Blog

BOOST A LIFT FAST WITH STRENGTH LAYERS

lift

“ Lift fast with strength layers” refer to a training strategy that I first developed five years ago and have kept fine tuning since then. From a general approach, it has evolved into a method for rapid strength gains with adaptation to the nature of the individual.

The method is very simple, yet proper application can be a little more complex. The basic concepts behind layers for boosting strength gains are:

– Only perform one lift in the layer workout. Some minor stuff can be done “in-between” (between sets), but it must not affect the performance of the main lift. You can also add one isolation exercise for your main weakness in that lift at the end of the workout.

– The “layered” lift is performed using 3 or 4 different methods, each targeting a different contraction type or physical capacity.

– You start with the most neurologically demanding method and work your way toward the least CNS-dominant one.

That’s it! These are the two core concepts of strength layers! The magic however, is in the application.

WHY DOES IT WORK?

Doing layers for a specific lift can give you drastic strength gains over a 3-4 week period, much faster than any other method I’ve used. But why is it so? Honestly, it’s hard to pin point the exact reason. So here are some factors that play a role. By themselves, none of them explain the entire efficacy of the system but as a whole, they provide a pretty good idea as to why layers boost strength so rapidly:

– Lots of technical practice on that lift: Essentially, you will be doing around 80-90 reps of in one workout. However, contrary to typical high volume programs designed to target only one lift (10×10 for example), the average quality of the reps is much higher because less total reps are done in a fatigued state.

– A high amount of “high threshold/high force” reps: Out of these 80-90 reps in a layer workout, 40-50 will be done with a very high level of force. This is great to program the body to be more efficient at recruiting the fast-twitch fibers and to make them twitch faster (to produce more force). So you get a lot of “high force practice”.

– Working different contraction types improve neural efficiency: Every time you change contraction type on a lift during a workout, the nervous system has to work harder to recruit the muscles (concentric, eccentric and isometric actions use different fiber recruitment strategies).

– Doing intense work on an amped up CNS: As we will see, the first layer increases neural activation. When you do work with a potentiated nervous system, the recruitment of fibers and the intra and intermuscular coordination is better. In simple words, doing heavy work prior to muscle building work will make the latter more effective. And the positive impact is even greater when the activation comes from the same lift as the one you use to build muscle.

The fact is that regardless of how each of these factors contribute, strength layers are awesome and work fast. Here’s how you do them:

LAYER NO.1 – NEUROLOGICAL RAMPING

In this first ramp the main goal is to increase neurological activation/potentiation. You have to understand that every time you lift a weight two things happen:

1) You increase neurological activation (excite the nervous system) which has a positive impact on strength and power performance and makes muscle fiber recruitment, firing rate and programming more efficient. The amount of potentiation created from strength lifts is directly related to how much force you need to produce.

2) You create fatigue (neurological and physiological), which has a negative impact on performance. Physiological/physical fatigue is linked to the amount of work you are doing, so if you do more reps you simply create more fatigue. Neural fatigue builds up over time, which is why after a certain number of intense sets you observe a drop in mental focus and motivation.

When our goal is to potentiate the nervous system we need high force contractions (F = mass x acceleration), so either heavy work or explosive work. If we want to have a performance increase from that potentiation, we must minimize fatigue, so we want to keep the reps low.

These are the principles behind a neurological ramp.

You will start with around 60% of your maximum on a lift (after a few slightly higher reps and lighter warm-up) and gradually work up toward the max weight you can handle for 1, 2 or 3 reps.

The key here is that you only perform the number of reps of your target RM so as to minimize fatigue. For example, if your target is a 2RM (heaviest weight you can lift for 2 solid reps) you will work up doing only sets of 2 reps. You want to reach your 2RM in around 6-10 sets (only the last 3 will actually be demanding).

It might look like this:

Assuming that you predict that your 2RM will be somewhere between 275 and 295lbs.

Set 0: 10 reps with empty bar

Set 1: 5 reps with 95lbs

Set 2: 2 reps with 135lbs

Set 3: 2 reps with 155lbs

Set 4: 2 reps with 175lbs

Set 5: 2 reps with 195lbs

Set 6: 2 reps with 215lbs

Set 7: 2 reps with 235lbs

Set 8: 2 reps with 255lbs

Set 9: 2 reps with 275lbs (it’s tough, you know you can do more, but not 20lbs more)

Set 10: 2 reps with 285lbs (2RM for the day)

The other key element is that on every set, you are trying to accelerate the weight as quickly as possible while still maintaining perfect, tight form. Remember that force = mass x acceleration. The more force we produce, the more we “activate” the CNS. In the early sets, the weight (mass) is low so you need to compensate by producing more acceleration otherwise force output will be too low to activate the CNS optimally.

Should you choose 1, 2 or 3 reps?

Using heart rate variability assessment, I found out that ramping to a 1RM has about twice the negative impact on the nervous system as ramping to a 2 or 3RM. The difference between a 2 and 3RM isn’t big. So the first thing to know is that ramping to a 1RM should be done very infrequently.

My personal preference when training for pure strength is to ramp to a 2RM and when I want more size I ramp to a 3RM. I will concede that it doesn’t make a huge difference but I still noticed that sets of 3 are where you can begin to gain muscle mass from your sets. Doing sets of 1 and 2 actually do not produce much stimulus for growth (unless you did like 8-10 work sets with 90-95% which is not what I’m talking about here and is very draining).

Ramping to a 1RM can be done for 1 or 2 weeks, no more. One of my favorite approach is as follows:

Week 1: Ramp to 3RM

Week 2: Ramp to 2RM

Week 3: Ramp to 2RM

Week 4: Ramp to 1RM

LAYER NO.2 – STRENGTH WORK

The second layer is where you build the most strength. My go-to approach tends to be clusters, 9 times out of 10. A cluster is a set where you do reps with 10-20 seconds of rest between reps or a group of reps (racking the weight after every rep). You pick a weight you could lift for 2 more reps than the RM you selected (if you did a 2RM then you select a weight you could lift for 4 normal reps) and do 2 more reps than you should be able to do (6 in this case). If you are able to reach the target number of reps with good form you can add more weight for the next set. If you only get 4 reps (in this case) decrease the weight a bit.

I also use other cluster options. For example:

Descending clusters: here one cluster has 3 “mini-sets” (so two pauses). And you tend to decrease the reps on each mini-set.

If you worked up to a 2RM, pick a weight you can do for 4 reps and do 3 reps/rest 10-20 sec/2 reps/rest 10-20 sec/1 rep/end of set.

If you worked up to a 3RM, pick a weight you can do for 5 reps and do 4 reps/3 reps/2 reps.

If you worked up to a 1RM pick a weight you could lift for 3 reps and do 2/2/1.

Plateau clusters: Here you perform clusters sets of 2+2+2+… you perform “mini-sets” of 2 reps until you can only get 1. When you can only get one, you stop. The weight selection obeys the same rule as above (select a weight you can do for 2 more reps than your RM for the day, which is about 92% of it) and you take 15 seconds between mini-sets of 2.

2 reps/15 sec/2 reps/15 sec/2 reps/etc.

If you can complete 4 mini-sets (8-9 total reps in a set) add weight.

Finally, a second option instead of clusters is to use regular sets. A good example of this is the method by my friend, and Canada’s Strongest Man, Jean-Francois Caron: After workout up to your RM for the day, do 3 sets of 5 with 80-85% of your RM.

My personal favorite remains the regular cluster (1+1+1+…) and is what I use most of the time. A less advanced lifter might want to stick to straight sets (3 x 3 or 3 x 5). The other two cluster options tend to build a little bit more size and a little bit less strength than the pure cluster, but the difference is insignificant and can be a nice change of pace.

LAYER NO.3 – FIXING WEAKNESS

In the third layer, we work at a lower percentage, around 70% of your RM for the day, and lift in a way that fixes your problem area.

Everybody is either strength-dominant or speed-dominant. In simpler words, you are either a “grinder” (you don’t lift fast but you can grind through sticking points) or an “exploder” (you are explosive but getting through a sticking point is almost impossible, it moves up fast or it doesn’t move). A grinder might make 225lbs look very hard but still be able to work up to 275 while an exploder might make 265 look like a warm-up but fail at 275.

In this third layer, you want to “go against your nature” to fix your weakness.

If you are explosive, use slow tempo reps. My go-to method is lifting using a 5050 tempo (going down in 5 seconds, going up in 5 seconds). Going slower than that doesn’t make it more effective.

If you are a grinder, use explosive sets of 2-3 reps with around 60% of your RM. The goal is not to use more weight, it is to be violently explosive. Focus on increasing the speed instead of increasing the weight.

You can also use other strategies to fix a weak point. For example, you do the movement with a 2-3 second pause during the concentric (lifting) portion of the exercise. The pause should be at (around) your weak point. For example, if in the squat your weak point is at 90 degrees you would: squat all the way down, move up, pause for 3 seconds when you reach the 90-degree position, finish the lift. This is one rep.

One final option is to use 1 ¼ reps (double contraction). Here, you do either the bottom or top portion of the lift twice per rep. The half rep must be done really slowly. This the option to use if your weak point in a part of a lift is due to losing body tightness or position (for example, if you lean forward in a squat or if your upper back rounds in a front squat).

A 1 ¼ rep looks like this:

Squat all the way down, slowly lift back up to the half squat position, slowly squat back down, stand up completely. This is ONE rep.

You can also do the same thing with the top portion of the lift.

LAYER NO.4 – HYPERTROPHY LAYER

Even if your main goal is strength, muscle mass is still important because a larger muscle has as a greater strength potential. Imagine that your muscle is a factory: a bigger factory with more employees has the potential for higher production. But if the employees are lazy and don’t work well together, the potential is wasted.

The size of the factory and the number of employees is how big your muscle is. How hard-working the employees are and how well they work together is your neural efficiency.  Regardless of how neurologically efficient you are, the size of your muscle is still the limiting factor of how much force you can produce, which is why there are weight classes in weightlifting and powerlifting.

So if you want to maximize strength you should also increase your muscle mass. This is the purpose of the fourth layer.

You can use several methods depending on your preference, and since the goal of this layer is only to create maximum fiber fatigue, you can vary the method you use at every workout.

Here are some options for this layer:

5-4-3-2-1 high density sets: using around 65% of your max RM for the day, or a weight you could do for 10 good reps, you start by doing 5 reps, you then rest 15 seconds, do 4 reps with the same weight, rest another 15 seconds, do 3 reps, rest 15 seconds, do 2 reps, rest a final 15 seconds and do one last rep. This is ONE set. Just like with clusters, you rack the weight after each “mini-set”.

Double reps rest/pause: Use a weight you can lift around 8-10 times. Do as many good reps as you can and then you do rest/pause sets until you reach double your total number of reps.  For example, if you got 8 reps in the first “mini-set”, you keep using rest-pause until you reach a total of 16 reps. It might look like this:

8 reps

Rest 15 seconds

4 reps

Rest 15 seconds

2 reps

Rest 15 seconds

2 reps

End of set

Intense drop sets: Start with a weight you can do for 6-8 reps. Get as many solid reps as you can. Then reduce the weight by around 10% and perform as many additional reps as you can (rest as little as possible between both sets).

Volume drop sets: Start with a weight you can do for 6-8 reps. Gets as many solid reps as you can. Reduce the weight by 25-30% and perform as many additional reps as you can. Reduce by another 25-30% and again try to perform as many reps as you can.

Myo-rep sets: These are a method by my friend, and one of the smartest person in training that I know, Borge Fagerli (Facebook Page). You could pick any type of resistance you want but for the scope of this program I like to use a weight you can lift for around 10-12 reps.

You do the first part of the set by doing as many good reps as you can (stop one rep short of failure). Then you rack the weight and rest for 10-15 seconds. You will tend do 3 additional reps with the same weight. Rest another 10-15 seconds. Try to get 3 more reps, and so on and so forth until you either can’t do 3 reps in a mini-set or you reach a total of 5 extra mini-sets.

For example, a set might look like this:

10 reps / rest 10 sec/ 3 reps / rest 10 sec / 3 reps / rest 10 sec / 3 reps / rest 10 sec / 2 reps/ end of set

Note that this is only one versio of myo-reps which is actually a much more complex system. If you want to read more about it you can find the info here.

Hard 5s: This is the simplest variation: use around 75% and do 3 sets of 5 with 30 seconds of rest. This is hypertrophy work geared more towards strength, specifically the capacity to maintain strength with short periods of rest (useful for football players for example).

These are just a few ideas, any typical “bodybuilding” method based on fatiguing the fibers will work.

STRENGTH LAYERS FAQ

How many sets of each layer do you do?

As mentioned, the ramping (layer 1) normally has 6 to 10 sets. Some very strong individuals might need up to 12 sets (it’s longer to ramp up to 700lbs than to 300lbs even if you make bigger jumps). Out of these only 3-4 are somewhat demanding, so don’t let the high number intimidate you.

Each of the subsequent layers should have 1 to 3 sets depending on your capacity to recover and your goal. For example, I personally tolerate high intensity work really well. So I often do 3 sets of layers 2 and 3. But I’m not good with high reps and I don’t lack muscle mass, so I often do only 1 or 2 sets of the fourth layer.

I recommend starting at 2 sets of layers 2, 3 and 4 and re-adjust depending on how your body handles it.

Can I use strength layers for more than one lift in a training phase?

It can be done but I’d be careful with that. I initially designed this approach as a whole system (Article: The Layer System), and it did produce lightning fast gains on all the four lifts trained in a week. But after 3 weeks most people crashed. Some were able to keep progressing rapidly for 5-6 weeks, and then crashed.

If you are dopamine dominant (do the Braverman test here) to know your neurological dominance) and have a non-stressful lifestyle you can likely use the layer approach for 3-4 lifts in a week (each lift having it’s own day) and do that for 4 weeks.

If you are acetylcholine dominant or a mixed type you can also do it, but only for 2 weeks otherwise you will crash.

If you are GABA or serotonin dominant I would not do layers more than one day a week.

I like to use strength layers for 1 lift per 4-week phase and rotate the lifts. For example, block one might be front squats, block two bench press, block three deadlift, block four overhead press.

Can I do other exercises in my layer workout?

Strength layers can be deceiving. They are a lot of hard work but because they amp up the nervous system so much you might not actually feel drained at all afterwards, in fact, you might feel energetic and looking to do more. In reality, this is just an illusion due to the neural activation.

Very little else, if anything, should be done with layers. You do the workout prep routine, of course. You might do some minor, non-fatiguing stuff in between layers sets (band pull-aparts, for example), but nothing that decreases workout performance. You can also add ONE isolation exercise for the weaker muscle in the main lift at the end of the session, for 3 sets max. Anymore than that and do the workout at your own risk.

What would the rest of the week look like?

That depends on your normal training schedule. What I can say is that you should reduce the amount of high intensity work you do for similar patterns than the layer exercise.  For example, if you do a strength layer for the front squat try to avoid doing max effort (or very heavy) work on the back squat or deadlift elsewhere in the week.

I also suggest doing the layered exercise once more in the week, but for strength-skill. Strength-skill refers to doing a high number of sets (around 6) with a “heavy enough” weight but at a non-stressful level. For example 6 sets of 3 reps at 80%. Here you focus on technical efficacy and the quality of your form.

Work for the muscles related to your layered lift should be trained more using bodybuilding methodologies to lessen the neural stress.

The “unrelated” workouts can be planned pretty much any way you want, but I’d still be careful to avoid excessive neurological stress.

Can I do strength layers when dieting down on a caloric deficit?

No (likely my shortest answer ever)!

CONCLUSION

Strength layers are the best illustration of a typical Thibaudeau workout: I’m a strong believer in training a lot of different contraction types. Varying the contraction types is more important than varying the exercises and might be one of the hidden keys to muscle growth and strength gains.

— CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…