Strength Training Progressions
Most endurance athletes that are new to resistance exercise will make significant improvements in strength by following the general recommendations that have been detailed in The Endurance Paradox. The key elements of an effective routine include the following:
Emphasize a small number of basic functional exercises (1-3)
Perform each exercise in a single or multiple sets of 2-6 repetitions
Intensity (weight) should be greater than or equal to the 6-8 RM level
Rest between sets should be > 2-3 minutes
Never or very rarely train to the point of muscular fatigue or failure
Frequency should be 3 times per week (or greater)
The development of muscular and thus skeletal strength is contingent upon being able to gradually increase force production. Given that force is equal to mass times acceleration (F = M x A) this may be accomplished by increasing either the amount of weight lifted or by increasing the speed at which the weight is lifted. We recommend the former rather than the latter especially during the early stages of development. Many strength athletes prefer to work in blocks or segments of time known as cycles. A typical strength cycle is in the range of 4-8 weeks. In this article we will detail a progressive cycle that may be utilized for most strength exercises including our favorite, the deadlift or healthlift.
Start by selecting a weight that enables you to perform a relatively comfortable set of 6-8 repetitions. For the sake of simplicity we will start with 135 pounds. This is the weight of a standard Olympic bar plus one 45 pound plate (a “wheel”) on each end. This cycle involves three days of strength training per week. The first line describes the number of sets and repetitions (1 set x 4-6 repetitions per set) and the second line refers to the amount of weight that will be lifted in each set (135 pounds). Each set should be performed with meticulous technique and no repetition should be attempted unless you are 100% confident that you will be able to complete it. Depending upon how you are feeling make the decision to perform the number of repetitions within the range indicated (3-6). Some days you may feel stronger than others; respect these fluctuations in your ability as being typical and respect them. The general pattern of this progression is to add a set of exercise per training day over the week. Two weeks at a particular weight is followed by an increase in training weight. The last two weeks of the cycle (when the training loads are the heaviest), repetitions are decreased to the 3-4 level. Although you are performing sets of repetitions in this suggested range, these sets do not represent your maximal efforts. In general, you should feel as though an additional repetition (or more?) would be possible to perform. Resist the temptation to train to the point of failure and your long term strength will continue to improve and the amount of time needed for recovery will be significantly reduced.
Following this 8 week cycle, consider taking a week off prior to starting the next training block. You should initiate the following cycle with a slightly greater starting weight. For example, 140 or 145 pounds may be appropriate. When in doubt start cycles a bit more conservatively and finish strong. Your long term strength development will be much better having followed this advice. The accumulation of loading over months and years will enable you to realize your greatest strength potential as well as reduce muscle soreness and the likelihood of sustaining an injury.
Congratulations your strength has improved dramatically over the past several months. It is typical to anticipate improvements in maximal strength by greater than 25% within the introductory 8-12 weeks of strength training. Impressive gains in strength and the ability to load the skeleton with progressively greater force should lead to meaningful increases in bone mass as well as improved endurance performance.
In future installments we will provide additional plans for strength development as long term adaptation requires a certain degree of training variety.