don’t train to failure (Risk of joint damage is not lower when you do light weight, extremely slow reps, especially in single-joint movements). So if done properly, pure strength training is no more dangerous than regular hypertrophy training.
If you decide to give these princinples a try, make sure you have enough plates
Special thanks to Goldie for correcting my silly spelling mistakes
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