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Thibarmy Questions and Answers No.2

Question and answer

QUESTION

Hello, guys,

I am a student from Czech Republic and I am currently writing my graduation work about methods for maximal strength development. It would be honor for me, if you could share some tips or whatever you want to share with me about strength performance. Of course, I will mention you as a source. I’m trying to build up strength as fast as possible, focusing on whole body strength (combination of weight training, calisthenic etc.)

Thank you for your answer, have a nice day and good luck with Thibarmy,

Jakub Zafer

 

ANSWER

It is kind of a broad question isn’t it?

Well there are two main questions in there.

1) What are the basic principles to gain maximum strength

2) How to be strong in body weight exercises

This could be a whole article… well, it could be a complete book!

But here are some bullet points covering both questions.

Regarding training for strength

Strength gains can occur via many different mechanisms:

1) increase in muscle size: a larger muscle has a greater strength potential, so building more muscle will increase your potential to produce more force.

2) improvements in neural factors like muscle fiber recruitment, increase in firing rate, better intra and intermuscular coordination. If muscle size is your potential, your nervous system allows you to use that potential. If your muscles are big but your nervous system is not efficient, you will not be able to use the potential you have.

3) inhibition of the protective mechanisms. Your body doesn’t want you to injure yourself so it has protective mechanisms that prevent you from damaging yourself. An important one is the Golgi Tendon Organs. These sense when your muscle is producing too much force and when that happens it shuts down force production for your own safety. The thing is that your protective mechanisms are very conservative. As a result, a normal person might use 30% of his potential, a trained person 50-60%, a high level strength athlete 70-80% and a world class lifter up to 90%. You can train in a way to desensitize these GTOs, which will allow you to use a greater proportion of your potential.

A beginner or an athlete with an obvious lack of muscular development should focus on the first method to increase his strength. We are talking here about hypertrophy training with fairly heavy weights. 6-8 reps per set is a good zone for that purpose. Advanced athletes who decide to use this approach can also do sets in the 4-6 reps range. Even though the reps are higher, you should still focus on getting stronger (using more weight) in that rep range, but never at the expense of proper form and muscle recruitment (if you don’t feel it in the right muscles, go lighter).

Someone who has a decent background in weight training and has a good muscular development (someone who did bodybuilding training for years and decide to switch to strength training for example), but is not as strong as he should be considering his size should focus more on maximizing the neural factors involved in strength production. This means maximizing force production. Of course, keep in mind that Force = Mass X Acceleration. So, you can best develop the neural factors involved in producing strength via heavy lifting or lifting focused on acceleration.

Heavy lifting can be divided in two main categories: strength-skill work and maximal effort work. Strength-skill refers to submaximal work where the focus in on dominating the weight. The weight is heavy enough to stimulate a maximum number of muscle fibers, but not so heavy that it represents a psychological, physical and neurological stress. We are talking about a load of 80-85% done for a high number of submaximal sets (for example 8 sets of 3 reps). As for maximal effort, we are talking about training above 90% of your maximum, often going in the 97-102.5% (new PR) zone. The latter cannot be done for a lot of reps. The biggest mistake people make when using the max effort method is doing too many total reps. At the most you should have 3-6 reps above 95% when using the max effort method. You can do about 6-9 if you do more work around 90%. The max effort method can be misleading because it makes you feel good, energetic (neural activation and adrenalin release) so you tend to want to do more when in reality you will crash your nervous system and not gain anything if you do too much.

Advanced athletes can further increase their strength by doing work to desensitize their protective mechanisms. Here I’m referring to supramaximal work: utilizing methods in which you can use more weight than you can on your regular lifts. For example, doing heavy partial lifts, eccentric-only movements or isometrics. With these methods, you can subject your body to loads that are 10-25% higher than your strength on the full lifts. And while they won’t strengthen you over the full range of motion, they can help desensitize your protective mechanisms when used over time, and your body will allow you to use a greater percentage of your potential. These methods should only be used by advanced athletes who have already achieved a high level of strength.

Here are some random thoughts regarding strength training…

  1. Sets of 3-5 build the most strength, sets of 1-2 reps improve the capacity to demonstrate the strength you have during an all-out effort.
  1. High frequency is popular in strength training. Like powerlifters who bench, squat and deadlift 3-5 times a week. This works well only if you want to specialize on performing well on these exercises. If you just want to be strong overall you can have less frequency and more variety in your training. For example I once increased my snatch-grip high pull from 120kg to 180kg in 3 weeks by doing it 6 days a week (11 sessions per week). That lift got stronger, but none of my other lifts improved. Strength is both general and specific. If you acquire strength only through a small number of exercises your strength will tend to be mostly on these movements.
  1. I know a ton of strong guys (I’m talking world class strength) and they all approach their training on the main lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, military press) differently. But they all share one thing in common: they do low reps for 1 or 2 exercises per session then they do higher (6-8, 9-12 or even higher reps on some movements) for their assistance exercises.
  1. Smart and strong people use smaller exercises to build muscle. If you are heavily challenging your nervous system with your big lift of the day, going heavy for many sets, the last thing you want is burn down your nervous system with your assistance work. So using more “bodybuilding exercises” to build muscle, and utilizing the big lifts to train your nervous system to use those muscles seem to be the best way to do things. Of course, if you do not want to gain weight it is not the best option.
  1. Grip strength on any given day is the best indicator of your potential for being strong on that day. If you buy a hand dynamometer and test yourself before every workout you can predict if you are on a good day to go heavy or if you should back off. Grip strength is the first thing that is affected by a fatigued nervous system. If it suddenly drop significantly below your baseline you should take it easy with the lifting (reducing volume and intensity) and if it spikes up compared to your normal state it is a good day to lift heavy.
  1. Whenever you increase your strength by about 10% on a lift you should devote a few weeks to stabilize that strength. Do not try to increase the weight. Go back down in weight a bit and do sets with a slower eccentric tempo. This will allow the tendons to catch up the muscles. Especially if the 10% increase occurred rapidly (over 4 weeks or less). The biggest mistake people make when they train for strength is that they are too eager to add weight. And when their strength goes up they want more and more. And that’s when injuries occur.
  1. Most of the really strong guys I know do their focus lifts twice per week, one of these times being really heavy. The other session is either done for volume, speed or technique work depending on his system. Olympic lifters train their lifts more often because of the higher skill component.
  1. A minimalist approach (only using the big lifts in training, very little assistance work) works well mostly for people with an optimal body type. If you don’t have optimal levers you will need assistance work to correct weaknesses.
  1. Continuously lifting low reps/heavy weights in training works well for those who are naturally gifted for strength (bigger structure, thicker tendons, naturally higher testosterone levels). Others who do not have that benefit will need either to deload every 4th week or alternate between periods of heavy lifting and periods focusing more on moderate weights and higher reps to build muscle.
  1. The bigger the difference between your eccentric strength and concentric strength (being stronger eccentrically) the less at risk for an injury you are. That’s why including an eccentric focus in your training once in a while (either via slower eccentric tempos or eccentric overloads) will be highly beneficial to a long lifting career.

Regarding body weight exercises

Being strong is not enough to be good at body weight exercises. I remember when I first started working on handstand push ups. I was 215lbs and had military press of 265lbs and a bench press of 425lbs. Plenty of pressing strength. Yet I failed to even get off of the ground in a handstand push up! By comparison my wife who was 135lbs at the time and could military press 115lbs and bench press 145lbs was able to get 6 strict handstand push ups. She has a gymnastic background so body weight exercises came naturally to her. I have extremely bad motor skills, so apply strength in exercises where I must move my body in space was a challenge.

You do need sufficient strength, but more importantly you need to be efficient at controlling your body in space. This means both having a good spacial perception and body control. And you can’t get those simply by lifting weights.

It is my experience that to be good at body weight skills you need to practice them often. In that regard, it is better to do a little bit every day at a submaximal level than going really hard and doing a high volume once or twice a week.

I normally suggest focusing on 1 or 2 body weight skills and doing them daily at the beginning of your workouts. 15-20 minutes is enough and acts as a good activation for the rest of the session. Don’t use these drills (except the simpler ones like chin-ups and dips) to build strength, see them as movements you must practice. Use weight lifting to get stronger and then practice the body weight skills to learn to apply your strength in them.

Alex Vigneault went from 11 strict handstand push ups to 23 strict handstand push ups from a deficit (so with extra range of motion) in 6 weeks simply by doing 3-4 submaximal sets of handstand push ups 6 days a week and testing himself once a week. He would also randomly do handstand push ups throughout the day, seeing it as practice work, not so much training.

While you can build strength with bodyweight work; I normally prefer to use lifting exercises to build strength and practice work on the bodyweight exercises to learn to apply your strength in those movements. NOTE: I consider exercises like dips and chin-ups with added weight to be lifting exercises.


QUESTION

Here’s a question for you. I’ve been doing your strength workout that’s based on the four complex (bench, squat, press, deadlift) lifts. I really like it and I’m stronger. I also typically get sore for a couple of days afterward (good sore). In your guidelines, you suggest not lifting more than two days in a row. I feel like I’m “going hard”, but I don’t like days off. Right now I do cardio (typically stationary bike intervals) on my off days. I’d like to lift maybe two more days during the week (6 days per week). My question is this. How hard is it to really over train? As I said I do get sore, and I do feel like I’m going hard, but I still crave weight lifting on off days.

Thank you

Jamie Reynolds

 

ANSWER

You can train everyday, I do. And muscles can recover really fast (the nervous and hormonal systems are another story).

But do not mistake the desire to train with a physiological need to train. In other words; it’s not because you feel like training that it is the smart thing to do.

I admire dedication and hard work BUT very few people should be training more than 5 days a week. It requires the capacity to avoid doing too much in those extra sessions. You also need to have accustomed your body to it (I gradually increased my frequency over 15 years of training). And only one neurological profile can do it for more than a few weeks Look up the Braverman assessment (do a Google search for it), it’s a test to evaluate your neurological dominance. ONLY those who are dopamine dominant should train more than 5 days a week. Ironically, it is normally those who are acetylcholine-dominant that crave training more often. But they are at a very high risk of crashing (neurological crash) if they train too often.

The thing with crashing is that you never feel it coming. You feel good and all of sudden BAM, it hits you and it’s hard to keep progressing.

From your message, I do suspect that you are acetylcholine dominant (but do take the test). People of that dominance take pride in how much they are doing, more so than in how much results they are getting. And with training, they always feel the need to do more. As a result, they are their own worse enemy when it comes to progression.

For these people, I’m always weary of giving the okay to lift more often because they always find a way to ruin it. Lets say I told them, “okay, go in and simply do 5 sets of 3 reps at 75% on the deadlift” well they do it the first week, but feel like it wasn’t enough so the next week they do 5 sets of 3 but do all-out sets (about 90’%) or they do 10 sets… the next week they add an isolation exercise, the next week they add abs work, the next week another exercises, etc. Until they reach a point where they screw up both their hormonal and nervous systems.

Is it possible to lift 1 or 2 more days? Sure. But the chances of it hurting are more likely than the chances of it helping because of a misapplication.

If you have the discipline to see extra sessions as extra sessions, and not full workouts here are some recommendations.

* Use them as practice sessions. Select one of the big lifts (ideally one that you are struggling on) and practice it for about 30 minutes. Practice means using moderate weights, not anywhere close to failure and focusing on perfecting technique and muscle recruitment.

* Do pump work for a lagging muscle group, ideally a muscle that was trained the day prior (this is called double stimulation). Again, this could be 2 isolation exercises done for about 4 sets each focusing on pump methods; slow tempo, drop sets, 21s’, etc. But it shouldn’t be anything neurologically stressful. I would also avoid going to failure even though the goal is maximum pump. This should once again not last more than 20-25 minutes.

* Do neural charge work. You can read about neural charge training here: https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/neural-charge-training . Basically a short, non-fatiguing session of explosive work that you stop before you feel the slightest sign of fatigue. This actually helps the nervous system recover.

* Do injury rehab/prehab work

— 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…