By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Look at a strongman or even a bodybuilder and the words, size, strength and power come to mind. But in no way are those terms interchangeable, at least in the technical sense of how a strongman trains. Some of you may be strong, but perhaps your lifts would be better if you packed on more muscle. After all, the more muscle you have, the more potential strength that’s available. Although you might have good size, you still haven’t developed sufficient power to explode the bar through the plane of motion. Plainly said, the right combination of all three will unlock your full potential over the long haul toward your goal of being a really, really strong man.
Countdown to Strength
Over the next 12 weeks, your focus will go in this order: size, strength and power. You’ll spend four weeks in each stage, allowing adequate time for adaptation of each agenda. The 12-week system with its steady, progressive change in goal and rep range is in perfect alignment with the principle of progressive overload. Many strength athletes, and bodybuilders for that matter, fall into a rut and forget that the body will only change in size and strength according to the level at which it’s stressed. This kind of progression has you altering your goal and method every four weeks. This sequence isn’t by any means random, either; there’s plenty of research to back up the value of cycling your training, also called periodization.
For the first four weeks your goal will be muscle size, and your method will be higher reps (10–12) to failure. For the second four weeks your goal will be strength using slightly lower reps (5–8) but not to failure. The third phase has you going even heavier but for only a few reps (2–3), moving the bar as fast as possible through the range of motion. Those three phases stockpile the potential for ultimate 1RM strength (meaning, you’ll increase your max strength on a given lift) inside the target muscle bellies, while helping to prepare your neuromuscular system (mind-muscle connection) for getting the loaded bar from point A to point B. Ultimately, the final product will be a bigger, stronger, more powerful muscle. Not bad for 12 weeks of work.
Phase 1: Matters of Size
During the first phase of hypertrophy, your reps will hover around 10–12. The goal of the hypertrophy phase is to simply build more muscle. It’s important to take each set to failure in order to induce size changes. As a strongman, you typically don’t achieve failure on each set (at least you shouldn’t be with the exception of the last set of a particular move). Since we want you to do these in straight-sets fashion, don’t take each set beyond failure. For that reason, we haven’t included any intensity-boosting techniques; allow the rep range and failure to do its work.
Phase 2: Just Plain Strong
The next phase is the strength phase in which you’ll gradually increase the weight. However, we don’t want you to take those sets to absolute muscle failure. For that reason, we’ve included the RM (load) associated with that particular week so that you’ll stop short of failure. Research shows that those who take each set to failure will gain less strength than those who don’t take any sets to failure or at most only one set (the final set) to complete fatigue.
Phase 3: More Power to You
The final phase is the power phase. You’ll notice a significant drop in volume during these weeks and again, we urge you not to take each set to failure. In fact, during the power phase, we don’t want any of your working sets to reach failure. The goal is to target and innervate those fast-twitch fibers and train them to help you explode the weight through sticking points along the range of motion. Failure training doesn’t enhance your ability to achieve that, plus as you attempt to move this heavy weight quickly, your chances of injury increase. We want you fresh for each set; for that reason, you’ll notice a steady increase in the amount of rest with each phase, especially this power phase.
Caution: One Move Only
This program can be implemented upon any of the big moves where you want to increase your 1RM strength. However, the sets and reps listed should be performed for one move only inside a day’s routine. All other work should be modified around this exercise/routine so as to avoid overtraining. So if it’s bench day, the routine we outline should be applied to the bench press only. If you perform other moves or follow other strategies that day, this entire plan shouldn’t be applied to all of those. We suggest that on the days of your big lifts, modify and adjust your training volume and intensity to allow this progressive tactic to do its work. A smart strategy might be to focus this scheme upon your main lifts such as overhead press, squat, bench and deadlift.