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Legendary Strength-Training

For Continued Progress in Bodybuilding and Strength Training, Sometimes We Need a History Lesson

One way to stay on the cutting edge in strength coaching is to study training methods that worked for the biggest and strongest athletes of the past. That’s why we’re seeing a greater number of athletes practicing one-arm overhead lifting and strongman stunts and even experimenting with the isometric exercises popularized by Charles Atlas. One training method I first learned about from legendary Canadian strongman Doug Ivan Hepburn that has helped my athletes break through strength plateaus is the advanced stage program. A variation of that method helped revolutionize Olympic weightlifting.

In men’s Olympic lifting the country that has posed the biggest challenge to the big red Russian lifting machine for the past three decades is Bulgaria. That’s a remarkable achievement because of the relatively small number of competitive lifters in Bulgaria and the country’s lack of resources. In fact, judging by the ragged appearance of the training center that houses the Bulgarian national team, you might assume that everything in the country is broken.

Approximately three decades ago Bulgarian weightlifting guru Ivan Abadjiev took his select group of athletes and experimented with unconventional workout protocols that changed the very nature of the sport. One of his first success stories was Andon Nikolov, 1972 Olympic weightlifting champion in the 198-pound class. Nikolov was one of the few lifters ever to seriously challenge David Rigert, a Russian lifter whom many of the sport’s historians consider the most talented weightlifter of the ’70s. In his prime 28 years ago Nikolov snatched 386 pounds and clean and jerked 462 pounds, lifts that would have placed him in the top 10 in the ’00 Olympics (top four if he dropped a few pounds of bodyweight). Obviously, Abadjiev’s radical coaching ideas were extremely effective.

When Nikolov shared his personal workout log with American weightlifting journalists almost 30 years ago, one training protocol that was readily apparent was the reverse pyramid. I call it a reverse pyramid because he performed heavy singles early in the workout rather than at the end, as in a traditional pyramid. Nikolov would work up to a heavy single attempt on a lift such as the snatch, then reduce the weight and get in his work sets of heavy multiple repetitions. For example, he might snatch up to 350 pounds for a single, then reduce the weight by 20 pounds and perform several doubles. That approach makes sense for several reasons.

Rather than going into heavy singles already fatigued from heavy sets of multiple reps, Nikolov ensured he would be able to use the heaviest weights on those singles by getting to them early. When you use a traditional pyramid system, you’re often so fatigued that you cannot activate the highest-threshold muscle fibers. That ultimately means less strength, power and muscle mass gains in those fibers. Furthermore, lifting the heavy single first increases your confidence for the following sets because the weight feels lighter.

Although Abadjiev coaches only elite weightlifters, his innovative use of the pyramid system can help you smash through training slumps. I’ve experimented with that training protocol with countless athletes and would like to share with you one of my most effective variations.

The Advanced Stage Program

This is one of my favorite sets-and-reps combinations for breaking through a plateau in strength development on a specific exercise. It builds relative strength’that is, strength-to-bodyweight ratio’and absolute strength, which is strength irrespective of bodyweight, at an unbelievable rate.

The program involves two basic secret ingredients that have been set aside by the modern trainee: hard work and patience. Hard work is necessary because you do an exercise for a total of 13 sets in two stages. Patience is essential because you must achieve success on all the sets for both stages before increasing the weight.

The two stages are relative strength and functional hypertrophy, with functional hypertrophy being defined as the muscle mass that produces the highest levels of strength. The program applies the law of repeated efforts because you increase the weight in either stage only when you have successfully completed all the reps for that stage. The body accepts the load that is repeatedly lifted successfully as normal.

Let’s take a closer look at each stage.

Stage 1: Relative Strength

This stage develops your ability to recruit the high-threshold motor units. It’s pure nervous system work designed to make you stronger quickly. You perform a warmup of low reps’so as not to overly fatigue yourself’and quickly work up to a weight you can use for eight near-maximum singles.

The heavy singles in this workout are performed with a 95 percent effort. It’s the volume of high intensity and not the maximum intensity that dictates the training effect. If you feel good on the last single, however, go ahead and add more weight to make the lift a maximum attempt. Picking the correct training weight here is crucial to this technique’s effectiveness. The key is to always keep something in reserve because you must complete all eight singles. I suggest you use about 87.5 percent of your best single and go from there. ALL You should perform each rep explosively during the concentric, or lifting, phase and with controlled tempo for the eccentric, or lowering, phase. For multijoint exercises I often use a three/two/one/zero tempo, which means you lower the weight for a count of three seconds, pause for a count of two seconds in the most disadvantageous position and lift for a count of one in the concentric range. The last number is the second pause, which is written as zero and means you immediately perform the next repetition. As you fatigue during these sets, your concentric-range tempo will exceed one second, but that shouldn’t be a concern as long as you’re focusing on achieving maximum acceleration.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

This stage increases muscle mass in the higher-level muscle fibers more effectively than traditional pyramid systems. After completing your eight singles in stage 1, you reduce the weight to a poundage you can use for five sets of three to five reps. I recommend you work with about 80 percent of the top single for that day; however, keep in mind that you are only allowed to increase the load in this stage if you complete five sets of five reps. In other words, your singles may go up at every workout, but it may take three workouts to complete all five sets of five reps. From many years of teaching I’ve found that trainees learn best from a combination of theory and practical examples. Let’s look at a typical client’s progress using the advanced stage program.

The System in Action

Let’s use the example of an athlete who’s stuck on an incline press of 300 pounds.

Workout 1

Stage 1: Relative Strength

Set 1: 262.5 x 1; very easy.
Set 2: 270 x 1; still very easy.
Set 3: 270 x 1; correct weight,
heavy enough, but there are still five singles to go.
Set 4: 270 x 1; good weight.
Set 5: 270 x 1; good weight, still
Set 6: 270 x 1; good weight, feels
easier than set 5.
Set 7: 272.5 x 1; good weight,
same degree of effort as in
set 6.

Using the Kaizen principle of micro-loading’as explained in The Poliquin Principles’increase to 275 for the last set.
Set 8: 275 x 1; good weight, but challenging.

Comments: Because of a training effect called post-tetanic facilitation, the last set became easier. Since the trainee successfully completed 275 pounds, he starts with that weight in stage 1 of his next workout. The average weight used over eight singles was 270.3 pounds, so he starts stage 2 with 220 pounds’80 percent of the best single performed that day.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

Set 9: 220 x 5; hard work.
Set 10: 220 x 4; even harder work.
Set 11: 220 x 3; barely!
Set 12: 220 x 3; toast!
Set 13: 220 x 3; maimed!

Comments: Obviously 220 pounds was more than enough, so the trainee will keep that weight for stage 2 of the next workout. Workout 2

Stage 1: Relative Strength

Set 1: 275 x 1; easy!!!
Set 2: 275 x 1; way too easy!
No time to waste; go up to 280 on the next set.
Set 3: 280 x 1; feels right.
Set 4: 280 x 1; good weight.
Set 5: 280 x 1; good acceleration.
Set 6: 280 x 1; good weight,
seems easier than set 5’move to 285 next set.
Set 7: 285 x 1; hard but good.
Set 8: 285 x 1; very hard’the
fuel tank shows empty.

Comments: In this case the trainee makes the decision to start the next workout at 280 pounds so that he does more total work. The average weight he used over eight singles was 280 pounds, 11.25 pounds better than the previous workout.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy
Set 9: 220 x 5; easy.
Set 10: 220 x 5; good!
Set 11: 220 x 4; not bad.
Set 12: 220 x 3; hard.
Set 13: 220 x 3; done!

Comments: Certainly 220 pounds is still the appropriate weight.

Workout 3
Stage 1: Relative Strength
Set 1: 280 x 1; good.
Set 2: 280 x 1; good.
Set 3: 280 x 1; feels right.
Set 4: 280 x 1; extremely easy.
Go up.
Set 5: 285 x 1; even easier, go up.
Set 6: 290 x 1; correct weight.
Set 7: 290 x 1; easy, go up.
Set 8: 295 x 1; nice effort.

Comments: Since the trainee completed three singles at 290 pounds or more, he decides to start with 290 at the next workout. Trainees usually experience a big jump in strength from the second workout to the third. Not in this case, however. The average weight used over eight singles was 280 pounds, only five pounds better than in the previous workout.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy
Set 9: 220 x 5; easy.
Set 10: 220 x 5; good.
Set 11: 220 x 5; easy.
Set 12: 220 x 5; getting hard.
Set 13: 220 x 5; successful!

Comments: Undoubtedly this is with someone who responds to intensity better than volume. Therefore he’ll only go up to 225 pounds at the next workout.

Workout 4

Stage 1: Relative Strength

Set 1: 290 x 1; bang! Rammed it
up. Could do 300-plus today but will only go up to 295 to ensure total work and build confidence.
Set 2: 295 x 1; too easy! Up the
Set 3: 300 x 1; explosive! Go up!
Set 4: 305 x 1; good, but let’s stick
with that weight.
Set 5: 305 x 1; nicely done.
Set 6: 305 x 1; nice.
Set 7: 305 x 1; demanding.
Set 8: 305 x 1; easy.

Comments: Here the athlete makes excellent progress: The average over eight singles was 301.25. That’s 16.25 pounds better than he did at the last workout. A good bet would be to start at 305 at the next workout and play it by ear. Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

Set 9: 225 x 5; hard.
Set 10: 225 x 3; pathetic!
Set 11: 225 x 3; excruciating.
Workout is stopped prematurely.

Comments: The high jump in the singles took a toll on the athlete, so his rep work suffered. So as not to get into an overtrained state, he cuts back on the rep work.

Workout 5

Stage 1: Relative Strength
Set 1: 305 x 1; feels good.
Set 2: 305 x 1; correct weight.
Set 3: 305 x 1; correct weight.
Set 4: 305 x 1; correct weight.
Set 5: 305 x 1; correct weight.
Set 6: 305 x 1; correct weight.
Set 7: 305 x 1; hard.
Set 8: 305 x 1; hard again.

Comments: It was wise to stick with this weight. The gains made in this workout weren’t as dramatic as in the previous one. The average weight, obviously, was 305.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

Set 9: 225 x 5; good.
Set 10: 225 x 5; good.
Set 11: 225 x 5; good.
Set 12: 225 x 4; hard.
Set 13: 225 x 3; spent!

Comments: Since he did not successfully complete all sets, the trainee will do this workout at 225 pounds again next time.

Workout 6

Stage 1: Relative Strength

Set 1: 310 x 1; easy! Move up.

Set 2: 315 x 1; easy. A micro- increment should be used on the next set.

Set 3: 317.5 x 1; successful. Up the weight!

Set 4: 320 x 1; right weight

Set 5: 320 x 1; right weight, but there’s still some left. Go up a small amount on the next set.

Set 6: 322.5 x 1; great weight!

Set 7: 322.5 x 1; easier. Go for record weight.

Set 8: 327.5 x 1; eye-popping, spleen-busting but successful.

Comments: Awesome stage 1 in this workout. The micro-loads really helped build confidence and increase the total workload. The average load used was 319.4 pounds. That’s up from an average weight of 270.3 and a top single of 275 at the first workout.

Those results are in accordance with average gains made on the program. As I said, the training effect comes from following the law of repeated efforts. The central nervous system learns to accept the new weights as normal.

Stage 2: FunctionalHypertrophy

Set 9: 225 x 5; too easy. Decision
made to increase the weight, as it’s the last workout.
Set 10: 230 x 5; easy.
Set 11: 235 x 5; hard.
Set 12: 235 x 4; hard.
Set 13: 235 x 3; excellent effort!

Comments: Because the singles went up so well, he used the momentum to accelerate his progress on the rep work.

The Aftermath

After a five-day rest from this training protocol the athlete tries for a new one-rep max on the incline press. He successfully makes 335, which is 35 pounds above his previous best. To avoid overtraining, he should not perform any incline presses for 12 weeks.

Before beginning another training protocol, I’d advise this athlete to perform an unloading week, during which he trains only twice, performing a total of 16 sets of six to eight reps with exercises that work the major muscle groups. After that unloading week I’d have him perform three cycles designed to increase hypertrophy.

Although there have been many advances in strength-training methods over the past several years, the success I’ve had with this version of the reverse-pyramid system convinces me that just because something is old doesn’t automatically mean it should be discarded. If you’re looking for a way to refresh your techniques and smash through your training slumps, there’s still plenty to be learned from the old masters.

Editor’s note: To contact Charles Poliquin, visit or IM

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