A Soviet strength coach once remarked that 'exceptional athletes require exceptional training methods.' In the West, where pro bodybuilders have popularized reduced volume and frequent training, the heavy, high-volume routines favored by Eastern-bloc nations are often scoffed at. Supposedly, they only work for 'genetically gifted' strength athletes or lifters who are on heavy regimens of anabolic steroids. It's unfortunate that many Western lifters never take a serious look at these methods. If they did, they'd find a wealth of information at their disposal'and would discover the type of training they need to make it to the advanced ranks.
No bones about it: These techniques are for lifters who've already achieved a high level of strength and want to take it several steps further'or for those who want to design programs for them. They're not for trainees who want to become pro bodybuilders. They are for smaller lifters who bench close to double their bodyweight and squat and deadlift close to triple it, for heavy lifters who bench-press 400 pounds and squat and deadlift 500 to 600'or more.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Let's talk about the way strength athletes need to train compared with what bodybuilders or recreational lifters who are solely interested in gaining muscle mass need to do. The chart below summarizes the differences between the approaches. They are considerable, although they cross paths frequently enough. The more advanced you become'whether at building muscles mass or strength'the greater the differences between the routines. For example, beginning lifters interested in building strength or mass would do very well training each muscle group twice per week, performing two exercises for a total of five sets per bodypart, five to six reps per set, at 80 percent intensity. Another good choice would be a full-body routine or a two-way split. Advanced strength athletes and bodybuilders are completely different. For one thing, bodybuilders do well training each muscle group once per week, while advanced Olympic lifters or powerlifters need up to six sessions per muscle group per week. The same thing goes with sets. Advanced bodybuilders need very few sets per exercise to fatigue their muscle fibers and stimulate growth, while advanced powerlifters do better with 10-plus sets per exercise to further enhance neural stimulation.
The following methods are the cornerstones of successful strength and power routines for advanced lifters.
Method 1: Frequent Training
American lifters often scoff when I explain that this is an essential component for making gains on their level. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Ph.D., director of the biomechanics laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, summed up the reason for it simply enough: 'You need to train as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.'
Advanced bodybuilders get good results when they train with multiple exercises for a given muscle group in a single session and then give their bodies five to seven days to recover before training those muscles again.
Strength athletes get better results when they space the exercises out over a week, working the bodypart more frequently. In strength training the more advanced you are, the more sessions you need.
It works that way for several reasons. The first is simple: workload. The stronger'that is, more advanced'you are, the greater the workload you need to lift to keep making gains. And more sessions means more total workload. When beginners or intermediates need to increase workload, the solution is easy: They add another set or two on each exercise or maybe add an exercise to their program. That only works for a while, however, because eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. For advanced lifters'who may already be training upward of two hours on their heavy days'adding more work to an already long session is not an option. Adding more workouts is.
One common misconception among bodybuilders is that workouts must be intense in both weight lifted and effort put into each session. Nothing could be further from the truth. When advanced powerlifters bench-press three to five times a week (and it's not uncommon for world champions to bench even more frequently than that), only one of those session will be heavy. At the other sessions they focus more on techniques such as explosive and ballistic training or on improving so-called synaptic facilitation. Some strength coaches refer to that as 'greasing the groove.' Basically, the more you perform a certain lift, the better and more proficient your body becomes at doing it. In other words, you get stronger. ALL Among the athletes who've benefited from synaptic facilitation is Alexi Sivokon, who is, pound for pound, the greatest powerlifter of all time. At 146 pounds he's bench-pressed 450, deadlifted more than 700 and totaled more than 1,800. Those are some staggering weights. And how many times does he train his lifts? He does four lower-body workouts'squatting and deadlifting twice'and five sessions on the bench press every week. Another example of synaptic facilitation would be 165-pound bench press champion Greg Warr, who has benched 550 pounds. At his strongest he trained his bench four times per week. He did regular-grip benches twice a week and close-grip benches on another two days.
Another benefit of training each lift frequently is that it lets you focus on several different methods'without having to do them all at one workout. For instance, there's quite a bit of research demonstrating the need to train for maximum strength on one day and explosive and/or ballistic strength on another. The results are generally diminished when you try to combine different methods in one workout.
Another key point about frequent training is that you don't have to train the classic lifts at each session. Frequent training with the lifts you're trying to improve is the best way to take advantage of synaptic facilitation, but it's not the only way. Lifters at the famed Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio'where a lot of world-record holders lift'train very frequently, yet they rarely perform the classic lifts. Every week they train a lift one day for explosive strength and one day for maximum strength, and then they add two to four sessions to work the assistance muscles for the bench press, the squat and the deadlift.
Method 2: Use a Variety of Effective Training Techniques
Bodybuilding workouts tend to focus on one method and one method only'repetitions. Although strength athletes should use the repetition method somewhat, they should use the other methods more frequently, specifically, maximum strength and dynamic effort. Even more specifically, they should place the most emphasis on the maximum-strength effort.
With this kind of training you use poundages that are 85 to 100 percent of your one-rep maximums on the various lifts. Obviously, you won't be performing many reps on those sets'four at the most. You can't always use the same exercises all the time when lifting this heavy, or you'll quickly burn out on them. Advanced athletes adapt to exercises the quickest, so they need to change the most frequently.
The three most effective strategies for taking advantage of maximum-effort training are 1) changing the reps, 2) doing singles every week but changing the exercises, or 3) doing a combination of 1 and 2.
1) Change the reps. You switch on a weekly basis, doing between one and five reps, while sticking with the same exercise or a slight variation of it. For example, you might max out on the bench press with triples one week and then max out on fives the next week and singles the week after. Over the next three weeks you might do the same reps'three, five and then singles'but on close-grip benches.
2) Do all singles but change the exercise every week. For example, during a four-week training block you might max out on inclines, then board presses, then declines, then close-grips. The more advanced you are, the more exercises you'll need.
3) Use a combination strategy. Here's an example of how this might work. I've tested it on some of the lifters who work with me, and they got great results. The first week you perform incline-bench presses, working up to a max set of four reps. The next week is flat-bench presses, working up to a max set of doubles; the third week you do board presses for a max set of six, and the fourth week you go back to flat-bench presses performed for multiple singles at around 95 percent of your max bench. Even though you go up to six reps on one week, the weights are still heavy, and the constant change of exercises and reps works wonders. What's more, the six-rep set sets up the following week's singles rather nicely.
Of course, there's room for some variation within the three approaches. For instance, you don't always have to work up to a max set of whatever the designated rep range is. Instead, you could do several sets at around 90 percent of the weight you'd use for the max set. So, instead of working up to a max set of three reps on squats, you could work up to four sets of three reps with a weight you'd usually reserve for five. Dynamic-Effort Training
Whether you use the frequent-training or variety-of-method approach, you'll do one heavy session per lift per week. (The only exception would be maxing out on a light bench-helpful exercise like overhead presses on a different day.) That's where the other training methods mentioned above come in. As discussed, you'll want to use the repetition method sparsely, especially on squatting and deadlifting exercises, so the dynamic-effort method is what you'll use the most during the rest of the week.
The two forms of dynamic training are explosive reps and ballistic reps. You do explosive reps with 50 to 70 percent of your one-rep-maximum poundages, moving the weight as fast as possible in both the concentric and eccentric portion of the lift while maintaining good form. You do one to three reps, depending on the percentage of max you use, but keep your sets relatively high, anywhere from six to 15, also depending on the percentage of maximum. The lower the reps, the more sets you need to perform. You can also do more sets on exercises that don't stress the recovery system as much. Good exercises for explosive-rep training include squats, box squats, bench presses, floor presses, conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts and deadlifts performed while standing on blocks.
Ballistic training uses weights as low as 25 percent of one-rep max, although I think 40 percent is the better range. With ballistic training you actually throw the weights or your body jumps from the ground. Once again, you do low reps and relatively high sets. The best combination for ballistic training is from four to two reps of six to 12 sets. Good exercises include jumping squats, jumping box squats, jumping bottom-position squats, Smith-machine bench presses (throwing the bar out of your hands) and pushups on which your hands leave the floor.
If you're after the ultimate in strength and power, I urge you to give these methods a try. You have nothing to lose and all the strength in the world to gain. IM