by Eric Cressey
Today’s guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Greg Robins.
Many popular approaches to strength training have lifters training roughly 3-4 times per week. While this is a solid approach for most gym goers, the lifter looking to excel at squatting, bench pressing, and deadliftng may be better served increasing training frequency to 5-6 sessions per week. Here are a few reasons why:
1. More Practice
The most important variable to manage with newer lifters is technique. Technique on the big three lifts is a variable that is completely controllable by the lifter. In other words, while some people will certainly be limited by leverages or genetics, technique is one item that should not be a factor in stagnating progress. If your technique isn’t improving, it’s a matter of negligence; you aren’t practicing enough. Training more frequently increases your exposure to the lifts. If a trainee makes a point to consciously evaluate technique each session, this should equate to more dedicated practice and therefore a steadier road to mastery of the lifts.
Action item 1: Use video to evaluate your lifts more often. Everyone has a camera on his or her phone these days, so video assessment is easier than ever before. While you may feel a bit awkward filming your lifts, there is truly no better way to revisit your training and evaluate where you can improve your technique.
2. More Volume
While intensity (for the sake of this example, we’ll refer to this as the weight on the bar) is the obvious training variable that must be improved to have success in powerlifting, monitoring and making incremental improvements in the volume (total work done in a training session, or training block) is how you will make that happen. In short, here’s why…
All training is about balancing the relationship among fitness, fatigue, and performance. Acutely, a single training session will cause an amount of fatigue that lessens your performance. You walk out of the gym capable of doing less (in that moment) than you could do when you walked in. However, that acute stress causes a response – which leads to an adaptation where you become more fit than when you walked in (assuming you take the proper steps to recover adequately).
Training is a constant management process between the training effect applied and one’s ability to recover from that loading.
While a single training session may acutely have a negative effect on you, if you manage this relationship well over a given training period, the training will yield a positive effect in improved fitness specific to your goal (in this case, maximal strength). Given that information, more intense training causes a larger amount of fatigue, while doing less intense work will help to build work capacity specific to your sport (powerlifting). Popularly, this is described as the difference between “building strength” and “testing it.”
Focusing on adding more volume with less intensity causes a fatigue that is more manageable and more productive. Training more frequently is an obvious way to spread out more work, allowing for better recovery. While one could conceivably also add more work in less frequent training sessions, doing so makes the session more dense and therefore adds an element of increased intensity. In this case, we’re viewing intensity less so from a “weight on bar” standpoint, and moreso from the “magnitude” of the training session.
Action item 1: Instead of training 3x/week, try doubling that frequency to 6x/week. Have each session focus on a different lift, and follow a high/low approach. As an example:
- Monday: Squat High
- Tuesday: DL Low
- Wednesday: Bench High
- Thursday: Squat Low
- Friday: Deadlift High
- Saturday: Bench Low (or High again; most beginners can repeat a heavy bench day twice per week)
Action item 2: Don’t warm up in an effort to make the top sets of the day “easier.” Many lifters practice the minimal amount of volume necessary to feel prepared for the top sets in a training session. Instead, program out your warm up sets as well. If you do this, and increase your exposure to each lift to 2x/week, that means you will have to warm up twice as often. If you are making a point to do a certain amount work leading up to the top sets, this will increase submaximal training volume by quite a lot over the course of time. As an example, if you are working up to top sets in the 75-90% range try this for a warm up protocol:
- 35% x 8 to 10 reps
- 45% x 8 to 10 reps
- 55% x 6 to 8 reps
- 65% x 5 to 6 reps
- 70% x 4 to 6 reps
3. Improved Compliance
We are creatures of habit. How many people do a better job of optimizing sleep, nutrition, hydration, and body management (self massage, mobility, activation work) when their training sessions are taken into consideration? I know I do. If you train 3x/week, that may mean the nights before those sessions you make sure to get enough sleep. It may mean that on the days you train, you make sure to fuel yourself better. It may also mean you take better measures to prepare the body physically for loading. If you train 5-6 times/week, you essentially double those efforts. You drink more water, get more sleep, eat better food, and do more to keep moving and functioning optimally. That alone will improve your results.