Submaximal Effort Training

By Todd Bumgardner ProSource

I grew up in a gym that was less of a fitness club and more of a Louie Simmons altar; Westside was the best side and no argument otherwise was entertained. We did ourselves a disservice.

While we grew in strength — and as lifters — under the Westside method, we thrashed our bodies and missed out on progressive strength and skill gains that are the fruit of submaximal effort training.

To some my words are blasphemy, but below you’ll find a strong case for making submaximal training your go-to method.

What is Max Effort Training?
Max effort training is a strategy championed by Bulgarian Olympic lifters that’s been adapted to powerlifting. Perhaps you remember “maxing out” before football season in August? It’s like that except it’s done every week and one, three and five rep maxes are used. Maxes mean that one more rep, with that weight, is an impossibility.

To improve weak areas, and to avoid neural fatigue, max effort training employs a system of constantly rotating squat, bench press and deadlift variations. Bench press and deadlift variations are often partial range of motion lifts; squat training often incorporates box squats with specialty bars (i.e. cambered bar, buffalo bar, etc.)

Let’s create a palpable max effort example using the bench press and a three-week training cycle. We’ll assume the mid-range of your press needs attention.

Week one starts the cycle with a floor press three-rep max; week two follows with a two-board press five rep max. The cycle finishes with a three-board press one-rep max.

The exercises are cycled throughout the mid-range of motion and the max effort reps are varied to match the week’s, and the exercise’s, desired intensity. Cycling the rep maxes three-five-one ensures that two extremely heavy weeks aren’t completed in sequence. Floor press and three-board press have smaller ranges of motion than the two-board press. Heavily loading them takes less of a toll on the central nervous system.

Traditional Westside programming instates two max effort training days per week: one bench press based upper-body, and one squat or deadlift based lower-body.

What is Submaximal Effort Training?
Submaximal effort training is simply work done with heavy loads that don’t require maximal effort. The weights exist in the range between seventy-five and ninety percent of one rep maximum and each set finishes with a few reps left in the tank.

In contrast to max effort training, submaximal effort training uses the same lifts more consistently while employing less lift rotation. That means using the same squat, bench press or deadlift variation for an entire training cycle or several cycles.

During most submaximal lifting cycles, all lifts are loaded within the same percentage range. A four day per week template keeps barbell lifts consistent: a squat variation, bench press variation, deadlift variation and overhead press variation done with similar loading, the same sets and reps and percentages.

With appropriate volume, submaximal training makes monsters. During the training cycle that took my deadlift from the mid 500’s to 615, my heaviest sets were between 80 percent and 85 percent of my one rep max for all lifts in the program.

Westside templates use submaximal training for assistance lifts while max effort training is used for main lifts. For skill building, they use dynamic effort training, light loads done with maximal velocity. Dynamic effort training is usually done with box squats, bench presses and deadlifts; while squats are done with a variation, rather than the competition lift, dynamic effort bench presses and deadlifts mostly stick to true competition form.

The Case for Submaximal Training
Submaximal training is admittedly not as sexy as max effort training, but it’s more advantageous for a lengthy career.

It begins with reducing bodily havoc; max effort training is hard to recover from. Consistent work at the nervous system’s output brink carries a two-fold detriment. The central nervous system is placed under huge stress and bodily tissues are taxed to the need of drastic repair. You’ll get stronger, there’s no doubt about it. But no matter how well you’ve planned your lift rotations and your lift loading, there is a point that stress overcomes ability to adapt. This means injury and plateaus.

What about Westside lifters and their Olympic lifting brethren the Bulgarians? They continually train to max effort. Why not consistently follow their lead?

Well, simply put, neither camp denies their pharmaceutical use. Pharmaceutically enhanced lifters recover more efficiently from heavier and larger work volumes. But pharmaceutical abuse is probably not a road you want to get started upon. Each camp also hand selects their lifters. These are folks that have a natural ability to train heavy. Anthropomorphically, their body segments and joints align to distribute loading stress better than most humans. This means less stress on tissues, better recovery, etc.

Most lifters also need more specific practice than what is offered by Westside max effort training; mastering a lift requires thousands of reps. Cycling variations year-round limits specific practice and slows progress toward mastery. The Westside solution to this conundrum is dynamic effort training.

The problem is that dynamic effort training isn’t specific enough. When loads climb to the north side of eighty percent, something changes in the nervous system. The motor pattern is different. Since dynamic effort training is always done at relatively low training percentages, it’s not specific enough to build the skill that submaximal effort training does.

What Does Submaximal Effort Look Like?
I’m including a sample training day so that you leave this article with a strong, actionable concept of submaximal training. Also included (in the A series of exercises) is an example of high-frequency strength; it’s a training method we use at Ranfone Training Systems that prepares the body for high neurological output during the main exercise.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1) Snatch Grip Deadlift @ 50% 4 5 60sec
A2) Floor Press @ 50% 4 5 60sec
B1) Bench Press @ 80%-85% 4 3 150sec
B2) Face Pulls 4 12 Done during bench press rest period
C1) Bench Press Cluster sets @ 85%-90% (20 seconds between custers) 2 2-1-1 150sec
D1) Fat Grip Dumbbell Bench Press 3 5 90sec
D2) Chest Supported Row 3 8 Done during fat grip dumbbell bench rest period

Is Max Effort Training Still Useful?
What about max effort training? Is it still useful? Yes, it is.

When max effort training is used sparingly (four to eight weeks per year) it is beneficial. This, of course, depends on the lifter and their associated goals.

Powerlifters who have obtained appreciable lifting skill will program max effort training during the final phases before competition. The key is finding the balance between fatiguing the nervous system and training it to peak.

In the mid-offseason, max effort training can boost athletes into the increased power training and conditioning of the late-offseason. This, again, depends on lifting experience and the athlete’s needs.

It’s occasionally applicable for bodybuilders as well, those looking to build denser muscle mass. The same rules apply: lifter dependent, only four to eight weeks per year.

An Action Plan
If you compete, heavier training on the north side of ninety-five percent is, at times, warranted to peak while training specifically. Most of the year, however, submaximal training is the way to maintain strength, skill and health.


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