Improving The Big Three - Part 2!

The information in the earlier article is vital for starting to see improvements in these particular lifts. This article will focus on more of the science behind increasing one's weights in these three lifts.

Note: This is part two. Click here for part one.

In the previous installment of the Big Three I discussed the basics of the technique for the squat, deadlift, and bench as well as general health precautions with performing these lifts.

The information in the earlier article is vital for starting to see improvements in these particular lifts. This article will focus on more of the science behind increasing one's weights in these three lifts.

Understanding Science

A colleague once made the statement, "the worst thing to happen to strength training is bodybuilding." This may appear very shocking for most people to hear, but what this coach was mainly referring to was the myths that surround bodybuilding and impede serious strength improvements. While bodybuilding has made valuable contributions to the world of strength training, training like a bodybuilder is far from optimal in achieving significant weights in big movements like the big three.

Kevin Levrone and King Kamali's training works for bodybuilders, but you should train like a powerlifter if you want to improve the Big 3 movements. (c) Avidan

In Vladimir Zatsiorsky's excellent text, The Science and Practice of Strength Training, he outlines three ways in which strength can be improved. These methods are repeated effort method, dynamic effort, and maximal effort. Let us examine what is involved in each of these methods.

  1. Repeated Effort and Submaximal Effort Method:

    These methods are the most familiar to most people as it is the closest resemblance to typical bodybuilding. The repeated effort method is mostly used for hypertrophy and recovery training. It is generally categorized by repetitions in the 6-12 range and sets of typically 2-5. Sets are taken to failure with repeated effort, while the submaximal method does not take one to failure.

    In beginners this method is dominant because of increases in the cross section of muscle will lead to some gains in muscular strength. Beginners also need to build up the strength of their connective tissue and this type of training does not inappropriately overload these structures.

    There are three distinctive methods that are related to this type of training. World Reknown Strength Coach, Charles Poliquin, has outlined these methods in his book, The Poliquin Principles. Below I have provided these methods from his text, I highly recommend the complete book as well though.

    Method 1 - Adequate Rest and Constant Weight

    Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
    Set 2: 100 lbs X 9 reps, rest 3 minutes
    Set 3: 100 lbs X 8 reps, rest 3 minutes
    Set 4: 100 lbs X 7 reps, rest 3 minutes

    Average weight lifted: 100 lbs
    Total Reps performed: 34

    Method 2 - Adequate Rest and Decreasing Weight

    Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
    Set 2: 98 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3minutes
    Set 3: 96 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes
    Set 4: 94 lbs X 10 reps, rest 3 minutes

    Average weight lifted: 97 lbs
    Total Reps performed: 40

    Method 3 - Inadequate Rest and Decreasing Weight

    Set 1: 100 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute
    Set 2: 90 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute
    Set 3: 80 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute
    Set 4: 70 lbs X 10 reps, rest 1 minute

    Average weight lifted: 85 lbs
    Total Reps performed: 40

    The first two methods cause hypertrophy mainly through the growth of the contractile proteins while the third method causes hypertrophy through increased substrate storage. Changes in the contractile are usually associated with better gains in maximal strength.

  2. Dynamic Effort Method:

    This method is probably the least used by both athletes and bodybuilders. The main purpose of this method is to increase rate of force development and explosive strength. Just developing maximal force is not good enough in most circumstances, there is usually an optimal time when that force must be developed. For example, in most sporting situations the athlete that can generate the most force in the shortest amount of time is the one that will have the advantage.

    The utilization of the dynamic effort method is also vital in sports like powerlifting and weightlifting. These are sports where speed-strength is important. This type of training involves moving a weight as fast as possible. Sounds easy enough, but there are very particular ways to ensure you are doing this correctly.

    1. The weight must be submaximal. Some texts advise lifting weights 66-85% of one's maximal effort. However, possibly the best powerlifting coach in the world, Louie Simmons, has found 50-60% of one's contest maximum to be optimal. Coming from the head of Westside Barbell Club you can ensure this is a well thought out manipulation.

    2. The weight must be moved eccentrically quickly as well as concentrically explosively. This can be the scariest part for people that have never used this method before. Through some trial and error you will find the optimal speed to lower the weight to make sure it is moving up fast enough. If you move the weight too fast it will be almost impossible to reverse the weight because of the extreme eccentric force the body must absorb and must change its direction. At first I teach people to move slow then slowly try to increase the speed with a warm-up weight to introduce them to such an extreme change. NEVER try learning this method with heavier weights or anything the least bit challenging. It is so very important to remember the whole purpose of this method is to see the bar move quickly and not how much weight you can put on the bar.

    3. The repetitions used with this method are also very low. Even though some authors suggest repetitions of 3-6, I have seen good results with reps 2-4. Again the most important aspect is the speed of the bar. You do not want to see a lot of fatigue as this will cause the bar to slow down.

    4. The sets should also be high, some may do as many as 12, but I recommend beginners begin with 5-6.

    5. Hello to weightlifting. Many people overlook the great strength the Olympic lifts can provide someone. Ever notice how it is easy for many powerlifters to go into weightlifting or vice versa? Exercises like power snatches, power cleans, high pulls, jump squats, and jerk variations can greatly increase one's explosive strength. However, do not attempt these lifts unless you have been taught by a reliable coach. I have seen some FRIGHTENING interpretations of these lifts by gym members and that is when someone can get hurt.

    6. What you don't know can hurt you. Although many people assume moving fast or explosively will cause injury it is really when people do not understand how to do things correctly. You can still have horrible form moving slowly and obtain an injury. So, I will say if you do not understand this section avoid it until you have sought out additional information and have full confidence.

  3. Maximal Effort Method:

    It KILLS me when I see an article on how to increase the strength in a lift and it has repetitions of 6-12 in it. Like I discussed earlier, those repetitions are more commonly associated with lean body mass increases. The dynamic effort and maximal effort methods cause great increases in strength because of their improvement of the central nervous system.

    That is why you can see people with small bodies lift huge weights. Strength Coach, Chad Ikei, has benched 330 pounds at a weight of 150 pounds, over twice his body weight!

    However, because there is such a high level of stress to the central nervous system with this type of training I advise one do a cycle of four weeks devoted to this training then go back to higher repetitions, or use two lifts a week that use this method and switch the lifts every three weeks. Otherwise it is very easy to see overtraining symptoms develop.

    Powerlifters are a whole different breed. Corey St. Clair's friend Jack proves this before a workout.

    This method is classified by performing repetitions of 1-5 with sets of 5-15 against a maximal resistance. The exercises selected for this method should be compound movements and not isolation exercises. The only exception could be if you are trying to develop bicep strength.

    However, I believe chin-up variations should be used first. Even though I said one works with maximal weights in this method I hardly have someone work with their top weights all the time. For example, if someone can bench 225 for five reps and they are using the classic 5 sets of 5 reps method, I usually will not have them start with 225. Instead, I may have them use 220 the first workout and see the results of the residual fatigue. Then every workout they may be able to go up a little more weight.

    The biggest mistake I know I will see from programs utilizing this method is everyone will use this for their squats, deadlifts, and bench work. That makes sense though right? You want to improve those lifts. A beginner can get away with using that line of thinking and occasionally an advanced athlete will do the same, but a lot less.

    A more experienced coach or athlete will devote a lot of this method to work on the weaker areas that are related to the big three lifts. For example, improving the strength of the triceps using close grip bench work often has a very positive effect on the strength of one's bench press.

    There are many different set and repetition schemes to improve one's maximal strength. Some of my favorites are listed below. I have to credit Charles Poliquin to introducing me to many of these methods.

    Wave Loading:

    5, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1 or 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3
    During these waves the second singles, doubles, and triples use more weight.


    2, 4, 6, 6, 4, 2 or 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 1
    Most people use too many different repetitions during their pyramids and therefore don't improve any one motor quality significantly.

    Cluster Training:

    This training is done with intermediate sets. You will perform a series of single or doubles with a ten-twenty second rest in between. For those that what increased body mass or trying this for the first time I suggest using doubles. Also decrease the weight by 5% after every set.

      Example: One set do two repetitions, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds, perform two repetitions, rack the weight, etc. This is continued for five intermediate sets and a total of 3-5 sets. Use approximately 85% of maximal weight.

In the last chapter of this series of articles I will give tips for the advanced lifter on how to improve the big three. The understanding of the above principles is so important to ensure one has continued success in their strength training pursuits. Also, one can not become an advanced lifter without having full comprehension of the above as the more complex techniques are based off of these principles.