Advanced Strength and Power Techniques
By the time you have completed months on all of the programs in the first few parts of this series, you should have quite a lot of strength and muscle mass. At this point, it’s time to explore some of the more advanced techniques for gaining strength and power—techniques that will allow you to put on more muscle and strength than you had ever thought possible when you first started training.
No matter what you hear from lifters, there’s no such thing as having too much strength. I bet when you started Part One’s program (assuming you didn’t have any prior training experience) you thought it would be great just to bench a couple of 45 pound plates on each side of the bench press, and maybe squat 3 plates on each side of the bar. By the time you were halfway through Part One or Two, then you were probably thinking, “If I could only bench press 3 plates and squat 4 plates, then I would be happy.” And, now, by the time you have reached this portion of the series, many of you have achieved those very goals. Are you satisfied? Then answer is, unequivocally, “no,” because there’s never such a thing as “too much” strength.
Well, never fear, because this chapter is going to lay out those methods that will bring you the greater strength and power you’re craving. Here, you’ll find the techniques that are used by the greatest powerlifters and Olympic lifters in the world. If you have been keeping up with the field of strength and power training over the past few years, then chances are that some of this will be familiar to you, while many of it won’t. And for a majority of readers, this will be some new, innovative, exciting stuff!
You hear this kind of training called several different things—dynamic work, speed training, iso-ballistics, and the late Mel Siff coined the word “powermetrics.” What it means is moving the weight as fast as possible, throughout both the concentric and eccentric portion of the movement, while maintaining good form (no bouncing of any kind) and using weights in the neighborhood of anywhere between 40 to 70% of your one-rep maximum. The weight used depends on what method of explosive repetition training you choose to employ.
Of course, the first question generally asked is “what is the benefit of this sort of training?” Explosive repetition work has several benefits (such as improved neural function and helping reversal strength; we’ll get to reversal strength later) but the best benefit of this type of training is that it lets you constantly train heavy (with weights in the 85% plus range) without the heavy weights causing your muscles to slow down—and thus resulting in what would be loss of strength.
To help you understand the benefits of this, let’s take a look at a hypothetical bench presser who has a max bench of 315 pounds. Let’s say he goes to the gym and works up to a max single, hitting 315 pounds. Now, let’s say the next week, he goes back into the gym and decides to add another 2 and a 1/2 to 5 pounds and try for a new max. He gets it. The next week, he comes in and once again tries to add weight, but this time he misses it. No problem (or so the lifter thinks); he just assumes that he’ll get the weight the following weeks. The problem is that when he comes in the next week, he doesn’t get it. And, in fact, if he were to keep on trying to max out week after week, he would get weaker. Why? Is he losing strength by training this way all the time? Technically, no. Yes, he’s weaker, but that’s because he is getting slower. Explosive repetition helps to counteract this problem. Because when you always train with weights in the 90%-plus range, you’re going to get slower. You need something to counter-act this slowness—explosive repetition work—allowing you to constantly train heavy.
There are several ways to go about doing explosive repetitions. The most popular method was made so by the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, where Louie Simmons trains a number of world champions and world record holders in a little gym. At Westside, they like to spend a day reserved solely for speed work, where they use 50-60% of the lifter’s one-rep max on exercises such as the bench press and the squat for 8 to 12 sets of 2 to 3 reps. Simmons believes that doing more than 3 reps results in speed degradation, something he strictly wants to avoid.
I have used this method with some degree of success, though I must admit that it’s not the sole method I use for either myself or for the lifters I train. I can tell you this, however. A couple of years back I was training a guy whose maximum bench was 220 pounds when he first came to me. I immediately knew that his problem was lack of speed, not strength, for the bar moved very slow off his chest, and you could tell he wasn’t producing enough force. I had him train his bench press three days a week. The first day was reserved for heavy single rep training, working up over 5 to 6 progressively heavier singles each week. The 2nd and 3rd day of the week were both reserved for speed work, where he used 40% and 60% of his max, respectively, for 8 sets of 3 reps. Within two months, he had added more than 100 pounds to his bench press.
You don’t have to always do your explosive work on separate days from your heavy stuff. I have had lifters get good results with this type of training by adding it either after or before their heavy work. For those who had the speed, but not the strength, then I had them do their explosive work after their strength work. For those who lacked speed, I had them do their speed work first.
Another method that can be employed is to do the speed work in between heavy sets, alternating back and forth between the two types of training. In the past, Russian and Eastern-bloc lifters have had success with this form of explosive training. Russians called them “complex sets”—and this is another effective method to use, especially for anyone who is lacking speed on their heavy sets. How do you know if you are lacking speed on your heavy sets? After all, the weight is heavy, and it’s going to always move relatively slow. The question is “how slow”? Anyone who takes 5 to 6 seconds to complete a max single, and gets the rep, has the strength but not the speed to back it up. The explosive rep training will make a big difference for this sort of lifter.
Taking advantage of synaptic facilitation is one of the best things you can do to take your strength to the ultimate level. In the past, some strength coaches have referred to this method as “greasing the groove,” or “GTG” training for short.
Repetitive and intense (up to a point) stimulation of a neuron increases the strength of its synaptic connections. Some researches think it might even form new synapses. In other words, repeatedly performing a certain lift will “grease” the lifter’s groove for that particular lift.
This is one of the reasons why a lifter, when he switches from squatting only one day a week to two or three days each week, gets such good results. He is “greasing his groove.” Personally, I know that the more I squat (once again, up to a point), the stronger I get at it.
Vladamir Zatsiorsky—one of the greatest strength researchers who ever lived, and author of the book “The Science and Practice of Strength Training”—summed it up best. He said (this isn’t verbatim), “for building strength, train as often as possible, while being as fresh as possible.”
Over the past few years, a popular method among bodybuilders is to do a whole lot of volume at one workout, then give their bodies a week (sometimes longer) of rest before training their bodyparts again. Russian strength researchers such as Zatsiorsky would have told them they had it completely backwards. It would be much better to take that same amount of volume and, instead of doing it at one workout, spread it out over two, three, or four sessions. Russian powerlifters and Olympic lifters always fragment their training volume in this manner.
Accentuating the Eccentric
The eccentric phase—also known as the negative or “yielding” phase—is unique from the concentric, or positive, portion of the repetition because of the amount of weight that can be handled. During the eccentric portion, you can handle weights that are 50% to 100% heavier than during the concentric portion.
This uniqueness of the eccentric phase tells us two things. One, most lifters don’t stimulate their muscles enough during the yielding phase because they don’t place enough emphasis on it. Two, there is enormous potential for improving one’s strength when the eccentric is accentuated.
There are three ways to accentuate the negative and take advantage of its benefits. The first is easy (and the most often used). It simply involves radically slowing down the eccentric portion of the lift. How much should you slow it down? The table below demonstrates the kind of eccentric training I often have the lifters I work with employ.
Load Reps per Set Yielding Phase Time Under Tension
50-70% 3 15-10 seconds
70-80% 2 8-6 seconds
80-90% 1 5 seconds
As I said, this is a very simple way to start using negatives. It will give you a quick return for your efforts in the form of more strength.
The second method I like to employ—albeit sparingly—is “supramaximal” negatives, by using weights that are 100-150% of the lifter’s one-rep maximum. The lighter the supramaximal negative, the slower the repetition. Here are some guidelines for what I am talking about (these aren’t set in stone and can be adapted based on the lifter’s eccentric strength):
100-110%—12 second negative
110-120%—10 second negative
120-130%—8 second negative
130-140%—6 second negative
140-150%—4 second negative
Also, these shouldn’t be done for anything more than singles. Most lifters don’t have the recovery ability to handle more than one rep per supramaximal set. Five to 10 singles—depending on the weight—is plenty adequate.
The 3rd method involves “overspeed” eccentrics, or moving as fast as possible throughout the negative portion. This is the type of eccentric-accentuated method employed with great success at the Westside Barbell Club.
A fast lowering of the weight accumulates kinetic energy, which will lead to more force being produced during the concentric portion of the lift.
The best way to take advantage of overspeed eccentrics is by not only lowering the bar or your body as fast as possible, but by pausing for a heartbeat at the bottom portion of the movement, then “blasting” the weight back to lockout.
In America, a popular way to train for an upcoming powerlifting meet is periodization. Or, rather, Western periodization—as the Russians might call it. This form of periodization involves adding weight and decreasing reps each week as the powerlifting meet approaches, using pre-set weights and reps.
Russians threw this form of periodization out the window a long time ago. Why? Because they discovered that there are far better ways to train.
The main problem with Western periodization is the fact that you are training for different things at different phases. For instance, training with higher reps at the beginning of a periodization cycle does nothing for your maximal strength, and in fact, hurts your strength gains further in the cycle. (This is the reason the Russians abandoned this form of training.)
Of course, if you’re not going to use periodization, then what are you to do? If you’ve made it this far into this series, then you probably have a good idea of some of the answers. One thing that won’t work, obviously, is to constantly train with heavy singles on the same exercises. This simply burns the lifter out, slows the lifter down, and, instead of his or her lifts going up, they soon start to regress.
So, how can you constantly train heavy (which is needed) and keep from burning out? In the 1970s, the Dynamo Club—an Olympic lifting team—in the Soviet Union discovered the answer in the form of what is now termed conjugate training. The coaches for the Dynamo Club came up with a system of training where their lifters rotated between 20-45 different exercises in order to improve the Olympic lifts. Each workout consisted of 2-4 different exercises, which were rotated from on a regular basis (1 to 3 weeks). As their strength on such lifts as good mornings (performed in various manners), front squats, Olympic squats, and various pulls (with different grips) improved, so did their snatches and clean and jerks.
When you combine conjugate training with the other forms of strength training already presented in this chapter, you have a very formidable weapon for more strength and power.
At first glance, it would appear as if the conjugate method and the method of synaptic facilitation cannot co-exist with one another (as some authors have claimed). I don’t think this is the case. For instance, a method I have used with several of my powerlifters is to do heavy benches on Monday (with different rep ranges—a form of conjugate training), followed by a different bench exercise on Wednesday, and still a different bench exercise on Friday. One week they might perform close-grip benches on Wednesday followed by incline benches on Friday. The next week they might perform reverse-grip benches on Wednesday, followed by close-grip bottom-position benches on Friday. They are still training the muscles that bench press often—thus, “greasing their groove”—without performing regular flat benches done in exactly the same manner every week.
The 5th method for advanced strength development I’m going to discuss isn’t one that has to be performed all of the time, and, in fact, you will need a break from it periodically. It is, however, one of the best methods for taking your strength to that next level.
Accomodating resistance means using special means to accomodate for resistance throughout the range of motion, rather than just a specific point. Take the bench press as an example. On the bench press you are capable of lifting far more weight on the top half of the exercise than on the bottom half. From your chest onward, the resistance becomes less and less. Now, what if you were to use something to make the bench press have the same resistance throughout the entire range of motion? Renewed strength when you switched back to doing the exercise without the accomodating resistance, that’s what.
What can you use to accommodate resistance? The two best things are bands and chains. And of the two, the bands are the best.
By using bands in the power rack, or by attaching chains to the end of the bar (whether you are doing squats, benches, or any variation thereof), you can have zero added resistance at the bottom of the movement. As the lift progresses, the tension stays the same (or increases) depending on the amount of chains or the weight of the bands.
Accomodating resistance is one of the best methods employed among powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and kettlebell lifters in recent years. Use it and you will be surprised of the results it will bring.
In the next few parts of this series, I will outline some programs that will incorporate the above advanced strength and power techniques. In addition, they still contain all of the elements for successful strength training that I outlined in Part One.