There is still a lot of buzz about how an athlete or anyone for that matter can get stronger to help drive performance on the field. Strength by definition, is the ability of our neuromuscular system to deliver more force in movement. Although there are quite a few variables that help regulate strength development in an individual, all of it stems off of one root principle that simply cannot be denied. POP, or The Progressive “Overload” Principle. In order to signal our muscles and everything else to do more work and develop strength we must provide them with a source of overload to force this response. In other words, we need to push more weight and always try to improve upon our previous best in that same workout over time. Results can be very non-linear but over the course of time you should be able to improve upon your previous best in a lift prescription. This means that if you are military pressing 135 for 10 reps today, you should be aiming to hit 137.5 lbs. a month from now, give or take. There is one caveat though. There is a difference between overload and hyper-overload. For example, 3-8 reps versus a one rep max. The former is still sufficient enough to overload your body and improve strength, while the latter can definitely lead to severe over-training and everything it entails. Paraphrasing famous power lifter-author Jim Wendler; you do not always need to train at your maximum to increase your maximum strength. This concept is commonly referred to as intensity cycling, and is a key variable in any strength development program, but specifics of this would be suited better in another article. If you are interested in learning more about it, Stuart McRobert does a great job of discussing this topic in great detail in his book, Brawn.1
Heavy regular weighlifting that causes high relative overload obviously puts a lot of stress on our body and threatens our body structure and ability to function. Strength and size then become natural protective reactions to the problem.
High endurance lifting that consists of utilizing lighter weights for more reps that so many still elect to use simply creates no need for the body to recruit more of its muscles and increase force output to lift more weight, run faster, or jump higher. This notion of creating a need to prompt gains is essential in every skill, not only in the weight room. I suppose it’s because our body is innately lazy and seeks to conserve energy, or something else, but it’s the truth, for all of those except for the genetically elite. If you are an absolute beginner then lifting at higher rep ranges (5-12 reps) may be warranted for awhile, especially in terms of building a solid foundation of muscle mass, since you will be training directly in the classic muscle building zone. The more muscle you have the better you will ultimately be at lower reps. I cannot locate precisely where I read it, but I vividly recall Westside Barbell estimating that sedentary folks recruited 40% of their muscle mass, while elite powerlifters are at 90+ %. This is one estimate that would help explain why high rep programs can be very suitable for beginner-intermediate lifters with lower muscle recruitment levels. Practically anything will stimulate strength gains in the beginning of a program. The initial higher reps also provide more practice to ensure proper motor learning and coordination for movements. Also, the lighter, yet still heavy resistance enables weaker groups to get stronger, so we have more of a chance of success at the ultra heavy workloads. I see this a lot in my beginning athletes. Their control over the bar and their body is poor when we really start to test form at anything less than 5 reps. This is one of the reasons why I really love Jason Ferrugia’s “Muscle Building Secrets,”2 or The Texas Method for beginners and intermediate trainees. I’m sure there are other interpretations of these as well that would get the job done. Sooner rather than later though, we will have no choice but to intensify the workouts at the right times too continue our progress in the gym, and increase strength at the fastest rate possible. At the Speed School, we use a modified version of Westside Barbell for Strength Development, much like Joe DeFranco, but with some other revisions.
The next automatic rebuttal that arises would be one of apprehension or fear. Nearly every day some parent, general gym member, or other will approach me and question the overload approach, and both its efficacy and safety. Of course heavy weighlifting is inherently dangerous, just like any other activity, but if the program design is right and you’re smart and patient, the results are unparalleled and the likelihood of getting injured is very minimal. “Risk of injury is another area of concern for coaches and parents. Many studies have measured the rate of injuries associated with weight training compared with the rate in other sports. For example, a study published in the November/December 2001 issue of the Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons cited research showing that in children ages 5 to 14 years, the number of injuries from bicycling was almost 400 percent greater than the number of injuries from weightlifting. There’s more. In a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescents published in 2002 in Strength and Conditioning Coach, author Mark Shillington reported in a screening of sports-related injuries in school aged children that resistance training was the likely cause of only 0.7 percent (or 1,576) of injuries compared with 19 percent for football and 15 percent for baseball.”3
We also use strength exercises to facilitate recovery in all injury cases that do not require medical referral, and too often the lack of strength is at least a contributor to the injury state. All we have to do is look at the generations of successful and supremely strong men and women preceding us to know that it works. The things that work will always last, and real weight room work is undoubtedly one of those things.
Heavy weightlifting in the 1930’s!!!! I love it. It’s one of the very few types of training where you can flash back a century plus and still see it being performed in much the same fashion it is today!
The fact is that these people that are scared or got hurt did something inappropriate and wrong in the lift. Period. Maybe they were lifting at the prescribed intensity for too long, some aspect of their overall technique was off, they did not recover and refuel adequately, they lost focus, they trained too frequently, they did not warm-up properly, they were a little injured already, or whatever else. I’ve been guilty of some of this, and I had to take an honest look at my knowledge base on the subject and others, learn from those who were better or knew what to do, and then revise my approach. It’s a total catch 22. The same thing that could damage us, is also the cure to our ailments and inability to function at a high level in a large majority of cases. If everyone was at a healthy bodyweight and bodyfat percentage, had a solid comprehensive strength program, and lifted their assess off over the long-term, structural injuries would be much much lower, but I’m aware that this might be a pipe dream.
This was a very short, but to the point article. POP is the foundational piece in any strength training program you see and always be, because it has the most influential physiological effect on our body in terms of stimulating all of the specific functions of the neuromuscular system that promote increased strength. Learning how to properly implement this principle is critical and very technical though. I’m still learning how to master it, and you could easily write an extensive article on this one program variable alone. The simple approach, however, is that we should go full bore for short period of times, hard a large percentage of the time, and deload and recover the rest of the time. The fact of the matter is that this principle represents a tremendous amount of hard work, patience, and intimidation. Three things that we all know we struggle with. I also think this is the primary reasons why weightlifting can be unappealing to so many, why it gets ridiculed so easy, and its unfair and unfortunate since it has helped so many reach a whole new level of physical and mental function.
#3-Shepard, Greg. Bigger Faster Stronger: The proven system for building athletes. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2004