Programming for Strength

Written by Aris Demarco

I don’t think we can deny that many of the strongest people in the world, the best strength athletes, are greatly aided by the most advanced science we have available. I think that genetics are the most important factor—I doubt anyone reading this will ever have the build of a Zydrunas Savickas no matter what they eat and how they train—but beyond that a great many strength athletes have really good coaches.

Boris Sheiko’s powerlifters, the Chinese weightlifting team, Westside Barbell’s geared powerlifters all benefit from coaches with a certain method. Look at Sheiko’s work in particular and you’ll see an exercise in precision and complexity. Loading and unloading weeks within a month, number of lifts in each intensity zone is calculated, and so forth. How does this or a super high volume, high frequency program like the Chinese weightlifting model affect an athlete in some other sport, an amateur lifter, or even an intermediate level powerlifter? It doesn’t.

Most people don’t have time to lift 4 to 6 hours a day and live in near isolation so that their only measurable stressors are training and competition. Powerlifting meet in 16 weeks but there’s a family vacation partway through, that has to be taken into consideration. Long day at work and the lifter can’t make the prescribed reps on a particular day, same thing. For an athlete who has to contend with tough practices (especially in a  combat/contact sport) in addition to strength and maybe even conditioning work the strength programming will need to take a backseat to the demands of the sport itself. But, it is still possible to get a lot stronger without worrying too much about the nitty gritty of scientific exactitude. That has its place but… it’s more in the background for most people.

Our approach is simple, flexible and when necessary very much tailored to the individual. The first thing we address is movement. How does an individual move? Are they coordinated, do they learn easily, do they have a good awareness of their own body? (“Sit back toward your heels more.” “Coach I’m all the way back.” “No you aren’t.”) How is their flexibility, or better yet, mobility? Can they control the ranges of motion we need for them to move their own body or an external weight for resistance? How’s their ability to create and manipulate tension in order to provide a safe, stable base for a bar or bell in their hands? These have to be at least adequate before moving on. If someone is lacking here we’ll work on it with whatever drills benefit their deficiencies the most and, if we can, start loading them up where they can safely do so.

The next is building a base. This will happen repeatedly, with the ‘base’ often getting broader and deeper every time. More sets and reps, more targeted hypertrophy training, more density, more aerobic conditioning. This is going to be hard work plain and simple and ensures that the individual is ready for their ‘peak’—could be a maximum single in the powerlifts for her, or a lot of power and speed work for an athlete about to start his season. Slowly building workloads here will pay off later. Each person’s ‘base building’ cycle might look radically different even for two people with the same goals, depending on what we think they need to work on. A powerlifter with a weak midsection and quads but a strong back and bench might see lots of kettlebells, high tension ab work, some heavy front squats and a lot of time spent pushing or pulling sleds and using the leg press. Another one who lacks the ability to handle high volumes of work and has a stalled bench press might see more conditioning work of all varieties and a lot of bodybuilding style upper body training plus plenty of time spent practicing bench technique with low repetitions and moderate weights.

Finally there is the specific preparation for each person’s task at hand. For almost everyone this will involve heavier weights on the big lifts, moderate RPEs, and lower volume. For an endurance athlete there might be a lot of soft tissue work to stay loose and get the kinks out, some easy movement stuff like crawling and weighted carries. For a powerlifter this means a lot of rest, some high rep, light ‘pump’ or ‘feeder’ work to aid in recovery and keep blood flow going (reverse hyperextensions, pushups, bodyweight rows, light sleds et cetera). For a power or contact sport athlete this will be fast, submaximal compound lifts, some jumps or sprints, explosive medicine ball and kettlebell work with a lot of easy movement stuff in the mix as well.

As can be seen there might be some basic formulas for each type of athlete we coach but from a programming standpoint if possible we do not lock people into a stiff framework of graphs and exact sets and reps on certain exercises. For the vast majority of the population there is no ideal program and we do not try and find it, either. Even from the first day an individual walks into the gym they are being assessed as to what they need to work on and what we can give them to help. Always progress, never perfection.

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