Max Load Training in the Real World


Alan Cosgrove once said that although methods are many, principles are few. What an insightful statement. What I see, however, is that these "methods' are so varied that they're violating key fundamental principles.

The result is that you the trainee aren't getting results from your gym time by following questionable methods that fly in the face of real world principles.

This is the frustrating thing for me. I train people in the real world. I'm not sure what's being taught at certification courses these days, but what is interpreted as "principles" is faulty at best. In this article I want to use a real world example for those of you training to gain size, muscle, and thickness, and have the mistaken belief that this is accomplished with "max weights." This is another term I have trouble with as it's quite misleading as we will see.

The other day I received an E-mail from a client, who sounded a little confused. It seems that a so-called "personal trainer" walked by while my client was training, and offered this brilliant advice: "You should lighten the load substantially, and do 4-4-1 tempo, to get more out of the set!"

A personal trainer helps a trainee get more out of a set.

Say what? My client was confused because I had advised to lift explosively, regardless of rep range. So who was right?

Let's take a look. If I lift 100 pounds for 5 reps, and you lift 100 pounds for 5 reps; I do 5 reps in about 5 seconds, you use the tempo above and take about 30 seconds to lift it. We both performed the same amount of work. But here's a question for you: whose set required more power? Whose set placed a higher metabolic demand on his body? The answer should be obvious. My set, of course.

Power, folks, is a rudimentary principle expressed in many ways, but is essential to training for size, strength, thickness, etc. The simple basic premise is that it takes more power to move a weight in one second than it does to move it in two seconds. Over the course of a workout this is seen as an expression of more work in the same amount of time, or the same amount of work in less time. These are all expressions of the principle of power. You'll notice, of course, that the "method" of tempo suggested above by the moron "personal trainer" violates this principle.

Next question. In the above example which one of us achieved the most overload? The answer is that it's a trick question. If that 100 pounds is a weight we are used to performing, then neitherof us achieved overload for that set. Therefore, the advice of lightening a load you can already do explosively and take 4 times as long to do it, is faulty logic that does not follow basic principles. It means negating max load, and therefore negating the overload principle in general. This is just one example of "methods" being not only many, but also mistaken.

Now if you follow this so far, then you may be thinking that maximum load is therefore the way to abide by the Overload Principle. Well yes, but only if you understand max load. I want you to read the next sentence a few times and let it sink in before we continue.

Max load is not the same thing as max weight.

Why don't most people get this? I blame the industry for detailing external cues as the be all and end all of performance. How much you "can" lift is not the deciding factor. The deciding factor is how much stress a muscle endures as overload. These are entirely different things, as I'll explain below with a real-world example.

First let's understand these basic principles more clearly. Power is an expression of force with speed. There are a few types. We're concerned here with explosive power, and the power expression itself.

Explosive power can be defined as simply as force over time. It can also be defined as the time it takes to get to max force output. Or it can be expressed as recruiting fibers for strength performance in a context of speed. So simple explosive power is expressed as F/t. Force is defined as load or strength within this context. This is where all the confusion on the gym floor begins.

Inexperienced trainers and trainees seem to think that the above solution means to use a "max load" as in weight, and be explosive. This is untrue for forcing an adaptive response. The example below illustrates my point and I'm sure if you look around your gym you will see many people making this same mistake.

At one of my former gyms where I was training I happened to be in close proximity to one of the gym's trainers and his client. I had seen them before so I watched as they repeated a familiar scenario. It was obviously deadlift day for them. Because I was training in the same area I witnessed their classic training mistake.

The trainee was a kid of average size. I watched as he did a warm up set (I presume) at 225 for 10 reps, and at a fairly explosive speed. I then watched him do a set of 5 reps at 325, still trying to be explosive, but the bar was moving a little more slowly regardless of intent.

Next, disaster. They moved the weight up to 365 pounds and rested a long time, then after a lot of yelling and screaming he performed two very slow reps that were agonizing to watch. Everyone yelled and cheered and high fived each other.

Finally they put four plates on the bar for 405 pounds. He did one very difficult rep that seemed to take forever. The two of them were screaming and a few on-lookers seemed impressed by the effort. After he put the weight down the trainer wanted to make sure everyone saw that and actually came up to me and said, "Did you see my guy pull 4 plates? Isn't that great?"

I said to him, "Well that depends on what your purpose was for this session."

He said, "Oh, we're training for size and thickness."

I shrugged. "Then you just wasted about 30 minutes of gym time!"

He huffed at me, "Well, that's youropinion!"

I replied, "No, it's a matter of fact, if you understand the principles."

He just wouldn't get it. But for those of you with open minds, let me explain why this type of ego training is a waste of time for adaptive response. First let's examine the power equation, shall we? Most of you probably know it: power is equal to force times distance, divided by time.


If we examine the above example with that formula principle, then we will see what a waste of time his "max load" sets were. For the sake of argument, let's say that for this guy, the distance of his deadlift from floor to lockout was 2 feet. If we address the loads used over that distance, and the time it took to deliver them, we can gain an understanding of the power equation, and of why this poor sod did indeed waste a considerable amount of gym time.

At 225 pounds, he lifted that weight 2 feet, and he did it explosively in under a second, let's say eight-tenths of a second. Therefore for that set he lifted 225 x 2 divided by .8 seconds. The total units of power produced in one rep were 562.5.

For the next set, he lifted 325 pounds x 5 reps. As I said, the weight moved a little slower but still with ample explosive power. So let's say each rep took a full second. Therefore we have 325 x 2 feet divided by 1 second. This gives us a total power production figure of 650. At this point, looking at the numbers, it seems his progressive overload is right in line with an adaptive response (we'll come back to that in a second).

His next set was 365 pounds, and as I said, there was a noticeable slowdown in how long it took him to hoist that weight. It took at least twice as long each rep as the previous set. We'll call it two seconds, and crunch the numbers. He lifted 365 x 2 feet, but it took two seconds, so we divide that by 2. The total units of power produced by this lift was 365. Strange but true: his max load was increased, but his power output, or overload response, decreased substantially.

Finally, he performed his last set at 405 for one max rep. This rep took forever, and in my mind I did a slow three count while watching him. So the numbers are: 405 x 2 feet, divided by 3 seconds (force times distance divided by time). His final number here on his "max load" set was actually only 270 total units of power! How can thisbe? His max single set of 405 elicited even less of an adaptive response than did his warm up set at 225.

Take a look at this graph of the TEP of Power.

The vertical axis of the graph is the amount of force used, and the horizontal axis is the time expression.

As you can see by graphing this performance, his actual peak performance sets were way before his max load sets. Now lets go back and look at those again and reassess, considering reps.

In set one at 225 pounds, he performed ten reps. We'll take his 562 units of power generated, then multiply it by 10 reps, and we get 5,620 units of power demanded during that set.

At set two we calculated that he generated 650 units of power per rep. He did that set for five reps so if we multiply the 650 x 5 we see that the total units of power demanded were 3,250.

His next set was 365 pounds, and we calculated that the total units of power were the same: 365. Yet even with this max load he lifted only two reps. Therefore his total units of power produced is 365 x 2 or a measly 730 total units of power demanded. So his "max weight" sets are starting to show more ego training than adaptive response.

Finally his last set was 405 pounds for one long rep. We already showed the total units of power to be a rather pathetic 270. And when we multiply that by his one rep, we of course get the same number, 270.

A single slow rep with 405 is a lot less demanding than 10 explosive reps with 225.

So to sum it up, if we follow the training principle of power, his max load set was not the heaviest sets in terms of load on the bar. His max load set was actually his lightest set.

225 pounds yielded 5620 total units of power demand

325 pounds yielded 3250 total units of power demand

365 pounds yielded 730 total units of power demand

405 pounds yielded a paltry 270 units of power demand


The lessons learned here are great. First, we learned that max loads have little to do with how much weight is on the bar. Max loads are relative only to performance of those loads.

Next, we learned that for this particular case the trainee would have been better off doing all of his sets somewhere between 225 and 325 pounds. Sets done in that rep range would have elicited a greater adaptive demand and response.

Within that context is where program design expertise takes over. If his goal is size and thickness (as his "trainer" stated), then more sets would be cycled through a program toward the heavier end of the proper rep range, but still dropping down for some explosive work near the lower end of the rep range. Again, this would all take place over the time of a properly designed program.

If we go back to the graph, we can see that anything to the left of the 225 pound sets would be too little overload, as in not enough weight. This illustrates the fault with slow tempos, which no one in their right mind would use for an explosive lift to begin with.

But the biggest lesson is that to the rightof the 325 pound set, there is not nearly enough duration of overload in order to accomplish an adaptive response.

All of this brings in line the whole idea of what "max loads" even means. I'll say it one last time, and hope it sinks in.

The amount of weight on the bar is only relative information. It's incidental.

It's what you do with that bar that counts.

It's amazing to me how many bright people who know the principles intellectually, do not follow them in their "methods." Maximum strength training methods do not lead to maximum size, strength, or thickness. (See also Behm 1996)

What this above example illustrates is the Training Efficiency Percentage of Power (TEP). The definition of Training Efficiency Percentage is the "number of reps in a given set of performance, that force an adaptive response." If we look at the above graph, it should be obvious that all training loads should be somewhere between 55% and 85% of maximum performance loads in order to produce an adaptive response.

Therefore, how much you can lift is not very significant in terms of how much you should lift within a course of programmed training. Of course there is much more to this that can make the above equation even more or less effective depending on training approach.

Innervation Training protocol addresses in more depth such performance parameters. Toward the Innervation Training "Principles" it's important to also remember "there is differential innervation of specific muscles or parts of muscles in different or specific ranges and planes of motion." This contributes to another principle that is known as the Total Activation Potential (TAP), which I will address in another article.


So we're all clear on what this means in terms of load selection, I ought to point out what it means in terms of cadence as well. There are only two relevant cadences in bodybuilding training: explosive, and continuous tension. I will show how these two cadences play out in a follow up article on deltoid training. Sequencing of exercises becomes paramount to training if you understand what max load training really is, as well as in relation to explosive training and innervation training, in terms of selected ranges and planes of motion.

I hope this article drives home the point that although methods may be many, if they don't adhere to solid principles, then much can be lost to the trainee.