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Building Endurance in the Weight Room, Part 2

Last month I pointed out that the first step in the process of building endurance into a strength routine was to learn how to do all the exercises correctly. From that starting point athletes proceed to increase their overall workloads slowly. Workload is to a strength athlete what mileage is to a distance runner. It provides valuable information and enables athletes in diverse sports to know just where they stand and what steps to take in order to move to the next level.

I don’t have beginners calculate their workloads because at that phase of training gains come quickly and are easily recognized. Once they move into the intermediate level, however, gains don’t come as readily, and knowing how much overall volume you’re doing in a given day, week and month is extremely helpful. That’s why from the very beginning I encourage athletes to keep accurate records of their workouts. After they’ve done that for a few months, it becomes a habit, and when it’s time to use those numbers, they’re a step ahead. Then it’s simply a matter of getting a picture of exactly what the raw numbers are doing in their respective programs.

When someone starts out doing just three primary exercises in a given week, it’s not difficult to see which muscle groups are receiving the most work and which are improving the fastest. As athletes become more advanced and include a wide range of movements for the various bodyparts, though, it becomes more and more difficult to determine. Everything about strength training revolves around numbers: amount of weight used, sets, reps and length of time training. Numbers don’t lie.

At the end of last month’s installment I recommended that everyone interested in learning how to utilize the concept of workload buy a notebook and start writing down the specifics of each session in the weight room. That means how much weight was used on every set, including warmups, and how many reps were done. If you’re not sure whether some factor might have a bearing on that session, write it down—rapid change in the weather, a poor night’s sleep, an injury. Then, when you chart your overall workload and see that one day was much lower than normal, you’ll be able to look back and determine why. More is always better than less in your workout log. So when in doubt, write it down.

When you set up a chart showing your workload for a week and month, you’ll be able to see if you’re adhering to the heavy, light and medium system and to determine at a glance which areas of the body are receiving the most attention, as well as whether one is way out of balance with the other two. It will, of course, also reveal your increases in volume very clearly. You’ll break down the numbers into three columns, one for each of the three major muscle groups: shoulder girdle, or upper body, back and hips and legs.

That’s not the least bit complicated, for it requires only multiplication and addition. Even so, it does take a bit of time. I’ve always believed that someone sincerely dedicated to becoming stronger will take time to do the math. When I was still training heavy, I’d do my calculations at the end of the week. That served two purposes. One, it provided me with the figures I’d need to chart my training for the month. Two, it let me review exactly what I’d done that week. Why was my workload down on Monday? Oh yeah, I forgot to do my back-off set on the squats. How come my total on Friday was so much higher for my back than the week before? There it is: I did my last set of shrugs with 50 more pounds than the previous Friday. Once the numbers are laid out, it’s much like looking at a bar chart.

Step one is to get the raw data. Multiply the weight used on an exercise with the number of reps performed. For example, doing five reps with 135 gives you a total of 675 pounds for that set of power cleans. That initial effort is followed by sets of five with 155, 175, 195, and 215. They yield 775, 875, 975 and 1,075 pounds, giving you a total for the exercise of 4,375. Unless you do another exercise for your back, that will be your total for the day in the back category.

Now do the same for whatever exercises you used for your shoulder girdle and your hips and legs. That takes care of the primary movements, but most trainees do a few auxiliary exercises as well, and they need to be thrown into the mix. Once again, multiply the weight used by the number of reps, and then add all the sets. Doing standing calf raises with 200 pounds for three sets of 30 comes to 18,000 pounds.

That figure belongs in the hips-and-legs category, but it’s not the primary exercise and shouldn’t be added directly to the total for the primary exercise. Before doing the calf raises, you did, say, back squats with 135, 225, 315, 365 and 405 for five reps, The total for the squats comes to 7,225 pounds, less than half of the total for the calf raises, but everyone knows that squats are much more demanding than calf raises.

So what to do? Put the total for the calf raises right next to the total for the squats in a bracket. That way when you find that you’ve increased your workload for your hips and legs that month, a quick glance at your chart will tell you where the gain came from. An extra set of calf raises or more work on the primary exercise. The same idea holds true for the other auxiliary movements done with resistance: curls, straight-arm pullovers, lateral and front raises and so forth. In the grand total for the week add them to the numbers for the primary work, but keep them separate in brackets so that you’re not comparing apples to pears. Keep them apart but in the same basket.

Which brings up the next round of questions: What about freehand movements such as chins, dips and pushups? What amount of weight should you use when calculating the workload for them, and where do they fit into the overall scheme of things?

You can use your body­weight for the workload calculation or any arbitrary number, so long as you’re consistent. A few of my athletes have used half their bodyweight for chins and dips; that’s fine too if it doesn’t change. Because those exercises all require effort, they belong in the overall workload, yet they, too, need to be placed so that they’re not confused with either primary or auxiliary movements. I put them next to the shoulder girdle total in parentheses. They’re still added to the daily, weekly and monthly totals as they should be, but once again, you can quickly trace the increases for that muscle group to their source.

That can help you determine many things. If the workload for your shoulder girdle has shot up appreciably in the past month, you can check the numbers for the primary, auxiliary and freehand exercises and see instantly where the recent gains came from. If the bulk of the increase was a result of doing more auxiliary movements or a great deal more work on a specific exercise like the curl, then you need to reevaluate your program.

The overall workload lets you see at a glance if you are, in fact, sticking with the heavy, light and medium concept. What often happens is that athletes feel they’re not doing enough on the light day and start adding extra sets on some small movement or adding another exercise for a preferred muscle. Translation: the upper arms. Not only do the auxiliary exercises throw the light day out of whack, but they’re also going to have an adverse effect on the upcoming medium day, and they need to be corrected. The totals for the three major muscle groups will also tell you whether you’re keeping a healthy balance between them.

What is the ideal balance? That largely depends on your goals. For most athletes the load for the legs should be the highest, with the back coming in second. If your sport requires a great amount of upper-body strength, such as wrestling, that area might get the most work. Just take care that the numbers for the shoulder girdle don’t get far ahead of the other two. That’s because for any athlete, leg and back strength is paramount for success. Olympic weightlifters often give their backs priority, followed by legs and finally the shoulder girdle. Bodybuilders typically include more exercises, both primary and auxiliary, for their upper bodies than for the other two bodyparts. Whatever fits your needs—just so all parts get serious attention.

When I was training at the York Barbell Club in the mid- and late ’60s, it was common for the lifters to follow that procedure. They’d attack one of the major groups with vengeance to get it considerably stronger while at the same time trying to hold strength in the other two areas. They did it that way because they’d learned that it was next to impossible to get stronger in all the major groups at the same time. Once the target group had improved to their liking, they’d switch over to the next one that needed more attention and so on. Over the course of a year they’d gradually increase the workload on all three major muscle groups and as a result became more competitive. Keep in mind that all were very advanced strength athletes. For those in the process of climbing the strength ladder, it’s possible to make consistent gains across the board for quite some time.

What type of overall total should you be looking for? More than you’re lifting now. That’s why the first step is to figure out your overall workload. From that starting point, you can begin to add to it. Remember what I mentioned last month about percentage of gains? Once you reach the advanced level of strength fitness, it should be no more than 10 percent a month. Sometimes that’s even too much, which is why you have to pay attention to the numbers and also to how you feel at the various workouts. You want to push just as hard as you can while at the same time not slipping into the whirlpool of overtraining. Once you know for sure that you’re doing too much, you should pull back, regroup and add to your workload for the various groups and overall more slowly.

For example, let’s say you’ve moved up to where you’re handling 60,000 pounds in a week and are able to recover without any problem. When you try to get that weekly load to 70,000, however, it proves to be too much, and your lifts hit a wall or start slipping backward. Pull back to 65,000 pounds or less if necessary, and stay there until you’re sure you can handle that much volume. Then, very slowly, start adding to the load. One effective way to creep up on higher and higher workloads is to have a heavy and then a medium week of training. The difference may not be all that much and can best be implemented by changing many of the exercises around so that those done in the medium week are less demanding than those you do in the heavier week—say, substituting power snatches for power cleans or overhead presses for incline-bench presses. That slight alteration is often enough to let your body recuperate and better prepare you for more strenuous work ahead.

Those who went through basic training in military service are well aware of how the process works. I was in the Air Force, and our training instructor pushed us to the point of physical and mental collapse. Since he’d gone through it countless times, he knew just when to pull back. After a brief respite he pushed us even harder than before. Up another rung on the fitness ladder. The first two weeks had us panting for air after a four-mile hike. Within six weeks we were going twice that distance, and by the end of the 11-week course we were able to march 15 miles without any problem.

That’s exactly what you must do in strength training. The increases must come gradually, and there must be times when you must pull back off the throttle a tad. If you don’t do that and stay in a state of overtraining for an extended period of time, you’re a prime candidate for an injury. That’s where the workload chart comes in. It takes the guesswork out of the equation. The numbers will tell you if you’re adding to your load too fast. They’ll also let you know just how much to back off and still be able to hold your current strength level.

Here are some simple ways to slowly enhance your workload. Back-off sets are great. They enable you to up your load without a great deal of stress. After squatting 400 for five, doing 315 for 10 isn’t that difficult yet adds another ton and a half to your hips and legs for that day. Throwing in two or three sets of high pulls right behind power cleans or power snatches is no big deal, energywise, but since much more weight is used on those than the power movements, the increase in workload is significant.

I’ve found a painless way to add to the light-day workload for the hips and legs that’s most beneficial to my athletes. When they’re able to handle 375 for five on their heavy days, the top-end weight for their light day is 315. Initially, they use 135, 225, 265, 295 and then 315 for their sets. Then I have them switch to this formula: 135, 225 and three sets with 315. It isn’t hard, yet it will add 350 pounds to the leg workout. While that really isn’t very much, over the course of a month it will provide an additional 1,400 pounds to the volume.

In order to improve the workload on high-skill movements such as the full clean, full snatch, power snatch and jerk, you need to use more work sets. I start athletes out with two warmup sets of five, followed by three work sets of three. Gradually, they add extra sets when they feel that they can handle them; eventually they might be doing six sets of three. Throw in another three sets of high pulls, and the load climbs even higher.

The idea is to move the workload up in small nudges. You don’t want any surges. The system can’t be rushed. That means the process takes time, and that’s why so many fail, They become impatient and pile on too much work too fast. It invariably leads to overtraining, and that puts an end to the gains.

For the endurance factor to be enhanced as the workload climbs upward, you need to work through the sessions quickly. Learning to work without a great deal of rest between sets teaches the body that it can respond favorably under stress, and you can use that in any athletic activity.

It’s also important to learn to focus on the final exercises in the program. The first couple usually go well because there’s plenty of energy on hand, but quite often those last couple of exercises go begging. That needs to change. Sporting events are won in the final minutes, so athletes must train their bodies to exert fully at the end of a hard session. That often has more to do with concentration than energy, and when it starts to happen, athletes know for certain that they’ve improved their stamina.

Last month I stated that I didn’t believe running long distances held any merit for athletes other than those who do a great deal of running in their chosen sports. Football doesn’t need it, but players are usually required to run distances two or even three times a week.

I do, however, believe that it’s a smart idea to include some type of cardio in a program. Even though I think a strength program done in an expeditious manner will improve cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, doing both aids the overall process of getting stronger and improving endurance to a greater degree than doing just one or the other. Even so, I find that playing a game brings greater results than simply running. Stamina was a critical factor in the sport of Olympic weightlifting when the press was still part of the competitions. At the Philly Open one year I did my first warmup for the press at 4:30 p.m. and my final clean and jerk at 2 a.m. Being prepared for such a long session was critical for success, for the contests were usually decided on the very last attempt.

Knowing that, Tommy Suggs and I decided to do something to improve our endurance. While I didn’t like the idea of running cross-country or on a track, Tommy loathed the idea. We started playing racquetball and volleyball at the YMCA and practicing with the York College soccer team. Those were fun activities, and we discovered that because of our strength base our aerobic states improved very quickly. The first time we played racquetball, we were whipped after 20 frantic minutes of chasing around the court. Yet in just three weeks we were playing without any breaks for a full hour. My point is, whatever cardio activity you decide to do in addition to your weight work should be enjoyable, something you look forward to doing.

Because endurance is also a major consideration for older strength athletes, they, too, need to know how to build it into their weight-training workouts. As most readers are aware, I recommend a very-high-rep program for those over 55. So how can endurance be improved with that type of routine? In much the same way as for those using a lower-rep program, by slowly expanding the overall workload and moving with purpose through the sessions.

Once an older athlete has established a firm base of strength and begins to run the reps way, way up, that type of program is really more aerobically beneficial than the one done by younger athletes. Why? Because some sets take almost 10 minutes to complete. I have an older pen pal who uses an ultrahigh-rep routine six days a week. I helped him set up a workable program using a minimum of equipment. He had a choice of increasing the weight on a certain lift after he made X number of reps on it or leaving the weight the same and adding more reps. He tried both and preferred to increase the reps. He told me the really high reps did wonders for his arthritis-ridden body.

Using just the Olympic bar, he started out doing 40 reps on the flat bench, then very slowly began adding reps. Even though he was being cautious, several times he moved up too fast and experienced pain in his elbows, which forced him to back up and start over. Over the course of a couple of years, though, he was doing two sets of 150 reps and once did 175 just to see if he could. He told me that a set took him just a hair under 10 minutes to complete because he’d set the bar for a heartbeat on his chest each time, and his pulse rate at the end of the set was higher than he could get it even when he walked as fast as he could. Very high reps built endurance into the workout automatically. If you push yourself through the session, the benefits are even greater.

Although I don’t think it’s necessary to chart the workload for a high-rep routine, keeping an accurate record of every workout is a must. You can easily tell whether you’re increasing the load on an exercise by looking at the number of reps you’ve done. A written record is essential for this type of program because it’s nearly impossible to recall exactly how many reps you did on a certain exercise a week ago or even yesterday, for that matter. I’ve taken the time to chart mine, just out of curiosity, and made a few minor adjustments after doing the math. One thing that charting workload does is to make clear which bodyparts are receiving the most attention. That’s just as useful to older athletes as it is to their younger counterparts.

The ability to perform at a high level in the weight room is invaluable to any aspiring athlete because the skill transfers directly to every athletic activity. The best example of that was Augie Maurelli at Johns Hopkins. He was a four-year starter on the football team and one of my most dedicated strength athletes. At the end of the off-season strength program, I gave the players an entire week to test on the big three. Augie came in on Friday, and in a two hour session set personal records on all three lifts: a 605 squat, 375 bench and 330 clean at a bodyweight of 225. The squat, clean and total set school records. He’s now the head strength coach at Georgetown University and, according to him, as strong as ever.

Keep a detailed training log. Use the numbers to chart your workload. Gradually add to the volume. Work quickly. Learn to focus on the final movements in your program so they improve just as the rest do. Instead of running, find cardio activities you enjoy, or better yet, practice your sport. Get considerably stronger and hone the skills you need to excel in your athletic endeavor, and you’ll become more successful. Guaranteed.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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