The illogical training secret that works
The world of training is full of methods that look great on paper but fail to deliver results. There are also quite a few things that sound illogical or run against the grain to accepted training knowledge, yet work great when applied.
Coach Joe Kenn, a top strength and performance specialist recently reminded me of one of my own such approaches when he wrote:
“Some of the best programmings we wrote was through the work of Christian Thibaudeau back in the early 2000s. He utilized weekly tempo variation of isometric and sub maximal eccentric. Sun Devil strength coach legend Rich Wenner always knew when we did this cycle because he always mentioned the size changes in our players.”
Essentially this cycle kept the same exercises for the length of the 3-4 weeks cycle but every week the way each repetition was performed changed.
Week one used an isometric hold at the point of greatest tension of each exercise (mid-range for squats, deadlifts, benches; peak contraction for rows). The duration of the pause changed from rep to rep. 6 reps were done per set and the pauses were as follow:
Rep 1 = 6 seconds hold
Rep 2 = 5 seconds hold
Rep 3 = 4 seconds hold
Rep 4 = 3 seconds hold
Rep 5 = 2 seconds hold
Rep 6 = 1 second hold
Three such sets were done.
Week two uses a slow eccentric phase (6 seconds down) for 3 sets of 6 reps.
Week three used a regular tempo (2 seconds down) for 3 sets of 6 reps.
The weights would increase from week to week as the methods became “easier”.
To quote coach Kenn: “This led to some serious hypertrophy gains in our footballers”.
The next step
I took this method one step further when I designed the “fixed weight progression model” in which you keep the same weight from week to week (you can add weight if you can, but that’s just a bonus) but make the reps harder from week to week.
Week 1 = 3 sets of regular 6-8 reps
Week 2 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a slow eccentric tempo (5 seconds down)
Week 3 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a 3-4 seconds pause at the position of greater tension on every rep during the eccentric phase
Week 4 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a 3-4 seconds pause during the concentric phase
Simply being capable of keeping the same weights from week to week indicated progression because the reps got harder and harder.
You could also do the reverse progression:
Week 1 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a 3-4 seconds pause during the concentric phase
Week 2 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a 3-4 seconds pause at the position of greater tension on every rep during the eccentric phase
Week 3 = 3 sets of 6-8 reps with a slow eccentric tempo (5 seconds down)
Week 4 = 3 sets of regular 6-8 reps
In which case you would add 3-5% to the bar from week to week.
Why it works?
One thing that you need to understand is that each “training event” is an isolated occurrence and is independent of the other workouts (unless you were to train the same muscles two days in a row before full adaptation has occurred).
By training even, I mean the session and the recovery/adaptation period that follows. Once that is over the body doesn’t “remember” what it did in the previous session. However, it is (if you did your job right) a bit stronger, bigger, and more resilient.
Protein synthesis is elevated for up to 36 hours after a workout is done. That is essentially the period you have to recover and adapt to the workout by making the muscle fibers bigger and stronger.
Each session should make you bigger and stronger. But because the gains are very small, they are not noticeable, and you only see that something is happening after a few weeks. That’s why we tend to think in terms of weeks or months of training as a unit, not in individual workouts.
Yet the reality is that each workout and its recovery period work by itself. And to keep progressing you need each workout to provide a sufficient stimulus to force the body to adapt.
After a session and its recovery period, your body is better adapted to the stimulus imposed in the previous workout. And if you impose the exact same stimulus it is much less effective at stimulating growth and gains.
The more often you repeat the same stimulus, the more “used to the stimulus” your body becomes. There is then no need to adapt, which means no more gains.
One way of keeping a stimulus effective is to increase its magnitude. You do that either by increasing the weight used, the number of reps with the same weight, or the sets you do.
But that has its limitation. First, because you can’t keep adding weight, reps or sets forever. But also, because you are not changing the type of stimulus. The body adapts to the type of stimulus. The magnitude only tells the body how much it needs to adapt.
By repeating the same type of stimulus over and over, the body will get habituated to it, even if you add weight or reps.
Another way of doing things is to change the way the reps are performed. This changes the type of stimulus itself, not just its magnitude. As such it is a much more powerful way to force the body to keep adapting.
If it is combined with adding weight (like 2 of the three examples above) it’s even more powerful because you are now completely changing the stimulus, which limits the risk of habituation and helps you progress faster and for longer.
Pushing the concept even further
What I just presented is actually not “illogical” or controversial. It is actually pretty well structured, with a logical progression from week to week. It seems that the human brain I programmed to believe in patterns, and as long as there seems to be a structure it is seen as acceptable.
But what if you threw the structure or planned progression out the window?
What if you introduced changes in the way your reps or sets are performed from week to week, without a specific pattern? Would it still work?
You bet your ascot it would!
The body doesn’t recognize patterns.
It doesn’t think “today’s workout is a logical progression from last week, so let’s get bigger”. All it recognizes is the stress/stimulus. Is it important enough to stimulate adaptations?
With that in mind, provided that your daily session is enough of stress, you will grow from it.
And remember, the more novel a stimulus is, the more likely it is to lead to an adaptation (provided that the magnitude of the stimulus is large enough). In that regard, changing the way you do your reps or your sets weekly will certainly help you get more gains by favoring stimulus novelty.
On top of the aforementioned progression model, I’ve produced a few plans that were based on weekly progression.
From my experience this way of structuring training is extremely powerful and also allows you to get a more varied progression, allowing you to work on hypertrophy, strength, resistance, etc.
The most extreme, and potentially life-changing approach, is to build a list of rep types and rotate through them randomly. The one rule that I use is that you should not use the same method for more than 2 workouts in a row.
This will not only help keep the body responds to training, but it will also go a long way into preventing boredom.
Examples of repetition types
To introduce the variation, I use four broad categories of sets:
- Low reps (1-4 reps per set)
- Moderate reps (5 to 10 reps per set)
- High reps (11 to 15 reps per set)
- Very high reps (more than 15 reps per set)
And for each category we also have several ways of doing the reps:
– Superslow eccentric (8-10 seconds)
– Slow eccentric (5-7 seconds)
– Intra-rep holds during the eccentric, 1 pause of 4-6 seconds
– Intra-rep holds during the eccentric, 2 pauses of 3-4 seconds
– Intra-rep holds during the eccentric, 3 pauses of 2-3 seconds
– Intra-rep holds during the concentric, 1 pause of 4-6 seconds
– Intra-rep holds during the concentric, 2 pauses of 3-4 seconds
– Intra-rep holds during the concentric, 3 pauses of 2-3 seconds
– Pre-fatigue hold (isometric hold at the beginning of the set) for 10 to 20 seconds
– Slow concentric (3-5 seconds)
– Slow reps (both the eccentric and concentric are done slowly, 3-5 seconds for each phase)
– Tempo contrast (alternating between 2 slow reps and 2 fast reps, for 8-12 total reps)
– Explosive reps (both the eccentric and concentric are done as explosively as possible)
– Normal reps
This gives you over 40 ways of performing your sets. For example:
Low reps with a slow eccentric
Moderate reps using a tempo contrast
Low reps have done explosively
High reps with a single intra-rep isometric hold of 4 seconds
Selecting the way you do your reps/sets
There are two main ways to build your training blocks.
Either use what I would call “structured chaos” or total chaos.
For the structured chaos you pick one rep zone for each training block.
Block 1 (4 weeks): Very high reps
Block 2 (4 weeks): High reps
Block 3 (4 weeks): Moderate reps
Block 4 (4 weeks): Low reps
Block 1 (4 weeks): High reps
Block 2 (4 weeks): Low reps
Block 3 (4 weeks): Moderate reps
Block 4 (4 weeks): Low reps
Block 1 (4 weeks): Very high reps
Block 2 (4 weeks): Moderate reps
Block 3 (4 weeks): High reps
Block 4 (4 weeks): Moderate reps
But within each block you change the way the reps are performed every week. This can be planned in advance or done randomly.
For example, a plan could look like:
Block 1 – High reps
Week 1: Slow eccentric
Week 2: Tempo contrast
Week 3: Intra-rep holds during the eccentric, 3 pauses of 2-3 seconds
Week 4: Normal reps
Or you can go all out in the randomness department and just pick a new combination of a number of reps (very high, high, moderate, or low) and rep type at every workout you do.
Sounds illogical, but it works!
When you understand that each workout and it subsequent recovery period is independent of the previous one, and that to trigger growth you need the stimulus to be strong and novel enough to represent something the body must adapt to. And that the more repetitive the workouts are, the less effective they become at stimulating growth.
Then it’s pretty easy to see that a strategy that might appear to be illogical and random can work extremely well if you train hard at each session. It could even work better than more traditional training in the long run.
Be warned: I believe that this is more effective to stimulate muscle growth than strength. The neurological improvements required to maximize strength gains will likely benefit from sticking to a certain stimulus for a bit longer.