Tuesday, 22 April 2008

What I think I know about strength.

The following is my interpretation or understanding from books, articles and various forum posts on the subject of max strength training. Indeed it is highly probable that the following is not an understanding at all and that I need corrected. That is the purpose of this post – correct away. I welcome additional info, views and opinions to help me better grasp the principals and concepts.

I have also put forward a theory on what I feel might be the best way to develop max strength in the DeadLift for me. While it may seem radical from a lot of info I’ve read on training the DL I think it is just an extension of programs like PttP, GTG and Steve Justas’ Singles program. Let me know what you think.

Why Strength train at all?

Maximal strength is the motor quality (i.e. max strength, strength endurance, agility, power, speed, flexibility, etc) that most benefits improvements in other motor qualities by working to improve it alone. For example the ability to jump higher, throw further and run faster will increase for a long time along side improving one’s max strength in various exercises.

Additionally there are benefits of increased metabolic rate, increased and restored bone density, prevention of sports or life related injuries, strength to participate in work related and leisure activities well into old age.

As Charles Staley puts it – it’s needed, usually poorly developed, highly trainable and foundational to other elements.

These are the reasons I started strength training – not as an end in itself but as a means to improved athletic ability and a better quality of life. Though I must say it is very easy to get hooked on shifting BIG weights.

I should remember these reasons when I get annoyed at every little hitch. And also when the training is creating injuries, causing fatigue or otherwise detracting from my overall enjoyment of life.

The caveat here is that I am talking about increasing Max Strength to also increase Relative Strength – increasing strength while putting on little to no mass, or maintaining strength while losing mass.

Size doesn’t matter.

Big muscles do not necessarily mean big strength. All things being equal a bigger muscle will usually be stronger, but things aren’t always equal.

Typically our muscles only work at perhaps 20 - 30% of their full capacity in untrained individuals and around 50% in trained athletes. So an athlete can have a smaller muscle than a body builder and still be stronger!!

In order for anyone to begin to tap into this extra reserve we need to train the Central Nervous System (CNS). CNS training differs like night and day to the typical Body Building based programs touted in most mainstream magazines. You can get stronger without getting bigger and to do it you need to emphasize low reps and heavy weights.

Party Principals and Concepts on CNS training

Treat your strength as a skill and practice rather than workout

- Practice getting and staying tight during your lifts. Tension is strength. The more intra-abdominal pressure in your belly and the more tension or tightness in your muscles the stronger you are. Hone your skill to contract your muscles harder.

You must lift heavy – but how heavy is heavy?

- The absolute difficulty of the resistance you are using is referred to as the intensity. You can also think of it as the quality and volume (number of sets x reps) as the quantity. Intensity is usually expressed as a percentage of 1RM – or the most weight you can lift once.

- As mentioned above you need to practice, and we know that perfect practice makes perfect – a shaky max effort through gritted teeth is not perfect; a 70-80% 1RM controlled lift is though.

You must limit your reps to 5

- Heavy weights imply low reps; there is of course an inverse relationship between how heavy the weight is and the number of times you can lift it (volume). The rep range for building strength is 1-5.

You must avoid muscle failure

- In the same way the shaky 1RM is not perfect so it is with the last few reps possible with a 70% 1RM. Not only is it not perfect practice but it is inviting soreness and probably injuries a little down the line.

- You must also allow yourself enough time to restore energy levels between sets. This could be 5 mins or more (much more if you do 2 or 3 sessions per day).

You must cycle your loads

- Anyone who lifts weights has surely heard of the principal of progressive overload, haven’t they? Regardless we all know that the human body is an adaptive system. That means it can change itself to cope with new stresses it may encounter. The principal of progressive overload is simply to expose your body to progressively greater and greater challenges so it will adapt. In the world of resistance training that typically means lifting greater weights or the same weight with greater volume by increasing the reps or the sets. (I need to limit the reps remember so typically increasing the sets would be the way.)

- There is a problem with this though – you cannot simply continue to add a little weight or reps every time you lift. Eventually your body will break down and you will crash. No one knows for sure why but people who try end up breaking down in body and spirit as I know from experience. A solution is cycling. You start off relatively light and use the progressive overload principal for a period of time to build up slowly to a new high – then start over again a little heavier than the previous starting point and do it all again. This should reduce the chances of a crash while ensuring gains.

- This seems like a good place to address the question of optimal volume. How much volume do I need to effectively and efficiently develop the skill of strength? Well think back to when you were a kid – how did you learn to kick a football or shoot hoops? You be out there every spare second you had practicing that’s how. You’d stop when you were tired and you go right back after it when you felt like it again; 100% focused. Kids are impetuous though and as adults there are better ways to do it even though the answer is along the same lines.

- I believe the answer is as many as you can do perfectly on that day in that session. Perfect practice makes perfect. If I do one rep perfectly everyday as opposed to doing 2 perfect reps everyday which one will develop strength faster? And if I keep on going doing reps after I have started to go downhill it’s like practicing those hoops blindfolded...I'll never improve.

To sum all the above up I'll paraphrase the immortal line from Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky who summed up effective strength building as training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.

OK, so lets take a look at what we have so far and how I can use it to try and answer a couple of the highlights and lowlights of my training so far – my increased DL from KB work and the early bath on my PttP cycle.

From November to March the only training I did consisted of using 16-32 Kg KB yet after this I was able to lift 140kgs for 4 reps easily when my best was one of those shaky 1 RM’s at the same weight previously. If the route to strength is high intensity and low reps then how is this possible?

I believe this goes back to what I said about all things being equal a bigger muscle will usually be stronger. During this time the muscles on the back of my body have gotten noticeably thicker and bigger. These are the same muscles used for DeadLifting. So if I have bigger muscles and probably even increased my ability to tense them then it makes sense that this method will make me stronger. There are no arguments about this – there are many different ways to gain strength, what I want though is strength without added mass. I’d say though that I could control my weight using KBs a lot better if I didn’t eat like a pig!!

Why didn’t my PttP cycle work – it was designed by the author of the CNS principals above!?! Well, I used heavy weights and low reps, cycled starting off with a lower weight than I can lift and never went to failure…so what happened? Intensity happened. Not practicing a skill happened.

Following blindly from the book without paying attention to all the other details mentioned in setting up a cycle I had set myself up for failure and burnout. I had worked myself up to an intensity of around 90% and was more or less asking myself to lift it on more than half the days in the week. Another important point to note when using your 1RM as the cornerstone of the weights you will lift. Who is to say what your 1RM is on any given day – “Your 1RM’s are likely to vary quite a bit over the course of a day, week or month.” Charles Staley. After lifting 90% of your previous 1RM past the volume where you are doing perfect practice for a number of days do you expect to lift your 1RM on that day? Me neither.

The Answer?

The program I have been doing for the last few days hits the mark on a lot of the points for CNS training. It uses frequent training at a high intensity (70%) that still allows perfect practice of the Deadlift. There is no training to failure and it uses low reps. You cycle up the volume over the course of a week and then drop the volume and increase the weight for the next week. To keep on top of overtraining and keep you in that 70-80% bracket you test your 1RM on a monthly basis and adjust the weight accordingly. You use cycling and progressive overload.

Where I think it could be improved upon is the fact that it is a little regimented. I’m not getting as much practice in as I could be early in the weekly cycle and who is to say that I will have as many as 15 reps in me come the last day. There is a little thing called life that gets in the way – it is never accounted for in any program from a book.

To cut this already outrageously long post short I am going to propose an answer based on the above. A straw man to be kicked about by anyone who reads this. I guess it’s Grease the Groove meets Justa’s Singles addressing Staleys daily 1RM.

A free style singles program based on Perceived Effort (p/e) lifting what feels like 70-80% intensity of your 1RM FOR THAT DAY. Start off with 2 or 3 lighter singles to help gauge p/e then use that weight. You begin lifting for singles, take whatever time you need to recover and lift again until you begin to notice the p/e is going up a notch – then stop. If you have the time you could come back later and do another few reps even.

If the weight you feel you need to lift for that day is a lot lower than it has been then you need to take a day or two off and rest up. To help prevent this happening and overtraining you could and should take days off or reduce volume by half every 4th week. To be honest though lifting 70% for singles rejuvenates rather than tires me - I honestly think you could follow this every day without experiencing this drop off.

Like Justa I reckon you should test 1RM after this 4th week to make sure that a) you are progressing and b) you’re p/e is accurate and that you are training consistently around the 70% mark. At least to begin with until you really begin to get dialed into how your body is feeling.

I think that as a beginner you don’t need to do this sort of thing – you will improve quickly anyway – but also that you need a bit of experience and experimenting to make it work for you. By not being absolutely spot on you will be continually but inadvertently “mixing it up”. The volume will be constantly changing from one day to the next, the load will be up and down slightly and you will stretch yourself testing for 1RM monthly. This helps you to follow the principal of variation naturally. It states that the training needs to be changed periodically or the body will reduce it's adaptive responses.

I have really enjoyed writing this. I feel the process has helped me improve my understanding, even if it is still somewhat elementary. I have some thinking to do on the proposed method of training above to cover any gaps but I like the look of it now.


Martin Schap said...

I am putting some thoughts together for a comment. I like this, and I like the conclusion at the end, but I have some thoughts to add.

Martin Schap said...

Here are some thoughts that came to me when I was reading this. I like your points about GTG, and in Pavel's original GTG article he cites numerous examples of people using GTG on a pet lift to improve strength, as opposed to the way that most people use it, which is to increase reps in a lift or lifts. Of course, the problem with GTG is that work, vacations, etc. would intervene and pull you away from your barbell set. You have addressed this by limiting the sessions to one or two per day. Pavel has called ladders "poor man's GTG." Steve Shafley's article on ladders for strength in Volume 5 Number 2 of Dan John's Get Up! newsletter is a must read for anyone interested in using ladders in strength training.
This brings me to my next point. Autoregulation. Shaf uses ladders to autoregulate workouts by keeping the weight steady if he cannot complete all the ladders, or moving up when he can. Another idea for autoregulation was suggested by world class skier and CrossFitter Eva Twardokens. What she suggests is measuring vertical jump at the start of every workout. If the number is more than (I think) 10% lower than your average (maybe keep track of the last 10 training days and take a new average daily, if you are ambitious) then you do a 50% volume day that day. Your approach of taking a few singles reads like it is right out of BBB and the 5x5x5 program. If you haven't read that I can outline the basics, as it is very applicable to what you are talking about doing. Lastly, check out John McKean's article "On Constant Weight Training" on powerbypavel.com. It is a good one and has previously influenced my program design in some ways. It is very applicable to the singles program and to what you are thinking of doing with that program. That's what I have for now. Let me know if it makes sense or if I'm all wet.

Colin said...

I was going to put in the post that I am lucky enough to be about my barbell as and when I need to be. The funny thing is that out of all the books I dipped into (yes including BBB 5x5x5!!) Naked Warrior wasn't one of them and I only opened the GTG article on DD when I decided to put that line from Zatsiorsky.

Having just re-read it again its a little different to what I'm suggesting. I think Pavel is saying for max strength do a set then go about your life and come back and do another and so on throughout the day. I'm going for same but different by do a single, take a minute or so and keep going until you feel you have "milked" your perfect practice for that session. Let's say you open for 90kgs p/e is a 5 then you do 95kgs p/e you feel is a 6 - you try 100kgs and the p/e is 7 which for argument should equate to 70% 1RM. You lift 5 singles and the last one felt like a p/e of 8. Time to wrap up, in fact you probably should have wrapped up 1 earlier. I think over time you will learn exactly when to stop that one rep earlier too. If the rest of your day goes well and you feel up for it - do it again later or even throw in a few singles as the day goes on. I still think you will be working well within yourself.

This idea of autoregulation is the key I think. I remember from my running days that I'd take my heart rate first thing in the morning and record it in my log. Pretty soon I got a good idea of where it should be and I read that if it was up by 10 bpm any morning you were in danger of over training or coming down with a cold and I cut back or stopped until it returned to normal. Don't think that works with weight training though. Running is also where I came up with the p/e notion too.

When I read in 5x5x5 about gauging with lighter weights it struck a chord with what Staley was saying about 1RM being different on any given day and it seemed like a good way to highlight if you were overworking. Personally I have a horrible vertical jump - I think it would be all over the place anyway :) Reminds me have you ever heard of the Max Jones Quadrathlon? A test of power.

I read the John McClean article. I found it very interesting. I was going say a little while ago how I wondered if continuously pushing the envelope in KB training might not be the best idea. I felt like the injuries I was getting were from trying to see what I could do almost weekly - when in reality I wouldn't really have to do it ever. I was also thinking about this when I wrote about testing 1RM every month. I don't think it would be anything more than the "comfortable heft" he mentions Goerner lifting. I haven't come close to having to lift 140kgs in everyday life....ever I think. Though I do need to jump the odd fence, climb etc etc.

Sorry dude, I'm doing an excessive amount of writing at the minute. But it's really got me thinking. It may not be the finished article by a like the theory and I'm going to give it a shot after another singles cycle next week.

Colin said...

Oh I was going to mention that a lot lays on your subjective idea of perceived effort. According to what McClean is saying and all this talk of old timers lifting everyday well within themselves as long as it is under rather than over it seems like you can't go wrong!!

Franklin B. Herman said...

Colin, that was a great post! You are very articulate and communicate ideas very clearly.

Also, I can see you are definitely having FUN now and that is as big a factor as any combo of 5x5x5, GTG, auto-regulation, etc., to continuing to achieve results in your new singles program.

And I'm now beginning to understand why the DL is so addictive .. get very strong by picking up very heavy stuff. Such simplicity and beauty. Thank goodness, that I was able to overcome the "won't I mess my back up" nonsense. Also I recently must have watched over 50 DL youtube videos .. I guess I'm am getting hooked.

I will be watching your progress carefully as I intend to leverage off your success when PTTP warrants a change.