Here's what you need to know...
- Newbies and advanced lifters respond differently to heavy training. Beginners do better with 4-6 reps. Experienced lifters do better with 1-3.
- To really master a lift, you need to train it 2-3 times per week.
- If you train "on the nerve" too often, you risk putting a halt to your strength gains.
- To get the most out of the maximal effort method, use it as a 3-week peaking phase.
- Get used to handling heavy weights by using supra-maximal loads. Use partial reps using 105-110% of your max, or holds with 110-115%.
1 – More reps for beginners, fewer reps for advanced.
As a rule of thumb, the more advanced/stronger you are, the fewer reps you can do at a specific percentage of your maximum. This is because more advanced individuals can recruit more muscle fibers during a rep, so each rep takes more out of them.
Beginners have a much lower level of motor-unit recruitment and have a harder time involving a large percentage of their fast-twitch fibers. Thus they can do more reps at a certain percentage and it also means that they need to do more total reps to get stronger than advanced lifters need to do.
A beginner/intermediate lifter who focuses on strength will gain more overall strength from doing multiple sets of 4 to 6 repetitions than going into the 1-3 range.
Conversely, an advanced strength lifter will get mostly muscle growth – not so much limit strength gains – from doing sets of 4 to 6. To really boost his maximal strength he'll need to do more work in the 2-3 rep range and sometimes heavy singles.
2 – For technical mastery, you need to train a lift 2 or 3 times per week.
Being strong on the big basic lifts isn't just a matter of muscular strength. You also need technical mastery of a lift.
This goes beyond just "knowing how to do a lift." Even if two people can seem to have the exact same technique, it's likely that they have different levels of mastery.
It's one thing to have what looks like perfect technique from the outside; it's another to have the exact motor-recruitment pattern that will lead to a mind-blowing performance.
We're talking about maximal motor-unit recruitment, synchronization of these motor-units, and relaxation of the antagonist muscles – all things that aren't visible from the outside but make the difference between an average and a great performance.
The only way to improve these factors is to perform a lift often. That's why elite Olympic lifters snatch and clean & jerk every day. Now, the big basic strength lifts (deadlift, squat, bench, military press, chin-ups) don't require the same level of coordination as the full Olympic lifts, so they don't need to be trained every day to progress optimally.
Regardless, training them 2-3 times a week is the best way to improve mastery of the lift. It doesn't have to be all-out sessions every time. Anything over 80% of your maximum, even if done with sub-maximal reps, will be beneficial for inter and intramuscular coordination.
3 – Don't train "on the nerve" too often.
Max Perryman has an interesting concept called the "everyday maximum." This refers to the heaviest weight you know you'll always be able to do on any given day, regardless of fatigue, lack of motivation, etc., without the need to psych up for the lift.
This is the zone where most of your work should be done. Too many people wanting to get stronger train too often "on the nerve." By that I mean doing weights that get them nervous and for which they have to make a special mental effort to get ready for.
Every time you attempt such weights you impose a large stress on the nervous system and it'll have a much greater impact on you than you know. I've known a lot of competitors who would burn out prior to a competition by going to their max too often.
If you train on the nerve too often, you risk burning out. I believe in training hard and heavy, but only to the max you can do without any stress. And once in a while you turn up the intensity a bit to see where you are.
I trained a young CrossFit athlete who, at a bit under 180 pounds, had a 1RM clean of 285. In training we never went above 275 and most of the work was with around 240-255, only going up in weight if it didn't represent a mental stress and if we both knew that it would be done easily.
Well, when we decided to see where his clean was, he did an easy 315 – a 30-pound personal record, with room to spare!
4 – Training with max weight is the fastest way to increase strength, but it's not the best.
While I believe in not training on the nerve, I also recognize that the fastest way to increase strength is the maximal effort method – lifting weights in the 95-100%+ range.
Notice that I say the "fastest." I do not think it's the "best."
In my experience, you'll get rapid gains from the maximum effort method for 2 to 3 weeks (some can stretch it up to 4 weeks), after which your strength gains stop and even regress.
The best use of the maximal effort method is as a 3-week peaking phase while you do most of your strength work without training on the nerve – sticking to 85-90% weights most of the time, with occasional efforts at around 95%.
For 3 weeks do workouts that consist of plenty of work in the maximal zone (I normally use something like 8 sets of 1 between 90 and 100%), then 3 sets of 2 between 80 and 85% focusing on speed and technique, followed by two last sets of 1 between 90 and 100%+.
After the 3-week period we go back to not training on the nerve.
5 – Use supra-maximal loads to get used to handling heavy weights.
Two important reasons why we fail a heavy lift are psychological inhibition and neuroprotective inhibition.
The first phenomenon could simply be defined as being intimidated by the feel of the weight. I've seen many people unrack weights passively, staying somewhat soft, and then missing a lift they could make just because it felt too heavy and they subconsciously gave up.
The second phenomenon refers to the action of the Golgi tendon organs (GTO). Their role is to prevent excessive force production that could potentially tear the muscle.
When the GTOs feel that the muscles are producing too much force, they put the brakes on, limiting how much force you can produce. They tend to be overprotective, though, not allowing you to use a very high percentage of your maximum potential.
Both elements can interfere with your lifting of heavy weights. And both elements can be worked on by handling supra-maximal loads – loads heavier than your maximum in the full lift.
You can do this by using partial reps (a squat or bench going down halfway) using 105-110% of your maximum, or holds – unrack the weight, go down very slightly, and hold the weight for some time – with 110-115%. Even negatives or eccentrics will work, too.
These methods will get you used to handling heavy weights. If you're used to moving weight above your max, even for a short distance, your training weights will feel much lighter and won't psych you out. You'll also improve the stabilization function of your muscles, which will make your key positions in the lift more solid.
By frequently handling very heavy weights you'll also desensitize the GTOs. Over time this means that the GTOs kick in less easily, letting you use more of your potential strength.
You don't need a lot of volume on supra-maximal movements. Two to three sets will do. Two good approaches are doing supra-maximal holds before doing your actual lift (this will make the lifts feel lighter) or doing 2-3 sets of partials at the end of the main lift, after your work sets have been completed.