Round Table: Russell Taylor, Eric Helms, Bryce Lewis, Mike Tuchscherer, Greg Nuckols, and Mike Israetel answer your questions

 
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Russell Taylor was nice enough to host this round table with an all-star panel including Russell himself, Eric Helms, Bryce Lewis, Mike Tuchscherer, Greg Nuckols, and Mike Israetel covering three athlete-submitted topics:

  1. Does strength follow size, or does size follow strength, and what’s the best way to approach both respectively?

  2. What’s the best way of adding weak point training and when as opposed to just increasing the main lift volume?

  3. Ideally, how much does a peak add to each lift’s 1RM?

disclaimer: while the contributor’s information here is amazing, these were originally written in 2016. As such, views may have changed slightly to reflect improvements in research, experience, and application.

 

Discussion 1: the relationship between strength & size

Does strength follow size, or does size follow strength, and what’s the best way to approach both respectively?
How much progression in the gym equates to muscle growth. Aka does faster progression typically mean more muscle growth? How does recovery play into this?

Responses:

Russell Taylor:

I think what he means by optimal is the quickest way to increase and strength over a year, maybe from a powerlifting perspective. 

From what I have seen in LBM (lean body mass) trends in relation to weight classes, with all things remaining equal the bigger guy tends to be the stronger. At least in powerlifting. A more skill related sport such as weight lifting as there’s more brutally strong small guys/girls.

Obviously we can't do much about segment lengths such as limb lengths, or torso length.

I believe Brad Schoenfeld quoted a paper a while back on how novices still grew early in their training, the adaptations weren't purely neural adaptations. In my opinion I believe building a solid foundation and getting a lot of time under the bar is crucial year one.

Another pertinent paper is Rhea et al (2) but what I find ironic about this paper is its initial recommendation at 4 sets at 60% of 1RM then scaled to 80% as they progress. So to me, that looks like a lot of lighter and more technique work may pay great dividends later on as you move up the weight with a good motor pattern. 

Wernbom et al (3) does mirrors this with its growth data also so there is certainly a correlation at least early on at 3 sets per move at 75-80% of 1RM.

I am very much a fan of building a base and teaching that base after to learn to shift heavy weight after such as volume/hypertrophy cycle (higher reps/high volume/lower intensity) to a power/transmutation cycle  (lower reps/lower volume /higher intensity). As pointed out by Brad Schoenfeld (4) the heavier load did have a higher 1RM outside just lean body improvements of around 4% which could mean the difference of silver and gold.


Greg Nuckols:

Strength and size go hand in hand, but they certainly aren’t perfectly interchangeable.  For example, lower-load training pretty consistently leads to similar hypertrophy as higher-load training when volume is equated (we could get into how to best equate volume, but that’s another discussion for another day), but higher-load training pretty consistently causes larger gains in strength.

Except for very highly trained lifters, generally training that makes you stronger will also make you bigger, and conversely, generally training that makes you bigger will also make you stronger.

There are certainly exceptions in the short term.  For example, very heavy, very low volume training quite possibly won’t cause any hypertrophy for an intermediate trainee, while still allowing strength to increase via neural/skill enhancements. Similarly, in most studies on new trainees, strength gains come immediately – once you’re recovered from your very first workout, you’re generally stronger for your second workout within about 72 hours. However, it tends to take at least 3-4 weeks for noticeable hypertrophy to take place.

However, in the medium-to-long term for novice and intermediate trainees, strength and hypertrophy are effectively inseparable, even though they don’t have a perfect one-to-one relationship (i.e. each marginal gain in strength can lead to different marginal gains in size based on training style, and vice versa).

With all of that out of the way, I’m not sure you could really say that size follows strength or strength follows size.  When size increases, your capacity to gain strength increases. If you’re training to increase strength, that necessarily means overloading the muscle, which almost always leads to an increase in size.

However, in terms of planning and quantifying training, it’s probably best to think of it as size following strength for most people, most of the time.

Over a matter of 3-4 months, you may not be able to see any noticeable changes in your muscularity (either subjectively or measured with a measuring tape), but you will likely be able to make some strength gains, which will tell you you’re on the right track.

If you’re primarily training for size, and your rep maxes in 5-12 rep range are moving up, you’re probably getting bigger.

If you’re primarily training for strength and you’re not at a plateau, you’re probably getting bigger.  Again, in the short term, you can push your 1rm up with really heavy, low volume training that probably won’t build much muscle, but eventually lack of muscle mass will become a bottleneck, so if you’re still consistently gaining strength without any major changes in training style, some size is probably coming along with your added strength.

Also keep in mind that my answer primarily deals with beginner to intermediate lifters.  When you’re nearing your muscular peak, things likely change a bit. If your main goal is strength, you will likely be able to keep getting a bit stronger without being able to add much (or any) more muscle just from improving skill, refining technique, etc.  If your main goal is size, it may be advisable to decrease training intensity a bit to allow for higher training volumes without beating your joints up quite as much (which will likely mean strength gains will slow down to flatten out) to eek out a tiny bit of extra growth.

However, for MOST of the people who will be reading this, strength and size go hand in hand.


Eric Helms:

I like to use the analogy that I think I originally heard from Eric Cressey, that the morphological adaptations (which include hypertrophy) are the glass, while the water in the glass is strength. You can do highly specific strength work and gain strength rapidly, however your capacity would be less than someone who had built more muscle mass who then did specific strength training. 

In terms of the order of adaptations, essentially they go hand in hand over the course of a lifting career, but in some cases neurological strength adaptations are permissive for hypertrophy. For example, in 1998 Chilibeck and colleagues found that a group of lifters doing curls, leg press, and bench press gained a significant amount strength in all three lifts by the mid-way point of a 20 week study, but only in the arms. Only by the end of the study had the legs and trunk displayed significant hypertrophy. The likely take home here, is that with more complex multijoint movements, you have to make some initial motor skill adaptations before you can use compound movements to sufficiently stress your musculature and induce hypertrophy. A bicep curl, on the other hand, is so simplistic of a movement that it can be learned rapidly and then hypertrophy adaptations are quick to follow.  

It’s also important to point out that rapid progress in strength did occur in this study in the bench press and squat, yet during this same time period, rapid hypertrophy did not occur. The take home here is that initial strength gains when learning a new movement, especially if it is complex, are largely in part due to neurological adaptations and motor learning. During this initial stage, the relationship between strength and size is quite low, however after the initial motor skill and intramuscular coordination adaptations take place, the relationship increases. Erskine and colleagues in 2014 found that after the initial 3 weeks of adaptation, and when controlling for starting strength, ~20% of strength gains were explained by hypertrophy. In more advanced lifters, when looking at longer time frames, this relationship is likely stronger. The baseline relationship between muscle size has explained 40-90% of strength in well trained strength athletes in multiple disciplines (powerlifting, olympic lifting and strongman) depending on the measure of strength, the measure of hypertrophy, and the experience level of the population. Finally, a 2 year study of professional rugby players by Appleby and colleagues in 2012 found that increases in lean mass explained ~50-75% of the increases in squat strength.

What this all means, is that strength is complex. It is produced by a combination of motor skill development, inter muscular coordination, intra muscular coordination, increased neural drive and rate coding, decreased inhibition, and also by changes in muscle size, architecture, specific tension within regions of the muscle and biomechanical changes to moment arms due to increases in muscle size. The largest possible summation of all these factors produces the largest possible increase in strength. Thus, while you can certainly train in a way to target only one of these adaptations, or at least a group of similar adaptations, reaching one’s maximal strength capacity would require increases in all of the above; increasing muscle size and lifting skill. 


Mike Israetel:

Great question. There are four main contributors to strength:

  1. Muscle size

  2. Muscle/tendon/bone architecture

  3. Total neural drive

  4. Technique

You can get stronger by focusing your training on any one of those factors, but the most powerful of them is muscle size. Whatever muscle size you have, you can optimize the latter three factors a lot and get the most strength out of that muscle that you can. But muscles are like race car engines. Yeah, you can tweak the shit out of an in-line 4 and get a ton more power out of it than stock, but you’re likely to still not outperform a stock V8. So when it comes down to what matters most, V12s power some of the fastest cars and big muscles supply the foundation of strength to the strongest lifts. Get bigger muscles by training under conditions that optimize size (or close to them), and then take time train the body to get the most out of those muscles. 

As for “does size follow strength?” I don’t think so, and I’m not aware of any overly convincing arguments to that effect. 


Bryce Lewis:

This is a great question, and I think at least that the first form of the question really depends on the lens you’re viewing your progress, what your goals are, and even how you train. A larger athlete with more muscle mass is generally a stronger athlete, and a stronger athlete generally has more muscle mass than his parallel universe weaker self has as well. 

Strength is specific though and I think this is something most people fail to keep in mind. A powerlifter can be profoundly good at three specific lifts, because they practice them very regularly and are able to express their strength in a specific capacity. That same powerlifter might be terrible at atlas stone carries or an isometric hold of a heavy object, or of a heavy axle press overhead. To be strong is to be strong at specific movements, and not generally strong. It’s fair to say that increases in muscle hypertrophy for necessary muscles increases strength potential for a range of specific lifts. 

To address the second formation of the question, if I’m progressing faster (lifting heavier weights progressively), does that mean I’m getting bigger too? (increasing muscle diameter). In terms of basics, if we want to gain muscle mass or strength, we have to upset homeostasis and give the body an adaptive stimulus to cause a change in the form of a training session. Faster progression in training usually also means added muscle growth. We can only add so much muscle mass per unit of time as natural athletes despite our best training efforts, and it’s important to consider genetic variables at play as well in that process. I think a direct comparison of strength increase per unit of time to added muscle over that same time would require analysis of a huge group of people over time, and not predictive if we wanted to look at individuals. 

In terms of best practices, you’re going to tailor training to your specific goals. A bodybuilder may be primarily concerned with hypertrophy (which takes time, no two ways about it) and secondarily in strength as a means of assessing progression. A powerlifter may be primarily interested in strength performance on three specific lifts with a secondary interest in hypertrophy as a means of increasing strength potential. A balanced acknowledgment that goals matter is important, and that training age and your place in your development as a lifter matters. Early on, focus on general hypertrophy and increase in muscle mass is important for strength sport as well as physique-based sport with a gradual progression toward more concern for your specific expected outcomes. 


Mike Tuchscherer:

I think the other panelists covered the theoretical underpinnings quite well already.  I can’t think of anything to add to their comments. Instead, I’d like to talk about how this could/should play out in your training.

You have your goal -- whether it’s strength or hypertrophy.  And in either case, I’m assuming your goal is sufficiently challenging, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be asking the question.  So you design your program to fit your goal and then you work hard.  

If your primary goal is hypertrophy, then the strength will happen (albeit less) as a result of you stacking more weight on the bar to provide additional stimulus over time.  Let’s say your program calls for sets of 10 reps and you usually use 200 pounds. Over time (a relatively short period of time), you’re going to adapt to that workload and 200 for 10 isn’t going to be an adequate stimulus.  So you add more weight. This continues to provide an additional hypertrophic stimulus, but almost as a side effect, it provides more strength too.

If strength is your goal, then you execute the program designed for strength and the muscles will have a tendency to grow over time as well.  Then as with the previous example, sooner or later that program is going to stop producing results for you. One way to increase the stimulus is to increase your training volume.  Volume is a well known driver of hypertrophy as well, so again, you should find yourself adding muscle mass in this case. This is a bit of a different situation though -- when it comes to pure strength athletes, we try not to increase training volume until we’ve tried several other things.  Part of that is due to Powerlifting being a weight-class sport (we want to lift the most weights while staying in our respective classes). But the other part is that there is an upper limit to how much volume you can handle. We want to make sure we’re using this tool when it’s needed, but not reaching for it too early.

 

Discussion 2: weak point training

What’s the best way of adding weak point training and when as opposed to just increasing the main lift volume?

In rephrasing,  let's say someone did 5x5 for bench press. Why not just increase the volume to 5-7x5-7 (reps/sets) instead of adding a less specific exercise such as a bench and chains or an isolation for the weak part of that muscle group? Let’s see our experts chime in.

Responses:

Russell Taylor:

I personally liked this question! Well, I actually wrote it and was happy it won the impartial vote.

I have mixed feelings as some of the best gains I have ever made was putting up the main lift volumes helping get me well into Master/CMS level lifter. Ironically, I did this with no accessories it was based on a study by  Simão et al (1). Basically had a high block of high volume & low intensity which went to medium volume & medium intensity and so on.

I felt even though the weight was light growth and skill development helped a lot, even though there was no variation. I do recognise there may be a drop off maybe due to lack of mixing things up (phase potentiation or novel stimulus).

Greg Nuckols:

I think it largely depends on where the sticking point is, and how much experience someone has with the lift being trained.

If you’re fairly new to a lift, you probably don’t need any weak point training – any technique issues or wonkiness in the strength curve is probably just from not having mastered the lift yet (that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m against including variations of the main lifts in newer lifters’ programs, but that’s more due to the effects of variation on motor learning, which is beyond the purview of this question).

Once someone has gained proficiency with a lift, it depends where their sticking point is.  There are pretty characteristic strength curves and sticking points for the squat (just above parallel), bench (3-4 inches off the chest), and deadlift (bar breaks off the floor but doesn’t clear the knee for conventional, and just stays stapled to the floor or barely moves for sumo).  Those are the characteristic sticking points because they’re almost always the most biomechanically unfavorable portions of the lift.  If someone’s missing at the “normal” sticking point, I’m generally just in favor of adding volume to the main lift. They’re missing the lift where you’d expect them to, and there’s nothing in their strength curve to indicate any glaring weaknesses; they’re just weakest where they’re supposed to be weakest.

However, if someone misses at an uncharacteristic position – lockout for bench or deadlift, not even getting the bar moving out of the hole on squat or off their chest on bench, etc. – then I think weak point training is warranted if a) they’ve been practicing the lift long enough that it’s clearly not just a technical issue and b) it can’t be corrected with some easy cuing.  In that situation, they probably are just being limited by a specific muscular weakness, since they aren’t weakest in what should be the biomechanically weakest position.


Eric Helms:

This connects nicely with the initial question. As I said previously, doing highly specific strength training exclusively, while it can be very effective, can also in some cases actually result in poorer strength gains than taking a more holistic approach. Strength is multi faceted as I already pointed out, it is a summation of multiple adaptations, and thus like any complex system leading to a singular outcome (a 1RM for example), it is limited by the “weakest link”. This could be overall hypertrophy as I discussed previously, it could be skill with the lift in question (think of a bodybuilder who has tremendous muscle size but who is doing a new lift for the first time), or it could be specific hypertrophy or strength in a muscle group that is not effectively trained by that main lift due to individual biomechanics. 

Consider a female powerlifter with an insane ability to arch her lower back with very short arms. She will be able to bench press in competition a huge amount of weight. With a 5 or 6 inch range of motion and being able to mimic a decline bench press, she has a huge biomechanical advantage. However, we know that using a full range of motion is important for hypertrophy, so does that mean her only exercises to train her chest, delts and triceps should be competition style bench press? Probably not. While a competition bench press with a massive arch will allow her to lift the most weight right now, it probably shouldn’t be the only exercise performed in training as it is a suboptimal choice for developing the musculature that contributes to the lift performance. 

Another example would be a deadlifter who is limited by grip strength. Would it really make sense to just pile on more volume of deadlifts at a load level that doesn’t challenge his posterior chain strength but does challenge his grip? Sounds like using a shotgun when you should be using a sniper rifle to me. It would be far less fatiguing to simply unrack a barbell that is set nearly at lock out height and hold it for time to develop grip strength while training the deadlift with straps. This would allow the deadlift to progress and grip strength to develop simultaneously rather than one limit the other.

There is a time and energy cost to doing specific work in powerlifting. Squats and deadlifts especially take a long time to warm up on, require long rest periods, and mentally and physically drain you in comparison to other movements. Doing 3 sets of squats, and then 4 sets of accessory exercises will take less time and energy and probably have a lower injury risk than doing 7 sets of squats. Will you really get that much stronger doing 7 sets of squats versus 3 sets with 4 accessory sets? Maybe if you are built perfectly to squat, don’t get a lot of lumbar stress, hip stress or knee stress, and your elbows, wrists and shoulders aren’t bothered by your grip position. But, if that doesn’t describe you and high volume heavy squatting beats you up, you’d probably be avoiding pain, injury, and frustration by sprinkling your volume over less stressful movements and actually get stronger in the long run. 

So what is the best way to implement accessory movements? Well, it’s highly specific to the individual. To give a general guideline I have to speak in generalities. Novices should certainly spend the majority of their time learning the lifts, however, they only need so much to learn a skill and too much all at once is unnecessary, potentially dangerous and actually a waste of time as it is easy to make a beginner hit their max capacity for rate of strength increases. Meaning, that once they are doing the main lifts a couple times per week, the rest of their time should be spent doing some bodybuilding training to help them build a foundation of hypertrophy for future strength gains. As a more experienced lifter, main lift volume will probably need to increase and the hypertrophy training should become more specific to the weak points of the lifter. Finally, depending on what issues present with the lifts over time, you can experiment with specific exercises to try to address those weak points. This may be grip work, paused bench press work, or something else, but these lifts should be an adjunct to the main lifts which should take priority. 

Mike Israetel:

A ton of great answers from the others, so I’ll offer something a bit different in my answer. BEFORE you start trying to fix weak points, consider the following filtering systems for figuring out exactly what the situation is:

I’ve presented this in related ways in the past, but an easy way to look at it is that there are 5 questions (at least) to ask yourself BEFORE you choose to alter your plan to bring up weak points:

  1. Technique vs. Muscle Strength

Is your weak point from weak muscles or just a technical issue? Of all the lifters I’ve worked with, at least half of all perceived muscle strength deficits turned out to be technical deficits. Oftentimes fixing technique is going to close up that weak point and then you’re good to go about some other more productive direction with your training. For example, some folks think they have weak triceps, but in reality it’s their lack of pushing the bar back over their faces and accelerating through lockouts that’s instead the problem. Once they solve that, there is no need for dedicated lockout work! How do you know it’s technique vs. a muscle strength deficit problem? First, get a good coach to watch your technique and be very self-critical. Secondly, see how your assistance work for the suspected weak muscle group relates to the abilities of others with similar numbers in the main lift as you. For example, if you bench 150kg and overhead press 100kg, and 9/10 other lifters you know that press 150kg or so can only press 80kg on average, your suspicion that you have weak shoulders and triceps and that’s what is holding you back on bench is likely unwarranted. But if they all press 80kg and you struggle with 60kg, then you might be onto something by wanting to focus on your triceps and shoulders to bring them up, vs. a technical issue.

  1. Limiting Factor/Opportunity Cost

In some lifts, some muscles can be true limiting factors, while in some lifts, some muscles are just differential contributors. True limiting factors are muscle that, if not up to par in strength, will cap your performance in a lift no matter how strong the other muscles are. For example, if you have a weak lower back in deadliting that rounds right when the pull starts and you have to un-round at the top, your lower back might be your true limiting factor for that lift. If your glutes and hams get TWICE as strong, it doesn’t matter, because you’ll still end up missing the lift at lockout cause of that damn back. On the other hand, front delts in the bench are just a contributor. If you have strong chest and triceps, you could theoretically have no front delts at all and still bench just fine, because they are not a limiting factor in the lift. Now, stronger front delts are always better, so shoudln’t we want to bring them up anyway if they are weak?

Maybe. Sounds crazy but some muscles of yours are lagging precisely because they don’t respond as well to training as others. So if your pecs are huge and grow like weeds from training but your front delts are super growth-resistent, any gains you could have made from starting a front-delt-specific program could have been doubled had you just continued pushing your chest along. On the other hand, if it’s the lower back that’s the weak point, you have no choice but to bring it up because nothing else can fill the gap. In summary, find out of your weak point is a limiting factor or not, and if it’s not, decide if it’s worth it to try to bring up the weakness or keep addressing the strengths instead. 

  1. MRV Relationship

Since you guys are probably sick to your stomachs hearing my dumb ass rant about MRVs all the damn time, I’ll keep this short. A lot of folks have the initial idea that if they have a lagging muscle group or movement component (like a lockout, for example), the answer is to train it MORE. Well, that might be the case, but what if you’re already training it as much as it can handle for best results? Then training it more can make your WORSE. In fact, there is even a chance that the reason it’s a weak point is because you’ve been training it too much for a long time! So for this point, figure out if you’re over- properly- or under-training a muscle or movement component. Once you do that, THEN you can choose to either back off, keep the volume but alter other parts of the approach, or up the volume and focus.

  1. Phasic Concerns

Don’t do triceps extensions 3 weeks out of your meet hoping to bring up your lockout. The added volume for triceps may make them temporarily less able to peak and actually hold you back in the short term. Always pick phase-specific exercises and rep ranges. For example, for lockout problems in the bench, consider the following phase-specific variants:

Hypertrohpy Phase: Skull crushers for sets of 8

Strength Phase: Close grip benches for sets of 5

Peaking Phase: Slingshot heavy doubles 

  1. Transfer of Training

Make sure the exercises you’re picking are actually best to transfer to the movement. Other than just going from more general to specific from hypertrophy to peaking, some exercises just transfer better to the lifts than others, and some of that is personal. For example, don’t bother with leg extensions for squat improvements because for most, that won’t transfer to dick. But even compound heavy moves sometimes don’t transfer well. I did heavy dips for years and they did nothing for my bench, even though I got huge triceps out of it and my dip abilities went through the roof! Talk to good lifters and coaches and find out what transfers best, and then see for yourself what works. But always, stay phase-specific and give it TIME. It’s not a week-to-week process but a month-to-month process.

Bryce Lewis:

Kompf and Arandjelovic (2016) review the literature on sticking (weak) points to first make an attempt at agreeing on a definition of a sticking (weak) point. Two camps either try to assert that the sticking point is that where bar velocity approaches or reaches zero during the lift, or alternatively focusing on force output such that the lifter experiences difficulty applying the necessary force to complete a lift. After reviewing problems with existing definitions, they then propose that the sticking point is “the point at which failure occurs when [an] exercise is taken to the point of momentary muscular failure.” 

At the same time, I think it’s important to realize that at some heavy enough weight, every single athlete experiences a sticking point--a point at which momentary muscular failure occurs. To get rid of the sticking point at a 315 lbs bench press is just to kick the bucket down the road, such that you now experience a sticking point at 325 lbs. We can’t really “get rid” of sticking points on the lifts because they result from a complex interplay of the biomechanics of the lift, limb segments lengths of the athlete, area of the muscles involved, force-length and velocity relationships, muscle composition, and relative fatigue. You might not be failing a lift just because you’re not strong enough, in other words. 

The menu of weak point training is vast and varied, at least in powerlifting involving every non-competition barbell variant: accommodating resistance, isometric contractions, changes in velocity, barbell apparatus, tempo, range of motion, and individual muscle training as attempts to overcome sticking points. With so much variation, the research is still catching up to the applications of weak point training. Kompf et al. categorizes the need for this research into five categories: 

“1. Target muscle strengthening using isolation work

2. ROM-specific training using partial repetitions

3. Development of momentum preceding the sticking point

  4. Exercise technique alteration

5. Accommodating or variable resistance use”

Training athletes is a complex endeavor, and athletes interested in maximally performing key movements are obviously focused on those moments where they are unable to progress a lift further and see that there is a defined point they were unable to finish the lift--a sticking point. 

This question is essentially asking, at these times, how do we best continue getting stronger, measured in peak 1RM performance? Do I just add more training volume, or is there a specific set of exercises I should be doing instead? Research on sticking points is young but could guide that process. In the long run, trained athletes need to continually do more training volume to see continued progress. If recovery or excess fatigue is not an immediate factor, added training volume alone may be enough to cause increases in strength without needing to use other movements designed to overcome weak points. 

As mentioned above, strength is specific. Increasing strength in the banded close grip bench press will make you better at that specific movement but may not directly carry over to the movement you really want to be better at, the barbell bench press. However, added muscle mass in the form of muscle hypertrophy from these weak point movements may increase general strength potential, making it easier to lift the same weight that would normally cause a sticking point. 

In short, assessment of the use of specific exercises needs to refer directly to the athlete’s movement ability (technique), muscle strengths and weaknesses, place in a periodized yearly training plan, and goals as an athlete. Training economy must also be considered...how much time can we expect an athlete to devote to training, and what is the best use of that time? In training powerlifting athletes, I tend to lean to movements with a close likeness to the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift as weak point training movements, and lean toward added training volume instead of movement variation. 

Mike Tuchscherer:

There’s a time and place for addressing weak points.  There’s also a time and place for increasing volume. As I mentioned in the previous question, there’s clearly an upper limit to how much volume you can tolerate, so I try not to reach for that tool too early.  If I can improve a lifter’s results by selecting special exercises to target weaknesses without increasing workload, then that increases the lifter’s potential. When we finally do increase workload, he’ll be starting from a stronger overall position.

Selecting exercises for weaknesses depends very much on the coach’s ability to identify weaknesses and select tools to address those weaknesses.  In some cases it’s fairly easy to spot -- failing to say lock out a bench press is almost always an issue of triceps strength. But other cases are very difficult.  If a lifter is rounding their back in the deadlift, determining the root cause is tricky. It depends on their anthropometry. Is it a technical issue? Are they rounding their back to compensate for weak hips?  Or are they rounding their back because the back is physically incapable of maintaining position? Let’s say you were able to determine the cause is weak spinal erectors relative to the glutes and rule out other possibilities.  Now how do you best address that? Good mornings? Back raises? Something else?

We subdivide exercises into three categories -- Competition lifts, Assistance lifts, and Supplemental lifts.  Competition lifts are the movements performed just as they are in a competition. Benching with a pause, squatting with your competition gear, and so on.  Training the competition lifts is what gets you the most bang for your training buck. The majority of your results will come from training the comp lifts.  Assistance lifts are close variations. They are similar to the competition lift, but with one or two small changes to emphasize part of the movement. Examples include Pause Squat, Bench with chains, or Rack Pulls.  The goal for Assistance lifts is to train movements, not muscles. Supplemental lifts are the opposite -- they are intended to focus more on muscles. Here we may use leg press, military press, or good mornings. The further you get away from the competition lifts, the greater the possible variety of movements.

Now you may ask why bother with Assistance and Supplemental lifts if you can just increase the volume of competition lifts.  The answer is in diminishing marginal returns. If you take someone who has never lifted weights and have them max their squat, let’s say they can squat 100 pounds.  Then you train them with 1 set to failure for 4 weeks and now they can squat 150. What would happen if they squatted 2 sets to failure? Would they squat 200? Maybe, but probably not.  Would 3 sets to failure produce a 250 squat? Four sets a 300 squat? Obviously not. The point is that the first set you do provides the biggest bang for your buck. Every additional set after that still confers a benefit, but the benefit is less than before.  Eventually performing another set of the competitive exercise confers only a small benefit -- maybe even immeasurable.  

However, you can do this assistance or supplemental movement, which has not been trained.  Maybe it’s still peripherally trained, so it may not respond as if it were untrained completely.  But I can tell you that it will certainly respond better than continuing to beat the competitive movement.  But be warned -- the devil is in the details. If you select an assistance movement or supplemental movement that doesn’t address the athlete’s needs, then it won’t work.  I’m a firm believer in no strength is wasted strength, so I don’t think that time is lost forever or anything. But it won’t be immediately successful.

 

Discussion 3: peaking and strength increase

When peaking effectively for a competition, from what you’ve observed, how much does that peak add to each lift’s 1RM? A lot of people tend to overestimate the effect of peaking for a competition.

Responses:

Russell Taylor:

In my personal experience and with a few in my camp I find it very hard to give a straight answer as there are tens if not hundreds of reasons that can change meet day performances. To name a few: physical factors such as not training on the federations equipment like power/DL bars, monolifts and calibrated plates which are normally thinner so weight distribution differs all add a massive new dynamic to the lift, and so on. I remember a nice graph Bryce put up on the failure rates in completion just by missing your first lift due to most likely a psychological issue was very interesting. 

This is without even touch on deloading correctly. Also, if applicable: rehydration and re-carbing after being depleted, and having that in the back of your mind. Could even be down to environmental factors such as crowd, new gym , judges eyes, et cetera.

I would like to say I aim for the 1RM calculator using a low rep range +-5%.

Greg Nuckols: 

It depends on the person, of course, but generally ~2-3%.  There are some folks (like Chad Wesley Smith) who hit 10%+ more on the platform than they’re capable of in the gym (not just more than they do lift, but more than they could lift).  There are other folks who are stronger in the gym (though that’s generally just a case of poor programming and poor peaking practices, or relying on excessive water cutting strategies to make weight).

For most people, most of the time, ~2-3% is pretty typical, though. 


Eric Helms:

This is a tough one to answer because it is so dependent on the training approach going into a competition. Also peaking means different things to different people. Some consider the entire training block prior to a meet the peaking period, others consider just the final 1-3 week taper the peaking phase. If we are talking about the entire training block, the increases will be higher and more variable. But for the purpose of clarity, I’ll assume we’re talking about the latter.

The purpose of tapering in order to elicit a peak, is to maintain performance while decreasing fatigue. Thus, if someone is taking a very aggressive overreaching approach, they might see a large increase in strength in the realm of 3-5%. However, if someone is taking an approach that doesn’t generate much fatigue, a taper might have a minimal effect up to a 1-2% increase in strength. These are numbers I’m sort of pulling out of my ass, but not completely. They are based on what I’ve seen over more than a decade of coaching and also in the research where a taper is used before 1RM testing. As a follow up point, just because you saw a 3-5% increase after overreaching, compared to where your strength was a month or two prior to competition, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a better approach than a less aggressive approach that only netted you a 1-2% increase in strength. Remember, if you compare your suppressed strength to your peaked strength, that increase will seem much larger, but it’s entirely possible that you didn’t need to suppress your strength that much in the first place. For example, if you think of your baseline strength as your strength after an overreaching phase that decreases strength by 3% at 4 weeks out, and then you increase your strength by 5% after your taper on the platform, that is actually just a 2% increase to your true strength. 

Mike Israetel:

I’ll keep this simple since the others knocked it out of the park. If you are:

  1. A beginner or novice.

  2. Have a good training plan fundamentally

  3. Err on the side of lower fatigue/volume during most of your training

  4. Hit heavy weights often (triples to singles) in training

  5. Are slower-twitch dominant and not super explosive

… then you’ll get much less out of peaking. Perhaps 1%, perhaps less.

But if you are more on the side of:

  1. Intermediate or advanced

  2. Have a not-so-great training plan

  3. Train at very high volumes relative to your recovery abilities and normally carry around a lot of residual fatigue

  4. Don’ hit heavy weights but for the peaking phase

  5. Are faster-twtich and more explosive than average

… then you’ll likely get a lot out of peaking, sometimes more than 5% per lift. Chad Wesley Smith has dozens of clients like the latter description and they get some wild peaking results, whereas if it’s your first meet… take a light week and go to the meet. :) 

Bryce Lewis:

In my observation of powerlifting and weightlifting, there are just a handful of basic peaking strategies. (1) Decrease training volume and increase training intensity progressively over 1-4 weeks (traditional taper, sometimes there is a small drop in intensity as well), (2) increase training volume and increase training intensity over 1-4 weeks and then drop volume for 1-2 weeks (overreaching/supercompensation approach), (3) introduce a training test event at 3-5 weeks out, followed by a strong reduction in training volume designed to reduce fatigue. Most of these strategies also include an increase in specificity in both exercise variation and repetitions per set toward sport form. 

It’s important to note that effective peaks can take any of these forms as we rate effectiveness based on performance in competition and load lifted, which is a complex interplay itself of training success for the whole of a training approach, nutritional strategies and weight cutting (if used), athlete psychology and game day performance, attempt selection, and on and on. It’s often not easy to parse an effective peak from an effective training cycle or competition performance. 

What is an effective peak? In my experience, it’s one that increases athlete confidence, reduces training fatigue, and increases readiness to perform such that these factors collide in a small window of increased ability to perform (fitness). As I mentioned above, It’s extremely difficult in practice to separate peaking effectiveness from general training effectiveness, getting better technique-wise, better attempt selection, and improved game-day readiness. If we had to frame the question differently, we may be asking if other things being equal, how much strength before a peak and strength directly after a peak are different. Is a peak just a reduction in fatigue? I think it depends entirely on the aforementioned variables but is indeed less than people think and is probably around a 1-2% increase in strength potential. For a 700lb deadlift, this could mean an extra 2.5-5kg in actual performance or faster bar speed at lower loads, and for a 135 bench press this may be a near-imperceptible 0.61-1.2kg increase. For more, see Pritchard et al (2015)’s review of peaking strategies and performance increase, cited below. 

Mike Tuchscherer:

We do see some “meet responders” who just out of nowhere go 20-50 pounds over what was predicted from training.  But that’s not really common. And I think that has more to do with personality and belief than training (well, maybe 70/30).

What I see most often is that a good peak can be a little bit better than what we predict from training.  A bad peak can be notably worse. So when it comes to strategy selection, we want to find something reliable.  That’s my priority as a coach. I want them to have a reliably good performance rather than to risk a crappy one for not-much gain.

Think of it this way -- we have you train in such a way that you’re getting measurably stronger week to week.  You’re hitting PR’s in training. You’re stronger than you’ve ever been. How much is there to gain in a risky peaking strategy?  How much is there to lose? Competitively, I think it has to be a judgement call, but I strongly favor a strategy that gets lifters strong in training, then produces reliable competition results.

 

Takeaways

  • A larger muscle has a higher potential capacity to be a stronger one, especially outside initial neural adaptations and in the super advanced the refinement of technique is key.

  • Whether to address weak points is a “it depends” answer. Novices are better off mastering the primary lift as it will have the most carry over. Obvious issues such as grip giving out on deadlift as mentioned would take priority as it's a more clear issue come competition day in raw lifting. There is also a complex relationship on how much you can do and what’s gained in return. So the old “it depends” comes into play, the context of which is explained in great detail above. 

  • On peaking: 2-4% is typical and up to 10% but it is a multifaceted issue. It depends how well you structured your peaking variables which include: volume, intensity and taper length. Also, as mentioned, you might just have more fatigue built up thus exaggerating a larger carry over but psychological issues is a random element that can come into play. 

Find out more about our round table participants:

Eric Helms:

www.3dmusclejourney.com

www.muscleandstrengthpyramids.com

https://www.facebook.com/ericrhelms

https://www.instagram.com/helms3dmj/

https://www.youtube.com/Team3DMJ

https://www.researchgate.net/Eric_Helms 

Greg Nuckols:

www.strongerbyscience.com

https://www.instagram.com/gregnuckols/?hl=en

Bryce Lewis: 

www.thestrengthathlete.com 

www.instagram.com/bryce_tsa/?hl=en 

Mike Tuchscherer:

www.ReactiveTrainingSystems.com

https://www.facebook.com/mike.tuchscherer.5

www.instagram.com/miketuchscherer

Mike Israetel:

https://www.instagram.com/rpstrength/?hl=en

http://renaissanceperiodization.com

https://www.facebook.com/michael.israetel

https://www.instagram.com/rpdrmike/?hl=en

https://www.facebook.com/RenaissancePeriodization/?fref=ts 

Russell Taylor:

http://www.tayloredphysiques.com/

Resources:

  1. Simão, Aylton Figueira Junior. "Effect of 16 Weeks of Periodized Resistance Training on Strength Gains of Powerlifting Athletes." (2014).

  2. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development.

  3. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.

  4. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading

  5. Pritchard, H., Keogh, J., Barnes, M., & Mcguigan, M. (2015). Effects and Mechanisms of Tapering in Maximizing Muscular Strength. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(2), 72-83. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000125

  6. Kompf, J., & Arandjelović, O. (2016). Understanding and Overcoming the Sticking Point in Resistance Exercise. Sports Med Sports Medicine,46(6), 751-762. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0460-2

Bryce LewisComment