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Optimal Strenght Training for the Natural Athlete

In two previous articles I detailed training plans that I feel are optimal for a natural trainee trying to maximize muscle growth. These plans are simply aimed at making your body more muscular. While you will also get stronger from them they are not designed to maximize strength.

https://www.t-nation.com/training/the-best-damn-workout-plan-for-natural-lifters
https://www.t-nation.com/training/3-reasons-you-cant-train-like-a-juicer

So how can one apply the same concepts to focus a little bit more on strength development?  This is the question that will be addressed in this article.

BUT FIRST I NEED TO CLEAR SOMETHING UP…

I understand that these articles have been a change from many of my previous training programs. And I know it can get confusing to some. But learning is a process.

For years my own training was based on the overcompensation principle because that’s how my former coaches would train me. I would go as hard as I could (with a high volume) for 3-5 weeks, and then when I started to feel like crap I would drastically cut down until I felt good enough to push hard again.

Heck my old coach used to say that if you don’t feel like crying after 4 weeks of strength training you aren’t going hard enough!

That model worked great for rapid gains but it came at a cost: I never really felt “good”, I sometimes even had symptoms of depression, and it eventually took its toll on the body.

The body can handle it decently when you are young and have optimal hormonal levels, but the older I got the less I was progressing and the shorter my hard training phases became because I couldn’t handle them anymore.

The blitz/recover approach certainly works; it gave me lifts as good as a 445lbs raw bench press, 275lbs military press, 600lbs squat and 475lbs front squat. It also allowed me to take my snatch grip high pull from 275lbs to 400lbs in about 4 weeks. So there is no question that every one of those programs I wrote will give you results.

But what I experienced and learned about muscle growth and physiology over the past year led me to the realization that the blitz/recover approach is not the optimal way to train.  

While it can be used as a short blitz phase once or twice per year, which in fact is probably a good approach, my recent articles provide a much better solution for optimal gains over the long term, especially if you are not genetically gifted and after over 35 (and even over 30).

IS STRENGTH DIFFERENT THAN SIZE?

It is well established that the strength and size of a muscle are positively correlated. A larger muscle is a stronger muscle, at least in theory. Basically if your triceps, deltoids and pectorals get bigger your bench press should go up.

But in reality there is a little bit more to it than that.

The size of a muscle represents its strength potential. But a big potential doesn’t necessarily mean big results.

It’s like a factory. A bigger factory with more employees has the potential to produce more goods than a small factory with less employees. But if the big factory is full of lazy workers, or people who can’t work together or don’t know how to do their job, their actual output will be quite low despite the high production potential.

It’s the same way with strength and size. If you are not efficient at recruiting the fast twitch fibers early in a set, if your intra and intermuscular coordination is bad, if the recruited fibers don’t have a high firing rate, if your technique is bad, then you will not display all of your potential strength.

So if you goal is to get stronger it’s not just about building more muscle, you also need to practice the skill of displaying strength.

STRENGTH IS BUILT IN THE 80-90% RANGE

To maximize strength development, you must perform a sufficient amount of work in the 80-90% range. That’s the zone where you are involving a maximum number of fibers right off the bat and need to have them fire fast. If you do not go to failure, it’s a zone in which the neural stress is manageable thus allowing you to do more work without overloading the nervous system.

Strength is a skill. And like every other motor skill you need to practice it to be good at it. And practice must be perfect. That why “strength-skill” work should not be done to failure and why plenty of rest should be used: you want every rep to be perfect. So when doing strength-skill work you should not go anywhere near failure.

This will ensure conditions where technique and neural factors are optimal. It also reduces neural stress allowing you to get more work in (more practice for faster motor learning).

YOU LEARN TO DISPLAY STRENGTH WHEN TRAINING IN THE 91-100% RANGE

You can build just as much strength training the 80-90% zone as in the 91-100% one. Mostly because the lower neural stress allows you more “practice” while still having maximal fiber recruitment.

But building strength and being able to display it during a maximal effort are two different animals. To be good at demonstrating strength during a max lift you need to practice max lifts. So if you want to be efficient at utilizing your strength for an all-out effort you need to do some of it in training.

This is strictly a neural thing: Getting used to the feeling of maximal weights, desensitising the protective mechanisms that will inhibit your performance when the body feels threatened by a load, etc.

If you don’t practice maximal lifting you won’t be efficient at performing during max effort tests. But training in the 91-100% range is drastically harder on the nervous system than training in the 80-90% zone. I’m talking 2-3 times as stressful! Which means you can’t do it for long and you can’t do a lot of it.

Luckily, since it’s mostly a neural thing, you can get significantly better at doing max efforts in as little as 3 weeks and it really doesn’t require a lot of work.  Performing 4 to 6 lifts between 91-100% in a session is more than enough.

STRENGTH-SKILL WORK DOESN’T HAVE THE SAME IMPACT ON CORTISOL…

A lot of studies have shown that heavy work leads to a greater testosterone level than higher reps. In reality, I would more likely credit this to the fact that heavy work doesn’t raise cortisol levels as much as high volume work.

Cortisol is released during training mostly to mobilize stored energy to fuel muscle contraction. Specifically, it is released when you need to mobilize glycogen and fat.  Since cortisol and testosterone are fabricated from the same mother hormone (pregnenolone),  the more cortisol you produce, the less material you have left to make testosterone.

Higher rep work relies highly on glycogen whereas heavier, lower rep work utilizes mostly phosphagen for fuel. Phosphagen is the main source of energy for very intense contraction as long as it doesn’t last more than 12 seconds or so, after which the body switches to glycogen.

So let’s say for example that I am using sets of 1-3 reps.  None of my sets will last over 12 seconds and if I allow sufficient rest between sets, I can replenish my phosphagen levels before the next set. Although some glycogen will still be used to restore the phosphagen levels, this will be at a much lesser extent than when using higher reps. 

Simply put, strength-skill work (80-90% zone, not to failure) will use less muscle glycogen, requiring you to produce less cortisol compared to higher rep work (because cortisol is released to mobilize energy).

As you can conclude, cortisol is the number 1 enemy of muscle growth in natural trainees; that’s why doing too much volume is a bad mistake.  But with strength-skill work it is possible to do multiple sets (within reason) without jacking up cortisol, which is a good thing because strength-skill requires you to do many sets.

…BUT MAXIMUM EFFORT CAN HAVE A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON CORTISOL

A maximum effort causes psychological stress, especially when you are approaching 100%. That psychological stress can (will) increase the output of adrenalin and cortisol.  Even though training with heavy weights does not require a high mobilization of energy,   it induces an intense psychological stress that will result in the release of these hormones.

That is one of the reasons why maximum effort work needs to be treated like volume for the natural trainee: don’t do too much of it or you will kill your gains and may even cause you to regress.

So while you can do a fairly high amount of work when doing strength-skill work (80-90% not to failure), you absolutely cannot train in the maximum effort zone (91-100%) at high volumes.  At most, you should devote 4 lifts in the 90-100% zone in a workout devoted to that type of training.  More than that and you are asking for trouble.

TO RECAP WHAT WE’VE SEEN SO FAR

For the natural trainee…

Hypertrophy work: Volume is the worst enemy of the natural trainee when it comes to hypertrophy work because volume leads to an increase in cortisol which will slow down or even halt muscle growth in this individual. The goal then is to trigger maximum growth with as little volume as possible. This is why I recommend 1 all-out set to failure and even beyond by using methods like assisted reps, rest/pause, partial reps or static holds at the end of a set.

Strength-skill work: This should be the main tool for strength development in the natural trainee. Strength-skill work is done with 80-90% weights for submaximal reps (stopping 2 or even 3 reps short of failure) with ample rest and a strong focus on perfect technique, maximum tension and acceleration.

Maximum effort work: This is done at the end of the training cycle only for about 3 weeks. Since it has a strong impact on cortisol the volume should be extremely low, as should the volume for the rest of the session (assistance exercises).

Frequency: The natural trainee triggers protein synthesis within an actual training session (whereas an individual using drugs has elevated protein synthesis 24/7), so a high training frequency is optimal.  However, bear in mind that frequency and volume are inversely related: when one goes up (frequency) the other must go down (volume).

TRAINING SPLIT

You will train using a 3 days on/1 day off schedule. So each workout is repeated twice per 8 days cycle.

DAY 1. Squat/Quads/Biceps
DAY 2. Bench press/Pectorals/Deltoids/Triceps
DAY 3. Deadlift/Hamstrings/Upper back/Traps
DAY 4. Off

Repeat

Yeah, I know the biceps with the squat is a bit weird but it’s there for two reasons:

  1. For most people it’s psychologically better to feel a pump in the arms when they’ve trained legs and it will put them in a positive mindset
  1. (This is the main reason) The other two days already have enough volume, adding biceps would have been too much.

TRAINING DAYS

The exercise breakdown for the program is as follows. Note that the assistance/muscle-building exercises are only a suggestion. These ones work great for me but you might find that other exercises work better for you, and it’s absolutely fine to use another exercise if you know that you will personally get better results from it.

DAY 1

Strength

  • Back squat

Hypertrophy

  • Leg extension
  • Hack squat machine
  • Preacher curl
  • Rope hammer curl

DAY 2

Strength

  • Bench press

Hypertrophy

  • Incline press in Smith machine
  • Pec deck machine
  • DB lateral raise
  • Lying EZ bar triceps extension
  • Rope triceps extension

DAY 3

Strength

  • Deadlift

Hypertrophy

  • Lying leg curl
  • Straight-arms pulldown
  • Supinated lat pulldown
  • Seated row machine
  • Rear delts machine (reverse pec deck)
  • DB shrugs

PROGRESSION

For the strength movement, the first 9 weeks are done using the strength-skill approach.  These 9 weeks will be composed of 3 blocks of 3 “weeks” each followed by a 3 weeks maximum effort block.  The progression uses 80% for the first block, 85% for the second block and 90% for the third. Within a block, the number of sets will increase over the 3 week period.

IMPORTANT: I use the term “weeks” for simplicity’s sake. A “week” is going through each training day twice (day 1, day 2, day 3, off, day 1, day 2, day 3, off) making it actually 8 days rather than 7.  It is just simpler to refer to them as “weeks”.

For the hypertrophy work you will perform 3 sets per exercise. The first set is for 10 reps and represents an effort of about 5/10, basically just to get some blood flowing to the target muscle and practice tensing it hard on each rep.  The second set is for 8 reps and is an effort of about 7/10; decently challenging but 2-3 reps short of failure.

The third set is an all-out set to failure and beyond. You should go for 6-8 reps to failure. We progress from phase to phase by changing the intensity technique used to get beyond failure (third set) as follows:

Phase 1 (3 weeks): You simply perform 6-8 reps to muscle failure. Note that 6-8 reps is your target, so if you reach 8 and you can still perform some reps, keep going till you can’t move the weight another inch.

Phase 2 (3 weeks): You go to failure, ideally for 6-8 reps, and then a partner helps you get an additional 2 or 3 assisted reps. It is important that your partner only help you enough to keep the weight moving and doesn’t help during the eccentric, which you perform slowly.

Phase 3 (3 weeks): You go to failure, again ideally for 6-8 reps.  When you reach failure, you will rest 10-15 seconds and then go to failure again with the same weight, rest another 15-20 seconds and try to get a few more additional reps. This is called a double rest/pause set.

Phase 4 (3 weeks): Here you actually step the intensity down to accommodate the maximum effort stress. So you perform 6-8 reps but you stop about 1 rep short of failure on your work set.

TRAINING PROGRAM

PHASE 1 (3 “WEEKS”)

DAYS 1 & 5

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Squat 3 3 80% 3 4 80% 4 4 80% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Leg extension
  • Hack squat machine
  • Preacher curl
  • Rope hammer curl

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure

DAYS 2 & 6

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Bench press 3 3 80% 3 4 80% 4 4 80% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Incline press in Smith machine
  • Pec deck machine
  • DB lateral raise
  • Lying EZ bar triceps extension
  • Rope triceps extension

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure

DAYS 3 & 7

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(Each workout twice)

Week 2

(Each workout twice)

Week 3

(Each workout twice)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Deadlift 3 3 80% 3 4 80% 4 4 80% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Lying leg curl
  • Straight-arms pulldown
  • Supinated lat pulldown
  • Seated row machine
  • Rear delts machine (reverse pec deck)
  • DB shrugs

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure

DAYS 4 & 8 – OFF

PHASE 2 (3 “WEEKS”)

DAYS 1 & 5

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Squat 3 2 85% 3 3 85% 4 3 85% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Leg extension
  • Hack squat machine
  • Preacher curl
  • Rope hammer curl

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then 2-3 assisted reps

DAYS 2 & 6

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Bench press 3 2 85% 3 3 85% 4 3 85% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Incline press in Smith machine
  • Pec deck machine
  • DB lateral raise
  • Lying EZ bar triceps extension
  • Rope triceps extension

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then 2-3 assisted reps

DAYS 3 & 7

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Deadlift 3 2 85% 3 3 85% 4 3 85% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Lying leg curl
  • Straight-arms pulldown
  • Supinated lat pulldown
  • Seated row machine
  • Rear delts machine (reverse pec deck)
  • DB shrugs

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then 2-3 assisted reps

DAYS 4 & 8 – OFF

PHASE 3 (3 “WEEKS”)

DAYS 1 & 5

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Squat 3 1 90% 2 2 90% 3 2 90% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Leg extension
  • Hack squat machine
  • Preacher curl
  • Rope hammer curl

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then double rest/pause with the same weight

DAYS 2 & 6

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Bench press 3 1 90% 2 2 90% 3 2 90% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Incline press in Smith machine
  • Pec deck machine
  • DB lateral raise
  • Lying EZ bar triceps extension
  • Rope triceps extension

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then double rest/pause with the same weight

DAYS 3 & 7

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Deadlift 3 1 90% 2 2 90% 3 2 90% 2 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Lying leg curl
  • Straight-arms pulldown
  • Supinated lat pulldown
  • Seated row machine
  • Rear delts machine (reverse pec deck)
  • DB shrugs

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps to failure then double rest/pause with the same weight

DAYS 4 & 8 – OFF

PHASE 4 (3 “WEEKS”)

DAYS 1 & 5

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Squat 3 1 92% 4 1 97% 2 1 102% 3 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Hack squat machine
  • Preacher curl
  • Rope hammer curl

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps at a level of effort of around 8 (1 or 2 reps short of failure)

DAYS 2 & 6

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Bench press 3 1 92% 4 1 97% 2 1 102% 3 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Pec deck machine
  • DB lateral raise
  • Lying EZ bar triceps extension

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps at a level of effort of around 8 (1 or 2 reps short of failure)

DAYS 3 & 7

Strength lift

 

Lift

Week 1

(2 of each workout)

Week 2

(2 of each workout)

Week 3

(2 of each workout)

 

Rest

Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load Sets Reps Load
Deadlift 3 1 92% 4 1 97% 2 1 102% 3 min

Hypertrophy lifts

  • Supinated lat pulldown
  • Seated row machine
  • DB shrugs

First set (warm-up set): 10 reps at a level of effort of around 5/10
Second set (preparation set): 8 reps at a level of effort of around 7/10
Third set (work set): 6-8 reps at a level of effort of around 8 (1 or 2 reps short of failure)

AFTER THE PROGRAM IS DONE

Once this program is completed, it is time to reload and give your body a break. You’ll want to switch to a totally different type of training for 1 or 2 weeks involving a lot less lifting (or even no lifting at all).  You can focus on conditioning work like loaded carries, tire flipping, sledgehammer striking, prowler pushing, etc. or light explosive work like jumps and throws.

You could do neural charge workouts for example (https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/neural-charge-training). This is very important if you want continuous gains.  Following this 1-2 week reload, you can begin a new training cycle.

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…