The art and science of strength

Strength training has been a part of human nature since our inception.

Before labs, studies, stopwatches and programs there was the legendary fable of Milo and his calf.

There was Eugene Sandow, Charles Atlas, Paul Anderson.

There were the Grecian wrestlers, the Spartans and the Roman soldiers. There were the Scottish clans competing in the early version of the modern Highland Games and the Basque people’s feats of strength are among the most impressive in civilization.

All of those athletes didn’t have labs telling them what to do; they just did it.

There is a modern renaissance with the scientific aspect of training. Bloggers break down the mechanics of the squat, they track the arc of the bench press, talk about programming considerations with the reverence devoted to studying the Bible and track bar speed down to the millisecond all while using PubMed as a reference point to back up any hypothesis they have.

All of this is fine, in the proper perspective. If you are an advanced athlete who’s progress depends on a fraction of a variable, this is the time to analyze the fine print. If you are an intermediate athlete, the fine print becomes larger and you may only have to change one part of your program to further along your progress.

If you are a novice, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but those finer points do not apply to you when you still have to iron down form, hammer home basic programming and become consistent enough in the gym to track progress.

The science community is very beneficial to the world of strength but all that information can overload your mind with more answers than you have questions.

The recent trend towards science-based training slightly misses the mark with telling you clearly how to ensure solid progress throughout your year long training cycle.

In the midst of the macrocycles, microcycles, muscle activation charts and other finer points are the greater details:

  1. You have three seasons – off-season, in-season and pre-season training. Every sport can be broken down into those three and training MUST be periodized to fall within those cycles. You wouldn’t do meet prep in the off-season. Expecting to maintain a high level of performance year round is foolish.
  2. Bar speed on the big lifts is critical. Your squat, bench, deadlift, power clean, snatch, push press, push jerk, etc. must be performed with the purpose of getting stronger and getting more powerful with every single fucking rep.
  3. Sets and reps are determined by which cycle you are in and what the goals are. Hypertrophy? Higher reps with a shorter rest period. Strength and power? Lower reps with a longer rest period.
  4. Maxing out is pointless in the gym. Absolutely pointless. Worthless for an athlete and counter-productive for many lifters. I know, Westside, but that is a system most of you won’t know how to do because it requires experienced coaching and an honest assessment of yourself. Spend the majority of your time in the 75% – 90% range (RPE7 to RPE9) with a focus on bar speed and volume; you will see strength increases without beating yourself up.
  5. Prilepin’s Chart isn’t a Bible, it is a reference point. Use this to determine the amount of volume you MAY need at a certain intensity level. For example the chart says at 80 to 90% the range of reps per set is 2-4, the optimal total reps are 15 and the range of reps is from 10-20 you can easily see what a solid plan would be at that range. You can use your head to say, “I will do 85% today for 5 sets of 3… I will do 80% today with 7 sets of 2… etc” This HAS to be adjusted as per your volume considerations and recovery needs. This is an area that requires a brain to manipulate.
  6. Bodybuilding work is essential to support the musculature needed to support the strength increases. This means higher reps, short rest periods, emphasis on form and a focus on the mind-muscle connection. Every single athlete has to do this. You may not want to get bigger for your sport if you don’t have to, but if you are getting stronger you need to make sure the supporting structure can hold up to the load you are putting your body under.
  7. Mobility is important but you only need to be as mobile as your sport needs. Having hyper-mobility is counterproductive in power sports.
  8. If you have questions, don’t know what you are doing or feel stuck; don’t hesitate to hire a coach. You would be an idiot if you think you don’t need coaching.
  9. The key to all of this is food. You eat for your goals. If you want to gain weight, eat more. If you want to lose fat, eat according to your goals.

These basic principles are all backed up by science and results.

All the studies in the world are wonderful but without taking the art of strength into consideration you become a strength geek who sounds intelligent but looks like shit.

So what is the art of strength training?

The art is knowing your body, listening to it when you need to back off, knowing the difference between over-analysis and small changes in a program, trusting your current program and actually doing work.

The art is the emotion of pushing weight without the need to justify every nuance.

Science changes as we learn more about the body, but I will tell you the 9 basics above will be here 100 years from now.

If you look at coaching styles from person to person you will find small differences between all of us who have results with our athletes but I will bet you that all of us have those above 9 principles firmly in check as we develop programs that work.

Keep that in mind as you read the latest wordy blog filled with EMG studies, activation charts, over-analysis of microcycles and trying to fix what isn’t broken.

The 9 variables are there and for the vast majority of us who will never leave the intermediate level of lifting, those are the 9 variables you can count on for years to come.

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