Have Fun, Get Strong

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

Strength Programs that Work

Dave Van Skike
There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
I get a fair number of basic questions about strength training from people who I would guess should know better.  Most of these folks are not competitive athletes but they train regularly and hard; they know the value of the Big 4; they can Squat, Bench, Deadlift and Powerclean.  They have read many of the same books as I have, they understand the working elements of strength programs and have probably written a fair number of programs for others. While they understand the value of lifting heavy, they are still stymied by the most basic question…how should I  train to get stronger

My urge with these questions is to start at the beginning, explain the relationship between volume and intensity, the relative unimportance of accessory exercises, the role of conditioning in a strength program, and why high box jumps are silly.  But when it comes to Strength and Conditioning, folks tend to be stubborn in their desire for a pat answer.  Who can blame them? Going back to before Joe Weider, the mainstream of the fitness industry has been dominated by hucksterism and bombast preying on people’s insecurities. In this field, clarity is in short supply.

Despite all the hyperbole, for the non competitive fitness enthusiast, the primary quality that need improving is strength. At the core this means improving the basic barbell squat, barbell press and a pull such as a deadlift.  That is it. Everything else is secondary.  More importanly, most folks don’t need a perfect plan, they just need a good plan. As a wise Texan once told me, “It’s a good plan which is what you need, if it was perfect, you’d just screw it up”

Most of us err on the side of doing too
much and/or having too much variety.

I have found that good plans are clear, simple and at their core,  autoregulated. (See Bob Wanamaker’s Articles on Autoregulation.) What autoregulation  IS, is not important to most  people.  However, what autoregulation DOES is very important to anyone training in a gym. At their core, autoregulated programs are configured to keep the trainee from screwing themselves up  by doing either too much or too little work.

There are three autoregulated strength programs I can recommend without reservation for the general fitness enthusiast.  I’ve done them all and still do them in some variation, because they work. Each of these are Good Programs, not Perfect Programs by any stretch but they are simple, effective and nearly impossible to screw up if you follow the directions.  Each is biased slightly differently along the continuum of strength endurance to pure strength development.  All require solid technique in the squat, some form of press such as bench or overhead and a deadlift.  (If someone doesn’t have solid technique in some variation of these lifts, they aren’t really ready or able to get stronger)   Here they are:

If a person is asking my advice about joining a cross training class or doing  P90x, this is where I send them. 50/20 is a what’s called a density progression. 4 days a week, a max of an hour a day including warm up and cool down.   It’s beautifully simple, very short and very effective.  It’s brilliant for putting on mass and increasing strength for general fitness trainees.  Though it may appear monotonous, in practice it’s ridiculously fun.  It can even be used for relatively raw beginners who demonstrate solid technique. The key to using it is to maintain perfect form, and to rest as much as needed between sets. Start slow and this progression does a fantastic job. Follow the directions and you’ll need little else for quite a while.

Todd Christensen

If I’m asked for a very basic powerlifting style progression for getting stronger, I nearly always suggest 531.  I’ve been lucky enough to be trained by a very accomplished powerlifting coach, Todd Christensen, BS CSCS.  Todd uses a 531 undulating periodization template to develop top level powerlifters in the IPF and USAPL.  Todd’s version is very old school, very challenging and requires a coaches’ eye.  Jim’s version of 531 is simplification of this traditional powerlifting split.  It’s suited for less advanced trainees, or those who are interested in a general strength base for another sport.  This program has created a lot of buzz online.  Set aside the hype and trust that 531 works extremely well.  It’s instructive to note,  that it is so widely effective, elements of it have been co-opted and adapted (stolen) by several other programs.  I recommend  buying the hardcopy of Jim’s book and follow it to a T.  When followed closely, it’s fun, intuitive and highly effective.

Shaf’s Ladders  (See page 2 of the linked newsletter)

If genetics didn’t give you one of
these, try using back squat ladders.

The ladder approach was popularized by a Russian Coach, Pavel Tsatsouline, but credit for creating a workable system  really goes to Steve Shafley at Power and Bulk.  Steve has written up this program several  times over the years. Suited to more experienced lifters, I use this progression regularly as a staple.  Stripped down and basic, this volume based program will make you stronger. Period.  However, read it thoroughly and see that it can be adapted  for hypertrophy or even strength and conditioning.  I have put the full spectrum from raw  beginners to advanced lifters on some version of this plan and they have all made tremendous progress. I’ve had several  female  trainees using these with back squats to achieve the holy grail of Women’s fitness magazine promises:  Firmer Butts and Thighs in just 20 minutes a day.   Yes. It really can work for that too,   It is deceptively easy to implement. Follow it as written and you will make progress.

If you’re stuck and need a canned answer to the how do I get stronger question, try one of these.  I guarantee, if you gave each one of these a solid run, you’d gain a great deal of usable strength and a fair bit of knowledge about yourself.  Walk the Path and work the basics. Soon you’ll understand that entirely random workouts are wasting potential and flailing away at box jumps and kettlebell swings is no way to get stronger. 
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Categories: autoregulation, barbell training seminar, general fitness, strength and conditioning

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