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This week on Barbell Shrugged we’re going old school. It’s just me, Mike and Doug talking training. We sort of geek-out on the topic of strength progressions. It’s a discussion that you need to hear if you want to become strong.
“What program do you guys think I should do? No matter what I try, I can’t gain muscle. I’m lifting 6 days a week, but still, my lifts are going nowhere!”
It happens all the time.
This week marks the 148th episode of Barbell Shrugged. That’s a lot, but I can promise you that I’ve been asked this same programming question at least 150 times this year.
The cycle repeats. People get very excited and motivated early on when it comes to training. I know the habits because I have been there before. You use three different colors of dry erase marker to graffiti the training goals across your whiteboard. Also, we cannot forget the name-brand gear, the crispy clean weightlifting shoes, or the finest lululemmon board shorts that money can buy. It all seems important enough, right?
All of that stuff is great, I guess, right up until you go window shopping for the actual training program. That’s how it usually goes, right? You click around on the internet, or ask around at your box, “What program are you guys doing right now?”
You end up doing whatever seems cool and exciting at the time. Forget reason, evidence and personal experience, this is more random chance silliness. How could you be surprised with a random or negligible training result?
You might recognize this lift. It wasn’t the deepest squat (*caugh), but this is right around the time that I felt best lifting. In hindsight, if I would have just trained my front squat, I think I would have been capable of doing 700 to full depth at a meet. I missed 675 or something at a small competition due to lean. Lesson learned.
You have a certain amount of years to pursue the development of your training career. It’s like any other career path you would take. It comes in phases. For a few years you pay your dues and put in your work. Before long you’ll do well, but you always have to be learning and hustling to build your skills and keep your edge. That process doesn’t ever stop, not if you want to keep making progress throughout the progressively harder years ahead.
You will climb and climb, with clear markers of progress all along the way. But then one day you’ll know things are getting a little too hard. You won’t be able to keep up that relentless edge. Retirement or a brand new challenge become what you need most. Do you know what program jumping really is? It’s quitting a job 3-6 months in because the retirement benefits aren’t coming fast enough. Or, how about this? Would you ever consider working 2-3 jobs at a time? Probably not, but have you ever done more than one training program at once? Right, this sort of mixing and matching can be done with some experience, but you have to be really careful.
Most athletes are reckless in practice. What everyone needs to understand is that strength is the result of intense, persistent and cumulative effort. Your $30 eBook or weekend long training seminar is worth little more than a pamphlet at the local job fair. You’ve still got to commit to something and do some real focused work if you want a real reward.
Strength is rooted in the fundamentals. Before you think about switching programs, make sure you’re sleeping 8-9 hours a night. Eat more real food. Make sure you utilize basic recovery methods, including sauna and message. It really does make all the difference. And when it comes to training, just try being there for a while at first. Find a gym that has some strong members…And then be there, 4-5 times a week, every week for a year or so. You’ll always have a better understanding of training if you do that first. You can search for the secret sauce later on.
When you are ready to pick a training program, start with your needs and nothing else. What do you what to get really good at? What must improve? That will take the focus of your programming, along with a series of very similar assistance movements that will bring up your lifting skills quickly.
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It’s only then that the brand of progression becomes a critical thing. To get really strong, you have to add weight to the barbell. At first you will do it weekly, or just about every time you come to the gym. Be patient, 5 pounds a week adds up. This is simple and linear, but you’ll be a lot stronger than you are now with zero fuss. It’s an amazing way to train. To skip this phase is foolish. If you do that, you’ll never reach your full potential.
The only time you ever mess around with your progression is when the progress train stops. In that case, you rest for a while, eat some fattening food, and you come back at it. If you ever find yourself failing and failing again, then you know you’ve graduated. You now need to consider spreading out the loading to every other week, two weeks, etc. These styles of programs look more like undulating waves if you graph them out. The most ideal, in my view, is when you ramp up your work to a tough record attempt on week 3, then unload. That works so well it’s silly.
I would only recommend one other approach. It’s something I arrived at in my powerlifting training after years and years of trial and error. My wave was still 4 weeks. I still went for my really heavy record attempts on week 3. The last week was devoted to unloading work and recovery.
The difference is that week 1 was my second heaviest week, with target loads around 95% of my best. I then used my second week to restore speed to the barbell, explode through t 70-85% weights. That left me feeling explosive and bulletproof for my record attempts on week 3.
Those are just a few ideas. In truth, there are endless ways you could progress your strength work. I think you’d be wise to get yourself two books in the beginning, “Starting Strength” and “Practical Programming.” Both are authored by Mark Rippetoe.
You need those books. Learn all you can starting now, the rest will sort out. Just keep your barbells heavy.
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