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Only the Strong Shall Survive
Elevating The Peak of the Pyramid

How to Expand your Workload

After my article ‘Lock and Load’ appeared in the August ’04 IRON MAN, I received a number of letters from readers. They all contained the same message’that I hadn’t elaborated enough on the subject of expanding the workload. One man coached youngsters and wanted to know how to build a solid base from the very first workout. Another was an experienced Olympic weightlifter who was preparing for the Masters Nationals. He was interested in learning how to increase his workload and how he could improve his numbers on the two contested lifts, the snatch and clean and jerk.

I wrote to them and told them it was all Uncle Buddy’s fault. He didn’t let me put in my two cents’ worth when he was giving his lecture on workload at the gym. Here’s what I’d have said, if I’d had the chance, about widening the base and elevating the peak of your strength pyramid.

I use the symbol of a pyramid to help explain the process of strength development’a pyramid in which the two sides and base are of equal length. Simply put, in order to raise the top of the pyramid, you must expand the base. You accomplish that by increasing the total amount of work you do in a given week and month and also by doing quality work. So gaining strength takes time and lots of effort. There are no shortcuts, not in the long run. Sure, using steroids will bring faster gains, but only for a limited time. Eventually, even those using the juice have to put in the extra work in order to move to a higher level of strength.

I have a brief comment on quick fixes for those who plan to continue lifting into their 40s, 50s and beyond. While that bottle of Winstrol will elevate the numbers on all of your lifts, once you stop taking the drug, most likely because of the $140 price tag, those top-end numbers will start falling at an alarming rate. I watched a young athlete move his bench from 295 to 365 in a matter of months. He made no secret of the fact that he was on steroids. When he ran out, his bench slipped back to less than 300 in three weeks. To say that was devastating to his ego would be an understatement. It was so devastating, he quit coming to the gym. All he got out of the experience was a thinner wallet and most likely some sore joints.

One of the problems of using any form of anabolic steroid to enhance strength is that the gains come too quickly. To someone wanting to get stronger that may sound contradictory, but it isn’t. Quick gains don’t give your joints sufficient time to adapt to the new stress. Some joints, like the elbows and shoulders, are rather delicate and break down under undue strain. In addition, any drug, even something as innocent as aspirin, affects your internal organs, particularly your liver and kidneys. Long-term anabolic use can cause damage that will have traumatic health consequences somewhere down the line.

If athletes would put forth the necessary effort in the gym and pay strict attention to nutrition and rest, they could reach the same level of strength they get with drugs’with no risk to their health. It would take longer, but so what? Most athletes don’t believe that’s possible. I know it is because I’ve seen it happen (see ‘A Natural Alternative’ below).

The procedure for getting stronger is really the same for everyone. Whether you’re rehabbing from surgery or trying to qualify for a major weightlifting contest, it starts with a routine that you can recover from, then slowly increases the workload and improves your top-end numbers.

To be successful in the quest for greater strength, at any level, you must keep accurate records. Otherwise, there’s no way for you to know for certain that you’re doing more than you did previously. Most people aren’t able to recall what they did at their workouts a week ago, so it’s impossible to remember the numbers from a month ago. I encourage all of my serious strength athletes to keep a workout book. Over the years I’ve noticed that those who took my advice and kept a detailed record of their workouts made greater improvements than those who didn’t.

These records are valuable, not only for your immediate needs but also for future reference. Trust me, the workout logs you keep while you’re just getting started can be most helpful when you climb to a higher strength stratum. You can look back and recall the auxiliary exercises you used when you achieved that 350 bench or the sequence of lifts that you were doing during the time you made your greatest progress. Or what supplements you were taking. I urge you to write down everything that might have an influence on your training: the weather, the amount of rest you got the night before, your diet, supplements, bodyweight, biorhythms, plus any other factors such as injuries or unusual worries. Anxiety has a direct bearing on athletic performance. The act of writing down what you did in the gym each day is helpful in itself. It enables you to review how you performed and then look forward to the numbers you want to hit at the next session. That makes you much better prepared. Whenever I start athletes on a strength program’or restart them after an extended layoff’I restrict the amount of work at the first session to three sets of three core lifts. Typically, I use the big three: the bench press, squat and power clean. I keep the reps at five to six on the power clean so the athletes’ form isn’t adversely affected, but I run the reps up to 10 on the other two lifts. If they’ve used a strength program in the past, they invariably complain about the meager workout, though not for long. At the second session they’re grateful that I didn’t have them do more. They’d forgotten how sore they could get.

Everyone starts out in that fashion. Even if you’ve handled some big weights in the past, you have to approach the situation as a rank beginner. The body loses strength at a surprisingly fast rate. I’ve always thought it as totally unfair that you can train diligently for six consecutive months, acquire an impressive degree of strength fitness and then lay off for a month and be forced to begin again from scratch. Well, not completely from scratch: Experience counts. Seasoned lifters have mastered the technique on the selected exercises and have handled the numbers on the way up to their best lifts. They also have muscle memory, understand how their body responds to certain movements and have a confidence that gives them a huge advantage over someone who’s starting a strength program for the first time.

In my fantasy world having strength would be like having money in the bank. Once you acquired it, it would be there whenever you needed it, regardless of whether you trained. Sadly, life isn’t that simple. So it doesn’t matter if you’re embarking on your first strength program or starting back after an injury or layoff, you need to proceed with common sense sprinkled with a dose of caution.

In addition to limiting the number of sets and reps at the initial session, I keep the weights light. For beginners that’s easy. I merely observe them and determine how much is enough. Weight selection for seasoned strength athletes is a tad harder. A football player who tested out with a 400-pound squat at the end of the off-season program in the spring will use 135, 225 and 275. In the event that I see him struggling with 225, that’s as high as he goes. When in doubt, do less rather than more at that first workout.

From there it’s just a matter of moving forward in a systematic fashion, adding more work and running up the top-end weights on the final sets. At the second workout move to four sets, and at the third use five. During the second week do all the lifts for five sets of five, and by Friday you should be ready to add back-off sets on the squat and bench, not the power clean. I don’t recommend doing back-off sets on any back exercise at any phase of the program.

In the third week start including auxiliary exercises for the smaller groups as well as for any bodypart that needs extra work. There’s plenty to choose from: Dumbbell presses, incline dumbbell presses, lat pulldowns, triceps pushdowns, straight-arm pullovers, dips, various curls, leg curls, leg extensions, leg adductor work and machine calf raises. Do no more than two per workout, and do them for high reps, 15s or 20s for two sets. As you become more advanced, you can include more than two exercises per session, but not in the early going. In the formative stages it’s often the extra effort spent on upper arms and chest that pushes lifters into overtraining, not the five sets of five on the core exercises.

At the end of the month you’ll be ready to begin building more variety into your program. Instead of doing power cleans three times a week, do them only on Mondays and introduce good mornings on Wednesdays and high pulls or shrugs on Fridays. For your upper body, bench presses, incline presses, dips and overhead presses will fill the bill. Stay with squats for all three workouts. Vary the sets and reps and use the heavy, light and medium system.

Everyone progresses at his or her own rate; however, everyone eventually arrives at a plateau, where progress comes to a halt. That’s when you need to make some changes to further increase your workload and at the same time keep punching your top-end numbers up. There are many ways to accomplish that. You could do extra work sets or add a second exercise for a certain bodypart. For example, I’ve had several athletes who greatly improved their workload and max singles by doing inclines and weighted dips at the same session. Follow up power cleans with high pulls and overhead presses with push presses or jerks.

At some point you might find that you’re staying at the gym too long. An hour and a half will be plenty. If you’re stretching that to two hours or more, you aren’t getting much productivity out of those final exercises, and the overwork will most likely have an adverse effect on your next session. The solution’add another day. It can be a very light day, where you’re in and out in a half hour to 40 minutes. A short workout is the perfect opportunity to get in those exercises that you can’t find time for in your regular workouts. Even though it’s short and you keep the weights relatively light, it will greatly increase your weekly workload.

If you have weights at home, you can do a short session with dumbbells or light weights on a barbell on the days when you don’t go to the gym. Of course, if your situation permits it, doing a double session a couple of times a week really bumps up the overall tonnage. We were able to do that when I worked at York Barbell, since lifting was part of our jobs. We would do a 45-minute session at noon, then come back at four for a longer workout. I realize that not everyone is in such an advantageous position.

I should mention that while I build lots of variety into my athletes’ programs, it’s not absolutely necessary. You can make gains without doing that. A large number of lifters at the York Barbell Club only did the three Olympic lifts’the press, snatch and clean and jerk’and squats. They never did any auxiliary movements whatsoever. Great athletes such as Bob Bednarski, Bill March, Homer Brannun and others followed that regimen with much success. It was what they now call sport-specific training, and many powerlifters follow that concept as well.

Merely adding to the work you do in a week or a month is, in itself, not enough to help you set a personal record on a particular lift. Let’s say you’ve been doing 225 for three sets of five on the bench. Over time you add three more sets of five, doubling your workload. The problem is, you haven’t pushed the peak of the pyramid any higher.

In order to do that, you have to include lower reps with heavier weights in your program. You need triples, doubles and singles because they involve the attachments much more than performing higher reps does, and the tendons and ligaments are the sources of strength. An effective method of expanding the workload systematically is to change the reps each time you do an exercise. The sequence I like for nearly every lift is; eight, five, three, two or one. That way you max out on a primary lift every month. For example, I use four core exercises for upper body: bench presses, inclines, overhead presses and weighted dips. You rotate the suggested reps sequence for the various lifts so that you do a max single or double on one of them each week. That’s highly motivational, as it gives you a goal to shoot for every week.

Keep in mind that you must move your triple to within roughly 20 pounds of your target single and your double to within 10 pounds before you have a good chance of succeeding with it. In other words, you need to double 290 or triple 280 if you want to make that magical 300 single. Some people can do better than that, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

It’s not at all uncommon for athletes to double their workloads and increase the top-end numbers on their primary lifts by 50 percent in the first six weeks of training. Naturally, the rate of progress slows down, which brings me to the obvious question: What’s the most you can expand your weekly workload without running the risk of becoming overtrained? Once you’ve reached a fairly high level, around 75,000 pounds a week, you should increase your workload by no more than 10 percent the following month.

I adopted that percentage from the way long-distance runners train. Distance is to the runner what workload is to the lifter. Runners know that they must run X miles a week in order to be competitive in a race. They also understand that if they try to add mileage faster than that, they’ll become overtrained. While 10 percent a month may not sound like much of an increase, it definitely is. Take the above example, in which you’re handling 75,000 pounds a week. If you increase your workload by the prescribed percentage for the next four months, you’ll find yourself with a weekly workload of 110,000 pounds.

A method I’ve found useful for nudging the workload ever higher without getting stale is to follow a very heavy week with a less demanding one. A simple way to achieve that is with exercise selection. During the really heavy week, do deadlifts instead of power cleans and high pulls, almost straight-legged deadlifts in place of good mornings, and push presses or jerks instead of overhead presses. That will bump all the numbers up a notch. The following, less heavy week, won’t be easier because you’ll still push to limit, but the lower total poundage will be less stressful, so you’ll be able to recover better.

Some trainees find they do even better if they include only one really heavy week in a month, and I’ve had a few advanced athletes who benefited from following a heavy, light, medium, medium sequence of weeks each month.

I can’t emphasize too much the importance of getting the rest you need and supplying your body with all the necessary nutrients when you’re attempting to expand your workload and increase your top-end numbers. It’s absolutely critical for success. In many instances athletes becomes overtrained, not because of the amount of work they’re doing in the weight room but, rather, because of a lack of rest and/or poor nutrition.

Keep accurate, detailed records, gradually extend the base of your strength pyramid, and jack up the peak. In no time at all you’ll have the tallest pyramid in the gym’maybe the entire state.

A Natural Alternative
An athlete whom I got started in Olympic weightlifting became good enough to earn a spot on an international team. A surprise drug test caught him off guard, and he tested positive for anabolic steroids. He was bumped from the team and given a two-year suspension. Should he be caught using again, the suspension would be for life. It so happened that I was living only an hour away from him when all this happened. He contacted me, wanting to know if I could help him get back to his former strength level without taking illegal substances.

Knowing that he had the resources to purchase the supplements he’d need and had ample time in which to train, I told him that I believed he could do it, although it might take six months or longer. Not having a lot of options’all his lifts had fallen drastically after he quit using’he agreed to give my program a try.

Part of the deal was that he had to keep accurate records of every workout, calculate his daily and weekly workloads, note the supplements he took and the amounts and keep track of other factors such as rest and bodyweight. The supplements he used were the basics: B-complex vitamins, vitamins E, C, A and D, a multimineral tablet, a magnesium-and-calcium combo, amino acid tablets and protein powder for milkshakes. I stayed away from anything exotic, even avoiding creatine, in the event that it suddenly made the blacklist. He would be taking megadoses of everything, and it would cost him a bundle, although not nearly as much as he’d been spending on several types of steroids.

Once a week I drove over to where he trained and checked out his form. Then we’d go to his apartment, eat and look over his workout book. Together, we decided on any adjustments to increase workload, bring up a weak lift, add some new exercises or alter the quantity of some supplement.

To make a long story short, seven months after he stopped using steroids, he equaled his best snatch and bettered his clean and jerk by five pounds. After he was reinstated, he remained in the top half dozen in his weight class for two years before a knee injury put him out of the sport.

Keep in mind that he was already an advanced lifter when he embarked on this program, was able to afford the huge quantities of supplements he ingested daily and had the luxury of time to train, sometimes twice a day. Yet it proves once again that the natural route can be successful’with the only side effect being a better state of health.

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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