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We can use the symbol of an equilateral pyramid to illustrate the concept of strength. Since the two sides and base are of equal length, the base must be expanded to raise the peak higher. This is a basic concept often forgotten
in strength training. There is no way to cheat this fundamental principle. If you want to handle a heavier weight in any particular lift, you first have to increase the total amount of weight you are using in exercises that benefit
that lift. You must also spend time on intensity-fewer reps with more weight.
Athletes strive for two distinct types of strength. One type is explosive power for an all-out isolated effort, exemplified by competitive weightlifters and throwers in the field events. These strength athletes are not as interested in benching 300 for 20 reps as they are in handling 400 for 1 rep. Other athletes aren't concerned with how much they can lift for a max single on any exercise. Their purpose in weight training is to condition their bodies for an endurance challenge such as a marathon, triathlon or long-distance biking.
Short bursts of power are not nearly as important to them as being able to maintain a sustained effort over an extended length of time.
Jack LaLanne has used the high rep, low weight method of training for many, many years, and he has proven its merit by his health and longevity. I am, by the way, a great admirer of Jack and can attest to his high state of strength endurance. After I left the Weider organization, I worked for LaLanne's company. My job was to market an exercise apparatus that Jack had designed. It consisted of two sets of pulleys with handles. These were attached to a wall. It took up very little space and was extremely functional. Jack invited me to his house so he could show me the different exercises that could be done on the machine.
He started by demonstrating an arm routine that consisted of supersetting curls with triceps extensions. After showing me the proper form, he told me to do 15 reps for each exercise and keep going until I completed 15 sets. At this time I was still involved in Olympic lifting and was able to bench 400 and squat 500, yet I barely managed to finish 3 sets! This was because he insisted that I take no break between the sets. Finally I locked up almost to the point of cramping, which was his intent. He delighted in humbling weightlifters. He stepped in, and using more resistance than I had, proceeded to zip through the 15 sets and I believe he could have done more. I was impressed.
Of course, he didn't get to that level of fitness in one day, but the concept of high rep, low resistance training really should be considered by older athletes. The high reps feed the attachments without being stressful, which is most beneficial to anyone with any form of arthritis or rheumatism. If you're over 55, you're likely to be afflicted with at least one of these maladies.
I am always asked, "Why can't I train for both peak strength and endurance?" The answer is, "You can, but not at the same time." There is only so much energy avail-able and if you apply yourself to moving heavy weights, you're not going to be able to follow that up with even more work for endurance. When training an athlete for strength, many coaches make the mistake of putting strength-training programs together with strenuous running regimens. It just doesn't work well. The gains for the legs are much lower than they could be in the weight room and the athletes are dragging after the runs. This has a direct bearing on recovery and negatively affects the upcoming sessions.
Bodybuilders often try to improve their top-end lifts while they increase the reps on certain exercises. Their plan is to get stronger and enhance definition. It never happens unless the athlete is very advanced or using the juice, and this doesn't apply to the majority of those reading this article. It's much more productive to set aside a certain period of time and focus on either peak strength or endurance. All the top bodybuilders in my day would spend a couple of months, at least twice a year, doing pure strength work, leaving the smaller groups such as the biceps, triceps and calves alone. At the end of the strength cycle, they shifted gears and used their recently gained strength to help them do ultra-high reps on both the smaller and major groups. Hie change in emphasis was also beneficial to their motivation.
I ask coaches to allow their athletes at least a month to establish a solid strength base before adding any running. This works because, once the athlete has moved his squat up and is recovering from the tough sessions in the weight room, he is much better prepared. For the first week or so after running becomes a part of the off-season routine, squats drop off a bit, but they soon start to improve and continue to do so until the end of the semester. And that improved leg strength allows the athlete to run longer and faster and recover more readily.
When you decide that you want to improve your overall strength, either for a one-rep max or for endurance, the first step you must take is to purchase a notebook. If you're serious about making your program yield results, you absolutely must keep accurate records. Unless you do this, there is really no way for you to know if you are handling a bigger workload this week than you did last week. You cannot rely on memory. Very few people can recall exactly what they did in the gym two weeks ago. Sure, you might remember a personal record or your heaviest attempt on a certain lift, but not the warmup and intermediate sets or how many total reps you did on a particular day.
In order for this system to bear fruit, you must know exactly what you did at previous sessions. Hit and miss doesn't feed the bulldog. Maintaining a training log also helps you prepare for the upcoming week and provides visible evidence that you are adhering to the heavy, light and medium concept, which is critical for long-term progress. And by studying past workouts, you can often spot the reasons why you had either a sub-par session or an especially good one. Or you may discover that the reason your lower back is aching the next day is that you neglected doing back hypers as part of your usual warmup routine.
I encourage my athletes to write down everything in their training journals that might have some influence on their workouts. Bodyweight, diet, supplements, how much rest they got the night before, plus any other factors such as a drastic change in weather, an illness, injury, or undue stress over school, job or personal relationship should all be written down. The more data you have to study, the better your analysis.
The more often you can determine the reason behind a lousy session or one that has you leaving the weight room with a wide grin on your face, the faster you will progress.
The process of getting stronger is the same for beginner, intermediate and advanced athletes. You start at point A, proceed to B, on to C, and so on until you reach your goal. The progression is similar to learning how to walk again after knee or hip surgery. The first time out, you are only able to go 10 yards; second day, 15; and by the end of the week, you are traveling all the way to the end of the hospital hallway and back. Rehab cannot be rushed. This, of course, is an extreme example of building strength, but the principle holds true.
Probably the hardest thing for young athletes to accept is that gaining functional strength takes time. The muscles and attachments adapt slowly to the new stress being placed on them. If you try to beat the system and pile on too much work too soon, you will become overtrained and your numbers will begin to slip backward. Continue to ignore the warning signs and an injury, or injuries, will force you to slow down.
Of course, it's fully understood that every person progresses at his own rate. There is no chart that governs progress. So athletes of the same size, lifting background, age, temperament, and work ethic make gains at different rates. This is most frustrating to the slow gainer. However, it has been my experience that slow gainers generally end up on top. This is probably because those who have to work very hard for something are generally more appreciative when they finally reach their goals than those who reach them easily.
As a rule, younger athletes can proceed more rapidly than older ones, and those with more experience in the weight room can usually expand their workloads at a faster pace than less experience trainers. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the older athlete excels and so does the individual who just started bodybuilding or strength training.
Usually the person who succeeds despite the drawbacks pays close attention to detail and allows for a gradual progression. Increasing workload to expand the base of the pyramid has to be done systematically. Guessing just doesn't work. That's why you must keep detailed accounts of your workouts. If you hit a plateau and all gains come to a halt, you can check the numbers to see if you have moved up too quickly and make the necessary adjustments.
A note concerning overtraining. As I've indicated, overtraining is the fly in the ointment for strength training. However, it needs to be understood that in order for you to move to a superior level of strength, you must become overtrained at some point. Otherwise, you will never know just how great a load you can handle. Doing too much at one workout or during one week isn't going to get you in trouble and might even be beneficial in the long run. But it is detrimental to not recognize that you are in a state of overtraining and continue to expand your workload. Short-term overtraining is okay; long-term is not. You should also be aware that being unusually tired after a session doesn't necessarily indicate that it was the weight training that caused the fatigue. Other factors cause fatigue, especially lack of rest and poor diet.
And just because your upper body is fatigued doesn't mean that your back and legs are overtrained as well. Overtraining can be general, your entire body, or specific to some bodypart. Sometimes this specific overtraining is a result of overwork, but not always. Just as individuals vary in their rate of progress, different bodyparts on the same individual improve at various rates. I could always overwork my back and get away with it by simply doing less for a short time, but if I tried the same thing for my legs and shoulders I would lose ground quickly, even when I lowered my workload.
A person starting out on a strength or bodybuilding program will make gains rather quickly. That is, after learning correct form on the selected exercises and getting over the initial soreness. The same is true for anyone starting back after a layoff, because he has the advantage of muscle memory. But eventually everyone levels off and gains don't come as easily. The only way to jar your body and move on ahead is to do more work in the gym. Adding to your workload can be accomplished in a number of ways. For starters, throw in back-off sets of 8 to 10 reps for your leg and upper body exercises. I don't recommend them for back exercises. If you apply all your effort into a primary lift for your back, there isn't going to be much left, so doing a back-off for deadlifts, bent-over rows, shrugs, or good mornings can be harmful rather than helpful. However, adding an auxiliary movement can help increase your workload for the back. Wide-grip chins, lat pulls, and long pulls on the lat machine can add to your total without depleting your energy and fatiguing your back.
Auxiliary exercises are useful in helping you improve your workload, but you have to be careful. Quite often, far too many of these are included too soon, especially for the arms and chest, and these push the workload up too quickly. In some programs sent to me I've found that the athlete was doing more work on his auxiliary movements than he was on his core exercises. In many cases it's the volume of work done on the auxiliary exercises that pushes someone into a state of overtraining. Until you reach the advanced stage, limit your auxiliary movements to no more than two per workout - not two per bodypart, two total As you become more advanced and are able to carry larger loads, you can add more, but not early on. Do 2 sets of 20 to start, then higher reps are in order. I prefer 30 for 3 sets.
Another simple way to increase your load is to do more sets in general. These don't have to be done with the heaviest weight; a couple of extra warmup sets will push up the overall load. However, doing more top-end sets is best. Make sure you don't get greedy. If you've been working up to one heavy set on an exercise and decide you can handle more, add just one additional set. Stay with that for a few weeks and then try 3 work sets. I've had several athletes who were able to graduate to 5 work sets and still recover sufficiently, but this will not be the case for everyone.
Recovery, of course, is the key factor in the process of increasing your workload. It's only natural for you to feel more tired than usual right after your increase. But if you continue to drag throughout the week, your body is trying to tell you to pull back and regroup.
Adding more primary exercises is a good way to increase workload, but again, proceed with caution. Let's say you want to do more to improve your pulling power because you plan to try some Olympic competition. You have been doing just one pulling exercise per session - power cleans, power snatches, full cleans, or full snatches. You can include some high pulls right after these lifts and not overwork your back if you do it sensibly.
As an example, you always do 6 sets on the primary pulling lifts and decide to add high pulls. Drop a couple of sets on the primary lift and do only 3 sets of high pulls. As you adapt to the new workload, increase the number of sets on both movements. You can follow a similar pattern by adding push presses after military presses.
When you reach the stage that your workouts are taking too long - anything over an hour and a half is too long - your best course of action is to add another training day. This new workout should be short and light. This is a good opportunity for you to work on some exercises that you haven't been able to fit in during your other sessions, and an ideal time to improve a weaker area. Even though relatively light weights are used and you're in and out of the gym in half an hour, your overall workload will be greatly enhanced.
Finally, the ultimate method of expanding your workload is to train twice a day a couple of times a week. This is what many of us did at the York Barbell Club to help us improve our workloads for the Olympic lifts and is also the routine the West Coast bodybuilders, led by Arnold, Franco, Zane, and Draper, used to become the best in the physique world. It needs to be pointed out that both groups of athletes were able to train twice a day because of their special circumstances. At York, we trained on company time and Weider sponsored the bodybuilders.
Few have the luxury of going to a gym more than once a day. I know some people have home facilities that allow them to slip in some extra work, and athletes in college often have the time. Should you be in such a situation and want to try two-a-days, be sure to do double workouts only twice a week. Otherwise, you will overtrain. And do only one exercise in the first session. Work hard and leave or else you won't have a productive second workout that day.
Doing more sets with the same weight and running up the reps will help you improve your endurance. But if your goal is to hit a higher number on some lift, you will have to handle heavier weights. The lower reps -threes, doubles, and singles - involve the attachments to a greater extent than higher reps do, and the tendons and ligaments must be stimulated in order to move big weights.
How much increase is sensible to prevent overtraining? Long distance runners adhere to a 10 percent increase in their total mileage per month. Not per week, per month. This is an excellent guideline for increasing weight as well. Of course, how quickly you progress is directly dependant on how well you recover. When you start putting more energy into your training, you must pay closer attention to your diet and rest. It's wise to eat more protein, in foods and in supplement form, to ensure that you're getting plenty. Higher dosages of vitamins E, C, and the B-complex group will help you train harder and recover better. Tougher workouts require more rest, so discipline yourself to go to bed at least an hour earlier than usual.
The improvements are well worth the extra effort. Train with purpose, slowly increase your workload, keep accurate records, eat nutritiously, obtain your needed rest, and in no time at all your personal strength pyramid will resemble one of the monumental structures in Egypt.