It’s a common and logical perception that to acquire more strength we must lift heavier. “Put more weight on the bar,” our self-proclaimed trainer-friends say.
Adding more weight to a bar is definitely an ego booster but can also reap havoc. The more weight we lift, especially with multi-joint movements (i.e. Olympic lifts, squat, bench press, and deadlift), our central nervous system (CNS) and muscular system are highly stressed and produce a greater risk for injury.
Plus, without proper programming, lifting heavy all the time will not develop strength because the body doesn’t recover.
Below are 2 aspects of exercise we must consider if we want to be strong and healthy.
We must come to the realization that we are not invincible. We need to take care of our bodies and be mindful of how they operate. Thus, we need to strategically plan when we lift heavy (80-100% of max effort).
On a monthly schedule (macrocycle)…
We need to incorporate at least one week (preferably 2 depending on how hard we actually work) of recovery every 6 weeks.
Recovery weeks are not lazy weeks.
On a recovery week, we lift approximately 70% of the weight we would normally lift, and reduce to rep range as well. During this week our CNS, muscles, and energy all have a chance to restore and replenish.
Recovery is healing!
E.g. If we lift 85% of our 100% max for squats for 5 sets of 3-5 reps, then on a recovery week we would complete 70% of our 100% max for 3-4 sets of 5.
The general strength-focused population does not need to be exact on these percentages. The main ploy here is to reinforce the idea of backing-off the weight, occasionally. But, if someone is a competitive athlete or has specific goals, having a regimental program may be helpful.
Hint: creating a little burn in a recovery workout may actually be beneficial for replenishment by giving the body a signal to begin healing.
Also during these weeks, we focus on stretching, mobility, myofascial release, prehab and corrective exercises, and localized blood flow.
Here is one of my macrocycles:
- Week 1: 82% intensity
- Week 2: 85%
- Week 3: 87%
- Week 4: recovery 72%
- Week 5: recovery 75%
- Week 6: 87%
- Week 7: 90%
- Week 8: recovery 72%
The percentages refer to the major exercise of the day- back squat, front squat, bench press, deadlift, leg press, power clean, etc.
I may do two of these exercises in the same workout; however, I will either lift lighter on one compared to the other or use same percentage on both but not as many sets.
On a weekly schedule (microcycle)…
We need to plan to lift heavy on 2 to 3 days per week. Which days we choose depends on our life responsibilities. Usually, we need to allot more time on a lower body day than for upper. Plus, just like recovery weeks, we also need to incorporate recovery days within the week.
Here is my weekly split:
- heavy lower, posterior chain dominant (deadlift, hamstrings, gluteals)
- heavy upper push (bench press)
- active recovery day (core)
- lower moderate, quad dominant (leg press and/or squat)
- upper pull (power clean, rows, pull-ups, rotator cuff)
- Saturday and Sunday:
On a daily schedule…
we must organize our workout appropriately. Workout organization is a subject worth writing a whole article, but here are a few tips:
- Be sure to always complete warm up sets before you start your first heavy lift. E.g. I usually spend about 20 mins warming up on a leg day.
- For max effort sets, or sets of 5 reps or less that are above 80% intensity, rest about 5 minutes between sets to allow the nervous system to reboot. The bigger your body is the more rest you need and vice versa for smaller people.
- Put your heaviest exercise first or second in the workout. I like to do them second because I can use the first exercise as another warmup.
- The supplemental exercises do not have to be based on a percentage of your major lift.
There are always various ways to do the same exercise. Simply doing a slight variation can increase the difficulty.
By increasing the difficulty/awkwardness of an exercise, the body learns to compensate for the different movement—engaging a stronger contraction of the primary muscles and recruiting more secondary muscles to complete the lift.
The more muscles we can recruit, the more weight we can lift.
Here are some variations of common exercises to mix things up:
- Mini band around the knees (to focus on using glutes as you lift)
- Speed squats—slow on the way down, fast on the way up
- Jump squats
- Box squat with pause
- Safety squat (with a safety bar)
- Close stance with high bar position (higher on traps)
- Wider stance with low bar position (lower on traps)
- Front squat variation
- Zercher squat (holding weight in elbows)
- Heel elevated close stance squat (with high bar position) using a mat, plates, or Olympic lifting shoes
- Stability squat (hang weights from bands at the ends of the bar or use a bamboo bar)
- For maximizing your squat view Part 1 and Part 2 blogs.
- Close stance
- Sumo stance
- Stiff leg (Romanian dead lift, RDL)
- Fat bar or fat grip
- Double overhand
- Snatch grip (wide grip) double overhand
- Pull through dead lift (attach a band around the hips and anchor behind the body about knee or hip height)
- Single leg RDL
- Single leg RDL with bands
- Single leg RDL with band and fat grip
- Rack pull (deadlift from an elevation, slightly below the knee cap), conventional, sumo, or RDL
- Single leg rack pull variations
- Deficit deadlift (using smaller diameter weights, or standing on a slight elevation) conventional, sumo, or RDL
- Single leg deficit RDL variations
- Speed bench: slow on the way down, fast on the way up
- Fat grip bench
- Rack press (pause on rack)
- Floor press (lay on floor and press, rest elbows on ground)
- Stability press (hang weights off bar)
- Close grip rack press (to focus on the triceps)
- Reverse grip press
- Ez bar press
- Wide grip press
- Dumbbell press
- Single arm
- Fat grip
- Banded (around shoulders)
- Neutral grip
- Pronated grip
- Supinated grip
- Pronated to supinated, pronated or neutral, or anything really (just remember that doing too much rotation with a heavy weight increases the risk for injury whether chronic or acute)
- Many of the bench variations can be used on incline and decline as well
I propose that creativity can be the balance we need to get stronger without taxing the CNS too much.
If you are a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, it is imperative to use the safest, and strongest positions for your body.
And please, DO NOT experiment in competition.
As for effectiveness, I’ve been training for 12+ years. I’m at the point in my training that strength gains are slow. When I learned the recovery process and experimented with creative exercises, my strength began to increase significantly.
In 2 months I gained about 15lbs in bench press, 35lbs in squat, and 10lbs in dead lift.