The 4 Pillars of Strength Trainingby Dan John
Last winter, it became obvious that my wife and I were going to have to spend a lot of money.
When we bought our house, one of the selling points was a magnificent deck overlooking the Jordan River. (Not the one in the Bible, and, no, I can't walk on water. Yet.) Through the years, I've stained, painted, sanded, stripped, sawed, and replaced enough wood to sail away on a boat.
Then, on a bright blue, snow-packed day, we noticed an issue. The pillars were rotting. I kicked one and the pillar just evaporated. Unless I'm the Six Million Dollar Man or a slightly less chartreuse Hulk, this was going to be a problem.
Obviously, we needed a new deck.
My deck is a metaphor for all of us in this game of strength and conditioning. We spend a lot of time preparing our bodies for whatever goals we've outlined, yet, if the pillars are rotting, the whole thing is liable to tumble down with one kick.
I offer the four pillars of strength training as a means to forestall the effects of bad programming, bad exercise selection, and bad ideas so you can build a strong, functional, and presumably esthetic body, along with enjoying a long, healthy career.
Pillar #1: Time
It's going to take some time to get your goals. Recently, Stephanie Brown Trafton, the 2008 Gold Medal winner at the Olympics in the discus, stated this:
"Fine-tuning the discus will take several years. You have to really develop a base for it, and then, after about ten years of throwing, you get to the point where you're really solid in the technique that you have and you just need to have your little tweaking here and there."
That insight alone will make most of us cry. After ten years of training, you can go ahead and tweak things a little. Contrast that with all the hype we read in most training advertisements. In fact, tally up the number of things you've purchased through the years promising this or that "in as little as two weeks."
I've said the following about 10,000 times: Everything works... for about six weeks. In ten years, that's a lot of "six weeks." That's the simple reason why I strongly recommend adding things to your training program every so often just to shake things up a little. I have no problem with someone trying one of Ellington Darden's two-week focused training programs. Taking a minute to do a single dip or chin-up is well worth the effort even if it's to simply discover how much intensity it takes to move a load at that rate of speed.
Bored with your training? Dust off Tom Platz's old squat workouts. It's simple and fun. One day a week, you go really heavy on the back squat. The other day, you simply take a weight like 225 and do as many reps as you can. My best in the deep Olympic style back squat with 225 pounds is 51 reps. I've heard, and not unlike "someone's brother's friend's uncle," that the record is 100 reps. Go ahead, beat it.
If you're thinking that you have time to get your goals, you can experiment with things that a narrow focus won't allow you to. In my personal history book called My Training Journals, you'll find Nautilus training, bodybuilding, powerlifting, preseason prep for flag football, high-rep squats, Crossfit, triathlon training, and a host of other less "popular" ideas right alongside my training for the Olympic lifts and the discus.
Pillar #2: Harvest Layoffs
You'll notice that I didn't say take layoffs. Enjoy them. And, for the record, I'm not talking about skipping a workout or two, or missing a week for a vacation or business trip. I'm talking about up to six weeks of doing nothing. Remember, if you believe in the first pillar, this ties right in.
This isn't a new idea, either. Not long ago, noted nutritional expert Lyle McDonald, a good friend, loaned me a book called Physiology of Strength, by Theodor Hettinger, MD. Now, this book was published in 1961, yet everything we know about strength is in there, and like I often say about John McCallum, the rest of us are footnotes.
Some of my favorite insights from the book include:
• The calves can increase in strength 6% a week; the glutes 4%; the triceps 3%; and the biceps 2%. When I fall back into my "hunter" paradigm for understanding why humans react to training, it shouldn't be a surprise to see the sprinting muscles respond to training quite quickly.
• Men are stronger than women. In tests, some parts of women are 55% as strong as men (forearm extensors), but in the hip area it rises to 80%. Anyone who's ever coached women will find that research to be absolutely true. Women, like one of my female friends, tend to have the odd ability to bench 135 for ten reps, yet their max will be 140 for a single.
• Strength peaks in the late twenties and maintains for a long time, and then gradually declines, especially in untrained populations. Oh, that is sadly true.
• It's easier to train in the summer, and vitamin D might help that, too. No surprise here, but it's amazing to see the graph that shows me why January training is so lousy. I thought it was just the snow.
• Injecting Testosterone seemed to make everybody train better for a long time. Welcome to the modern world of sport.
One of the areas that really interested me in Hettinger's book was the discussion on layoffs. It's important to remember the period that this book was written, as the following short (and woefully inaccurate) retelling of the following story probably couldn't happen in today's university setting:
In an interesting 200-day study, Hettinger tested the normal strength levels of several people. One arm on each of several subjects was put in a plaster cast for seven days. (I'm sure they used the Soviet method of volunteering: You!) After seven days in a cast, it took a short amount of time to get back to normal.
From there, they continued to train them up to a level where the volunteer was 30% stronger than the starting, "normal" strength level. Then, the person was put back in the cast. Strength levels dropped, but not back to the starting level.
The interesting thing was this: It took only about half the time to return to that level of 30% stronger when the cast was removed.
Those of us who've trained a while, of course, aren't surprised. I've heard it called "muscle memory," among other things, but I think it's true in all areas of the game.
For those interested in absolute fat loss, John McCallum, from Keys to Progress fame, had an idea called "softening up" for fat loss. I know that lots of people argue that one needs to constantly be in a state of 3% bodyfat, but very few people have ever done it. McCallum's idea was to stagger highly focused fat loss training (zero carbs, full body workouts, and some easy jogging) with a period of general training and a laxer diet.
It's the layoff that propels the next round of intensive training. Anyone reading this article who's tried to lose fat by increasingly rigorous diet plans and exercise schemes usually finds that they hit a brick wall.
I have an old friend from my days studying at an intensive foreign language institute who struggled through the last week of prep for a bodybuilding contest, then walked into a pizza parlor and ate three pizzas. It had an effect on his body, if you're looking for an understatement. His fogged out brain just simply demanded mounds of carbs and salt.
I'm not sure if a layoff earlier would've helped, but he later told me that he tried to be perfect for three months, and he only had that one lapse, which sadly happened only hours before prejudging. For some, that would actually help them look better on stage, but once he fell off the wagon, he didn't stop rolling down the hill.
This is also the reason I push for high school and adolescent athletes to do multiple sports. Those "layoffs" from one set of movements to another, allow the athlete to rebuild and avoid overuse injuries. I'm convinced that the plague of ACL injuries in high school female athletes is caused by the club sport system. Of course, those club coaches get paid by having a lot of kids in their sport year round, and I get paid one step from nothing as a coach, so what do I know?
Don't be afraid to take time off now and then. You'll return quickly to your strength levels and find a new discipline to deal with severe dieting. It also gives you a chance to look around and explore some other avenues for your strength and health goals.
Pillar #3: You Have to Move Heavy Weights
The problem with all the options in a modern gym, besides simply being too many, is the fact that we have no honest system for the measuring the amount of weight. With the cams, the counterweights, and the plate-stacking systems, it's all too easy to trick oneself into thinking that we're really moving iron.
I'm not trying to brag here, but I went with my wife and daughter to a local gym and just went from machine to machine stacking the weights for safe, controlled reps. The max effort that one can do at this place is really not much of an effort for any typical high school athlete.
So, you have to lift heavy.
Not long ago, Doug Dunagan talked with Brian Oldfield about his training. Brian is a legend in the strength sports — he's the first man to throw the shot 75 feet. Go ahead, pick up something 16 pounds and throw it. If you measure half of Brian's effort, you're probably in the 1% club.
Doug described Brian's lifting like this:
"His lifting was done on Mondays and Thursdays, and he generally worked with five sets of doubles. On the push press and front squat, he did triples. Sometimes he did ten sets because often he felt that his fifth set was the easiest."
Bench 5x2 401
Clean and press 5x2 364
Snatch (split and squat) 5x2 250
Front squat 5x3 465 (500 single)
Push press/jerk 5x3 365-450
Brian had a little formula that still makes sense. To add a foot to one's effort in the shot put, you need to add 15 pounds to your max on each lift. Brian's workout was the same for this period: Tuesday and Thursday he'd repeat all five lifts.
Recently, Brian told me a little gem about counting reps for an explosive athlete. On a trip to Poland, he went to a local school and the kids were in a Physical Education class. They weren't just playing dodgeball, that's for sure. Brian was watching the kids doing overhead squats. They were counting for each other: 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. So, Brian had the idea that for explosive athletes the NASA countdown method reflected the real way we view lifting: as the launch pad to take off! It's a small change, but try it. It really does work.
Vince Gironda said it best years ago: "It's not high reps that work. It's not heavy weights that work. It's high reps with heavy weights that work!"
Pillar #4: There's a Time and Place for Hypertrophy
It's odd to even have to discuss this in bodybuilding circles, but many people have extreme views on hypertrophy training, and it usually ends in "never" or "always." The answer is actually a bit more like an "S" that's fallen drunk on its side.
In my perfect world, the beginning bodybuilder would spend some quality time learning the basics:
• Start with the row, squat, pull-up, bench press, biceps curl, and an intelligent abdominal move. (Right, Arnold's "big six.")
• Understand the need for protein, fish oil, and fiber, and eating meals that don't have a clown selling them.
• Enjoy a basic understanding of the body and how the body moves.
• Embrace the notion that pain is part of the path.
Now, we can add some mass. Do it the right way with slowly ramping up the weights and adding reps to nearly every workout for a while. Variation will have its place, but like Pavel always says, "Same, but different." Some variation in the basic moves is one thing; 1,001 variations is another.
Hypertrophy's first phase should last until the gains begin to slow. Hopefully, this stage of the career will parallel the athlete's attempts in team or Olympic sports. I've come to describe building muscle as "armor building" for the sport athlete. There's a need for some mass, and the protection that mass delivers for the contact athlete.
On a side note, I once had a guy tell me that "armor building" was a bad term, as "any excess hypertrophy would lead to diminished skills in other qualities of the athlete." My eyes might be getting bad, but it was obvious to me from this gentleman's build that he'd never been blindsided on a kickoff. If you missed the point, when someone is trying to take your head off, a little mass might be the difference between a headache and a headstone. After a period of time, though, it's time to rethink pure hypertrophy training.
At the next stage, the gentle downward slope after the initial year(s) of easy muscle gain, I always argue to put pure hypertrophy on the shelf and play around with some other things. Watching strongman contests on television will give you the insight that maybe doing farmer walks or pulling massively heavily objects for distance might help your body gain some mass.
On the other tack, it might also be a time to look at a dedicated leaning out phase. I've noted before that a serious fat loss attack seems to lead to greater muscle mass when you go back to "normal" eating and training. If you're continuing an athletic career, there may be no better advice than to expand into strongman training and look at some fat loss. If the recent Track and Field Nationals taught me one thing, it's this: Elite athletes ain't fat.
What most people don't realize is the next stage. As we age, the need for hypertrophy training increases compared to other training qualities. Yes, the master athlete might need to focus on maintaining or increasing muscle mass.
Let this be said: It's assumed that the older athlete has the necessary techniques and a base in some kind of strength training. As we age into our middle years and beyond, the fight to hold muscle mass is probably the single best indicator of health.
As we prepare to enter Sunnybrook Senior Center, the bulk of our training probably shouldn't be shuffleboard. Rather, we should be doing a program with roots in training for Mr. America. Body part training, split routines, machine training, high-rep work, isolated muscle training, and a rigid adherence to sets, reps, and rest periods is the appropriate protocol.
The hypertrophy curve is based in reality. All too often, we ignore that first dip and keep striving for more and more. Give yourself four or five years of armor building, then move into some other areas of strength training. For the athlete, certainly make sure you're training for hypertrophy some of the time but never fully drop those higher rep workouts out of your training program. Certainly, leave room for the Olympic and power lifts, but don't abandon the mass work.
Build It Right, Build It Forever
Today, my new deck is finished at a cost higher than what most of my colleagues make in a year. We have Trex decking, pressure-treated wood pillars, and vinyl railing. According to the builder, I'll never have to mess with it again (he knows my age).
If you build the proper foundation, you won't have to mess with it, either.
Tom Platz's squat workout is time-tested, and you've got time.
Summer liftin': There's a reason "Muscle Beach" exists.
Brian Oldfield and his legendary strength.
Odds are he's awfully familiar with Arnold's "big six."
If you build the proper foundation, you won't have to mess with it.
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