6 Poliquin Principles Revisited

by TC Luoma

Have They Withstood the Test of Time?

He brought science to bodybuilding and strength training, but how do Charles Poliquin's principles hold up today?

I’ve read a lot of books about training, but the one that influenced me the most was the eponymously named “Poliquin Principles” by Charles Poliquin, published in 1997.

For those of you new to the iron sports or for whom weightlifting history isn’t your thing, Charles was one of the first strength coaches to bring science to the game. Hell, he was one of the first strength coaches to be CALLED a strength coach, at least outside of the guys who wore baggy sweatpants and carried around clipboards when they were counting out reps for NFL or college football players.

While still an embryonic strength coach, Charles spent an enormous amount of time reading obscure research that was mostly conducted in Eastern Bloc countries. He even taught himself German so he could read a lot of East German research in its original language.

Charles then took whatever he read and experimented with it to see if the real-life results approximated those discussed in the research papers. After years of this “lab work,” he came up with a set of weightlifting/bodybuilding principles that formed the basis of his training philosophy and these in turn were laid out in “The Poliquin Principles.”

By today’s standards, the book is amateurish in construction, with lackluster photos and layout. (You can still find copies of it if you’re willing to pay upwards of a hundred bucks for it.) Still, it changed the face of weightlifting and bodybuilding. Much of the shit you do today is because of what Charles wrote in that book.

I first wrote about these principles in 1998 when T Nation was wasn’t really a “nation,” but a small Podunk town of unwashed knowledge seekers. That article was called “A Simpleton’s Guide to Charles Poliquin’s Training Principles.” I recently pulled it up to see if the principles had withstood the test of time.

Let’s take a look at a few of them. I’ll copy and paste what I originally wrote (with some minor editing) and then follow it with an evaluation of whether it still seems to be valid or not. (Keep in mind that the names of the principles weren’t names he used but just stuff I came up with to help describe them.)

1. The Borg Principle

Anybody who’s ever watched “Star Trek” knows about the Borg. They’re the badass creatures that can’t be beaten using conventional methods. Blast them or their ship with phasers and they adapt. The only way to keep them off balance is to set your weapons on a constantly shifting frequency.

Well, your body is like the Borg. It’s designed to adapt. When you keep doing the same exercises in the same order, for the same amount of reps, using the same handgrip or foot stance, the body adapts.

In effect, the nervous system becomes “hardwired” to that particular routine and consequently fewer muscle fibers are recruited, less energy is used, and fewer demands in general are made on the body.

You become an expert at that routine, and after a surprisingly short time, you stop making progress. If, however, you keep shaking things up, “changing the frequency,” so to speak, the nervous system does NOT adapt. Instead, what happens is that the body, or more accurately, the muscles, grow stronger and bigger to survive the onslaught of your attack.

Research (by Poliquin and others) shows that, in most cases, the body begins to adapt after having performed a particular routine 6 times. After that, it’s time to shake things up again. Yes, resistance is futile to the Borg, but in weight training, resistance (to adapting stale) is mandatory.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

The “Borg Principle” remains a largely valid point, but tying adaption to a specific number like 6 workouts is dubious. It’s like saying everybody will get sick of pie after eating it for 6 days straight. Some will, but others can keep on eating pie every day and still enjoy it 'til doomsday.

How fast you adapt all depends on how advanced a lifter you are, the complexity of your workouts, your nutritional/hormonal status, and your unique neurological make-up.

Even Charles, years later, noted that some individuals can adapt to a workout in as little as ONE workout, meaning for people like that, changing frequencies on a much more regular basis is imperative.

For the rest of us, frequent change is also important, but how often we change our workouts should be based on something more personal, like if we’re no longer making progress on a particular exercise or routine.

2. The Principle of Shifting Rep Ranges

Most trainers are hopelessly mired in the old 8-10 rep range scheme. It’s as automatic for them as putting two packages of Equal in their coffee or shakin’ it twice; it’s largely habit. True, there’s a lot of research that supports mid-range reps as maybe the best compromise between rep ranges designed to build strength (between, say, 3 and 5) and rep ranges designed to build endurance (anything above 12 or so).

However, to maximize results, you should work your muscles in all 3 rep ranges.

Muscle fibers are “typed” according to their oxidative capacities and how fast they fatigue. Historically, fast-twitch fibers (the ones best suited for growth) are worked by a combination of lower-rep, lower set routines. Fine. Except that muscles are also made up of slow-twitch fibers. You can’t very well ignore them if you want to maximize gains.

Therefore, you should juggle low-rep training (from 4 to 6 reps), intermediate-rep training (8-10), and high-rep training (12-15, or even 15-18) to make the best progress.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

What Charles promoted was based on the work of Thomas Delorme, a doctor who used weight training to rehab WWII soldiers, and it formed the basis of progressive overload. Today, we refer to the theory that low reps build strength, medium reps build muscle, and high reps build endurance as the “repetition continuum.”

Recent research, however, shows that it’s not nearly as clear-cut as we once thought it was. Significant strength gains can be made with very light loads (over 20 reps). Light loads also seem to build muscle nearly as well as medium loads, as long as volume is adjusted upwards, and medium loads seem to do just as well as light loads in building muscular endurance.

Even so, Charles’ bottom line recommendation still holds true: You should juggle low-rep (4-6) training, intermediate-rep training (8-10), and high-rep training (15+) as part of a structured resistance-training program, but that’s largely to keep in accordance with “the Borg principle” explained earlier.

3. The Rest Principle

Somewhere along the way, taking short breaks between sets got confused as “intensity.” If, after all, you’re breathing hard, you must be working intensely, right?

Wrong. In weight lifting, intensity refers to how close the weight you’re using is to your one-rep maximum. If I lift 200 pounds ten times, regardless of how much I huff and puff, I’m not engaging in a high-intensity set. If, however, I push 300 pounds up only 3 times, my intensity level is very high.

The more intense the set, the more rest is needed between sets to allow for neural recuperation. If you don’t rest long enough between intense sets, it’s a safe bet that your lactate levels will still be high and that’ll interfere with your performance on the next set.

Typically, if you’re working heavy, you should rest between two and three minutes in-between sets. On less intense sets, you can rest anywhere from 45 seconds to 90 seconds.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

The overall idea is still true, but again, not all God’s chillun’ are the same. Lactate levels clear at different rates. Some people have an indomitable will that allows them to go on for amazingly long times during low intensity sets and they might need longer than 45 seconds to recover.

On the other end of the spectrum, some recent research has shown that powerlifters did best when they rested up to 5 to 8 minutes between lifts/sets. That, of course, is extreme and works best for people on unemployment who have lots of time.

Generally speaking, though, longer rest for your heavier sets and shorter rest periods for your higher-rep sets is still good advice.

4. The Time-Under-Tension Principle

Growing muscle isn’t just about reps and rest periods. It all comes down to something called “time under tension.” It refers to the time your muscles are actually working. Weight, sets, and reps all play a part in the equation.

For instance, if you piston out a set of 10 biceps curls, your total time under tension was about two seconds. Muscle is not going to grow when your time under tension is inordinately low.

Typically, and depending largely on your muscle fiber ratio (some people have more fast-twitch fibers than slow or vice versa), your time under tension should be anywhere from 30 seconds to about 70. Any more or any less is counterproductive over the long run.

As you progress from one set to another and you tire, you have one of two choices to keep the time under tension in the desired range: reduce the weight, or reduce the number of reps.

Given that choice, you should always reduce the weight and keep the rep range the same or roughly the same. In other words, if you just did 8 reps at 200, you might need to reduce the weight about 4 or 5% on the next set in order to do 8 reps again.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

Again, this principle is just too specific. There are just too many people who’ve made a whole damn career out of sets that lasted fewer than 30 seconds. Likewise, the entire CrossFit philosophy is essentially based on activities that last longer than 70 seconds, and a few of those bastards are pretty muscular.

That being said, the essence of the principle still appears to be true and if you’re following a program built on progressive overload, it makes sense to keep the rep ranges equivalent between sets of an exercise and just lower the weight.

5. The Change the Beat Around Principle

In the previous principle, we talked about time under tension and we mentioned the wisdom of keeping the duration of a set somewhere in the 30 to 70 second range. How do you do that without doing 30 to 70 normal-speed reps?

The answer is something called tempo. For instance, if I’m doing sets of dumbbell bench presses for sets of 4 to 6 reps, the time it takes me to do the set – the time under tension – may be something like 15 seconds. However, if I slow them down, particularly on the eccentric, or lowering part of the movement, I’ll increase time under tension.

Whenever you look at a Poliquin workout sheet, you’ll see numbers that look like 302, or 501, or something similar. They do not refer to different styles of Levi jeans. Instead, they refer to tempo, and the first number indicates how many seconds you should take to perform the eccentric portion of that particular lift.

For instance, a “5” means you should take a count of five to lower the weight. The next number refers to the pause taken between the eccentric and the concentric portion of the movement, while the last number refers to how long it should take you to raise the weight.

What this means is that if you’re working in a 4-6 rep range, you have to adjust the tempo in order for that set’s time under tension to reach at least 30 seconds. Along the same lines, if you’re working in the 8-10 rep range, the tempo should be a little quicker so that you won’t exceed the 30 to 70 second time-under-tension frame.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

Very few lifters seem to use this type of tempo training anymore, although you’ll still sometimes see trainers recommend that you take x number of seconds to do the eccentric portion of a lift.

It’s a shame, really, because tempo training can be a tremendous tool. For one thing, it forces lifters to at least concentrate on the eccentric portion of a lift which is where the richest growth potential lives. Far too many lifters, even after years of training, still accede far too willingly to the demands of gravity and just let the weight drop.

Tempo training – specifically, slow tempo training – is also a Godsend to people with injuries, allowing them to continue training using lighter weights and lifting and lowering speeds that eliminate any undue stress on injured tendons, muscles, or joints.

Lastly, tempo training can be particularly useful to people who only have a limited supply of weights. In other words, you can make a 40-pound weight as effective or as useful as an 80-pound weight just by changing the tempo from 101 to something like 412 (the first number is the eccentric).

6. The Yin and Yang Principle

Muscle builders always talk about the endocrine system, the muscular system, or even the cardiovascular system. But they hardly ever talk about the neurological system and that’s a big mistake. Consequently, neural recuperation is ignored.

Ninety-nine out of a 100 trainees do multiple sets of a particular exercise in straight, boring succession. For instance, they might do a set of bench press and then pluck at a leg hair until they’re ready to do the next set. This will continue until they have no more sets to do or no more leg hairs to pluck and then they’ll saunter on to the next exercise.

This “method” allows the athlete to recuperate in-between sets. Okay, but research has shown that you’ll achieve better recuperation by performing a set for an antagonistic body part in-between sets.

For instance, if you do a set of dumbbell bench presses, then do a set for your lats in-between, and then go back to your next set of dumbbell bench presses, you’ll experience less of a drop in strength in between sets. No one is sure why, but you can bet it has to do with the neurological system.

Some of you who are new to Charles’ workouts may have noticed that he often labeled his exercises as “A1” and “A2” or “B1” and “B2”. This refers to the order of exercises. “A1” is usually the first exercise for a particular set for a particular body part, while “A2” refers to the second exercise and that exercise is almost always for a dissimilar body part.

After completing A2, the trainee rests for the predetermined amount of time and then goes back to his second set of A1. Other examples include doing a set of barbell curls, followed by a set of triceps extensions; or a set of squats followed by a set of leg curls.

Does It Hold Up To What We Know Now?

This, by most accounts, is still good advice but it’s rarely practiced, at least in commercial gyms because it’s just too damn stressful to try to colonize two separate pieces of equipment or stations that might be on opposite sides of the gym.

But for those who train at home or in largely deserted gyms, there’s no excuse not to follow this principle.

So What’s the Verdict?

First, let’s dispense for the looming question: What right does a schnorrer like me have in evaluating the great Poliquin? Fair point, but I knew Charles pretty well, and for a while back in the late 90’s, I was Sherman to his Mr. Peabody and trained with him a number of times.

That being said, most of what Charles wrote back then, by and large, still holds up just fine. But if he were here, I’d tell him that such exacting specificity works for cooking pasta, but not so much for humans. Then he’d smite me and make fun of my skinny arms, after which he’d agree with me.

After all, he was a scientist at heart and scientists continually modify their theories as new research is revealed.