A Soviet strength coach once remarked that “exceptional athletes require exceptional training methods.” He was referring to the sheer volume and intensity (weight) in training that his lifters utilized.
In the west, where reduced volume and infrequent training has become popularized by pro bodybuilders, such routines as ones used by Eastern Bloc nations and former Soviet countries are often scoffed at. They are considered only beneficial for “genetically gifted” strength athletes or lifters on a heavy regimen of anabolic steroids. It’s unfortunate that many western lifters have never taken a serious look at these methods. If they would, they’d find a wealth of information at their disposal—they would discover the type of training advanced strength athletes need to utilize.
Taking it to the Next Level
I want to make no bones about it. This article is intended for lifters who have already reached a high level of strength and want to take it several steps further—or for those who want to see how you design programs for such athletes. This article is not for those of you who have aspirations of becoming a pro bodybuilder. It is for any smaller athlete who benches close to double his bodyweight and squats and deadlifts close to triple it. It is for those heavy lifters out there who bench press 400 pounds and squat and deadlift 500 to 600—or more.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
If you’re going to take your strength and power to the next level, you need to understand the exact type of training that needs to be done. You need to look at how a strength athlete needs to train compared to a bodybuilder or recreational lifter who is interested solely in gaining muscle mass. The chart below demonstrates the differences in hypertrophy training compared to strength and power training:
Hypertrophy Training Strength and Power Training
Sessions per week (each muscle): 1-2 days 2-6 days
Exercises per muscle group: 2-5 1-2
Sets per muscle group: 2-6 5-15
Intensity (% of max lifted): 65-80% 50-100%
Reps per set: 6-12 1-5
Bodypart splits: 2,3, or 4 way split full-body or 2 way split
When you look at the above chart, you notice an immediate difference between the two, even though they cross paths frequently enough. Now, the more advanced you become—at either building muscle mass or strength and power—then the more the methods should deviate. For example, beginning lifters interested in building either strength or muscle mass would do very well training each muscle group twice per week, using two exercises per bodypart, using five sets per muscle group, staying around 80% intensity, and using 5 to 6 reps per lift. He or she would also do well using either a full-body or a 2-way split. Advanced strength athletes and bodybuilders are completely different. For example, an advanced bodybuilder does very well training each muscle group once per week. An advanced Olympic lifter or powerlifter does better with upward of 6 sessions per muscle group, per week. Another example would be sets. An advanced bodybuilder needs very few sets per exercise to fatigue his/her many muscle fibers (and therefore stimulate growth). An advanced powerlifter does better with 10+ sets per exercise in order to greater enhance neural stimulation.
Putting the Methods to Work
At this point, you should understand the type of training an advanced lifter solely interested in strength and power should be utilizing. The question is, what should such programs look like? Don’t fret. I’m going to discuss in detail the two methods that are the cornerstone of successful strength and power routines designed for advanced lifters.
Method #1—Frequent Training. American lifters have often scoffed when I explain this is an essential component for advanced strength athletes. Vladimir Zatsiorsky summed up the reason for frequent training simply enough when he said, “You need to train as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.”
Advanced bodybuilders get good results when they train with multiple exercises and then allow their bodies 5 to 7 days to “recover” before training the muscle group again. A strength athlete would do better by spacing these exercises out over the duration of a week. The more advanced the strength athlete, then the more sessions that are needed.
There are several reasons why multiple sessions for each lift work well for the advanced athlete. The first is simple: workload. The more advanced (stronger) the athlete is, the more workload he or she needs to bring up the lifts. When a beginner or intermediate athlete needs to increase workload, then the answer to the dilemma is simple. All they need to do is add another set or two to each exercise, or maybe add an additional exercise to their workout. This only works up to a point, however, at which time you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. For advanced lifters—who may already be training upwards of 2 hours on their “heavy” days—adding more work to an already long workout is not an option. Adding more workouts is.
One misconception that a lot of bodybuilders have is that their workouts need to be intense in regards to both the weight lifted and the effort put into each session. Nothing could be further from the truth. If an advanced powerlifter bench presses 3 to 6 days a week (it’s not uncommon for a lot of world champions to train their bench press more frequently than even this), only one of these sessions would be “heavy.” The other workouts would focus more on things such as “explosive” and “ballistic” training (we’ll get to these two methods in a little bit), or focus on improving “synaptic facilitation.” Some strength coaches have referred to synaptic facilitation as “greasing the groove.” Basically, the more you perform a certain lift, the better and more proficient your body becomes at doing it. In other words, you get stronger.
Some examples of athletes who have benefited from synaptic facilitation include Alexi Sivokan, the greatest pound-for-pound powerlifter of all time. At 146 pounds, he has bench pressed 450 pounds, deadlifted over 700 pounds, and totaled more than 1800 pounds. Those are some staggering weights. And how many times does he train his lifts? He does four lower-body workouts per week (squatting and deadlifting twice) and performs 5 bench press sessions every week. Another example of synaptic facilitation would be 165-lb. bench press champion Greg Warr, who has benched 550 pounds. At his strongest, he would train his bench four times each week. He performed regular-grip benches twice a week and close-grip benches on another two days each week. Must be something to that “greasing the groove” stuff, huh?
Another benefit of frequent training for each lift is it lets you focus on several different training methods—without having to do them all at one workout. There is quite a bit of research, for instance, which demonstrates the need to train for “maximal strength” on one day, and “explosive,” and/or “ballistic” strength on another. Results are generally diminished when you try to combine different methods in one workout.
Another thing you need to understand about frequent training is you don’t have to train the classical lifts at each session. Although frequent training of the lifts you are trying to increase is the best way to take advantage of synaptic facilitation, it’s not the only way to train frequently. Lifters at the Westside Barbell Club—where a lot of world record holders lift—train very frequently, yet they rarely perform the classical lifts. They train one day (per lift) a week for explosive strength, and one day (per lift) each week for maximal strength, then they add in 2 to 4 additional sessions (on average) each week. These extra sessions—whether they are actual weight workouts or GPP work—work the muscles that assist in the bench press, squat, or deadlift, but never is any actual benching, squatting, or deadlifting done.
Method #2—Use a Variety of Effective Training Methods. Bodybuilding workouts tend to focus on one method of training, and one method only—the repetition method. Although the repetition method should, and needs, to be used by strength athletes, the other methods should be used more frequently. The other two effective methods include the maximal effort method and the dynamic effort method. Emphasis should be put more on both of these than repetition training, although the most emphasis should be placed upon the maximal strength method.
Maximal effort method refers to training performed in the 85-100% range of the lifter’s one-rep maximum. Obviously, there won’t be many reps performed on these sets; 4 reps and under. Also, you can’t always use the same exercises when lifting this heavy or you will quickly burn out on them. Advanced athletes adapt to exercises the quickest; therefore they need the most change.
There are 3 ways that I believe are the most effective for advanced athletes to take advantage of maximal effort training. The first is by changing the repetitions on a weekly basis (between 1 and 5 reps) while sticking with the same exercise, or only a slight variation of it. A lifter, for example, could max out on the bench press with sets of 3s one week, then max out on 5s the next week, followed by singles the week after. The next three weeks would see the same reps performed (3,5, then singles) but the close-grip bench press would be used.
The 2nd option is to max out w/ singles on a weekly basis, but to change exercises every week. For instance, a 4-week training block would see you max out on inclines, then board presses, then declines, then close-grips on week four. The more advanced the athlete, then the more exercises are needed.
The 3rd option would be to do a combination of both methods. Here is a sample of how I have some of the lifters who work with me train: On week one, they will perform incline bench presses working up to a max set of 4 reps, the next week will be flat bench presses working up to a max set of doubles, the third week will see board presses hit for a max set of 6 reps, and the fourth week will see flat bench presses performed for multiple singles at around 95% of the lifter’s max bench. Even though one of the weeks sees the reps going up to a high 6, the weights are still heavy and the constant change of both exercises and repetitions works wonders for the lifter. Also, the set of 6 reps sets up the following week’s singles rather nicely.
Also, even within the above three methods, you could have some slight alteration. For instance, on some days you don’t have to work up to a max set of whatever repetition range you are choosing. Instead, you could do several sets at around 90% of the usual weight that would be lifted. For instance, instead of working up to a max set of 3 reps on squats, you could work up to 4 sets of 3 reps with a weight you would usually reserve for 5 repetitions.
Obviously, this heavy maximal effort training (whatever form you use) should only be done once a week on the lifts—the only exception would be maxxing out on a light bench-helpful exercise like overhead presses on another day. So, the question is: what should you do the rest of the week in order to take advantage of frequent training? The answer is in another method of effective training, either the repetition method or the dynamic method. The repetition method should be used sparsely, especially on squatting and deadlifting exercises, so the dynamic effort method is what should be used the most for the rest of the week.
There are two ways to take advantage of dynamic training, and that’s through either “explosive” reps or “ballistic” reps. Explosive reps are done with weights anywhere in the 50% to 70% range of the lifter’s one-rep maximum. The weight should move as fast as possible in both the concentric and eccentric portion of the lift while maintaining good form at the same time. The reps should fall between 1 and 3, depending on the % of one-rep maximum that is being used. Sets should be relatively high, anywhere from 6 to 15. The number of sets will also depend on the % of one-rep maximum being utilized. The lower the reps, then the more sets that should be performed. Also, more sets can be used on exercises that don’t stress the recovery system as much. Some good exercises for explosive repetition training include squats, box squats, bench presses, floor presses, conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, and deadlifts performed while standing on blocks.
Ballistic training can be performed with weights as low as 25% of the lifter’s one-rep maximum, although I think 40% is probably the best range. With ballistic training, the weights are “thrown” or the body “jumps” from the ground. Once again, reps should be kept low and the sets should be relatively high. The best repetition range for ballistic training would be from 4 to 2 reps. The best number of sets would be anywhere from 6 to 12. Good exercises include jumping squats, jumping box squats, jumping bottom-position squats, smith machine bench presses (throwing the bar out of your hands), and push-ups in which your hands leave the floor.
I hope this article has helped to shed some light about the methods of training an advanced lifter needs to use in order to produce exceptional results. If you’re a lifter who is after the ultimate in strength and power, then I urge you to give these methods a try. You have nothing to lose and all the strength in the world to gain.