Last month I focused on athletes who participate in events that are long in duration and that don’t have rest periods. This time I’ll finish up with that group and proceed to those whose events are generally much shorter and give participants many breaks and time to recover.
I recommended that endurance athletes use the five-sets-of-five formula for the core exercises and higher reps, 20s for two sets, for the auxiliary movements. The strength work should take priority over practicing the skills needed in a chosen sports as well as any other physical activity, such as running.
The time to begin the strength program is during an off-season or when there’s not an upcoming competition. Two months is best, but six weeks will also get results. After six to eight weeks of learning correct form on various lifts and moving the numbers as high as possible, athletes are ready to make some changes in their routine so that they can go back to practicing their sports skills at a greater intensity.
What endurance athletes are after is to maintain a high percentage of the strength they’ve gained during the strength cycle while utilizing some of their newfound prowess for improving stamina and the skills needed in their sport. The strength they’ve gained in their arms, shoulders, back, hips and legs will enable them to run, row, bike or skate longer and with more vigor. An athlete who gained 30, 40 or even 50 percent overall strength is going to perform better right away in all facets of any sports activity.
There are two ways of shifting the weight training to strike that balance. Which way you choose is an individual matter. Most prefer to switch from lower to higher reps, some gradually, staying with a certain set-and-rep formula for a couple of weeks before moving to the next stage. Others prefer to move from fives to much higher reps in a matter of two weeks. The first step is to change from five times five to four sets of eight. The next move is to four sets of 12, then three sets of 15 and, finally, three sets of 20. That’s for the core exercises and works nicely for most of them. Any high-skill movement, however, has to be done a bit differently. Performing more than 10 reps on an exercise that requires a great deal of technique, such as the power clean, isn’t a good idea because as you tire, your form begins to break down. An exercise is productive only when you use proper technique throughout a set. So stay with eights or 10s for high-skill movements-even fewer than that if your form starts to get sloppy. Just add more sets to get the needed work in. You can also do this: Power-clean a weight for eight to 10 reps, then deadlift it for another 10 to 15 reps.
When you move to the higher reps, work quickly. A circuit can be very effective. Set up stations for your primary exercises, and move from one exercise to the next with a minimum of rest, only long enough to change the plates. You can, however, slow down for your final spin through the circuit because the final sets are the meat of the program. You want to be rested so you can handle as much weight as possible and crank out the desired number of reps in perfect form. If you’re not spent when you finish, you either need to move through the routine at a faster pace or use more weight on the final sets.
As you begin spending more time with your sport, you can drop a weight-training day. Also, if you feel you’re not recovering sufficiently from the weight work, eliminate some or all of the auxiliary movements. Most athletes are satisfied with moving gradually up to three sets of 20, although I’ve trained a number of endurance athletes who opted to run the reps even higher. I trained a mountain biker in Monterey, California, one fall. He had progressed up to the three sets of 20s and said he wanted to find out if pushing the reps a lot higher would benefit him. He was extremely fit, one of the top mountain bikers in the country, so I knew he could handle a great deal more than a beginner or intermediate. Eventually, he ended up doing two sets of 100 reps on a variety of exercises for his three major muscle groups, and, in his opinion, they served him well. He could tell for certain that the weight work helped because his sport was based on time, and he was cutting valuable seconds off his training climbs.
The other way to alter the weight program when you go back to spending a great amount of time on your sport is to stay with the five sets of five and do only two workouts a week. You do one session heavy on a day when your other training is light. The second session is light and can be done on any day during the week-preferably when the training load for your sport isn’t severe.
If you decide to do the higher-rep routine, you should go back and perform a lower-rep workout every couple of weeks, even during the competitive season. You can do that for all the major groups, to reactivate the attachments to some degree, or perhaps just for one bodypart that’s lagging behind and is adversely affecting performance.
When the next off-season break comes around, repeat the process and move the top-end numbers higher than you did the first time. You’ll find that the gains come much faster because you now know how to do the various exercises and understand how your body responds to certain movements and workload. Over the course of a few years you’ll be able to greatly improve your overall strength, and that will have a direct, positive influence on your endurance and, ergo, your performance in your chosen sport.
Endurance athletes who start on a pure strength program for the first time need to pay close attention to several other aspects of conditioning, such as warming up thoroughly before doing any lifting or stretching during and after each workout. The hamstrings need special attention because the stress placed on them with squats and any heavy pulling movement is different from staying in constant motion. Hamstrings have a tendency to tighten up after heavy sets, and it’s smart to stretch them right away and after the session and again later on that night. Same with calves. While an athlete may be accustomed to doing a 20-mile training run or bike ride, hammering the calves for three sets of 30 with the last dozen reps slipping into the painful zone is a different ballgame. Calves need to be stretched after every set, and stretching more later on is always a good idea.
Be sure to stretch out your shoulders once you start lifting demanding numbers, especially after flat-or incline-bench presses. The shoulder girdle may tighten up, so keep in mind that the strength you gain can be converted to your sport only if you maintain a full range of motion. Use a towel, and stretch between sets and again after the workout.
When you embark on a strength routine, try to get a bit more rest and increase your intake of protein, either in food or in supplement form. The additional rest will ensure that you’re fresh and ready for the next session. I know that most serious endurance athletes push their bodies to the edge of exhaustion regularly, and without the extra rest they’re going to be trying to lift with fatigued muscles, tendons and ligaments. That spells trouble. You need the protein because when you lift weights with purpose, you use up a lot of amino acids that must be replaced as quickly as possible or you won’t be fully recovered when the next session comes around.
I’ve offered that advice to a few endurance athletes, but they ignored me because they believed that if they could recover from participating in their sport for two hours without pause, the weight work would be a walk in the park. False reasoning. The two disciplines are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and therefore the demands they place on the body are quite different. The weight work is much more stressful to the attachments, and tendons and ligaments need lots of rest and nourishment to recover sufficiently to work at full capacity again. I should add that those who didn’t bother upping their protein intake or obtaining more rest made no significant gains in the weight room.
I’ll now turn my attention to athletes who engage in sports that require short bursts of energy followed by brief periods of rest-or at least periods of lesser effort: Football, baseball, lacrosse, soccer, basketball, tennis, volleyball, fencing, wrestling, boxing, the martial arts, hockey and the field events in track all fall into this category.
Endurance is valuable in every one of those sports. The key to success for an individual athlete is to be able to reach into the tank at the end of a competition. In team sports those who are conditioned to have an abundance of energy left in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the ninth inning or final period of a hockey game will emerge the winner in almost every case.
Endurance is a genuine plus for competitive Olympic lifters, powerlifters and bodybuilders. Few think in those terms in the beginning, but as they become more advanced, it becomes clear that if they’re going to improve their numbers, they must be able to train longer than before-and more often as well. How is it that foreign Olympic lifters can train three times a day, six days a week? No secret. They’ve built such a solid foundation over the years that they can recover from triple sessions and still be ready for the next day’s workouts.
The first top-notch bodybuilders I trained with were Sergio Oliva and Bob Gajda in Chicago when I moved there to attend graduate school. I was absolutely amazed at the amount of work they did in a session. My workload was maybe half of what they accomplished, and to add insult to injury, they moved through the exercises at a pace much faster than what I was accustomed to. That’s when I decided to stick with Olympic lifting. When Bill St. John and the “Russian Bear,” Val Vasilef, came to York, Pennsylvania, to train with the lifters, they would put us to shame with the intensity and volume of work they handled. Not one member of the York Barbell team, not even Bill March or Barski-my nickname for Bob Bednarski-could stay with those two guys.
Endurance can be enhanced in a number of ways, but it basically comes down to being able to handle a greater amount of work and being able to recover from the exertion. If you aren’t able to recover, then you won’t progress. In fact, you’ll start slipping backward. That means increasing the workload has to be done slowly. So runners, bikers, rowers and swimmers deliberately add to their distances. Should they push out too far too fast, the consequences will be detrimental to their cause. The foundation has to be laid properly and over an extended period of time before it can be expanded to any significant degree.
The same rule holds true for strength training. The endurance factor can improve in the weight room, but it has to be done systematically and not be hit or miss. That’s why anyone who knows even the basic rudiments of strength training will tell you to start out training only three days a week. It would be foolish to attempt to work out four or five times in the beginning because the off days are vital for recovery; again, without recovery there are either no real gains or gains too slight to notice. In the same vein of thought, the exercises in a beginning routine should be limited to just three primary and two auxiliary, and the workouts should be done in an hour or an hour and 15 minutes.
If you train consistently and use good technique, your body will begin to adapt to the amount of work you do in a given week. That’s when it’s time to increase the load. The way I determine that with my athletes is by watching them, checking mostly for form errors but also to see how they deal with the final exercises in their program for the day. When they’re making improvements on the final lifts, I know they’re ready for a forward push.
By using the heavy, light and medium concept, athletes can achieve that kind of success. Having the capacity to perform well at the end of a grueling session is what every athlete seeks. It’s functional endurance and can be used in any sport. We’ve all watched and marveled at the running backs who got progressively stronger and seemingly faster throughout the game. That was no accident, nor was it based on genetics. The players developed stamina through hard work over a length of time.
Expanding the workload has to be done with care. Obviously, the easiest way to do that is extend the time spent in the weight room. Training a little longer is okay for most, but when it goes past two hours, it becomes a negative. There just isn’t enough energy to sustain you so that the exercises at the end of the program are productive. In most instances all the extra-long sessions do is push you into overtraining. An athlete who’s paying attention will know when it’s happening and make some changes.
Adding another workout during the week is a better idea than extending the three sessions. Tuesday works well. As it follows the heavy day, it must be a light-light day, especially in the beginning. Over time you may feel that you can do more, but at first stay on the conservative side. The exercises you select for the light-light day should not be as demanding as those done at the other workouts. Not easy, necessarily, but not nearly as stressful-overhead presses with a bar or dumbbells. You attack the lift with the same intensity as you do with the flat- and incline-bench presses, but the workload is considerably lower. The same idea goes for the back. While power snatches require a great deal of concentration, they’re not as demanding as power cleans, deadlifts or shrugs,
Athletes who have been including a fourth day in their routine for five or six months will be able to increase the workload on Tuesday and still handle the numbers on Wednesday and Friday. They mustn’t try to add too much work, however, and that often happens, as they slip in several more auxiliary movements, typically for the showy muscles. The best way to prevent yourself from doing too much on the light-light day is to set a time limit and stay within it-45 minutes at the beginning and never more than an hour. So if you want to squeeze in some curls or triceps pushdowns, you have to move at a faster pace.
A simple way to add to your load on any day is to do some overloading right behind a primary exercise: three or four sets of high pulls behind power cleans or power snatches, push presses after regular presses or heavy supports in the power rack after squats.
Learn to move through your exercises quickly on both Tuesday and Wednesday. The light-light day needs to be concluded in an hour and the following light day in an hour and 15 minutes, tops. The success of the program really revolves around those two days. If you overtrain on either of them, the remainder of the week is going to be a wash, and that, in turn, will have a negative affect on the upcoming heavy day on Monday.
The next step in the progression will take two or three years. Yes, I know that sounds like a long time, but, in truth, it isn’t, especially if you view strength training as a lifelong endeavor. Yet it takes that amount of time to create the solid strength foundation that enables you to recover from greater and greater volumes of work. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Buy a notebook and keep accurate records of your workouts, listing everything that might have a bearing on your performance, plus the weight used on every set and how many reps you did. From that you can calculate your workload, and that figure will help you determine your next move. It may be to do a bit less for a few weeks if you believe you’re slightly overtrained. It will enable you to know, for certain, how much you can add to your volume. The rule of thumb I use is 10 percent a month. While that may not seem like much, over the course of a year, it’s quite a lot.
When you find that you want to do more work in a given week but understand that when you exceed the time limits on any of the days you become fatigued, consider multiple sessions. Start by having one day with two sessions. You will probably be able to add yet another two workout sessions later on, but start with just one.
There’s nothing new about the concept. It’s been used in a great many sports for a long time. The top gymnasts put in eight-hour workouts daily, six days a week. Swimmers of the Michael Phelps caliber do three tough sessions a day. I’ve already noted that foreign Olympic lifters regularly do three sessions a day, six days a week.
The notion had just begun in Russia when Barski picked up on it and wanted to give it a try at York. His problem was, he hated to train alone, so he recruited Tommy Suggs and me to join him in the experiment. Knowing that we were flirting with overtraining, we moved cautiously, doing just one exercise at noon, then our regular program at four. We were overly weary for the first two weeks; then our bodies adapted, and we were okay. We had a few things in our favor that not many other lifters in the country had at that time. The gym was in the building, which meant we didn’t have to travel. After we finished our noon session and showered, we went directly into the dairy bar and drank a protein milk shake and took our vitamins. About an hour later we ate our lunches, and when four o’clock came, we were sufficiently recovered and renourished.
The extra work helped, and within the month we added a second two-a-day. While we were running up our training volume, we decided it would be smart to improve our cardiovascular-respiratory base as well. Stamina was an important factor in our sport, although few think about that attribute in relation to moving heavy weights. At a contest a lifter might have to follow himself on platform with a short rest. In the bigger contests where there were lots of entries, the meets would often drag on into the next day. At one Philly Open, I did my first warmup for the press at 4:30 p.m. and my final attempt on the clean and jerk at 2:30 a.m.
Barski didn’t join Tommy and me for our twice-a-week aerobics at the York Y. Barski never played any sports other than weightlifting and felt the work he was doing in the gym was plenty. He was probably right, as he did carry a huge workload. Tommy and I, however, believed that boosting our aerobic capacity would help our training and at the meets. We chose activities that were fun. Racquetball was our favorite. We also played volleyball at the Y and practiced with the York College soccer team occasionally.
The first time Tommy and I played racquetball, we lasted 20 minutes and were blowing like asthmatics. Within a month we were able to go full-tilt for an hour. What we discovered-and it’s been reinforced for me over the years-was that if an athlete has a solid strength base, aerobic fitness comes quite readily. I once trained a female who decided she wanted to start running. She began jogging and within nine months had completed a marathon.
That’s good news. It means that if you’re already strong, you’ll be able to extend the time you spend doing whatever type of cardio you enjoy very quickly. The combination of gaining strength and improving aerobic capacity is a terrific one-two punch and makes for a better athlete in any sport. Keep in mind what I’ve been preaching: It’s much smarter to establish your strength base before embarking on any type of aerobic program, and for team sports that usually means running. I’ve had football players wait until two weeks before summer camp before they ran, and all were able to make it through the two-a-day sessions as well as or sometimes better than their teammates.
For those who are primarily interested in maintaining a high level of fitness and aren’t concerned with moving heavy weights or playing any sport, there’s an easy way to enhance endurance. Pick up the pace. Move through your weight workouts more quickly and walk or swim or bike a bit faster. You might also consider doing your aerobic activity more often, such as walking twice a day instead of just once. All the little things you do will begin to add up in a short period of time.
Endurance is a very valuable commodity. Older people covet it, since it enables them to pursue some of their favorite hobbies, like taking a long hike through a state park. Team sports need it to give them an advantage in a tough contest. I recently watched game five of the Stanley Cup, and it was a test of fortitude the likes of which I hadn’t seen for some time. Pittsburgh tied the game with 34 seconds left in regulation. The game went to three overtimes, which means the skaters were, in effect, playing a double header. The athletes were clearly exhausted near the end. Hell, I was exhausted just watching, The better conditioned team was going to win. Forget mental toughness. When strength and lungs give out, you’re not going to perform at a high level. The Penguins prevailed over the Red Wings, avoiding elimination. Now I’m curious to find out which team is able to recover from that epic match and be ready for game six.
I’m also impressed by the endurance of some individual athletes, such as those participants in the French Open tennis championships. The women often play for three straight hours, and the men are frequently on the court for more than four.
There’s no downside to having an abundance of endurance. It’s always an asset. Endurance is certainly a huge advantage for any athlete and is a critical factor for anyone wanting to sustain a higher quality of life.
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 www.Home-Gym.com. IM