Knowing what we do regarding strength training and building muscle, we can establish some guidelines with a fair degree of confidence. A program should be designed around some concepts:
1. Mechanical load
2. Progressive Overload
3. Specific Adaptation to Implied Demands
If one were to squat with just their body weight until fatigue, they have applied number 1, and allowing some time to recover, they will also apply number 3. The next time they squat, they try adding some extra weight, or perhaps just doing more repetitions than they did the last time. This will apply number 2. Basic resistance training stuff.
Once you’re beyond basic levels, things get a lot more interesting and a lot more challenging. How often should one repeat applying the mechanical load, and how quickly should one advance the overload? What do we do when we can’t continue adding weight to the barbell to increase the overload?
One of the more challenging aspects for me is managing my volume of overall training. Well, that and organizing my weekly training to optimize the frequency of applying mechanical load, which I still tweak continually. There’s the generic 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps, with some random guess at total sets per body part, like 9 sets for chest, 12 for back, 15 for legs, etc. Any of that probably works well enough as long as you continue number’s 1, 2 & 3 from above. There are some more interesting ways to approach the total volume when we talk about specifically building strength in a given lift. One of the more unique ways I’ve seen is using the Rate of Perceived Exertion combined with Fatigue Management. It’s from Mike Turcherer’s (sp) RTS system and I’ve used it quite a bit. The only downside to it is that you have to know your body fairly well and to understand and utilize the RPE, and you have to not cheat. In other words, you have to know when you had one or two more reps left in you, or when you probably couldn’t have done another rep, and you have to be mentally disciplined enough to push to those levels. It’s pretty easy to give up on a set because you’re feeling lazy and telling yourself, “yeah, I only had one more in me.”
I’m not a huge fan of percentage based training, but it has its place and I’m starting another bout with it now. Today, I decided I’d work on low bar squats and I want to concentrate on increasing the amount of weight I can lift (strength) vs. applying the mechanical load repeatedly for enough time under tension to possibly elicit muscle growth (hypertrophy). I know my 1 Rep Max, so I took 80% of that and went to work.
A guy named Prilepin did some studies and found what he thought to be the optimal rep ranges, percentages and volume for Olympic weightlifters who Snatch and Clean & Jerk. These may not translate perfectly to other lifts like the squat, but it’s still a pretty good gauge and I might as well use it. Especially when it has the word “optimal” in it. 🙂
So I did 15 total reps, in sets of 4, 2, 3, 3, and 3. I was able to concentrate on my lift technique because I wasn’t doing enough reps to cause undue fatigue which leads to breakdown in technique and really puts you on edge as you keep grinding out reps knowing an injury is more likely every additional rep you do. I felt strong and the training ended before I was wiped out allowing me to work on the muscles that do the squatting with other exercises. In other words, I did my squats per Prilepin’s chart, and then trained hamstrings, quads, abs, low back and even some calves.
I’ll likely stick with the optimal total rep volume for a while and see how it feels, but on days I’m feeling feisty I can certainly do more and still be in a reasonable range to elicit benefits without blowing myself out.