When was the last time you remember making real progress? I mean the kind of progress that forced you to walk by every mirror, or inspired a crowd of people to gather every time you trained? If you're like most weight trainers you haven't made those kinds of gains since similax was the hot supplement. What if I could show you a way to put 60 pounds on your weakest core lift in just eight weeks, strength gains so impressive that 'roid users everywhere would be envious? Well, I can. Read on.

The majority of the clients I train, well, let's just say they have impotent goals. I'm convinced their I.Q. drops faster than Clinton's Dockers when they enter the gym, so I must speak to them on a third-grade level. "Johnny, do you want to lose muscle weight or fat weight?" or "Suzy, you need to eat to make muscle." In spite of this, I maintain my cool and work hard to educate them. Besides, they pay the bills.

To be honest, though, I really get off when a client presents me with goals that ride the line between challenging and insane. My romance with extreme results began after reading Dan Duchaine's Underground Steroid Handbook. Several years later my sense of reason became further warped after consulting with strength guru Charles Poliquin. I don't know whether it was their arrogant flare or the famous people they trained, all I knew was that I was hell bent on someday being able to deliver extraordinary results to the genetically unblessed majority.

So when a client who fit the above description recently challenged me to bolster his shoulder press strength 60 pounds in just 56 days, it got my blood rushing again. Could it be done? I mean a 20 pound strength gain, no problem, even a 40 pound gain isn't out of the question. But a whopping 60 pound increase in strength in just eight weeks of natural training? I came to the conclusion that the notion was completely unrealistic... so hell, I was in!

Now that's reality television

I decided that I first needed the right mindset. So I ask myself an important question: "Don, what type of program would you design if you had to deliver these results? What if you only had one shot and, if you didn't deliver those results, you'd be castrated?" (Try thinking like that sometime, like your manhood actually depends on the success of your next routine. Trust me, it sheds a whole new light on training focus!)

Now, if you were seriously given the task of finding and executing the perfect program to add 60 pounds to your weakest lift in only 56 days, here's the way you should be thinking. First, you wouldn't use the same ordinary four-set pyramid program that everyone else was using; you'd need a specialized program that was geared toward your unique needs and current ability. After determining this you'd know the appropriate training variables and thus the correct intensity or tension to impose.

The next factor is that you sure as hell better not use the same program for more than four weeks without changing it. You must intelligently periodize and prioritize the program, cycling volume, intensity and time under tension. If this point isn't respected, your gains will come to a screeching halt and your testicles will be on the chopping block.

You'd also find a secret weapon or two if given this challenge. I don't know about you, but no way I'm going to put my boys on the line unless I have an insurance policy.

And, of course you'd employ outstanding lifting mechanics, motivation, nutritional recovery and consistency. You'd likely train without the typical distractions of wonder bras and jungle skin tights. This point is crucial because the focus of most trainees in the gym is more out of control than the thigh girth at an aerobic convention.

Johnny lifted the weight.

Or

The weight lifted Johnny.

Same words. Much different meaning, especially if you're Johnny! The English language builds sentences around word syntax. In weight training, just as in language, the order and sequence you use is critical to your success. Change the order or execution of the workout parameters and you completely change the outcome.

For example, we've all made the mistake of training shoulders hard and then immediately trying to bench heavy only to realize we can't. That's why program variables must be specific to the goals and execution of the program must be flawless. In exercise science lingo, this is what's known as the S.A.I.D. principle: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.

By the inch, it's a cinch

Next we'll break down our seemingly impossible goal into more reasonable goals. A 60 pound increase in eight weeks amounts to an average strength increase of 7.5 pounds each week or 3.75 pounds each workout, at a twice-a-week frequency. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong.

Lifting and life teaches us that there are always peaks and valleys and we must prepare for a curveball here and there. Unless fluctuations in intensity and volume are built into the plan, it's unlikely that the body will adapt steadily and reach its goal. This is what's known as workout periodization or planned variation. There are at least two types of program variations:

Inter-program variation (fluctuation between programs)

Strength training is a neurological adaptation and requires progressively higher numbers of sets and reps at a relatively high-intensity level. Our primary lift, the behind-the-neck press, must then start around six sets and progress to as high as twelve sets for optimal overload to occur. The more fast-twitch muscle fibers the trainee has, the more heavy sets they can progress to.

No matter how effective increasing volume and intensity may be initially, you won't progress forever and you'll reach a point of diminishing returns. Progress once again will stop. It's just before this drop-off point that we must maintain our gains and shift programs. Since there's only time to run two full program cycles in this situation, I've decided on a supra-maximum tension (greater than 1RM) program for the second phase.

To summarize, our program-to-program strategy is to build intensity and volume the first three weeks. Week 5 we cut back on the volume (unload) and maintain peak strength. Week 5 to 7 we go balls out on a supra-maximum force program and rebuild volume and intensity. Week 8, we unload volume again and celebrate your new development.

Intra-program variation (fluctuation within the program)

If you've had the displeasure of traveling across country in a car, then you realize you're going to eventually get lost or hit a detour from time to time. You must constantly refer to your map to make subtle course adjustments. Intelligent variation is equally important within each phase of our two, four-week programs. Week to week and session to session adjustments, riding that fine line between overtraining and under-training, underscores the challenge.

Once again it can't be overstated that you must follow and track the program exactly – every set, rep, load, rest interval, and rep speed matters. Always follow the planned exercise order starting with your target lift first. All other exercises that day and that week take a backseat to the primary lift.

The number of sets multiplied by reps (volume) on additional training days during the week should be one-third less than the primary session. In order to be at peak strength, three to eight minutes between sets must be respected. Session variations also include prioritizing your lifestyle around your strongest, most energetic time of day. Simply stated, do your shoulder day during your peak strength hours. According to Charles Poliquin, daily peak strength occurs during hours 3 and 11. (For example, you may be at your strongest 3 hours after waking and again at 11 hours after waking.)

We need an intelligent entry point to start the first phase. Training intensity can be defined as the amount of weight lifted relative to your 1RM or rep maximum. It's also the program variable that you adapt to the fastest. Since strength training is highly specific, it requires a unique intensity and time under tension.

To decide on the initial rep range for given genetics and experience, test muscle fiber make up. I like the vertical jump test because studies show that it's closely correlated with strength as well as being a tool for revealing muscle fiber make up. Using the vertical jump, the average trainee will jump between 19" and 24". This indicates a mixed, fast and slow twitch make up. The prescription of reps would be between 5 and 7.

A gifted fast twitch individual will soar above 24" and will make faster progress in the 1 to 5 rep range. If you jump below 19", stay with the higher rep bracket of 8 to 12 and call 1-800-R-SIMMONS to switch to a rewarding career as an aerobics instructor. (Just kidding.)

Another consideration is training experience. A trainee with less than one year of strength training experience is still likely to make better initial gains in the higher rep ranges regardless of fiber make up.

An easy method for measuring vertical jump

All it requires is a standard tape measure, chalk a different color than the wall, and a smooth wall with a high ceiling.

Step 1: Rub chalk on the finger tips of the athlete's dominant hand or place a sticky note in the hand so that it reaches the finger tips.

Step 2: The athlete reaches as high as possible and makes a chalk mark or sticks the note on the wall.

Step 3: Without a preparatory step, the athlete flexes the knees and quickly lowers the body into a squat position and swings the arms backward. He then jumps as high as possible, extending the arms.

Step 4: At the highest point, the athlete makes a mark or slaps the sticky note on the wall. The score is the vertical distance between the two chalk marks.

The strength guru's secret weapon

When I first learned the following two techniques I was so geeked up that I couldn't sleep for two days. True story! Wavelike loading and static/dynamic training are the culprits. Both systems belong to a fascinating training technology which "cranks up" your nervous system to an extra-ordinary level.

The general term is called reactive strength training. Even though the concept has been studied extensively in Eastern literature, very few coaches in the U.S. even know about it (although Ian King has done a lot to popularize it over the past couple of years). Reactive training is founded on the simple concept that any stimulus, whether momentary or longer, leaves leftover impulses in the nervous system. Basic reactive strength, such as the wavelike load program, touches on this fact.

Dynamic work with heavy free weights and low reps forces a positive after effect on the nervous system. This aftereffect improves speed and strength on subsequent lifts. For instance, on your first wave you may do 200 x 7 reps, 210 x 5 reps and 220 x 3. On the second wave you do 205 x 7, try for 215 x 5 and maybe fall just short, and then do 225 x 3. On wave 3, you do 207.5 x 7, 217.5 x 5 and 227.5 x 3. You just increased your maximum strength by 7.5 pounds in just a few minutes.

The technique that really drives this concept home is called static/dynamic training. If you've ever held your arms isometrically (contraction with no movement) in a doorframe and then stepped away, then you understand the concept of static/dynamic training. It's been noted in the literature that preliminary isometric tension has a positive effect on subsequent dynamic work. Dynamic work usually increases by up to 20% more than work done without preliminary isometric tension. In other words, if you lockout and hold a super heavy weight and then go back to your previous maximum, you'll be able to handle 20% more! You don't have to understand it to use it, just understand it works. Big time!

By the way, when the reverse sequence of work (dynamic then static) was tested, results deteriorated. This once again suggests that the exact order is critical for success. Static/dynamic is such a powerful weapon that I've used it to increase a 1RM bench press by 35 pounds in minutes! Others coaches have used it to increase vertical leap by three inches in a matter of minutes or even slash sprint times. It's pretty cool stuff.

Oh, and by the way, even though the following example is designed for the behind the neck press, the static/dynamic method works well on all pushing exercises – full range or partial reps. Say you have trouble locking out on the bench press (which often indicates weak triceps), you could do static/dynamic lockouts and strengthen that weak link right on the spot.

A drum roll please: The 60 pounds in 56 days cycle...

The following sample program was designed for my "hard gaining" ectomorph that could barely behind-the-neck press 115 for 4 reps on day one. After testing, it was determined that a higher rep range would suit him best. So I chose to start the wave at 8-6-4 reps.

During the wave, the following individual adjustments should be applied:

Increase the load 5 pounds and drop the reps by 1 each workout, from workout 1 to workout 3. On workout 4, go back to the weight used on workout 2 and increase the reps back up to the 8-6-4 range.

Increase the weight 2.5 pounds on each wave during the same workout. The use of Platemates, heavy collars or 1 1/4 pound Olympic weights will be needed to make these adjustments. Example Wave 1: 100 x 8, 105 x 6, 110 x 4. Wave 2: 102.5 x 8, 107.5 x 6, 112.5 x 4

On workouts 3 and 6, do as many waves as possible until you miss the target reps on the last set of the wave.

Example 1: 110 x 6 – hit, 115 x 4 – missed, 120 x 2 – hit. In this case, add another wave.

Example 2: 110 x 6 – hit, 115 x 4 – hit, 120 x 2 – miss. In this case, the exercise is terminated.

You may take additional rest before your heaviest sets to assure success.

On the first workout, start with slightly less weight. (i.e. 10 rep maximum load for 8 reps.) This builds confidence with the program and allows you to nail the rep speed and pause.

Never increase the quantity at the expense of quality.

The Program: Wavelike Loading Phase

The following is a four week program used two times per week. You can alternate it with a leg/abdominal workout also done two times per week. Explanations for each exercise will follow.

A – Behind the neck press, paused

Workout #1

Workout #2

Workout #3

Workout #4

Workout #5

Workout #6

Workout #7

Workout #8

Workout: 1-8

Workout: 1-8

Workout: 1-8

Workout: 1-8

When you see those B1-B2 designations, that simply means to superset the exercises. Please see our FAQ section if you aren't familiar with tempo prescriptions.

Exercise Descriptions

The behind the neck press is a basic lift because it provides development of the shoulders and triceps for the bodybuilder, overhead force for Olympic lifters, and aids in power development for athletes. The pause at the base of the neck negates the myostatic stretch reflex, thus tapping a hidden strength potential.

This exercise is performed in a power rack or shoulder press bench with a spotter. Grasp a barbell with a shoulder width grip. Slowly lower the bar behind the neck until it touches the base of the neck. Pause for the required time before explosively pressing up to a soft lockout. Don't lean backward at any point during the lift as this may injure the lower back.

Because individual muscles contract harder when worked with unilateral exercises, this is an excellent variation of the seated rowing exercise or pulldown. The pause in the contracted position occurs with the shoulder blades squeezed together.

Grasp the left cable with your right hand then grasp the right cable with your left hand. Kneel or sit two to three feet in front of the high cable with a swivel mounted pulley. Simultaneously pull and cross the handles in front of your body until your hands reach the middle portion of your chest. At this point make sure your shoulders are low so that there's minimal tension on your traps. Pause in the contracted position.

Tip: If you have trouble holding on to the handles during the exercise, use straps to reinforce your grip.

To optimize progress and minimize wear on the rotator cuff it's important to use a variety of exercises. Grasp two dumbbells and sit down on a 45° incline bench, resting the weights on your thighs. Kick the weights up to your shoulders and lie back on the bench. Position your hands so that they're facing each other, elbows out slightly to the sides. Press the dumbbells upward as you rotate your hands so that your hands are facing away from the body at the top of the movement.

There are many variations of the French press, but those that use a cable, such as this one, load the end (top) range of motion. It works well as an adjunct exercise to the behind the neck press. Grasp an EZ cable bar with an overhand grip and carefully sit down on a bench. Press the weight overhead to a soft lock out. Keep the upper arms motionless and tucked in; lower the bar behind you as far as possible.

Static/Dynamic Phase

It's go time. With the success of the wave program you'll have gained 15 to 20 pounds on your maximum. We have 45 pounds to go to hit our mark, no problem for this program. To optimize the static/dynamic program:

Always use a spotter with a stopwatch in order to count isometric time.

Start with your 5RM, workout 8, from the wave program for the 4RM load on workout 1 of this second phase.

Warm up the target lift (behind the neck press) with multiple, progressive, full range, sets, no more than 4 reps per set. Stop the warm up just before your 4RM.

Isometric sets include loading the "isometric phase" (lock out) of the lift by 25 to 60 pounds more than your 4 rep maximum.

During isometric holds, do not bend the elbows more than a half inch.

Hold 8 to 10 seconds isometrically to force the nervous system to accept this supra-maximum weight. A metronome or stopwatch should be used.

Once the nervous system is fooled, we alternate full range sets with isometric hold sets, increasing the weight on all subsequent sets until we peak.

Perform A1 isometric then A2 full range.

Increase the starting load 5 to 7.5lb from workout to workout. The use of Platemates, heavy collars or 1-1/4 pound Olympic weights will be needed to make these 2.5 pound adjustments.

Increase the weight 5 pounds on each subsequent isometric set and full range set during the same workout:

Isometric example: 125 + 25lb x 4, 130 + 30lb x 4, 135 + 35lb x 4, 140 + 40lb x 4

Full range set example: 125 x 3, 130 x 3, 135 x 3, 140 x 3

Do as many sets as possible. Stop when you can't successfully complete at least two full range reps with progressively higher loads.

This is a four week program repeated once every 4 to 5 days. You can alternate it with a leg/abdominal workout done two times per week. No additional upper body work should be done during these weeks. Remember, A1 involves isometric holds. You're just going to be holding the bar steady as directed above your head.

A1 – Behind the neck press, Isometric

Workout #1

Workout #2

Workout #3

Workout #4

Workout #5

Workout #6

Workout #7 – Retest maximum

A2 – Behind the neck press- Full range

Workout #1

Workout #2 – Increase load 7.5lb

Workout #3 – Increase load 7.5lb

Workout #4 – Increase load 7.5lb

Workout #5 – Increase load 7.5lb

Workout #6 – Increase load 7.5lb

Workout #7 – Retest maximum

B1 – Chin up, underhand grip

B2 – Dumbbell Bench Press, semi-supinated grip

C – Pullover, narrow grip, using EZ-bar

Exercise Descriptions

Same as in the first part of the program.

Grasp two dumbbells and sit down on a flat bench, resting the weights on your thighs. Kick the weights up to your shoulders and lie back on the bench. Twist your hands so that your palms face each other, elbows slightly flared out to the sides. Press the dumbbells in a slight arch so they come together at the top.

This exercise is as much a biceps exercise as it is a back exercise. Grasp a chin-up bar with an underhand grip, hands shoulder width apart, and allow your arms to straighten. Initiate the motion by flexing your arms and shoulders. Continue pulling until your chin is over the bar.

Contrary to bodybuilding lore, this exercise doesn't expand the rib cage. Instead, this exercise is a lost favorite for back development. Grasp the inner curve of an EZ-bar with an overhand grip. Sit down on a flat bench with the bar resting on your hips. Lie back on the bench and move the bar to the middle of your chest, elbows slightly bent and tucked into your sides. Keeping your elbows tucked in, lower the bar behind your head toward the floor as far as possible. Stretch from the back and not by extending your arms. Reverse the motion and return the bar to your chest.

Conclusion

With a little practice you'll be able to rotate all of your core lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift) into this scheme during the year and explode to new strength levels. One rep maxes that you once thought were impossible are now within your reach. All you need is a plan and the will to carry it out.

References

Essentials of strength training and conditioning / National Strength and Conditioning Association; Thomas R. Baechle, Rodger Earle, editors.-2nd.ed.

Mel C. Siff, Yuri V Verkhoshansky Supertraining 1999 The After Effect of Muscle Activity section 3.4.2 161-162

Charles Poliquin, The Poliquin Principles 1997 The science of reps, sets and workout design The Dayton Writers Group and Charles Poliquin.

Charles Poliquin, Modern Trends in Strength Training Volume 1 Reps and Sets Second Edition 2001 Kim Gross and Charles Poliquin.