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Only The Strong Shall Survive: Sequence For Strength

The proper sequence for strength building, so you’ll have power to spare.

It had been more than three years since I’d seen Uncle Buddy. There had been an occasional card from some foreign country to let me know he was still breathing, but that was the extent of it. Then one day I opened my door, and there he was, full of grins and carrying an armload of gifts. Over coffee I asked the obvious question, and it took an hour for him to fill me in. He’d been all over the map but had spent the majority of the last year in Amsterdam. Uncle Buddy was a merchant seaman, and it wasn’t at all like him to settle in one place for so long. ‘Why Amsterdam?’ I asked.

Typically, it had to do with a female. Even though Uncle Buddy was on the far side of 60, he had some kind of magic charm when it came to attracting the ladies. He showed me a photo of Anna’tall, fit and with the face of a goddess. I guessed her to be in her mid-50s. He explained that she owned several small hotels along the Amstel and had persuaded him to stay and help her manage them. The money was great and the work easy, but it was too much of a good thing for Uncle Buddy. He was a free spirit, used to moving about whenever he wanted, and he had to leave’but on good terms, for Anna understood him well.

‘Are you going to the gym today?’ he asked, putting the packet of photos into his shirt pocket.

‘Sure, we can go down to the school. I haven’t been there for a few weeks.’

One of the main reasons Uncle Buddy always visited me whenever he was in the area was that he wanted to tag along with me to a gym and not have to pay. He had plenty of money and was more than generous with it, but for some reason he hated laying down cash to train. He said it was like having to pay to breathe. When I reminded him that gym owners needed to eat too, he only shrugged.

I enjoyed taking Uncle Buddy to the gym. When he was around, I didn’t have to give much advice because he took over. He knew his stuff, most of which he’d learned from hard experience. He’d trained on ships, in remote cabins and other isolated situations, often without the benefit of equipment. He’d devised creative routines and always managed to stay in excellent shape. Much of my philosophy of training comes directly from Uncle Buddy.

It was midsummer, so the gym wasn’t crowded. I don’t go there much during that time of year because I want the students to do their own programming. It forces them to understand some of the basic principles of putting together a routine, rather than just following the ones I put on the board.

Since Uncle Buddy and I do different workouts, we went our separate ways. We’ve always agreed that during the workout, less talk is better. After the session is over, we enjoy conversation, but not when we’re doing the work. We’d finished the bulk of our exercises when the gym suddenly got busy’students who had summer jobs on campus taking advantage of the free workouts.

A few came to me for advice on form or sets and reps, the usual stuff; no bother. Then Johnny showed up. Johnny is on the tennis team and a hard worker. He’s really into strength training and always hits me with a half dozen questions. He saw me on the leg extension machine, grabbed a sheet of paper from his gym bag and hurried over to me. No hello or how are you, just, ‘I was hoping you’d show up. I need you to look over my summer program.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ I asked, knowing I lacked enthusiasm.

‘Nothing’s moving. I need to make some changes, but I’m not sure what needs to be changed.’

I really wasn’t in the mood. By the end of the school year I’m burned out from answering questions. Uncle Buddy stepped up, snatched the sheet of paper out of Johnny’s hands and scanned it like a laser. ‘Too many exercises for one thing,’ he concluded without being asked, ‘and a lot of stuff’s out of sequence.’ He handed the paper back to a confused Johnny and walked over to the dipping bars.

‘What’s he mean by that?’ he mumbled, staring at Uncle Buddy.

‘Most likely just what he said. Go ask him to explain,’ I suggested. ‘He taught me most of what I know.’

‘Can’t you look at it,’ Johnny almost pleaded.

‘I’ll look at it, but find out what he thinks first.’

When he agreed, I knew Johnny was in for a rough few minutes. He approached Uncle Buddy, and I could hear Buddy’s voice as he pointed at the paper.

I finished my sets and went behind the counter to talk with a few athletes about some problems they were having. Presently, Johnny was hovering over my shoulder. ‘Either move away or get some breath mints,’ I told him. He moved back. ‘What did Uncle Buddy tell you?’

‘He said I was trying to do too much in a week and that my exercises are out of sequence. When I asked him what he meant by out of sequence, he asked me if I was a high school graduate.’

I laughed. Uncle Buddy did have a caustic sense of humor. ‘Let me look at your workout.’

During the spring Johnny had added the Olympic lifts to his routine because he found they really helped him on the tennis court. The trouble was, he hadn’t dropped any of the basic power movements. ‘Uncle Buddy’s right. You’re doing too much. You can’t do a program for the Olympic lifts in addition to what you were doing before. That’s one reason your lifts aren’t moving: You’re overtrained.’

‘I was trying to increase my total workload. Isn’t that what you’re always talking about, expanding the base?’

‘Yes, expanding the base is important, but you have to do it systematically. You’re just not ready for that much of a load. You need to pull back and work up again more slowly.’

‘Should I take a layoff?’

‘That’s not necessary. Just change your routine around some. Here, for example, you do lunges on the same day as you do heavy squats. That’s too much.’

‘But aren’t squats and lunges both helpful?’

‘Sure, but again, you’re not ready to do that much in one day. You can do lunges on your light day.’

‘I do front squats on my light day. I need them for my cleans, right?’

‘All right. If you want to do all three leg exercises, try this: Do back squats on Monday, lunges on Wednesday and fronts on Friday.’ He liked that idea, so I went on, ‘Use the same idea for your back and upper-body exercises. One primary movement per workout is enough. You can change them around every week if you want more variety.’

‘But I’ve seen you have Perna do three and sometimes four pulling exercises in the same workout.’

‘Two points: You and Perna are made from different materials. That’s not an insult’he’s different from nearly everyone else. Not only is he a workhorse, but he’s been doing heavy training like that for four years. He’s had time to build a much wider base than you have. You may or may not get to that point, but you can’t simply will it to happen. It takes time.

‘This is a problem a great many people have when they organize their programs. They try to emulate someone they train with or admire in a magazine, but the routine doesn’t fit them because they’re not yet ready to handle so much work.’

‘What if I go back to the routine I was using at the end of the school year? My lifts were moving then. The main reason I changed things was to expand my base.’

‘That’s a good idea. When your lifts start moving again, you can try adding more work per week.’

‘Now what about this sequence thing? I really don’t know what it’s all about.’

‘He’s talking about the order of exercises you use’in a workout and also throughout the week. The sequence of exercises is one of the most important factors of all.’

‘Now I’m more confused. How do I know the best order?’

Before I had a chance to reply, Uncle Buddy stepped in, wiping his bald head with a towel. ‘Let me show you. Here, on Wednesday, you do your good mornings, then do front squats. How come?’

Johnny was clearly intimidated by my uncle and said, sheepishly, ‘I like to get them out of the way. I really don’t like them.’

‘Who does? But it isn’t a smart idea to start out with them. For one reason, the muscles that will be doing the work aren’t warmed up enough. Also, if you tire out your lumbars with good mornings, it will keep you from handling as much weight on your front squats. If you do them the other way around’squats, then good mornings’both lifts will benefit. Good mornings really go best right behind squats because your lumbars, plus your glutes and hamstrings, are warm and ready for the effort.

Johnny nodded and made a few notes. Uncle Buddy walked away, so I continued with the idea. ‘Here’s another sequence mistake. On Monday you do back squats to max, then go to full cleans. Let me guess: Your cleans suck.’

‘Yeah, they’re bad, but you always encouraged us to squat first.’

‘That was when you were doing the basic strength routine. Now you want to improve your Olympic lifts. When you tire out your legs and back with heavy squats, how do you expect to have any juice for your cleans? Here’s a basic rule that might help. Put the most involved exercise at the beginning of your routine. By involved I mean the one that requires the most coordination and timing. For you that means either the snatch, the clean or the clean and jerk. For others it may be hang cleans, power cleans, power snatches or jerks off the rack. You have the most energy at the beginning of the workout, and these dynamic exercises take the most effort.

‘The same notion applies to the weekly program as well. Do the high-skill stuff early in the week, when you’re the freshest. If you hammer away at one of the quick lifts at the end of the week, the odds are stacked against you.’

‘But you have your Olympic lifters do cleans or snatches on Friday.’

‘True, they do, but if you notice, they keep it light. They drill with weights far lower than their max. That’s beneficial even if they’re a bit tired because they have to pay closer attention to small form points. But they don’t go after a P.R. because it will result in a failure.’

‘Okay, I know you don’t want me doing cleans and snatches on the same day, so which one do I do on Monday?’

‘The one that needs the most work. If they’re about even, switch them around each week.’

‘What if my squat starts dropping off?’

‘If it drops a lot, give it priority for a few weeks, which means you shouldn’t get as aggressive on the quick lifts. Do them in the moderate range and concentrate on form rather than numbers.’

Uncle Buddy rejoined us. ‘Here’s another sequence error,’ he said, pointing at Johnny’s sheet. ‘You’re doing your heavy jerk workout on Tuesday.’ Johnny nodded and said, ‘I want to put most of my effort in it, so I moved it away from my heavy Monday. I have it first,’ he insisted.

‘Yeah, but that’s not the problem. Look here, on Monday you do a heavy bench routine followed by incline dumbbells for two sets of 20. Come Tuesday your shoulders are shot. There’s no way you can do heavy jerks the day after that much work.’

‘What should I do?’

‘How bad is your jerk in comparison to your clean?’

‘I’m cleaning 295 and jerking 280.’

‘I’d put the jerk at the beginning of Monday’s workout every other week. On the other week do your jerks on Tuesdays like before, but limit the shoulder work you do on Monday.’

‘What could I do for my shoulders?’

‘Standing presses would work. You’ll probably be able to use close to 200, which will work without tapping into your shoulder strength so much that there’s nothing left for Tuesday.’

‘What about my benches?’

‘Right now you’re doing them twice a week. That’s too much if you want your overhead strength to move up. Do them once a week, on Friday. If they’re a bit off, that’s okay for now. One final thing and then I’m through with this discussion. After you finish your primary exercise, you go directly to your auxiliary work for the same muscles. Two things are wrong with that sequence. It totally taps those muscles, which means that whatever exercise comes next is going to suffer. You use your legs, hips and back in nearly every movement to some degree. Also, if you take a break between the core exercise and the auxiliary one, your body will have a chance to recover slightly, so you’ll get more out of the auxiliary exercise.’

He walked away. I could see that Johnny was still a bit confused, so I said, ‘When you’re setting up a program, keep a few basic ideas in mind. Work the larger groups before the smaller ones. Do high-skill exercises before less dynamic ones. Do all the primary exercises before any auxiliary movements. Do the hardest work earlier in the week, and any weaker lifts before your stronger ones.’

Sequence isn’t all that important to those who train for shape or tone’or whatever they call it currently’but it’s absolutely critical to anyone who’s serious about trying to get stronger.

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 and Defying Gravity. IM

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