by Christian Thibaudeau T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- All progression models have their limits. These advanced strategies will allow you to keep getting stronger.
- End every single workout with a few sets of your worst lift.
- Use contrast series lifting. Do a series of 3 sets of an exercise using different speed dynamics with moderate weight, light weight, and then heavy weight.
- Perform isometric holds. Pick up the barbell, bring it to the weakest position, and hold it there for 12 seconds.
- Use next-day isolation work. Do isolation work for the weakest muscle involved in your main lift from the preceding day.
- Do the lift you want to improve the most twice in your workout. Doing 4 sets of an exercise twice during a session will lead to greater strength gains than doing 8 sets in a row.
The Double Progression Model
The stronger you get on the big, basic barbell lifts, the more muscle you’ll grow. Period. And one of the best ways to do that is to use the double progression model.
First you select a rep range. Let’s say 5 reps per set. Then you select a number of sets to perform, 5 for example. You want to do all 5 work sets using the same weight and your goal is to complete all 5 sets using your target rep range.
When you can complete all your sets with the same weight at the targeted number of reps, you’re allowed to increase the weight at your next session. Not being able to get all your sets done with the upper limit of the range – for example getting 5, 5, 5, 4, 3 reps – is fine, but it means you don’t get to increase the weight at your next session.
However, double progression has its limits, just like any other progression model. At some point you’ll need to use advanced strategies to keep getting stronger. Here are six of my favorite.
1. End Every Workout With Your Worst Lift
If your bench press is your worst lift and the one you want to improve the most, add 3-4 sets at the end of every workout you do (on top of your regular bench press work).
The reason for this is that the neural adaptations tend to be greater for the last thing you do in a workout. That’s why I like to end the session with a few high quality sets of a key lift or physical quality. When your goal is to bring up one specific lift, especially if it’s been stuck for a while, this should be your go-to strategy.
The minimal load to stimulate rapid strength gains is 80%, so that’s the weight you should be using for your daily, end-of-the-workout sets. Use this strategy for at least four weeks.
Pick one lift you want to focus on and perform 3 to 4 sets at 80% of your maximum. The number of reps will vary depending on what you did during the rest of the session.
If you did a heavy pressing session, you might only get 2 or 3 good reps with 80%. If you did squats or deads, your upper body will be fresh enough to allow you to get 5 or 6 reps. The key thing is staying at 80% for all of your work sets. Ideally you would not reach failure on any of the sets.
This technique works by improving neural efficiency for the target lift. You’ll improve intra- and inter-muscular coordination, which will allow you to rapidly gain strength in that movement. Rapid strength gains should be sustainable for 4-6 weeks.
By the way, since you’ll hit the focus lift every day, you’re bound to have some residual fatigue and you might not feel stronger right away. The gains in strength on the target lift will show up about 10-14 days after you stop doing this strategy. You’ll get a big performance gain seemingly out of nowhere!
Note that this also works well for improved muscle growth. One of my figure girls made very rapid gains in glute and leg muscularity by finishing every workout with four sets of front squats for four weeks.
2. Contrast Series Lifting
I adapted this method from a technique used in track and field, both with sprints and throws. It consists of doing a series of 3 sets (with a normal rest interval between sets) of a movement using different speed dynamics. For example, when working with a bobsleigh Olympian, we did one 60m resisted sprint (speed parachute), one overspeed 60m sprint (towed sprint with overspeed device), and one normal 60m sprint.
We did the same thing with shot putters – throwing an overweight implement, followed by an underweight implement, and finally a normal one.
In both instances you would have a slower movement, a faster than normal movement, and a normal one. This leads to greater gains in power. You can use this the same approach with basic strength lifts:
Set 1: Moderate weight (70-80%) using a very slow eccentric tempo (about 5 seconds on the negative) and a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of the eccentric while still under load (e.g., not completely in the hole in a squat, not touching the chest on a bench, or the floor on a deadlift). The concentric or lifting part is then performed normally. Do 2-3 reps.
Rest 2 minutes
Set 2: Light weight (60-70%) done explosively. Control the lowering portion but explode from the bottom, trying to lift with as much acceleration as possible. Do 3-5 reps, as long as speed is maintained.
Rest 60 seconds
Set 3: Fairly heavy weight (80-85%) using a normal tempo done for 4-6 reps, which causes significant fatigue.
Rest 3 minutes
Such a series would be done a total of 2 or 3 times, so 6 or 9 sets.
Note: If you’re a strength athlete such as a powerlifter or if building strength is your priority, then always end the exercise with the heavy work (80-85% set). If you’re a power athlete or focusing on power and speed, add one last lift/explosive set at the end of the exercise – not at the end of each series, just at the end of the exercise (so you’d do a total of 7 or 10 sets instead of 6 or 9). End an exercise with the physical quality that’s most important to you.
3. Isometric Holds
I’ve always been a big believer in isometric holds. They can help you rapidly build strength, size, and muscle hardness.
The version I like to use the most when trying to improve strength on the basic strength lifts (bench, squat, deadlift, military press) and Olympic lift variations are medium-duration holds performed at the weakest position in the movement.
For the deadlift and Olympic lift variations, do the pause just below the kneecaps. For squats use a 90-degree knee angle. Use a 90-degree elbow angle for the bench press and military press.
The hold is the only thing you do; you don’t do a lift before or after the pause. Just pick up the barbell, bring it to the proper position, and hold it there. That’s the set. The duration of the pause when working on strength is 12 seconds, which is pretty much the limit of the phosphagen energy system (the key system for limit strength).
It’s very important to use the exact same body position as you would during the actual lift you’re training. Otherwise you won’t have much transfer.
Why are holds effective? Because they strengthen the weak position. The stronger you are in the weakest position of a lift, the less likely you are to break form with maximal weights. This will allow you to stay in an optimal position to produce force during the lift. Remember that it’s one thing to have strong muscles, it’s an entirely different matter to be strong at the weakest position of a lift. And to be super strong, you need both.
I recommend 3 or 4 sets lasting 12 seconds. You should select the heaviest load you can handle for the 12 seconds while being in control and in perfect position. If you’re shaking and feel like the weight is dominating you even while managing to hold it in position, it’s too heavy.
Remember, we gradually want to increase your capacity to hold the weak position solidly. You must dominate the position. Use as much weight as possible while remaining the boss of the weight!
4. Next Day Isolation Work
This consists of doing isolation work for the weakest muscle involved in your main lift from the preceding day. For example, if your main lift on Monday was the bench press and you found that your triceps were your weakest link, you would start Tuesday’s workout by doing isolation work for the triceps.
Focus on mind-muscle connection and feel the muscle contracting hard throughout the range of motion while establishing a maximum pump. This will extend the length of the anabolic period (period where protein synthesis in the muscle in enhanced) for the lagging muscle group, making it grow faster.
It will also enhance the mind-muscle connection with that muscle because the muscle will be more sensitive during the isolation session because it was already recruited the day prior. This is called enhanced feedback. A muscle that has been worked the day prior will be slightly tender and still a bit inflamed. As a result you’ll feel it contract more. This will teach you to recruit and feel that muscle, which is important because the first step toward correcting a lagging muscle group is improving your mind-muscle connection with it.
Finally, one of the benefits of pump work with isolation movement is an increased blood flow to the trained muscle. If you consumed a proper peri-workout product like Plazma™ prior to your workout, you’ll have your blood charged with nutrients. And by sending more blood toward the focus muscle, you’ll also transport more nutrients towards it.
How much isolation work should you do? Well, the goal is a maximum pump. Some people can achieve that in as little as 3 or 4 sets of one exercise, while others might need up to 12 total sets.
At first you’re likely to need more sets because your mind-muscle connection is not optimal. The better it becomes, the faster you should be able to induce a maximal pump. Sets of 8-12 reps and techniques such as 1.5 reps, partial reps, or drop sets can be used to create a pump faster.
5. Do It Twice
This is a somewhat popular method in Olympic lifting circles – do the lift you want to improve the most twice in your workout. For example, doing 4 sets of an exercise twice during a session will lead to greater strength gains than doing 8 sets in a row. This is mostly due to a greater neural adaptation and better motor learning.
The method I prefer when using this strategy is to do the target lift first and last in the session. You do it first because that’s when the nervous system is fresher and when you’ll be able to send the strongest neural drive to the muscles. As such, go heavier in the beginning than at the end of the workout. When training for strength, start the session by ramping to a 2 or 3RM in 4-5 sets.
Repeat the movement at the end of your workout because the thing you do last in your session will tend to have the greatest neural adaptation. By doing your focus lift both at the beginning and at the end of your workout you’ll gain strength at the highest possible rate.
If, for example, you ramped up to a 2 or 3RM at the beginning of your session, you should perform 3 to 4 sets of 3 to 5 reps at the end of your workout using 80% of the 2 or 3RM achieved earlier.
6. End On A Strong Note
I like max effort lifting. I love to gradually ramp up toward the maximum I can lift for that day. Sadly this often means that my last set of an exercise is either a fail or a grinder done with less than perfect technique.
Remember that what you do last will lead to the greatest neural adaptations, so if you finish on a fail or a grinder, that will influence the adaptations you’ll get! So when I do maximal lifting and finish up with either a failed lift or a grinder, I’ll always back down slightly and do one last set where my goal is to kill the weight!
I don’t drop down too much. The weight has to be heavy enough to require maximum effort, but light enough to be able to physically dominate the barbell. Taking off 7-10% of the weight and doing a double or triple works well.
It’s very important to have a lot of focus and aggression on that last set. It has to be the best set of your session. Get back at the barbell for beating your arse on the preceding set! The stronger you finish, the more gains you’ll make!
Stronger Than Ever
These six strategies helped me and my athletes break through more plateaus than any other training methods, loading schemes, or corrective exercises combined. They’re all super effective and can easily be integrated to almost any training program based on strength.
Obviously, don’t use them all at once! But having them in your toolbox will allow you to blast through strength plateaus over and over.