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Low Reps for More Mass?

Q: Is it true that more experienced lifters need fewer reps to stimulate growth?

A: Yes, indeed. It makes an enormous difference. Most increases in muscle cross section occur at between 70 and 85 percent of max—a gross overgeneralization but a good rule of thumb. An untrained individual can do between seven and 12 reps with that percentage, but an advanced lifter gets only four to six. If you’re experienced and neurologically efficient, the number of reps you can do at a given percentage of max actually goes down.

Some evidence in the literature disagrees, but the majority consensus is that the number of reps you can get at a given percentage of max diminishes with training experience, particularly if you’ve been training properly. How many years of training experience are we talking about? About three.

Let’s say a novice can bench-press 100 pounds for a one-rep max. At 70 percent of maximum, he can squeeze out 12 reps, while an advanced lifter with a maximum of 400 pounds will do only four to six at 280 pounds, which is 70 percent of his maximum. Very gifted lifters can hypertrophy at two to three reps, but they must do more sets—like 10. So an inexperienced guy may put on muscle at three sets of 10, then three years down the road put on muscle at 10 sets of three.

A lot of advanced athletes also do very well performing 10 sets of singles, then three sets of three to five reps once the nervous system gets excited. Some people call them near maximal singles.

Q: What’s the best food to take on the road for breakfast? Restaurants are horrendous. My job takes me to Italy and the UK a lot. In Italy all they have are pastries, and the British offer only greasy eggs, blood pudding and fat-laden sausages. I know you go to those countries a lot. What do you suggest?

A: I’ve been overseas often enough to have found hotels that serve me meat for breakfast, along with nuts and berries, so I can have a great workout before class without suffering from crashing blood sugar or having to turboblast my gallbladder to digest all sorts of saturated fats. If I’m going to a new place, I bring cans of sardines and/or jars of caviar. Those foods are convenient and are great for boosting the right levels of neurotransmitters. I also pack pine nuts, macadamia nuts or cashews to round out the meal.

Q: A trainer at my gym says the Smith machine is okay for bodybuilding purposes if you keep your heels under the bar, as you would with a free-weight squat. He says the only time the Smith machine is dangerous is when you stick your feet forward. Is that true?

A: He’s right that it’s less harmful if you keep your heels under the bar, but when it comes to injury, it’s a matter of repeated exposure. One three-week cycle per year of Smith-machine squats with the heels under the bar would be okay, but I wouldn’t make that exercise a staple.

At least two IFBB pros have torn both quadriceps doing Smith-machine squats, but they made the move a regular part of their routines. In fact, in my 30 years as a strength coach, while working out myself, I’ve witnessed only two knee injuries in a weight room, and they both involved trainees squatting in a Smith machine. Not a pretty sight. I’d stay away from it altogether. So many great alternatives are available with a barbell.

Bodybuilders don’t give a rat’s ass about function, so they can do whatever they want. But most people want strength to transfer to whatever they do, whether it’s sprinting or skiing. For that reason, I don’t like any kind of training in a Smith machine.

Q: Are any exercises so stupid or dangerous you’d throw them out of your toolbox?

A: The dumbbell power clean—rest assured, it never reached my toolbox—is the most useless exercise on the planet. In fact, anyone recommending it should be charged with a felony.

Basically, it’s one of the best ways to get someone injured. Our clinic has treated strength coaches who were foolish enough to prescribe it and athletes who were unlucky to have it prescribed.

The dumbbell power clean is a bad exercise for multiple reasons:

• The diameter of the dumbbell plate puts the ’bell ahead of the center of gravity, which increases the loading on the disks far more than a barbell would.

• The bigger an athlete’s chest, the more dangerous the catch part of the power clean becomes for the shoulder joint because the dumbbell diameter puts it farther ahead of the axis of rotation. The muscles of the shoulder most likely to be strained by dumbbell power cleans are the teres minor and the infraspinatus. The strains come from the body trying to stabilize the dumbbells once they fall toward the shoulders at the last part of the catch.
• The catch part of the lift leads to rapid overstretching of the forearm muscles and to forms of golfer’s and tennis elbow.

• Because of the inherent genetic variations in the angle of fusion of the wrists, a multitude of wrist strains occur with this movement.

Dumbbell power cleans are one of the forgotten exercises—and for good reason. If you’re into self-hate, do them; you may want to do them with kettlebells if you really hate yourself.

The dumbbell power snatch is in the same league. Why expose the shoulder to something that could cause a lot of trauma when other exercises are more effective and far safer? I know people in the industry who promote the one-arm power snatch and in the same sentence tell me they’re getting their shoulder operated on for the fifth time. Dude, maybe that’s not very smart.

A coach I know recommends performing leg extensions before squatting—and he’s had 26 knee surgeries. Doesn’t he learn anything?

Q: I’m a 19-year-old female who’s thinking of entering my first figure competition. The problem is I have a flat butt, and it seems to get worse when I diet down. Any exercise suggestions for building a rounder, fuller set of glutes?

A: Follow Jessica Simpson’s diet—just kidding. As far as exercise prescriptions go, try this tri-set:

Full back squats x 6 reps, 4/0/1/0 tempo
Rest 10 seconds
Drop lunges x 12 per leg, 2/0/X/0 tempo
Rest 10 seconds
Dumbbell deadlifts x 25, 2/0/1/0 tempo

Do the drop, or step-back, lunges off a four-to-six-inch platform. You step down and then back up onto the platform. That’s a great glute builder. Rest 10 seconds—use the time to retrieve your spleen from under the seated calf machine—and then do the dumbbell deadlifts.

After one round take a two-minute break, and then hit it again. Do three tri-sets. It’ll be a week before you can sit on the toilet again without pain. Nothing builds glutes better than that routine, as it taps into every motor unit in them.

I often give the routine to interns to show them the meaning of crossing the pain barrier. Deadly. I used to prescribe it to alpine skiers in their general-preparation phase because the glutes are very important when you’re taking compressions and turns. I also find that one of the best things for glutes is sled work.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc­cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med­alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit IM

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