Question of Strength 16

by Charles Poliquin

Q & A with one of the world's premier strength coaches.

Q: I’ve heard and read tons about how you need to change your routine frequently in order to obtain maximal results. However, I am a creature of habit (no, not a nun). I’ve found three or four routines that work for me and am planning a stretch of German Volume Training in the future. How long could someone reasonably wait before returning to a routine that has worked for them in the past?

From practical experience, I would say 12 weeks would work. In other words, assuming you’ve been doing completely different routines in the interim, you could return to a previous “favorite” workout after three months. Regardless, you might still want to make some changes in that workout. For instance, if your favorite routine employed lying barbell triceps extensions, you might want to do the movement with dumbbells or cables the second time around.

Remember, variety is the key!

Q: I’m 58 years old and have been seriously training for 11 months. I train three days a week, exercising each body part once a week, doing three sets of ten, eight, and six reps, with progressively heavier weights each set. The result has been increased muscle tone and strength. I’m seeing some muscles that I’ve never seen before! I’m surprised to see the change at my age, but I’d like to see a little more mass.

I realize that increased age means lower testosterone levels, and increased muscle mass is not very likely to happen. I’ve tried some of the prohormones–a stack of norandro, andro, androdiol, and chrysin–with no noticeable effect. Most recently, I’ve tried andro gel with no noticeable effect, either. What can I realistically expect concerning increased mass at my age? Do you have any recommendations for workable solutions to increase muscle mass?

Well, one of the reasons you’ve stopped making progress is that your training’s become too monotonous and, consequently, isn’t challenging enough.

There is plenty of empirical evidence that beginners such as you need more training frequency per body part to elicit strength gains. Furthermore, I suspect that you need to train each body part a little more often. Most trainees find it hard to believe the following truism: When you’re weak, you recover rapidly. When you’re strong, it takes you longer to recover. I doubt that you’ve built enough strength in only 11 months to fall into the “strong” category.

I also want to take this opportunity to air a minor pet peeve of mine: When most people say they’ve improved their “muscle tone,” they really that they’ve lost fat and/or gained muscle. There’s no evidence of an increase in the actual tonus of a muscle from strength training. Therefore, I’d appreciate it if all of you out there would drop-kick the next Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health reader who says that he or she wants to improve “muscle tone.”

Regarding the prohormones, recent lab testing points out that not all companies are giving you what you pay for. You may be taking in some expensive fillers with little prohormone. Also, given the poor absorption rates of oral prohormones (along with the efforts of the liver to break these hormones down), the basic recommended dosages aren’t going to cause much of an anabolic effect at all. Now, I am not recommending that you put all of your 4-androdiol pills into a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser and start snacking on them like so many candies. Still, it explains why you might not have had any success with these products.

As far as realistic gains are concerned, I have seen men in your age group gain 18 pounds of lean body mass in one year of proper training. It sounds like a lot, but I am confident that you can do it, assuming no underlying health problems.

Keep us informed about your progress!

Q: Back in 1994, I ordered a program put together by Tom Platz, Leo Costa, and Russ Horine titled “Big Beyond Belief.” I just happened to be looking through a box of books that I had put away some time ago and discovered it. The entire program is based on so-called “Bulgarian” training principles. In summary, those principles are basically stated as follows:

  1. Train in sessions of 45 minutes or less.
  2. Train six days per week with less than 72 hours rest for each body part.
  3. Train each body part three times per week.
  4. Choose exercises that require the most neuro-muscular activation, i.e. squats.
  5. Perform each repetition as quickly as possible while still maintaining proper form.
  6. Follow a micro-periodization technique.

Some other notions that they denote in the program are that the biggest problem today (1994) is not overtraining, but undertraining, that the body recovers much faster than once believed, and that high-intensity training doesn’t produce the greatest gains.

Are these, indeed, actual Bulgarian training philosophies? Or, is it just another program that works until your body adapts?

Go in the closet. Pull out the Hoover “Nordic Queen” model with 200 amps. Pull off the rotary carpet-cleaning head. Put on the dust devil attachment used for cleaning furniture and picking up bowling balls that were accidentally dropped in the sewer. Attach it to one of your testicles (whichever one hangs lower). Turn the vacuum cleaner on “hurricane” mode.

Now you have an idea of the worth of the Bulgarian Burst program. In short, it sucks.

I have come across plenty of people who gave it a fair try a few years ago, with basically zero results. The volume is far too great for most people to handle without using buckets of steroids.

Q: I weigh 150 pounds. Even though I do a very reasonable workout which doesn’t exceed 15 sets, I often feel very sore, exhausted, and half-asleep the day after.

The following is my current program based on the principles that I learned from your book. As you can see, it’s a very low volume and simple routine.


  • Bench press, 185 pounds, 5x5 (rest three minutes between all sets)
  • Chin-up, 50-pound plates, 5x5
  • Standing behind the neck shoulder press, 120 pounds, 5x5


  • Jiu-jiutsu practice, 1-1/2 hours (Brazilian style)


  • Squat, 245 pounds, 5x5 (rest three minutes between all sets)
  • Stiff legged deadlift, 250 pounds, 5x5
  • Abdominal exercises (hanging leg raises and crunches)

I take multi-vitamins (Super Radical Shield formula), NAC, Twinlab DMAE and magnesium, essential fatty acids (Udo’s Choice), protein powders (100 g), and fruit and vegetable extracts.

Based on the above information, I am hoping that you could give me some insight as to why I feel so horrible the day after a workout. I am sure that if you were to answer this question in your magazine, others would benefit as well.

By the way, if you’re going to ask me questions, the very least you could do is use Biotest’s DMAE (contained in Power Drive) instead of Twinlab’s! Either that, or have the common decency to lie to my face about whose products you are using! Okay, I’ll let you off the hook?this time!

Actually, the answer to your problem is rather simple. I really think that your total training volume is so low that you haven’t forced your body into developing increased work capacity.

Brain Candy might help your feelings of fatigue. You might also want to start using a calorie-dense post-workout drink to aid in your recovery. My tried and true formula is as follows:

  • 0.5 g/kg protein
  • 2.0 g/kg carbs

It’s a lot of calories, but it works wonders.

Q: What do you think of the idea that Louie Simmons had of using “relatively” light weight, but maximally accelerating it, to make strength gains? I read that in another of Testosterone’s greatarticles.

I believe that your mind is the Mecca of mass/strength workout protocol derivation, and Testosterone magazine blows MM2K away, even when compared to the early days! Really, you all are great on your own merits. Please keep it going!

Thank you for the compliments!

Louie Simmons has observed that maximally accelerating “relatively” light weight does, indeed, lead to strength gains. This technique has been backed up in recent research.

This technique is better known as “compensatory acceleration.” You train the central nervous system (CNS) to improve the rate of force development when using high loads.

This particular training method has been shown to improve both strength and power more than conventional strength training. If you want more details, read: Jones et al. 1996. The Effects of Compensatory Acceleration on Upper Body Strength and Power. J. Strength and Cond. Res. 10(4):287

Q: First, I’d like to thank you for all of the knowledge that I picked up at the recent Los Angeles seminar. I’m using your techniques on my clients so I won’t forget any of it. I’ve been packing on mass ever since, and my personal training fees have doubled. But, then again, why shouldn’t they?

I’ve been having tremendous success with the GVT program, but I’m unsure about a few things:

How often should I be changing the exercises? Every workout, or could it be every three weeks so I can get a better idea of what kind of strength increases that I’m making?

I incline press 60% of my max for ten sets, but I don’t really start working hard until my fifth set. Consequently, I usually go heavier during my beginning sets and eventually strip some weight when ten reps gets to be too hard. This makes the routine a lot harder. Am I screwing up by not keeping my weight the same for all ten sets? Here’s an example:

  • 205 x 10
  • 195 x 10
  • 195 x 10
  • 195 x 9
  • 185 x 10
  • 185 x 10
  • 185 x 10
  • 185 x 9
  • 175 x 10
  • 175 x 10

I recommend that you change the exercises every six workouts. In fact, that’s my general recommendation, regardless of whether you’re doing the German Volume Training program or a more conventional program.

You should also keep the weight the same for each of the ten sets. The first four sets might not seem that hard, but, believe me, you’ll get better results. You’ll also be able to experience an interesting central nervous system phenomenon if you keep the weight the same for all ten sets. As you fatigue around the fifth and sixth set, your number of reps will probably go down (assuming that you’re using the correct weight). Then, around the eighth or ninth set, the number of reps will go upagain. Strange, but true.

Q: I am a 190-pound, 6’1", 15-year-old sophomore in high school. I play starting halfback and defensive end on the football team. I am looking for a workout that will increase my leg strength by a lot so that I can run over people, just like the “Bus” and Natrone Means. I currently incline leg press 405 pounds, five times for three sets, going as far down as possible. I would also greatly appreciate it if you could give me some good advice on any exercises I can do to increase strength in the muscles that I use for blocking and getting past offensive linemen. I currently bench press 200 pounds at five reps for three sets.

Leg presses are rather useless for an athlete, as the lower back isn’t involved in the muscular chain. They may increase the size of the quads a bit, but they have little functional carryover.

You would be far better off learning how to squat and doing variations of Olympic lifts, like the power clean. These movements are generally far too complex to teach in this column, so you might want to contact the US Weightlifting Federation at 719-578-4508 for a certified coach that can help you learn these important lifts.

Furthermore, that person should also be able to help with your workout. I’d love to be able to do a complete workout for you, but I just don’t have the luxury of having enough time to write hundreds of workouts a day for interested Testosterone readers.

However, we’ll soon be posting workouts that are more applicable to the strength athlete, and you may be able to benefit from one of these.

Q: I’ve read many opposing views on the subject of chest exercises. One school of thought suggests that they shouldn’t be done using a full range of motion. The same camp believes that, during bench presses, the bar shouldn’t touch the chest.

Apparently, if the elbows are lowered much past shoulder level, the pectoralis major does not get any real added benefit, and the rotator cuff muscles must pick up a lot of the load. In other words, the rotator cuffs are exposed to high loads and tension (since most chest work is quite heavy), and this full range of motion may contribute to tendonitis or tears of the rotator cuff muscles.

On the other side of the story, the pecs need to be stretched and worked over their full range of motion in order to grow maximally. Could you please clear this question up for me?

I am a member of the camp that believes that the range of motion should be maximal, providing that the tissue is healthy.

The problem with the “restricted motion camp” is that they don’t understand everything they read. For example, one argument they extoll is that there is a 15-degree carryover for training in a particular range–if you train using 120 degrees of range of motion, you’ll gain the same amount of strength as you would if you trained using 135 degrees of range of motion.

This comes from an incorrect application of German strength research from the 1960s in which trainees performed isometric training at 100% of maximal force for multiple sets of eight seconds. For example, they found that if you did isometric curls at 90 degrees of elbow flexion, a radiation effect caused subjects to increase their strength between 75 (90 minus 15) and 105 (90 plus 15) degrees. In other words, they used 90 degrees of elbow flexion as their test parameter, but the strength gains carried over a large range of motion, plus or minus 15 degrees.

The trouble is, this radiation effect occurs only with maximal isometric training, not concentric or eccentric training.

Just ask any powerlifter who gets in the bad habit of not going all the way down in benching. He’ll get a string of red lights in his next competition because he won’t be able to push the weight off the chest when trying to conform to powerlifting rules. The partial range of motion movements made him weaker!

Besides, I know plenty of elite strength athletes who have used cambered bars for bench press training–which increases the range of motion–who can hoist plenty of weight while having healthier shoulders than their “geek range of motion” counterparts.