How much can you bench?
If I had a quarter for every time I heard that damn question, I could quit my job. Virtually any trainee (male trainee, at least) who has ever stepped foot in a gym or even remotely looks like he trains has been asked this question - and probably more than once.
Generally, when discussing training goals, strength is one of those things that's lumped with money, love, sex or intelligence - you can never have enough of it. And most times, this is true - especially if you're an athlete. I don't care what anybody says (because, believe it or not, I have seen it argued the other way), if you compare two athletes of similar size, skill and experience, then the stronger one has a distinct advantage. Even if you're not an athlete, training for strength has its many advantages, be it making you more healthy, making daily "chores" (such as mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, washing your car, etc.) easier, leading to a better looking body for the opposite sex, or anything in between.
Why Strength-Endurance Is Important
More often than not, when a trainee begins a strength training routine, he'll usually follow the tried and true idea of lifting heavy weights for low reps with a good deal of rest time (both between workouts and during the workout itself). Programs such as these are generally geared toward the trainee who wants to increase brute (limit) strength. The result of programs such as these is generally increased 1RMs (one rep maximums) in any given exercise(s).
This is all well and good - but there is a slight problem. Most trainees who train for strength aren't necessarily in need of strength. What they are in need of is strength-endurance. The problem with programs that focus on increasing your 1 Rep Max is: Should you need to be able to exert that strength for any time frame beyond what one rep might take, or have to make due with less rest than you're accustomed, then your strength won't hold up.
If you take a look at virtually any activity in which increased strength would be beneficial, you'll notice that for that increased strength to be beneficial, you'd have to be able to take advantage of that strength over an extended period of time. Let's take a look at a few sports first.
- Baseball: Unless you think you're going to hit a home run on the first pitch every time up, or that you can take 4-5 minutes rest between pitches, you'd better be ready to swing not only hard, but often.
- Football: Plays generally last 5-15 seconds with rest periods of approx. the same (or maybe a little longer). You need to exert as much strength as possible during the whole play, every play.
- Hockey: Activity may last up to 30-60 seconds (or more) without stopping. You will more than likely be interspersing short, quick bursts with slower, less intense ones. You need to be able to "tap" that strength reserve at any time - and have full use of it.
- Boxing/Martial Arts: Many of the same demands of Hockey (if not more so) are needed here. Depending on the style of match or fight, you may have to go multiple rounds of a few minutes or may just compete non-stop until there is a winner. You need to be able to utilize as much of your strength as possible at any time.
Apply these same ideas to anything you might do in daily life, be it the examples I gave before, or activities as simple as bringing in the groceries, re-arranging your living room, or carrying a heavy backpack. Unless you can complete your activity in around 10-20 seconds, you will be dependent on strength-endurance more than you will brute (limit) strength.
So Are We Talking About Cardio?
Now, you might be saying, "But Wiggy, it sounds to me like you're talking about cardio or conditioning training to me." To a large extent, you're right. But, the reason why is because good conditioning and good strength-endurance go hand-in-hand.Hell, I've seen plenty of lifters in my day who had good 1RMs, and could ride the stationary bike forever. But get them in a real world situation like some manual labor or some sort of "pick-up" game, and you find their strength quickly goes out the window.
Don't believe me? Check out what Dave Tate of Westside Barbell fame recently stated in an online article about powerlifters who you'd think would have little to no need for strength-endurance or conditioning: "If you think you can excel in any sport without a base level of conditioning you're out of your mind. The days of over-fat, bloated, can't breathe, can't sleep powerlifters are over!"
The reason for this lies in the trainee's style of training. The ever-popular S.A.I.D. (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle tells us that our bodies will adapt to and prepare for the stresses placed specifically upon it. Or in other words, if you consistently train with low reps, heavy weights, with a lot of rest time, your body will adapt by being strong for one short burst, but will then require a decent rest period. As was discussed above, this isn't what is the most useful in athletics or everyday life! Strength-endurance, or the ability to be strong over an extended period of time, would be.
So Should We Use High Reps And Low Weight?
Tradition tells us that to train for endurance, we need to use sets of higher reps with lower weight. Wrong!
If we are looking for increased strength endurance, then that means essentially that we want to be as strong as possible for as long as possible. So, instead of giving it your all for one quick burst and then crapping out, you want to be able to keep exerting yourself for extended periods of time. Now, do you think you can attain this strength-endurance by pumping out countless reps with a lighter weight? No way - that would be like telling a man who benches 400-pounds that he'll increase his strength endurance by doing countless pushups. An increase in endurance? Maybe. An increase in strength-endurance? Nope.
So How DO We Increase Strength-Endurance?
To increase strength-endurance, you need a program that accomplishes three things: uses heavy (near limit) weight, requires shortening rest periods and utilizes volume.
This is pretty much a "no brainer." If you want to get strong, you're going to have to lift heavy. Cycling is good, and will be needed for proper muscular recovery, but you have to get to the point that you lift as heavy as possible.
Shortened Rest Periods
The idea behind training to increase strength-endurance is that you want your body to be able to exert maximum strength when not fully recovered aerobically. You also want to train your body to recover faster. Or, in other words, when you are under maximum strain, you want to recover quicker from that strain. Also, you want to either sustain said strain longer or sustain it multiple times in quick succession.
If you're not doing a fair amount of reps overall, you won't be increase any kind of endurance - strength or otherwise. It is doing a large volume of work (coupled with shortened rest periods) that will give you endurance. When that is coupled with heavy weights, then you have strength-endurance. Think of it like an equation:
Strength-Endurance = Heavy Weights + Short Rest + Volume
Putting It All Together
OK, now that we know what we want to do, how do we do it? We already have figured out that light sets of many reps (say 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps) aren't the answer, as we need to lift heavy. However, if we lift heavy, then we can't use higher reps. So, we use heavy weights for a lot of sets of low reps (say 10-20 sets x 1-4 reps). Rest periods are then shortened ideally to 20-40 seconds, and are never more than 60 seconds.
A routine such as this allows us to:
- Use heavy weights (as we're doing low reps)
- Still use large volume (because we're doing more sets)
- Shorten rest periods (it doesn't take nearly as long to recover from a couple reps as it does 12-15, so you can do your next set quicker)
When you start a routine such as this, either pick a shorter rest time (say 30 seconds) and start with a lighter weight (say 65-70% of 1RM) or a longer rest time (say 60 seconds) and start with a heavier weight (say 80-85% of 1RM). If you start with the lighter weight, strive to add weight each workout. If you start with the longer rest time, strive to decrease it each workout. Make your progressions small (only add 5-10 pounds or decrease rest by 5-10 seconds per workout). Perform any given exercise twice to three times per week.
A Real Life Example
When I first started experimenting with this style of training, my 1RM for the Clean and Press was 210-220 pounds. However, the most I could do was 185 pounds for was probably 3-4 reps before crapping out, and then I'd have to wait at least a few minutes to do my next set.
Clean and Press
Training the Clean and Press twice per week, I did 15 sets x 2 reps with rest periods starting at 60 seconds. My first workout, I used 135 pounds (roughly 65% of 1RM). By Set 13, I felt shaky, and my form for Set 15 all but got me hurt. My body quickly adapted, however. I decreased the rest period every workout, and once I was at around 20 seconds rest, I increased the weight and started over again at 60 seconds. By Week 6, I was using 185 pounds for 15 sets x 2 reps with only 15-20 seconds rest time. Or, in other words, I was performing 30 reps with roughly 85% of 1RM in just under five minutes. Do a workout like this with 3-4 exercises, and look how much heavy lifting you're doing over an extended period of time.
I've prescribed this protocol to plenty of other people who have had similar (if not better) results.