Continuing from Categories of Weight Training: Part 7 I want to continue discussing maximal strength training. Mainly I’ll be looking at the loading parameters, just as I did for muscle hypertrophy in the earlier parts of this series.
Loading Parameter 1: Intensity
.From the discussion on hypertrophy training, you may recall that loads of anywhere from 60-85% are thought to be optimal for triggering growth and if you had guessed that maximal strength training is usually defined as 85% and up, you’re on the right track.
In most systems, maximal strength training is defined as anything from 85-100% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM, recall from last time that your 1 repetition maximum represents the heaviest weight you can lift exactly once) which yields a repetition range of 1-5 on average.
In fact, if you include the use of supramaximal eccentrics (weights that are heavier than you can lift but which you can lower under some semblance of control), it’s actually possible to include intensities greater than 100% of your maximum. I’d note that while supramaximal eccentrics seems to make a resurgence every few years, it never seems to have quite the benefit that people hope and I won’t talk about it further. At most, at perhaps 110%, it might get lifter comfortable with “feeling” a heavier weight. But except for very short periods of time, heavy eccentric only training doesn’t seem to accomplish much.
I do want to reiterate a point I’ve made before that all of the training categories I’ve discussed are on a continuum. It’s not as if you can draw discrete lines at a given repetition count; dividing up the training methods is a bit artificial but makes discussion easier. Put differently, it’s not as if loads of 75-85% don’t make folks stronger or increase strength. Or that loads at 85%+ can’t make folks bigger if enough sets are done.
Quite in fact, early Russian Olympic lifting literature (in the 70’s and 80’s) often mentioned that the best gains in squat strength came from using loads in the 75-85% range. It’s important here to recognize that OL’ers generally squat after other work (so the legs have already been worked, often at a heavier intensity in the competition lifts) and always focus on accelerating the load (what Fred Hatfield called Compensatory Acceleration Training) and this probably factors into this recommendation. Within some limits, accelerating a lighter load can require forces similar (or potentially higher) than moving a heavier weight more slowly.
I think it’s worth mentioning again that, by and large, the OL’s don’t rely on a lot of grinding to complete the lifts. About the only time it might happen is in the front squat recovery although if you have to grind a ton to stand up, the odds of making the jerk are fairly slim. As well squat strength is only a partial determinant of OL’ing performance (the weights being lifted being limited to what you can explode high enough to catch for the clean or snatch) and while most OL’ers have big squats, just pushing squat to maximum levels isn’t the goal of the sport (it’s more an issue of having optimal squat strength levels).
Ol’ers also tend to squat much more frequently than many other athletes (I’ll come back to this) and that alone limits what intensity can be used. If you’re going to squat 4-5 times per week, going to a grindy maximum at each of those workouts is generally impossible although some systems (such as the Bulgarians) sort of do it (I’m not going to get into that discussion in any detail here). Even there, a more recent trend in Olympic lifting is to spend more time working at higher intensities (in the 85-90% or higher range) more often than not for reasons I’m not going to go into here.
In contrast, powerlifting, which relies on, requires, and can make use of grinding strength had traditionally worked in higher percentages (or cycles from lower to higher percentages), simply reflecting the differences in the sports and their requirements. The explicit goal of powerlifting is to lift the most weight possible in the three movements so pushing those levels as high as possible is important. And powerlifters have to learn how to grind.
I’d mention that of late, coaches have started adapting some of the OL’ing type methods to powerlifting, especially Eastern European coaches who come out of that background. So systems such as the Sheiko system are based around a similar approach to training: quite a bit of work in fairly moderate intensity ranges with only small amounts in the 90%+ range. I’ll come back to this below.
Even Westside, which is known for constant max effort training does most of it’s volume well below 90% so it’s not as if most folks seeking maximum strength are pounding things out at 90%+ all the time,. Most of the volume done is at a lower intensity with a bit of very high-intensity work as an adjunct. Constant heavy pounding on the body takes it’s toll and most can’t train that way all the time (periodization being far outside of the scope of this article series).
But now I’m getting off topic a bit and into other interactions with volume and frequency that I want to discuss later. For simplicities sake, we’ll consider maximum strength/maximum effort/neural training as falling mostly in the 85%-100% range (where 100% represents a true 1RM) and you can go higher if you include maximal eccentrics (which might practically be trained at 110-120% of 1 repetition maximum although you can theoretically go higher than this).
I’d mention again that powerlifting and Olympic lifting are unique in that the training done in the weight room is the actual sport with the explicit goal being maximization of weight lifted one time; in this way they are different than all other sports (even those that still rely on single maximal efforts like the shotput). Non Ol/PL athletes have other training to do and generally don’t have the entire year to devote to just pushing up their best single in the weight room and that informs how they can and should train.
And for that reason, being limited into how much time and energy can be put into the weight room, athletes often stay more in that “classic” maximal strength zone in terms of intensity. Again, it depends on the sport and the goals but without the ability to lift weights 5-6X/week and play around with all kinds of complicated intensity variations, athletes usually have to work in the true maximal strength range which I’ll continue to define as 85-100%+.
As noted this will generally give a repetition range of 1-5 reps for most people (there is some variance) with the rough relationships between percentage and RM appearing blow.
Please note that these are averages. Some can do slightly more reps with a given percentage and others can do less. But this is fairly representative.
Loading Parameter 2: Training Frequency Part 1
I know I sort of got everything garbled up above and talked a bit about frequency and how that impacts on training intensities that have been used for maximal strength training so let me back up and clarify.
First let’s look at the research on this topic. In another recent massive meta-review titled A Meta-analysis to Determine the Dose Response for Strength Development, Rhea concluded that, in terms of average training frequency and maximal strength gains untrained individuals did best with three days per week while trained individuals usually did better with two days per week of training (presumably representing their use of heavier loads and needing more recovery).
In a related paper titled Maximizing Strength Development in Athletes: A Meta-analysis to Determine the Dose-Response Relationship., he concluded that highly trained athletes did best with 2 days/week as well. (quick note: he also concluded that while untrained folks could make strength gains at 60% of 1RM, trained folks need 80% and athletes at least 85% of maximum). Mind you he was really looking at a threshold response, what was the minimum intensity needed to generate maximal strength gains.
That analysis tends to be consistent with a lot of empirical and experiental data of course. Beginner routines typically revolve around full body routines done three times per week (at relatively moderate but progressive loading). As loading gets heavier, most find that two truly heavy days per week is sufficient.
For the very strong, even that can be too much although this can be gotten around by cycling intensity as in a heavy/light/medium approach. Even a heavy/light approach allows most to train a given movement or muscle twice per week and not burn out. I’d note that there has been a modern trend towards higher frequencies of training but this involves a good bit of intensity cycling and it’s rare to see more than 2 truly heavy days done per week. The rest are done at a much lower intensity.
Two heavy days can even be achieved with two full body workouts per week either keeping the exercises the same (i.e. squat, bench, row both workouts) or varying the movements (squat, bench, row one workout; deadlift, overhead press, pulldown at the other) depending on the goals. This can get as complicated or be kept as simple as you want it.
Loading Parameter 2: Training Frequency Part 2
Because now we run into one of those seeming disconnects between what the research says (or seems to say) and what is often being done in the real world by elite strength athletes. Now it’s worth harping on again that the athletes typically used as examples for this argument are Olympic and powerlifters, two sports where the explicit goal in competition is how much weight that can be lifted and where the weight room training is the competition movement. And where top athletes are looking to maximize every percentage point of performance.
Again, this makes them distinct from every other sport out there where, despite how much or how little strength per se is relevant, weight room work is still at best general preparation work. And by the time you’re talking about the general public or trainee, we might question the relevance of most of this in the first place.
But that said it’s worth looking at the actual training practice of both groups since there does seem to be a disconnect between the research and the real-world here (insert link to ranting about how all sports science is labcoaty crap). Now, since about the early 60’s or so, Olympic lifters have traditionally trained the lifts more frequently (from a low of perhaps 3-4 days/week to the very high frequencies of some of the European countries. I’m talking 9-12+ sessions/week working the same lifts with some lifters training the lifts three times per day at least some days of the week).
Mind you there is a huge drug problem in the sport and even the elitest of the elite may take a full decade to work up from 3-4 days/week to training 7 days/week, 2-3 times/day. And even there we are looking at the athletes who survived; you never hear about the ones that didn’t adapt to the system and washed out due to injury or burnout. Just something to keep in mind when looking at this extreme of training frequency and intensity and try to generalize it.
Certainly, some of this represents peculiarities of Olympic lifting, such as the fact that it’s a very different stress than grindy powerlifting (the lift being limited by an explosive component) and the fact that technique is paramount, requiring constant practice (especially the snatch). The OL’s fall on a different part of what is called the force-velocity curve (discussed later in the series). They are more limited by explosive strength than maximum strength and, as such, can be trained more frequently.
In any case, the OL’s and their lack of a grindy component (again, front squat recovery excepted) makes them fundamentally different to most weight room movements, where a missed max lift (or even the final repetition of a set) may be ground on for many seconds before the lift is made or abandoned (refer back to my brief discussion of high-volume failure when I talked about the issue in terms of hypertrophy).
Put differently, find a video of an Ol’er missing a lift and it’s a very no-go thing. It doens’t get pulled high enough, the jerk won’t lock, a snatch is lost behind the lifter. There’s no grind, no struggle. It goes or doesn’t. Now think about every kid you’ve seen trying to grind out that final repetition on the bench press and compare and contrast them in your mind.
That type of grindy lifting (what old timers used to call “working on nerve”) is much more stressful to muscles, joints and the nervous system. Mind you, going back to powerlifting, this type of grinding is representative of what happens in the sport with maximum weights and it has to be practiced to some degree. So it was more common for powerlifters to gravitate towards that style of lifting (or at least work closer to their maximum) which, by necessity limited the frequency with which they could train.
Going back to OL’ing, the technical demands of the sport are just insane and, up to a point, the more you can practice the movements the better (especially for snatch where groove can be lost by simply resting too long between sets, much less by waiting 3 days to practice it again). And while there is certainly technique involved in non-OL movements the simple fact is that a back squat, bench press or deadlift will NEVER be as technically hard as a full squat snatch. Almost nothing in sport is.
Higher training frequencies may help with technique development and strength development in lifts like those but it certainly isn’t as required compared to the OL’s. Many can bench or squat heavily once/week and make gains. Nobody would do that in OL’ing and expect to get anywhere. And please don’t read what I’m writing as saying that there is no technique required for powerlifting or the powerlifts; it’s simply that the technical requirements aren’t nearly as high compared to most other sports.
But even with that said, there has certainly been a tendency for even powerlifters to train at higher frequencies as I discussed above in the section on loading intensity. Pavel’s Grease the Groove (GTG) concept, Dan John’s Easy strength, the high frequency of Sheiko and Smolov and Korte 3X3 powerlifting routines; there are a lot of examples of higher frequency training showing up in powerlifting, usually by coaches who came out of that Eastern European OL’ing dominant theory of training and who applied the ideas to powerlifting (or just increased strength per se).
At the same time, other systems keep things fairly reasonable with perhaps 2 squat and deadlift days and up to 4 bench days (with women doing slightly more). The current top Olympic lifters, the Chinese, only do 2 heavy squat workouts per week and they all squat more than you. There’s a lesson there.
Even Westside with it’s very max effort (ME) emphasis has started adding a lot of supplemental work (typically in lower intensities, 75-85% of maximum) on the other days with the idea that the more work you can do/recover from, the faster your gains (please note the use of certain “recovery aids” by these lifters). So you see two heavy days, two speed days and then a bunch of lower intensity volume (to the tolerance of their athlete and drug regiment) on the other days.
Mind you I’m still talking about pure strength athletes here, competitive athletes who are looking to absolutely maximize their poundages in competition (and who presumably are good enough for it to matter). I bring this up as there tends to be a massive point of diminishing returns for this stuff, as is true for all training. For elite strength athletes trying to absolutely maximize the poundages that they lift and get that extra 5-10% on their numbers it may very well be worth doubling or tripling their training frequency.
Non Weight Room Athletes
But this isn’t really that relevant to most other athletes. Even those that have high strength requirements have other things that they have to train; they can’t just live in the weight room and maximize their numbers. They have to practice their sport and can’t be too wrecked from weight room work to do so effectively. Also, rarely is maximal strength per se a determining factor in performance (there are a few exceptions and usually sports like that cycle throughout the year working on strength, speed, power, technique).
For the average person (who might not even need true maximal strength methods in the first place outside of impressing their buddies), it’s pretty hard to justify that type of high frequency training. Most can’t and don’t want to live in the gym so worrying about the best way to program 14 strength training sessions per week is sort of missing the point (and while I have not read it, I am aware/familiar with Matt Perryman’s Squat Every Day E-book).
But now I’m getting even further off topic. The main point of the diversion I made above into elite strength training methods was just to look at what’s going on (and sort of address why), why does the research on this topic seem to be so far removed from what the athletes actually do? That is, why did the review I cited above conclude that twice per week was optimal for strength gains when elite strength athletes are training 5x that much?
Intensity and Frequency are Related
It’s important to realize that, so far as I recall, most of the studies that the Rhea analysis looked at were using very heavy/near repetition maximum loads (i.e. two fairly near to maximum days) since that’s typically how these studies are done (i.e. athletes will do sets of 5RM with 85% of their tested 1RM). That is, they were comparing essentially maximal days in terms of looking at the strength gains and what frequency might be optimal (very little research examines the types of complex cycling schemes used by elite strength athletes).
What’s critically important to recognize is that most Olympic lifters aren’t working at maximum or all out daily (early Russian literature for example suggested only 10% of the annual volume over 90% with most of it in more moderate moderate loading ranges and most of the weekly cycling routines typically had 1-2 truly heavy days supported by other more moderate days).
Even Bulgarian systems only work to a daily maximum (the most they can lift that day, not necessarily their best maximum ever) which is sort of an early auto-regulating system; you go heavier when you feel good and lighter when you don’t. There is also the drug and selection issue I mentioned above (many athletes who have attempted to try the Bulgarian approach without the decade build-up or the drugs find that it blows them up after about 3-4 weeks).
I’m told that even Abadjaev, who basically created the approach of maxing every day only counts squats that are done fairly quickly (the OL’s are done quickly by definition). So his definition of “maximum” would be lower percentage wise (maybe 85-90/95%) than a grinding powerlifting squat at 100% of maximum. Whenever Bulgarian training ideas has been applied to powerlifting, it simply doesn’t work.
Even in the Sheiko/Korte type routines as well as with GTG, heavy grinding intensity work is pretty limited and most of the training is submaximal with only occasional work at 90%+ and little work to true failure; to a degree higher intensity work is traded for more volume and a higher frequency (I’ll talk more about this when I talk about volume in part 9).
And Smolov, well…it’s just brutal; a combination of high volume, frequency and intensity. But it’s also a short-term training program and you can get away with an amazing amount of work for short periods (those same workloads will destroy you over long periods). Even Westside supplemental work is typically done at much lower intensities, in the 75-85% range. So although the frequency of total training is going up, the frequency of truly heavy training is still limited to about twice/week.
Explaining the Contradiction
So there’s really no contradiction so far as I’m concerned: the Rhea paper/analyses was focusing on pretty heavy loading and that 2X/week frequency for truly heavy work is fairly standard as a recommendation for improving maximal strength. It’s simply that, in some situations, working the lifts more often at sub-maximal intensities can help too.
Either because it helps with recovery, builds more muscle mass, gives you more practice on the movement, or what have you. But that’s usually in specific situations where increasing strength to the absolutely highest levels is important which is generally only relevant for a couple of outlier sports featuring meta-human athletes who are usually on something.
For athletes with other things to train, there’s usually not time or energy to devote that exclusively to the weight room (many sports often only have a short general preparatory phase of about 8 weeks to get stronger so they don’t have time to do much dicking around); they usually work harder but less frequently. For the general public, I’m not sure most of this is that relevant in the first place.
Of course intensity and frequency interact with volume and that’s where I’ll pick up in Part 9.
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 10
- What is Training Intensity?
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 9
- Examining Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs
- How to Exercise for General Health and Fitness