Tricks of the Trade - Get Strong Fast!

Mondays with Thibs

Building strength is a war against the iron, and sadly it's a war that most end up losing! The stronger you get, the harder it is to push the envelope, and there comes a point when busting your ass on the basics isn't enough anymore.

When that time comes, resorting to some high-tech tactics is in order.

Here are a few used by great coaches to get people inhumanly strong. Obviously, don't be an idiot and use all of them at the same time!

Tactic #1: Doubles

This is a method brought to life by the great Canadian coach, Pierre Roy. It's also been used in several strength protocols from the Eastern bloc. It consists of performing the lift you want to peak your strength on twice during your workout: once at the very beginning and once again at the end.

This approach favors motor learning and neural efficiency, while maximizing motor unit recruitment.

"Why not simply do more sets at the beginning of the workout?"

That'd work to some extent, but the motor learning and technical efficiency aspects wouldn't improve much. If you perform all of the sets of one exercise in the same period, you eventually fall "in the zone," meaning that your nervous system is on automatic and there are fewer opportunities to "learn."

When you do half of your sets at the beginning and half at the end, you have to get yourself in the groove twice, making the nervous system work harder to maximize intra- and intermuscular coordination.

Not to mention that this method is a great way to boost the training volume on a lift without getting bored to death!

Tactic #2: Clusters

While cluster training was popularized by Charles Poliquin, it's pretty much how all Olympic lifters train (you'll see why in a few seconds).

A cluster is basically a set of several reps divided into single reps with a brief pause in between. For example, you might do one rep, rest ten seconds, do another rep, rest ten seconds, do another rep, rest ten seconds, and so on.

Olympic lifters train this way because when they do reps on the competitive lifts they drop the bar and reset after each repetition.

The working premise of clusters is that they allow you to perform more reps with a given percentage. A ten-second pause is enough to allow for partial ATP regeneration, the clearance of metabolites, and neural recovery.

So, when you do clusters, you should shoot for two or three more reps with a target weight. If you can bench 315 for three reps, shoot for cluster sets totaling five to six reps.

It's important to note that you should replace the bar on the hooks between each rep.

Clusters are very demanding on the nervous system, so there are a couple of rules to follow: no more than one cluster per structure (or muscle) should be used in a workout and only for three to five sets.

Tactic #3: Supports

This technique was used by a lot of powerlifters in the '80s. Dr. Fred Hatfield and his 1014-pound squat recommend supports with 110% of your maximum at the end of heavy workouts.

Supports simply refer to holding the weight at the beginning of a movement. For example, you'd put 110% of your maximum on the bar in the bench press, unrack the bar, and hold it in the locked position for five to ten seconds.

Contrary to supramaximal negatives, this method allows you to get used to handling heavier weights than you can lift without risking injury. Maximal lifting is as much psychological as it is physical. Getting used to big weights will make your regular lifting "feel" easier and your chances of success will go up significantly.

Tactic #4: Small Loading

The idea of small loading was brought to my attention by Dr. Mel Siff, and it's another fine psychological mind game. It consists of loading the bar with small plates, and the more confusing the loading is the better.

Normally, if you wanted to load the bar to 225 pounds, most people would put two 45-pounders on each side. With this method, you might put two 25-pound plates, two 10-pound plates, and three 5-pound plates per side, and not necessarily in that order (or even in the same order on both sides).

And it works even better if you have a training partner loading the bar for you since it's harder to mentally calculate the weight.

This method removes the psychological intimidation factor that some people have. With "wheel increments," there's a psychological block that comes from the multiple 45's per side. For some reason, loading the bar with smaller plates is less intimidating and will put you in a more confident mindset.

Tactic #5: Isometrics

Isometrics – the act of pushing or pulling against an immovable resistance – were first introduced to the strength community by Dr. John Ziegler with his work on Louie Riecke and Bill March. It was then widely publicized by Bob Hoffman.

One of the most important benefits of isometric training is that it's the contraction regimen which yields the greatest motor unit activation.

A recent study comparing the level of muscle activation during isometric, concentric, and eccentric muscle actions found that one can recruit over 5% more motor units during a maximal isometric action (95.2%) than during either a maximal eccentric (88.3%) or maximal concentric action (89.7%). (Babault et al. 2001)

These findings are in accordance with the body of literature which shows that one can recruit almost every motor unit during a maximal isometric action. (Allen et al. 1995, Allen et al. 1998, Belanger and McComas 1981, De Serres and Enoka 1998, Gandevia et al. 1998, Gandevia and McKenzie 1988, Merton 1954, Newham et al. 1991, Yue et al. 2000.)

What this tells us is that isometric training can improve our capacity to recruit motor units during a maximal contraction. So, including this type of training in our regimen can improve our capacity to activate motor units, even in dynamic actions. In the long run, this improved neural drive can greatly increase one's strength production potential.

It's long been known that isometric action training (IAT) can lead to significant strength gains. In a recent experiment, strength gains of 14 to 40% were found over a ten-week period using isometric action training. (Kanchisa et al. 2002)

However, it's important to understand that the strength gains from an isometric regimen occur chiefly at the joint angles being worked (Roman 1986, Kurz 2001), although there's a positive transfer of 20 to 50% of the strength gained in a 20-degree range (working angle plus or minus 20 degrees).

Some people might see this limitation as a negative aspect of IAT. However, you can view this as a benefit, as it allows you to exert a greater level of strength at a certain point in the motion, allowing you to stimulate more strength gains at a point where you need it the most (think: sticking points).

Running down these three benefits of isometric training:

  1. Maximum intramuscular tension is attained for only a brief period in dynamic exercises (mostly due to the fact that the resistance has velocity and acceleration components). While in isometric exercises, you can sustain that maximal tension for a longer period of time. Instead of maintaining maximum intramuscular tension for 0.25 to 0.5 seconds in the concentric portion of a dynamic movement, you may sustain it for around three to six seconds during an isometric exercise. Strength is greatly influenced by the total time under maximal tension. If you can add 10 to 20 seconds of maximal intramuscular tension per session, then you increase your potential for strength gains.
  2. Isometric exercises can help you improve strength at a precise point in the range of motion of an exercise. This can prove to be very valuable to get past plateaus due to chronic sticking points.
  3. Isometric exercises aren't "energy expensive," so you can get the benefits of IAT without interfering with the rest of your planned workout.

    Tactic #6: Antagonist Stretching

    I can't trace antagonist stretching to one specific coach, but it's been used for a long time and clearly works!

    It's well documented that intense stretching prior to a muscle contraction greatly reduces the force production potential for that contraction. That's one of the reasons why it's best to stretch after a workout rather than before it.

    We can use this little tidbit of information to our advantage. There's this thing called "antagonist co-contraction" which can actually reduce our capacity to lift big. If an antagonist muscle (a muscle opposite the function of the target muscle) has a lot of tension in it, it'll take more force for the agonist muscle to produce a certain movement.

    Basically, if your triceps are contracting, it'll be harder to curl anything impressive. The triceps are elbow extensors, while the biceps are elbow flexors; the contraction of an extensor will make the flexion harder to do.

    So, if we can reduce the contraction potential of the antagonist muscles, their level of co-contraction will be less. As a result, the inhibitory effect of the antagonist will be reduced, thus allowing you to lift more. If the antagonists are contracting, not only do you have to fight the barbell, you have to fight the antagonist muscles, too!

    In the bench press, the prime movers and synergists (agonists) are the anterior deltoids, the triceps, and the pectorals/serratus. So, we can conclude that the antagonists are the posterior deltoids, the biceps, and the latissimus dorsi/rhomboids. Now, we know that stretching a muscle will reduce its capacity to contract, so stretching the antagonists right before attempting a bench press will facilitate the action of the prime movers and synergists!

    More Power to Ya'

    I have no doubt that these super strength techniques will help you blow past any frustrating plateaus.

    By the way, Mondays will be Thib-less for a few weeks because I'm working with the Testosterone Muscle team on something pretty big for you guys. I can't tell you more than this, other than get ready to buy some bigger clothes!

Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.