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Training Loads: Customize for Size and Strength

Q: You don’t use percentages to determine training loads. Why not? A lot of strength coaches do.

A: You can’t argue with results. I’ve coached Olympic medalists in 17 different sports and world-record holders in 10 different sports. Methodology determines results.

I don’t use percentages for exercises because each muscle group has a different fiber type. Thus, the quads, which are primarily type 2A, respond differently to a specific intensity prescription than the hamstrings, which are mostly type 2B. An athlete who uses 90 percent of his one-rep maximum on leg presses might perform 20 reps in a set, whereas he or she may be able to do only five reps with that percentage when performing leg curls.

Also, neurological efficiency changes with training age: As athletes get stronger, they need to shift toward using weights that are closer to their one-rep maxes. As a result, I usually determine the repetition bracket I want my athletes to train in and then let the repetitions determine how much weight they should use.

Percentage systems frequently lock athletes into specific weights, regardless of what they’re capable of lifting that day. If somebody isn’t having a good training day, the weight would be too heavy, and on a good training day it’s too light. Furthermore, many athletes get frustrated trying to follow precise percentage-based workouts and thereby increase their risk of injury.

For example, if you’re told to perform 90 percent of your best clean and jerk for three sets of two reps and you miss both reps on the first set, rather than reducing the weight you may continue trying that same weight for the remaining sets, thus subjecting yourself to a greater risk of injury as your technique becomes compromised.

Given all the variables that can influence your performance on a given day, including the time of day you lift or how much sleep you got the night before, it’s nearly impossible for a coach to predict the exact weights you can use in a given exercise.

Coaches who want more control over their athletes’ training or who are simply uncomfortable with allowing them to select their own weights—especially when working with young athletes—could make effective use of the Okunyev method. Rather than using a repetition bracket to determine how much weight to use, you use an intensity bracket that gives you a range of specific weights to use based on a percentage of a 1RM. Here are a few examples:

1-rep max: 100 kilos

Intensity Bracket: 90-95 percent

Weight range: 90-95 kilos


Set 1: Warmup: 50 kilos x 5 reps

Set 2: Warmup: 70 kilos x 4 reps

Set 3: Warmup: 85 kilos x 3 reps

Work sets: 90-95 kilos x 2 reps x 5 sets

Using the above formula, here’s what a workout could look like if an athlete feels strong:

Set 1: 90 x 2

Set 2: 92.5 x 2

Set 3: 95 x 2

Set 4: 95 x 2

Set 5: 95 x 2

Each set depends on how many reps are performed in the previous set or how difficult the previous set felt. If the athlete is having an off day, he or she could stay at the lowest weight in the intensity bracket, as follows:

Set 1: 90 x 2

Set 2: 90 x 2

Set 3: 90 x 2

Set 4: 90 x 2

Set 5: 90 x 2

As a general rule the intensity bracket depends on the complexity of the exercise. A complex exercise that requires a high skill level, such as a snatch or clean, requires a wider intensity bracket, such as 10 percent. Simpler exercises, such as a bench press or biceps curl, require a narrower bracket, such as 5 percent. With the Okunyev method a coach can build in some safety guidelines about what weights to select in an intensity bracket.

Q: What’s the best supplement to use for an instant strength increase?

A: Want to increase strength by 5 percent in 45 minutes? A lot of supplements make all sorts of claims, but here’s a simple trick for increasing strength in less than 45 minutes. It can give some people as much as a 7 percent increase.

This trick is for people who won’t be drug-tested by any sport governing body. Don’t worry; it’s not illegal to obtain or use. It’s simply caffeine, but the trick is in how you absorb it. More on that later.

Take caffeine tablets or capsules, 10 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight. If you weigh 90 kilograms (about 198 pounds), that would be 900 milligrams. That’s the dose shown in the scientific literature to be most effective.

It’s much easier to take the tablets than drinking coffee, as  you would need to drink six to 10 cups to get that much caffeine.

Swallow the caps with two ounces of grapefruit juice and two ounces of club soda. The grapefruit juice contains a substance called naringin, which helps metabolize the caffeine rapidly and which gives grapefruit juice a bitter taste. It’s the substance responsible for the warning on drug bottles: “DO NOT TAKE WITH GRAPEFRUIT JUICE.” The club soda is included simply to break down the tablets or capsules rapidly. Caffeine levels and its effects are amplified, and you can expect greater training drive and work capacity.

Now, how do you get rid of the jitters, if any, you experience after the workout? Take two grams of vitamin C with your postworkout shake. It helps detoxify the caffeine rapidly.

Q: What are your two greatest training-philosophy pet peeves?

A: Easy.

Pet Peeve 1: The belief that single-joint movements are useless for athletes. At a conference called “Meeting of the Minds” that was hosted by PT on the Net and held last March in Colorado, many industry leaders talked for 20 minutes each about what they did and how they could help gym owners. One speaker, a.k.a. the Anorexic Albertan, sporting arms slightly thinner than linguine—told the audience that isolation exercises and even some compound movements like the bench press were basically evil and that we should get rid of all barbells and dumbbells and trade them for the nylon contraption he sold. Seems the contraption was the training secret of the Navy Seals (which would explain why they got their asses kicked at the Eco race).

I heard the same kind of crap from an Aussie physiotherapist at Fitpro 2008 who said that athletes don’t need to curl. We all know that a single muscle can limit performance, and performing single-joint exercises is a way to combat that. Famed strength coach Louie Simmons and I both espouse that concept for developing maximal strength.

Pet Peeve 2: The belief that chains are great for every exercise. Chains, thanks to Arthur Jones and Louie Simmons, have become a valuable way of accommodating what’s called ascending strength curves, like the varying torque capabilities you see in the range of motion on squats, presses and deadlifts.

Now, however, they’re applied to every single exercise by dorks who don’t understand their application. In one  video, you can see a guy applying them to the Azamat Bagatov curl (invented by Borat’s hairy-ass producer—people say he was listening to Barry Manilow’s “Copa Cabana” with his headsets to get that glaring intensity).

Only in the fitness industry do you see people using the wrong tool for a task just so they can look cool. Power cleaning  a medicine ball? Come on. I’ve never seen a carpenter trying to saw with a hammer or a plumber using a screwdriver to wrench something.

Now I feel better. I got a few peeves off my chest.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists 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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