A Simpleton's Guide to Charles Poliquin's Training Principles 1

Charles Poliquin is a legend. His training principles work. But they can be tough to wrap your head around. Here’s a simple guide.

Sometimes, when I’m talking to Coach Poliquin about training methodologies, muscle fiber ratios, and all the assorted high-tech, laboratory aspects of weight training, my eyes start to glaze over-not because I’m bored or anything-but because he has lost me; lost me as surely as if he had driven me out to the desert in the back of his four-wheel-drive Jeep of knowledge, kicked me out naked into the midst of scorpions, rattlers, and cacti without so much as a bottle of Evian water, and left me to flounder out under the searing sun where I start to slowly bake and fricassee.

He’ll continue expounding on the intricacies of what he knows better than any one alive, and I’ll find myself playing little games to make him think we’re still sharing the same planet: “Yes Charles, yes, it’s so clear?why didn’t I see it before?” Meanwhile, I’m staring at his nose, or fantasizing about that blonde I saw on the beach the other day, the one with that metallic thong that split her declivities so deftly in two as she bounded toward the surf, her bottom as brown as a berry and just as juicy… “Yes Charles, yes, don’t stop, don’t stop!”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not exactly a lightweight when it comes to the science of weight training. I’ve read more than my share of studies, articles, and books, in addition to having years and years of practical experience. And, I’ve played Sherman to Charles Poliquin’s Peabody for practically longer than anyone else. I’m sort of a Poliquin clone; a juvenile, ill-formed, way-down-on-the-evolutionary-scale clone, but a clone nonetheless. Still, I’ll never know everything Charles knows, regardless of how much I tag along with him like some sort of loyal hound dog.

The point of all this is that I can now formulate my own, Poliquin-esque workout routines without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth. What I’ve done is taken seven of his principles and committed them to memory, so much so that I can’t do a single exercise without taking them into consideration. It’s kind of like that best-selling business book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but instead, I prefer the less elegant, more humble title, “A Simpleton’s Guide to Charles Poliquin’s Training Principles”.

If you learn these seven principles and apply them to your workout routines, you’ll have the next best thing to getting Charles to design your own, individualized programs. What’s more, you’ll more than likely experience more progress in your training in a short period than you have in the previous five years. Here, in a nutshell, are the seven principles I’ve adopted (I also gave them my own descriptive names):

The Borg Principle

Anybody who’s ever watched the newer versions of “Star Trek” knows about the Borg. They’re the bad-ass creatures who 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 so they can’t adapt.

Well, your body is 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 hand grip 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-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, to the Borg, resistance if futile, but in weight training, resistance to becoming stale is mandatory.

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 spoonfuls of sugar in their morning coffee; getting a monthly haircut from Rudy, the gay stylist; or watching Dawson’s Creek on Tuesdays and wondering what that Joey chick is going to look like when she gets a little bit older. It’s largely habit. True, there’s a lot of evidence that doing midrange reps is 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.

The II-B or Not II-B Principle

We just got done talking about fiber types. Well, true muscle physiology types (the kind that wear lab coats with the sleeves torn off) refer to these fibers using cute little alphanumeric terms, like II-A or II-B. These numbers refer to their oxidative capacity. Now, type II-B fibers are generally known as fast-twitch fibers and are the ones called on to do very heavy lifting. When you experience strength failure, much of it’s due to the fact that these type II-B fibers have petered out-they just don’t have the endurance of the other muscle fibers. They’re like the fat truck driver who lives down the street; huge SOB, real strong, but can’t run more than 10 feet without kissing the pavement.

After these fibers are fatigued, it’s hard to engage them fully in subsequent exercises. However, the other fibers, the type II-A guys, will still be fresh, and they’re best stimulated with reps of between ten and twelve.

The point here is that you should do your heavy weight, low-rep movements first in the workout. Then, after those fibers are baked, go on to your higher-rep movements.

The Rest Principle

Somewhere along the way, taking short breaks between sets got confused as “intensity”. If, after all, you’re breathing heavy like a high school kid at a Tracy Lord film festival, you must be working intensely, right? Wrong, Viagra breath. 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.

With that in mind, let me say that people tend to rush between heavy sets in order to maintain a high heart rate. Heart rate has nothing to do with your goal here. If you want aerobic capacity, run 10-miles a day and turn into one of those pairs of lungs with some sinew attached that you see whipping along the parkway every morning wearing T-shirts that say something like, “Greater Orlando 225K Grapefruit Extravaganza Race”.

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 they’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.

The Time-Under-Tension Principle

Muscle growing isn’t just about reps and rest periods. It all comes down to something called “time under tension”. In some circles, time-under-tension refers to the amount of time you spend tailgating that Ford Pinto that’s doing about 45 in the fast lane. It also refers to the time your muscles are actually working and weight, sets, and reps all play a part in the equation. For instance, if you do a set of 10 reps, but you pistoned them up and down like the pelvic thrusts of one of those horny baboons in a National Geographic special, your total time under tension was about two seconds. Muscle is not going to grow when your time under tension is inordinately low (see the next principle for more info on “time under tension”).

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. (Determining your exact muscle fiber make-up is probably a little more complicated than we want to get into here in this article).

As you progress from one set to another and you tire, you have one of two choices: 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’ll need to reduce the weight about 4 or 5% on the next set in order to do 8 reps again.

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 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, my time under tension is going to be something like 15 seconds if I do them at “normal” speed. 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’s 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.

Okay, so 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.

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.

Ever wonder why 99 out of a 100 trainees do multiple sets of a particular exercise in succession? For instance, they’ll do one set of bench press, followed by another set of bench press, followed by another set of bench press. In between, they’ll pretend to pull a loose thread on their toe-jammy socks while sneaking a peak at Ms. Hooters while she’s doing dumbbell flyes. This supposedly allows the athlete to recuperate in-between sets.

Well, amazingly, 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, 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 labels 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.

There are plenty of other Poliquin Principles, but my feeble brain can only digest so much. It’s like buying panties for my wife out one of those big Victoria’s Secrets clearance bins: they all look so nice, but I can only fit so many in my wheel barrow.

Anyhow, these are the ones that I use to formulate my workout programs. Next week, I’ll show you how I use them to constantly formulate new, incredibly effective workouts without rupturing too many brain cells.