the joy of strength training


August 22nd, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Does lifting more always mean you get stronger?

World record holder Andy Bolton deadlifting

This is a guest post by strength & conditioning coach Phil Nourse. Phil is a certified weightlifting coach by both BWLA and USAW. This post follows on neatly from my last post on basic barbell programmes as it introduces a different approach (from Steve Justa) and discusses the use of intensity in the training cycle. Over to Phil…

Renowned American powerlifter Arthur ‘Superman’ Jones once said, “There is a difference between lifting more and actually getting stronger.”

The point Jones was making was that lifting heavy weights in training does not actually mean that our pure strength will increase. Of course in weightlifting and powerlifting our strength is benchmarked by our performance in competition. Russian strength guru Pavel Tstatsouline says of this approach, “train light, compete heavy.”

In my experience of competitive weightlifting in the UK and USA this approach is often overlooked or rejected in favour of an irrational obsession with intensity. Why is this the case?

Perhaps it is a fascination with certain aspects of eastern bloc philosophy including the so-called Bulgarian approach.

Ivan Ivanov, Bulgarian weightlifter

It may also be the culture of ‘hard work’ which permeates this sport as well as many other aspects of strength training and sports in general. Right from the teenage wannabe bodybuilder through to competitive track and field athletes one very frequently comes across the attitude that if hard and frequent is good, harder and more frequent will be better. Commendable but, I would argue, possibly naïve.

Lastly, and this will be controversial, I feel that the sport of weightlifting often places itself upon a pedestal and is incredibly introspective, whereas if it were to take a more extrospective view it may learn something from other strength sports, particular the experiences of elite powerlifters. One only has to read works on powerlifting to realise that their sport is very outward looking and open minded to learning from other strength sports; most often, weightlifting.

Examples in powerlifting of success achieved through the “train light, compete heavy” approach are numerous. Andy Bolton (pictured, above) pulled a world record 455kg deadlift having taken no more than 340kg for a triple in the preceeding 8-week training cycle. (Both lifts were suited but suits add little to a deadlift unlike the squat and bench press.)

Another example is the bench press programme of Vladimir Volkov, the European bench press champion and masters world champion in the 220lb class. In the 10-week cycle leading up to the Russian bench press championship of 2005 he trained the bench press an average of 3 1/3 times per week (that is, relatively frequently), never took loads above 88 per cent of his competition maximum and only attempted loads between 81 and 88 per cent in 15 per cent of his workouts and usually only for a single or, infrequently, a double. All other workouts used loads between 59 and 79 per cent. He would take that championship with a bench press of 270kg.

It is this relatively frequent practice with light to moderate loads which Tsatsouline terms “greasing the groove.” He attributes the success of the approach to the improvements in intramuscular coordination which he contends it delivers. Russian powerlifter, Sergey Pavlov adds, “when you are just thinking WHETHER you will lift the bar, you are not thinking about HOW to lift it.” As we said earlier, lifting heavy weights and getting stronger are not the same thing.

Tsatsouline believes that the optimal load for gaining strength is in the 70-80 per cent (of 1 rep max) range which is, he suggests “heavy enough to notice, yet light enough to pay attention to the technique and not need to psyche up.”

It is interesting that the Russian guru proposes this range as it is also recommended by an American natural strongman, Steve Justa. Justa is precisely the type of athlete the weightlifting world would generally, I believe, pay little attention to, yet his works are intelligent and thought provoking.

Steve Justa lifting a 480lb barrel

In his book, Rock, Iron, Steel he details a program which he suggests is “very efficient and will build tremendous strength.” Justa even goes as far as to contend it to be excellent for developing “one lift you would like to practice and excel in and maybe set a world record in.”

In brief the routine involves practicing the chosen lift every day, utilising only singles and always using loads between 70 and 80 per cent of maximum. It is this percentage range which he calls “the target zone” and proposes that “this is the zone you must stay in when training to get stronger the fastest.”

On the first Monday you would perform three singles with 70 per cent, Tuesday would be five singles, Wednesday seven and so on up to fifteen on the Sunday. The following week the load increases to around 73.3 per cent, the next to 76.6 per cent and in the fourth the loads are at 80 per cent. One rep max is then tested and the process repeated.

When I ran this by friends and acquaintances in the weightlifting world their response was practically unanimous: “I don’t think there’s enough intensity”, or words to that effect. The quote from American coach, John Coffee was “I’d be scared to experiment with it out of fear that it wouldn’t work.”

Throughout my two-month experiment on the programme my knees and quads felt fantastic, no aches or pains, I actually looked forward to my squat sessions rather than dreading them, my olympic lifting sessions were better and, much to my delight, my incredibly stubborn squat max improved for the first time in a long time. A scientific experiment? Not at all. Did I care? Definitely not; it worked for me.

In his book Steve Justa relays a hypothetical to explain his thought process. This rings very true with me and also will with many of you:

“Let’s say your max is 500lbs in the deadlift, and you’ve worked up to the point where you’re pulling 450 for reps, say three reps, and you want to do four sets of three reps for your workout. Well this is fine for one workout. Even if you’re tough mentally, as you start lifting and gut your way through the workout, because you’re lifting so close to your max, every rep is hard and every set is hard. If you make it through this workout, when you finally make it, you say to yourself ‘I’m on the verge of lifting too heavy, but I made it and I feel happy, but it will feel lighter next workout – it has to because I don’t know how many more workouts like that last one I can endure.’

It’s at this point your mind’s already giving out on you because you’re questioning yourself if you could work that hard again if you had to. Then, until your next workout, this feeling of dread sticks with you, and if you’re going to use the same weight this time as last, you know you’re in for trouble. You know you’re out of your target zone but you want to push ahead rather than have to take weight off and start all over again.

For some reason, to the ambitious strength athlete, the thought of having to take weight off a lift you’ve already done is a fate worse than death itself. And this is a mentality you must not carry. Never be ashamed or embarrassed or feel let down because you have to take a little weight off a lift to keep training. If it feels too heavy, it probably IS too heavy for you to be training with.

But getting back to the story, you approach your next workout with dread because you know it’s going to be a killer mentally and physically, but you’re expecting it to be a little lighter than last time since you’ve already had one workout with this weight. So you hit the workout and for some reason it feels even heavier to you this time than it did last time. Well, now you’ve really got trouble mentally when this happens, and you really feel frustrated. But no, you think, I’m tough, I can handle it. So you gut your way through another backbreaking workout, carrying a sense of dread and destruction with you the whole time.”

Of course weightlifting and powerlifting are different sports and the style of lifting is also very different. My gut feeling is that the way we get stronger in the explosive lifts may be very physiologically and neurologically different that in the slow, strength lifts.

That said I also believe there is much that the sport of weightlifting can learn from these coaches and athletes who are succeeding in related sports. At the very least we may wish to experiment with such methodologies in our squats, presses and so forth.

More than this, though, any experienced coach can surely see how this discussion relates to that lifter with a preoccupation with intensity, i.e. he/she who continually misses far, far more lifts in training than they catch due to regular use of loads which are too heavy and the associated breakdown in form.

Why would anyone want to practice failure? Why would anyone want to think constantly about whether they will lift the bar and not how to lift it? Both will lead to deterioration and confusion of skill specific intramuscular coordination, mislearning, which in competition – under pressure and with heavy loads – will result in technical breakdown at the very moment it needs to be perfect.

More from gubernatrix

Five secrets of more effective training
Testing your one rep max
Define your training
On not making progress

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  • 1

    Interesting and thought provoking article. I’m pretty sure this protocol will work. Why? A.) It may be a superior protocol; B.) I’m pretty sure it’s not what 95% of us are doing now. C.) Change of any kind from one method to another usually elicits adaption and response.

    But I really think there’s more to this than just B and C. I’m pretty sure all of us have experienced the “dread” Steve Justa speaks of. We just don’t want to admit it. Okay, so I’ll admit it. Last year I was following a protocol that basically had me adding reps week to week for progression. For simplicity I’ll say that’s 4 x 4; then 5 x 4; then 6 x 4 with the same weight. Then add weight (2.5%), start the cycle again. This worked pretty well for a few cycles, but after the first cycle I’d simply dread dead lifting. The rest of my experience simply reads like what Steve’s story documents.

    Now I’m not a competitive lifter, but I’m damn competitive in general and certain with myself in the gym. So I think the non-competitive lifter can take something away from this. All training relies to some degree on progression–it’s the basis of the iron game. On the one side of the spectrum are those folks that come to the gym week after week, do the same reps/weight/rest periods/exercise and never see any progress. Then there are the folks that try to push everything every workout (me–as I used to train). This article is geared to the later group, and to those who have made all of the “easy” progress you get from following common methods of progression.

    Formulaic approaches work, and they certainly can form the foundation of a training routine. But I think as we progress and reach a certain level, some “intuitive” approaches are needed as well. What we have above is a good framework for moving into that realm, and the 70-80 percent isn’t going to burn out your nervous system and body like a more “grinding” approach does.

    “Intuitive” for me now means giving myself some leeway on strict training structures. Sometimes I get to the gym and my “usual” weights feel heavier than usual. Maybe I didn’t sleep well, maybe my eating was off, maybe work is stressful, maybe the planets are out of alignment, maybe there’s a gravity well under the gym. Whatever, I’m not up snuff. So I lower the weight and get on with it. Guess what? My progress has actually improved. I still feel this “guilt” about “slacking off”, but the outcome says something different. I also find I’m not encountering the number of injuries I used to have. By injuries I mean both small niggling ones or the larger ones that really set back progress for weeks/months.

    Aside from the “intuitive” approach (which is really just permission to acknowledge the obvious), my approach has also worked towards trying to do two things: lifting the weight as fast as possible and stopping the set when things slow. Not stoping when I “fail”, no “grinding” out reps. I’ve also thrown out worrying much about the negative portion of the lift–I just lower the weight under control but do that fast as well. (These are concepts I gleaned from Chad Waterbury). The result? I’m much less tired this way, my joints feel better, and I’m experiencing fewer injuries. So, if I pick up a lighter load on an “off” day I still bring the maximum number of motor units into play by lifting fast.

    The results of these “faster, less negative emphasis, and permission to slack off” are that over the past year I’ve seen an increase of 10-30 percent in the training loads I can handle on any given day. (I don’t “max out” since it’s hard to find a good spotter). But if I were competing I’d have to assume that if my average training loads for a set of reps have increased my max would have increased as well. I’m happier at the gym, I don’t “dread” dead lifting, I have fun. And I make progress–and damn, progress is fun!

    So, if I were a competitive lifter I’d give this protocol in this article a shot. And maybe consider throwing in some of the other “blasphemous” concepts I’ve noted above as well. I would not ever claim they are my ideas–rather they’re gleaned from lots of reading from various authors, personal experience (and probably what I would have initially called “laziness”), and input from other folks I chat with or have come into contact with over the years (someone named Sally comes to mind here).

    Ron on August 22nd, 2010
  • 2

    […] Here is an interesting article “Train Light, Compete Heavy.” […]

  • 3

    It is always an interesting topic. If I lie on my back and push heavy things into the air, am I really getting stronger? In some theory yes, but in practicality, not really. The key is “functional strength” or basically strength you can use in your every day life or in your competition, or if you are a fireman or police officer. I’m sure if you can bench press twice your body weight, you are one bad dude, but will it help you carry hose up a ladder or chase a criminal?

    Janos | Bodywieght Exercise Tips on August 26th, 2010
  • 4

    […] Labor Day!! Strength Rest WOD Rest CF Football Here CF Endurance Here Diet’s Effect on Mood Does Lifting More Always Mean You Get Stronger? “It’s like having a tire with a nail in it.” — Nike’s Top Coach, on Heel-Striking Crap At […]

  • 5

    […] Have you heard of the 100 Rep Challenge?  If not, then check out the website.  The idea is simply to do 100 reps of a particular movement or exercise every day (or if not 100, then whatever number seems appropriate for you) to reinforce positive movements, good mobility and an active lifestyle.  A bit like the Biomarkers idea of doing something active every day.  I’ve already realised that I could do this with bench pressing an empty bar or face pulls with a really light weight to start to reinforce use of the correct muscles.  In fact, I’m going to start doing that as soon as I get back from my holiday.  It could even be the key to getting stronger. […]

    Great links for the weekend! on September 10th, 2010
  • 6

    Thank you so much for posting this article! After reading it about a month and a half ago, I tried the Justa routine that you describe on three exercises: the front squat, the standing press, and the romanian deadlift. The only alteration I made was exercising only six days a week. At the end of my first four week cycle, not only did I make gains in all three exercises, but I set PRs in the first two. Like you, I was most pleased with the gains I made in my stubborn squat max. My front squat increase was a little insane: it actually went from 275lbs to 305lbs! Other gains were less extreme, but still better than I expected–my max increased between 5%-7% on the other two lifts.

    Another thing I love about the routine is not having a gym hangover the day after I exercise. Not only am I never sore the day after my workout, but I’m not even particularly tired.

    A final benefit I noticed from the routine was that my form improved on all of the exercises, since I had to reset my body after each rep and I didn’t have to try to grind out reps at the end of the “set”. I believe this was the key to my larger than expected front squat increase, as I got a little better at finding the sweet spot for the bar.

    I started my second cycle of the Justa routine a couple weeks ago and threw the snatch into the mix. I can’t wait to retest my max in a few weeks.

    Thanks again! Great post and great blog!

    Ian on October 16th, 2010
  • 7

    That’s fascinating feedback on your experience Ian, thanks for taking the time to write about it.

    gubernatrix on October 16th, 2010
  • 9

    Thats an interesting article, i tend to agree with it especially if you are training for a more functional strength rather than a particular lift.

    I have found even though i dont do a lot of barbell squats and deads (i do them but they are not the main focus), but do a lot bodyweight and odd object lifting more often for higher reps, circuits and AMRAP style, never to failure, i seem to be a lot stronger than my friends and colleagues who train either bodybuilding style or powerlifting. Certainly when we do clinch work etc on the mats and any sort of partner lifts etc.

    They would just beat me on a powerlift for example but naything else i can normally own them lol.

    The only diference i see is i am a lot older than them maybe 20 years in some cases, but a similar weight maybe the years of constant training counts for something.

    tentigers on November 24th, 2010
  • 10

    “They would just beat me on a powerlift for example but naything else i can normally own them lol.”

    People forget that powerlifting is sports-specific training, not general training! You are probably much better ’rounded’ in your training and can therefore exert strength in many different ways, from different angles etc.

    It’s a more trivial example but whenever blokes find out I do lifting, they always want to have a go at arm wrestling me. Like that has anything to do with lifting! Anyway I am rubbish at arm wrestling.

    gubernatrix on November 25th, 2010
  • 11

    I have a question. When you guys pull singles, how much rest time do you do between singles ?

    Tjun Kiat Teo on December 7th, 2010
  • 12

    3-5 minutes, depending on which lift, whether it’s a max attempt, how I’m feeling etc.

    It doesn’t matter too much; the point is to be recovered but not to wait too long.

    If it’s a single at 80%, it won’t take long to recover and you might be ready to go again in a minute or two.

    I like Dan John’s answer: “How many seconds do you rest after a max deadlift? In my experience, three weeks.”

    gubernatrix on December 7th, 2010
  • 13

    Pavel seems very smart and Steve Justa also sounds interesting, I liked the presentation of the principles here.

    Tyciol on December 19th, 2010
  • 14

    […] Does lifting more always mean you get stronger? […]

  • 15

    I was wondering how you would do this for the Oly lifts. I’m definitely interested in increasing my squat and Snatch, so have incorporated the three lift program (4 singles of each every day) as my base program. I add either pulls or CJ to the program on a rotating basis, so MWF I do pulls at the end, TThSa I add CJ to the 4 singles program. What do you think?? I’m on week 2 and it’s pretty interesting so far. I know this article is old, but I’m looking for something new to try out. I’m a Master’s lifter, will be 40 next year, so recovery is paramount, and I love lifting every day!!

    Keith Miller on November 27th, 2012
  • 16

    Hi Keith,
    It sounds like a good plan. Let me know how it goes!

    gubernatrix on November 28th, 2012
  • 17

    I`ve heard of a russian training method where you overtrain excessively and then take about a week off.
    Coming off the week off you should be at your peak.

    choppy on June 11th, 2013
  • 18

    The Vladimir Volkov thing is a bit misleading. Based on the article, during the 10 weeks of training – he competed three times w/ competition maxes of 589/639/595 w/ a shirt. He trained w/o a shirt even tho he competed in a shirt as the article says. The percentages stated (81-88%) were based on a shirt and not raw (he trained raw). This would make his lifts much closer to 91-98% of his raw max, therefore putting him closer to max effort work much of the time. More than likely, he did not train this way normally. Competing three times in ten weeks – it is a must to keep the body used to the heavier weight for competition.

    Eric on February 14th, 2015
  • 19

    Doing triples at 90% intensity, on deadlifts, is outright lunacy (for most lifers, most of the time).

    When I prepared for a deadlift-for-reps event in my last strongman meet, I used the competition weight for one set of 4 reps, because this load happened to be 87% of my max. I did this only once in the entire cycle, and it was just one top set in one session. On competition day, I hit 10 reps within 75 seconds. Never hesitate to work in the proper % ranges when training! The most I will ever do with 90% is doubles, and that’s at the end of a longer cycle, when I know that my max has gone up and that “90% is no longer 90%” (that’s an awesome state of mind to be at the end of a productive cycle!)

    Dominick on November 8th, 2016
  • 20

    Very descriptive blog, I enjoyed that bit.
    Will there be a part 2?

    fitness on September 30th, 2018
  • 21

    Excellent post. I was checking continuously
    this blog and I’m inspired! Extremely useful info specifically the ultimate section 🙂 I handle such
    info a lot. I used to be seeking this particular info for a long time.
    Thanks and best of luck.

    door on November 20th, 2018


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