the joy of strength training


May 5th, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Five secrets of more effective training

Gubernatrix talking at a workshop

Gubernatrix shares her secrets (Photo: Kate Pankhurst)

Okay, they are not really secrets but the more accurate ‘five things that people generally don’t do but probably should’ doesn’t read so well as a blog post title.

There’s plenty of information about workout programmes: how to get a beach body, how to get a bigger chest, how to look like so-and-so actor.

But rarely do people talk about the catalysts that can jump-start progress again. That’s what I’m talking about in this article. There are more than five, of course, but I personally rate these five in particular and have benefitted from all of them.

Speed work

Speed work is training your lifts at lighter weights but moving fast and explosively.

Training your body to lift faster is a bit like fartlek training in running – you want to get used to different paces otherwise your body adapts to lifting at a particular tempo and finds it more difficult to change. For an athlete or all-round fitness trainee, being able to move or lift at a variety of tempos is very functional. For a strength athlete, training the muscles to fire faster will help you to lift heavier weights.

There are two main ways of doing speed work. You can do the official Westside method which is very effective, particularly for powerlifting (read more in this post). But you can also do a more informal style of speed work, where you simply use a lighter weight in the movement you want to train (around 50% of your max) and focus on moving the weight as fast as possible. Keep the reps low, using sets of one, two or three. High rep sets simply result in deterioration of form and general fatigue, which is not the training effect we are looking for in speed work.

Speed work is best applied to the big compound lifts such as squat, deadlift, good morning and so on. Do speed work at the beginning of your workout or in a separate session; you should be fresh, not pre-fatigued to get the best out of it.

More about speed work

Carrying stuff

I’ve written about the benefits of carrying heavy stuff around before and the more I do it, the more I become an advocate for it. I think it is an excellent finisher to any workout (or indeed a workout in itself).

As a strength trainee I find it includes aspects of my fitness that may not be properly covered in the ‘main’ workout – such as sustained cardio effort, grip, balance and core training.

You can carry any object, in front, by your side, overhead – each position has its own challenges. Moving with weight is a great way to cover many things in a short space of time, and very functional too.

More about carrying stuff

Gubernatrix carrying two farmers walk handles

Heavy farmers walks (Photo: Emmie Bates)

Deload week

Due to the popularity of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme, many people are discovering the benefits of the deload week. This is something that experienced powerlifters have been doing for a long time. I have failed to do it in the past – and regretted it!

A deload week is simply a lighter training week, around once every three or four weeks. You do the same key exercises that you would normally do but at lighter weights. ‘Lighter’ depends on the lifter, the programme and the goal, so it can be anything from 50 per cent to 75 per cent of maximum.

Taking a regular deload week helps to guard against the burn out that many of us suffer from, where we work very intensively through perhaps two or three cycles in the run up to an event, burn out afterwards and end up having to take too long off lifting.

It’s worth saying that although Wendler’s 5/3/1 stipulates very strictly that only 40-60 per cent weights should be used, this is a rule of the 5/3/1 programme, not of deload weeks generally. As a rule of thumb, the more advanced a lifter you are, the more you need a frequent deload week. For an experienced powerlifter, cutting right back every fourth week is a wise thing to do. However for someone relatively new to strength training or someone not close to their strength potential, a 50 per cent cut every fourth week is not necessary in my opinion. If you have a four-week cycle where you go up to 90 per cent or above in your third week, your fourth week can drop back to around 70 per cent. You will make progress more quickly while staying fresh.  It may be wise in this situation to take a 50 per cent deload week every eighth week or tenth week, rather than every fourth week.

Of course if you are actually following the 5/3/1 programme then do what the programme says. But if you are simply trying to apply the principles to your own training, be honest about what stage you are at and make choices that are appropriate to you.


Testing simply means checking to see if your programme is working. It sounds simple but most people simply don’t get round to it and it could save a lot of time.

Testing is particularly useful if you have passed the beginner/novice stage (where progress is pretty much guaranteed almost every session) and need to know whether your programme is working. Sometimes waiting for the final outcome, such as your performance at a particular event, is a bit late to find out!

For olympic lifters and powerlifters testing is easy as you can simply do a one rep max session on the main lifts (see Testing your one rep max).

Gubernatrix discussing squat one rep max testing

At a recent workshop at Crossfit London, explaining how I test my squat max (Photo: Kate Pankhurst)

For those training for general strength and fitness a good option is to use a benchmark or regular workout.  Crossfitters often use ‘Fran’ (a full body workout involving squat presses and pull ups). There’s also the British army fitness test, which consists of running and bodyweight exercises so no equipment needed (here’s a version used by British Military Fitness). Or simply pick a favourite workout that you consider works all the aspects of fitness you want.

For those playing a team sport, I recommend deciding what ‘standards’ you think you need to reach for your sport. For example, if you squat as part of your strength regime, how good does your squat need to be? Do you need to be training to lift as much as you possibly can, or do you just need to get to a useful level for an athlete? Read this post for more about athlete fitness testing.

Don’t forget to do a test before you start your programme so that you have something to compare the programme with. And don’t test every week – give the programme a chance to work! Otherwise you are just testing the testing.


Maybe its because I’m getting older (I’m now in my mid-thirties) but recovery seems to be as important as the training itself. Signs that your recovery may not be as good as it should be are: getting injuries, picking up colds and bugs, losing weight, feeling demotivated, not being able to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning.

I’m not going to go through all the different recovery methods – that would be a whole post on its own (perhaps I should write that one too…). My point here is to make sure that you are monitoring your recovery and making space for it in your life. If you ignore it, you will suddenly find yourself not wanting to train and not really knowing why.

One useful tip is to make sure that your workout is something that you can recover from. In other words, design the training around the recovery that you have available. If, for example, you have very little time to sleep you are not going to be able to do a heavy lifting programme successfully.

Light workouts are easier to recover from than heavier workouts, so bodyweight exercises or kettlebells are ideal if time is limited. On the other hand, if you have a nice lazy Sunday available, a heavy deadlift session could be just the ticket as you can have a nice feed and a snooze afterwards!


Some of you will be jumping on these ideas immediately, to others it might all seem like a lot to think about when you are just getting your head around training at all.

If you are not sure which to prioritise, I would suggest that recovery and testing are the most universally applicable and are great habits to get into from an early stage if you can.

The other three suggestions of speed work, carrying and deloading are useful if you have been strength training for a while and want to broaden the scope of what you can achieve.

Have you tried any of these five ideas? Do you have any of your own?

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  • 1

    For me the two main things I use on the list are the deload week and recovery.

    In terms of deloads I work on a six week cycle with increasing weights/sets/reps and then go back to the first week (or easier) in week seven.

    I’m in my mid-forties so recovery is becoming the single greatest issue for me. Mixture of cold baths, epsom salt baths, foam rolling and extra days off when I feel I need them.

    The other two things that I think make a big difference are training in a group and having a coach take sessions. I train with about eight other people and this helps everyone push themselves. Similarly having a coach to take care of the programming and technical side of things has rally made a difference to my traing.

    Dogstar on May 7th, 2010
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    I’ve not tried epsom salt baths! Maybe I should give them a go…

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