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Maximizing Strength Gains: Programming Tips and Strategies

So… you have started strength training. You have been following the same strength block for roughly 6 months now. Results came quickly early on, you gained a bunch of muscle size and strength. But what now? Have you hit a plateau in strength gains? Have you started to feel minor injuries sneak up? Have you had no real plan that will see long term gains? This might just be the article for you, because it’s time to take it up a notch.

If you want to maximize strength gains again, and fully utilize your time and efforts in the gym, look no further. I am going to debunk some tips and strategies you could be utilizing in your program below. (This is assuming that you already have adequate nutrition and sleep behaviours… and if you don’t, perhaps attack that with the same tenacity first.)

Our first step is to implement periodization. This involves breaking training up into micro, meso, and macro cycles, and assigning exercises accordingly. Starting from the macrocycle, which is the overall larger scale period of time ranging from 2-6 months - sometimes more - in which you want to achieve a certain goal. A mesocycle is the 4-8 week blocks of training that often fill that macrocycle, with microcycles being the individual week to week that fills a mesocycle.

The first lesson in periodization is that you sometimes need to slow down in order to propel yourself forward. Lifters can be inpatient, wishing to max out every session and push to the absolute limit week in week out. 

The problem with this is that it doesn’t give the body, on a biological level, much time to actually grow and adapt. When we peak strength constantly, we aren’t actually gaining size or strength. This is where we want to dedicate mesocycles to build on work capacity and conditioning the quality of the muscles leading into a more strength oriented phase later on. 

So, for example, let's say your goal is to increase your training total by 50kg in 6 months. 6 months being the macrocycle. We can split this into 4 x 6 week mesocycles, known as training blocks. Each block can have a particular focus. Block 1 can be about improving work capacity, fitness, and the endurance of the muscles. Block 2 can be about focussing on refining technique flaws that could get in the way of future gain. Block 3 can be about slamming volume and solidifying those new technique changes. Block 4, the fun bit, can be about stripping that volume back, and practicing heavier singles in order to eventually test your strength. 

Notice how only 1 of those blocks entails heavy singles? Majority of the macrocycle is spent on volume and technique.

This is where the magic happens, in the mundane, repetitive, and technical weeks of training. Despite it being perceived as boring, structuring your program and knowing when and how to push, is what separates the good from the great.

The next strategy is rest and recovery. Again, the concept of slowing down in order to propel yourself forward. Let’s start with rest between sets. The type of training that we are doing here requires the ATP-PC energy system (Adenosine Triphosphate, and Phosphocreatine). ATP-PC is what provides us with the immediate energy required to perform highly intense activities such as lifting heavy. This is depleted quickly, and requires up to 3 minutes to resynthesize. This means that your rest between sets should be between 2-3 minutes on most movements, and sometimes up to 5 minutes on heavy compounds. One exception being shorter rest during more conditioning type phases, i.e. 90 secs between accessory sets in a conditioning block.

Rest days in the week are also important. We aren’t actually growing muscles in the gym, we are damaging them via mechanical tension in order to promote muscle protein synthesis afterwards. This whole process takes time, and without allowing up to 48 hours of recovery for that muscle group, you risk damaging the muscle beyond the point of growth. A split consisting of thought out sessions such as the following will be prudent:

Day 1 - Lower, with squat focus

Day 2 - Upper, with bench and push focus

Day 3 - Rest

Day 4 - Lower, with deadlift focus

Day 5 - Upper, with bench and pull focus

Day 6 & 7 - Rest

With rest periods during and after sessions planned out, what about between mesocycles? You may have heard the term “deload” without really understanding why we need them. The goal in strength training is to maintain the highest quality and intensity of training for the longest possible time. This actually means proactively slowing down for a week to allow for adaptations to occur. Deloads might consist of a week with reduced volume and intensity in load selection. Often lifters who are starting to burn out will take a reactive deload and find that they are much better off the following week. Once you get a good grip on when you seem to peak and fatigue, you can pre-emptively allocate deload weeks for yourself.

So now that we have the program structure and rest strategies in place, what do we actually fill the program with? Here’s a clue… exercises! Ha ha.. All jokes aside, you’d be surprised at how many lifters spend their time on the main movements, only to neglect any other form of exercise, including accessories and variations.

Starting the session off with your main movement is crucial, in order to practice the skill itself. This is where we push numbers and get stronger. This will also expose weaknesses. We then  want to modulate the intensity of each lift, to work on technical performance and those weaknesses. This could be in the form of a paused squat, tempo bench, or deficit deadlift, to name a few. The main focus here is to be chasing perfect technique, to strengthen the body in those positions, while not worrying too much about the weight on the bar. The next step is to choose accessories that will support those lifts, and build the right muscles in order to shift more weight. This extends further than “I want bigger quads to squat more so I will do the leg extension 2 times a week”... We need to think about working through the same ranges as the main lifts, to promote hip and shoulder control. Again, your weaknesses should be a focal point. If you can’t hit depth in a squat then jump on the belt or hack squat to eliminate the factor of balance. If you can’t hold upper back tension on a bench press then jump on a row variation that takes you through a similar range as bench. If you can’t get through a set of 8 reps of deadlifts then maybe go for a walk. The possibilities are endless, and highly individual. This is where hiring a coach and having a personal plan written for you comes in handy.

In summary, patience goes a long way in lifting. The tedious activities that aren’t glorified might just be what take you from good to great! Don’t underestimate the value of hiring a coach, to take all of the guesswork out of the above.

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