Plenty of programs can help you get strong. The optimal plan depends on what’s limiting you the most. Here are the three factors to consider.
If your main goal is to get strong, you’re probably a little confused right now. There are tons of popular strength plans written by very credible coaches. What’s worse, these plans are all dramatically different from one another.
Here are two relatively opposite approaches:
- Westside Conjugate System: Push maximal weights weekly and change exercises frequently.
- Russian Periodized Programs: Use submaximal weights and a high frequency of the main lifts with almost no variation and a gradual increase in load over time.
The strength-building approach that works best for YOU will depend on these three factors:
- The amount of muscle you have.
- How efficiently your nervous system uses the muscle you have to produce maximum force.
- How technically efficient you are in your lifts.
These three elements require different training approaches. So the best training program for YOU will be the one that addresses the area that’s holding you back at the moment.
For example, let’s take these two lifters who are opposites regarding the first two factors.
- A person who has a lot of muscle mass, but isn’t strong for his size, would benefit from something that targets neurological efficiency. An approach that focuses on getting stronger with sets of 5 reps (like Starting Strength or Bill Starr’s 5x5) or using lots of hypertrophy work on the side won’t be optimal.
- A person who’s considered strong for his size likely has a very efficient nervous system and is limited, performance-wise, by the amount of muscle he carries. In this case, a program including slightly higher reps for the big lifts (4-6) and more hypertrophy assistance work would be better than a plan based on near-maximal work.
Why not do all of that at the same time? Because your body has a limited capacity to recover from physical work.
Let’s look at the best type of training stimulus for each of the three factors mentioned above:
Hypertrophy requires more reps per set, even on the big basic lifts. For those big lifts, we typically talk about sets of 5 reps as ideal. We’re also talking about using a good amount of assistance volume to target the key muscles involved in your lift.
This higher requirement for assistance work diminishes the amount of volume you can invest on the main lift as well as the frequency you can use for each lift. If you need 4-6 sets on the main lift itself (like 5x5) and 3-4 assistance exercises for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps for each lift, you can realistically only train one main lift and its assistance work per workout.
This means a much lower frequency and volume of work on the main lift, thus slower technical improvements. The lower loads also provide less improvement in neurological efficiency.
The more force you must produce, the more neurological involvement (and subsequent improvements) there will be. There’s also the element of habituating your body to handle very heavy loads. Handling near maximal weights (90%+) gets you used to the feeling of those maximal efforts, and it also desensitizes the Golgi Tendon Organs. When you desensitize the GTOs, your body allows you to use a greater percentage of your potential strength.
To improve neurological efficiency, you must use heavier weights, often above 90%, and also train each movement a bit more frequently (twice a week instead of once).
By extension, this reduces the amount of assistance work and overall volume that you can do and thus makes it less effective to build muscle mass. The other danger is that lifting near-maximal and maximal loads can more easily lead to poor technique.
Here it’s all about how much practice you get on the lifts you want to get strong at. – not only in the form of volume but mostly in terms of frequency. To maximize this factor, we’re talking about doing a lift three or four times a week!
Not only that, it needs to be done with the best technique possible: practice doesn’t make perfect; it only makes permanent. If you practice poor technique, you will automatize poor technique.
This means you can’t use near-maximal or maximal loads very often. Most of your work must be submaximal, in the 70-80% range. You must also use fewer reps per set (3 to 5) so that quality remains very high on all of them.
The high frequency and volume performed for the main lifts automatically means that you won’t be able to do much assistance work, making this an inferior approach for building muscle.
As you can see, all three approaches are dramatically different. And all three can work very well, provided that it’s the approach that targets what’s holding you back.
Here’s a chart as a reference point:
|Frequency Per Main Lift
|Low (once per week each)
|Moderate (twice per week)
|High (3-4 times per week)
|Lift-Specific (main lift plus its assistance work)
|Upper/Lower (4 days a week)
|Upper/Lower (6 days a week)
|75-85% for main lifts
|65-80% for assistance
|85-100% for main lifts
|75-80% for assistance
|70-80% for main lift
|65-80% for assistance
|Reps Per Set
|5-6 for main lifts
|6-12 for assistance
|1-3 for main lifts
|6-8 for assistance
|3-5 for main lifts
|6-12 for assistance
|Main Lift Volume
|Lowest (4-6 work sets/week)
|Moderate (10-12 sets/week)
|High (15-20 sets/week)
|Assistance Work Volume
|Highest (12-15 work sets/week)
|Moderate (9-12 work sets/week)
|Low (0-6 work sets/week)
I know what you’re thinking: “I’ll just do the main lift as a max effort movement once a week and lighter for technique in a second workout, then do plenty of hypertrophy work on the side. I’ll get it all!”
Sure, you can do that if…
- You’re using performance-enhancing drugs.
- You’re a professional athlete with zero real-life stress.
- You’re in your twenties.
But in reality, attempts to “get it all at once” rarely work well. To be fair, it can work for a short period of time, but you’ll quickly burn out and crash. Plus, the body adapts faster when you give it a single adaptation signal. The more unambiguous the training stimulus is, the faster you’ll progress. A singleness of purpose almost always works better than trying to do too many things at once.
The best strength program for you will be the one that’s built around addressing what’s holding you back. Stick with that until it no longer represents your main weakness.
For example, if you’re “strong for your size,” focus on building more muscle until you have added enough for what you want to achieve. Then reassess to see if you need to focus on technique or neurological efficiency.
Another way to do things is to periodize all three approaches into a longer training cycle. For example:
- Weeks 1-8: Hypertrophy Focus
- Weeks 9-14: Technique Focus
- Weeks 15-20: Neurological Focus
This is actually how I program for competitive powerlifters. It works best for continuous gains. The hypertrophy phase tends to be longer because building muscle takes more time than making neurological improvements or improving technique.
There’s this belief that to get stronger you constantly need to lift maximal weights. This is in large part because of the popularity of the Westside Conjugate approach.
Yet, if you look back to how the strongest men train (and trained), few of them actually max out frequently. Constantly maxing out is the best way to get your technique worse and worse, get injured, and burn out.
Their training is cyclical and works toward a short phase of near-maximal lifting. A lot of the best powerlifters in history say that their biggest regret was actually training too heavy, too often. Ed Coan, often referred to as the greatest of all time, told me that if he could turn back time, he would’ve spent more time in the “hypertrophy” zone and less time with super-heavy weights.
You don’t need to constantly move maximal weights to get stronger. If anything, sets of 1-3 reps are not ideal for building it. Strength is built more with sets of 5 or even 6 reps, which you can do heavy enough to get decent neurological improvements and get enough volume to build muscle. But it’s not so heavy that your reps start to look like crap.
Very heavy sets of 1-3 reps are best to develop the skill of demonstrating the strength that you already have. But constantly doing that will make you hit the wall very quickly because it doesn’t build much.
Here’s what I want you to take away:
- There’s no universally best strength training program. The best one for you is the one that addresses your limiting factor.
- Trying to do everything at once is a risky approach with a higher chance of failure than success.
- A cyclical approach is a lot more effective if you want to be able to constantly increase strength over the long run and rarely hit plateaus.
- Maximal weights are not optimal for building strength. They’re mostly useful for developing the skill to demonstrate your strength in a max effort.