-An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path
If you had to run through a wall, would you want a head start? Hell yes you would! I believe the same concept applies to programming. Once you have a hit a plateau and you decide it is time to blast through said wall, you want a running start. What does that mean in the exercise world? It means you start off with something that you know you can do. You build yourself up, both mentally and physically, lifting something that is hard but that you experience success with. You then add a little bit to it and you do it over again – that is the nature of strength training. I believe that linear progression is still the best way to train even for advanced lifters, you just can’t follow it all the time.
When lifters start off of my programs I want them to succeed. If you fail on one of my programs in the first week or even the first month you are screwed. You won’t get the expected results and honestly it means you didn’t know what your actual maxes are because the weights are too light to produce failure in that first go round. The best bench plan I have ever followed is the 8 Weeks to a Super Bench Program I wrote about on T-nation. As implied it is usually followed for 8 weeks. In the ideal world the weights you are lifting will go up 10 lbs a week (assuming you are in the 300-400 lb bench range). Should you start with your true max and then go up 10 lbs a week? Absolutely not. But even if you start with 90% – which is say 40 lbs less than your real max (if your max was 400 plug in 360 in the program) and you go up 10 lbs a week guess what – at the end of the 8 weeks you are lifting 40 lbs over your max! That is what happened to me and after having been stuck with essentially the same bench press for literally years I was pretty damn excited about that progress.
I believe this concept holds true for virtually all programs that follow linear progression (which means they repeat themselves). Start off with a light weight, a weight you know even on a bad day you can lift, perhaps a conservative second attempt or even an opener. Use your training percentages off of that lift. Experience success, use good form, and build your self-confidence. Personally I get much more confidence out of a set that I destroy then a very shaky near max set where I am simply relieved just to have gotten the weight. I am not saying you should never strain like that, but as long as you follow progressive overload at some point the gains will come. Adding 5 lbs a week is 250 lbs a year. 5 lbs a month is still an increase of 60 lbs a year. It is worth mentioning that I am not the only person that suggests that method. Jim Wendler in his famous 5/3/1 program suggests using 90% of your actual max for your training weights. Zatsiorsky and Siff talk about the idea of a training max (no psych at all – no elevated heart rate – you just walk up to the bar and lift it) versus a competition max (full psych with the adrenaline following) and they base their percentages off of the training max (which is usually 80-90% of the competition max depending on the lift and the lifter).
The take home point is this. If you are going to follow a program that repeats itself every week, every other week, whatever, it is okay to take a bit off the weight and start light. Experience success: walk out of the gym looking forward to that next session because you dominated this one (not scared of the next session because you barely survived this one). In the long run you will see more progress with this method than if you start with your actual max because your brain gets greedy and you think “if I start with my max and add 10 lbs a week I will be out benching Eric Spoto in a year and a half”. The body doesn’t work like that and this method doesn’t work forever. But there is a magic window, usually 6-12 weeks long, where you can follow this style of overload even at the advanced level and still make great results.
Start light, add weight, repeat, get strong.
PS – The Book is Coming! I know that doesn’t sound quite as cool as the Game of Thrones saying “Winter is Coming” but the book – both the hardcopy and the eBook – should be out very soon. Stay tuned for more updates.