6 Lessons in Effective Strength Training

6 Lessons in Effective Strength Training

Do you remember school lessons? Good. This article is not about them. It is rather about life lessons you learn the hard way. Throughout the time I spent training, I’ve acquired a couple of them, and I believe it will be beneficial if I share them with you.

Be prepared for reiteration though. “There is nothing new under the sun”, right?

Lesson 1: Experience beats studies and opinions of other people (anytime)

A lot of coaches and trainees agree on obvious subjects like progressive overload or compound exercises. I’m yet to find an intelligent individual with solid experience in strength training who doesn’t think that progressive resistance matters. However, when it comes to debatable themes like low-carb diets, protein, high reps vs low reps, etc., there are wars. In reality, people just can’t perceive a simple fact:

Everybody is fucking different.

I wrote an article on this subject back in 2012. Check it out here.

What I’m saying is there is no recipe that works for everyone. Even the best and the simplest programs like Starting Strength or Power to the People fail for some people. Even the proven diet approaches don’t work for everybody. You should simply accept these facts.

Then comes another question: so if everybody is different, who should you believe? The answer is much more obvious than you think. The only thing you can and should believe 100% is your training log (and thus experience).

Seriously, I don’t really care what all those studies conclude. If that contradicts with my experience, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t fucking care how many athletes took part and how cool they are. I don’t care how awesome was programming and test conditions. It all doesn’t matter. Why? I’m not an athlete, my genetics are probably much worse than an average athlete’s, my life circumstances are far from train-eat-sleep, etc. What matters is what works for me.

I’m not ignorant though and I like to test assumptions that these studies make. Yet I never lose my mind about them. If something is useless, I forget about it and never come back.

A simple example is a high-protein diet. Search the web. People argue about this all the time. “1 g per 1 lb! No, you need more! Shut up, you need less!” Throughout the time I spent experimenting with the amounts of protein, I’ve found the clear correlation between them and the amounts of muscle I gained, the amounts of bodyfat I burned, and my performance.

The more protein I eat:

– the better the performance;

– the more muscle I gain;

– the more fat I burn.

Now all the you-don’t-need-that-much-protein crowd can burst in anger. “300 g of protein? How dare you? Haven’t you seen the studies X, Y, Z? Athletes don’t need that much protein! Bla, bla, bla”. This statements make me smile. “Everybody is different”, I say. “You can’t possibly beat my experience with any study”.

With recent situation here in Ukraine (you probably saw those riots on TV), obviously I wasn’t able to get my 250 g of protein per day. I decided to do my best and control at least the amounts of calories. As a result, I gained a bit of fat and lost some muscle on a calorie-restricted diet. This is ridiculous, I know, but this is how my body works.

Let’s get back to how you can trust your experience. To be sure that your memory doesn’t play tricks on you, you need a training log, a food log and weekly photos of yourself. For the first one, you need a notebook (and I mean a paper one) and a pen. For the second one, you can use any reliable online calorie counter (for example, MyFitnessPal). For the third one, you need any cheap camera. The one in your cellphone will do.

Take-home point: you can trust only your experience and training log. Everything else should be tested.

Lesson 2: Search for mistakes

Have you ever wondered why do you fail in something? Coincidence? Or maybe not? Well, in 95% of cases, your failure has nothing to do with a lunar phase or what foot you put first on the floor right after the awakening. You fail because you make mistakes.

It may sound obvious, but the majority of the people doesn’t understand this. If the ordinary person fails in something, what phrase will you hear? I bet that usually it will be something like “it is not my thing” or “I don’t have the talent”. “Only 1% of the population can succeed in this” or “if I had X, Y, Z, I could easily do it” are also common. This is pathetic.

Have the guts to admit that you are making mistakes and/or you need more practice. Otherwise, accept the fact that you are a pussy of an old fat annoying lady.

If your goal is to squat 200 kg for 3 reps and somehow you can’t move past 100 kg, search for possible mistakes. Maybe you are squatting heavy 3 times per week and you need to lower the frequency. Maybe you need to implement Heavy-Low-Medium approach. Maybe you need to implement a proven percentage approach. There are lots of possible solutions, but the first step is to accept that there is a mistake somewhere, and you need to find and fix it.

Take-home point: never stop searching for possible mistakes. Perfection is unreachable, thus you can always improve something in your training.

Lesson 3: Know your goal

You should be clear with yourself on why you are doing strength training. The clearer the goal, the more chances for you to succeed. Vague goals will bring you nothing except frustration.

Here is a couple of examples of vague goals with my comments:

– “I train to be big and scary!” – How will you measure this, bro? Does being a big pile of disgusting fat count? If the statement above is your goal, get in the most dangerous district of your town, punch several guys and survive.

– “I train to get more chicks!” – Again, how is this connected? If you go to commercial gym, most of the time you’ll meet fat ladies in their forties-fifties who are the opposite of the MILF image created nowadays. Anyway, if the statement above is your goal, you need more confidence. Strength training can help you with this, but only if done right. “Going to the gym” by itself won’t get the job done.

Here are several clear goals:

– “I want to gain 5 kg of muscle”

– “I want to lose 5 kg of fat”

– “I want to bench press 150 kg”

– “I want to learn the One-Arm Chin-Up

Have you noticed the difference? Besides the fact that the second group of goals is much more precise, it is much more prone to analysis and, importantly, solution.

Take-home point: you can either have clear goals, or fail.

Lesson 4: Small victories lead to big ones

Have you wondered how wars were won or lost? Usually a series of small victories led to the big one. Effective strength training is actually the same. To achieve a big goal, you need to win smaller battles. For example, to learn the Planche, you need to conquer every progression step to it.

However, the question pops up: what’s more important – a strategy or tactics? In regards to strength training, my answer is tactics. Smart programming is all about tactics. Of course, you have to keep a big goal/picture (strategy) in mind, but the actual micromanagement of training volume, intensity and frequency (tactics) is what gives you an opportunity to progress forward. That’s exactly what I do with my training and with my clients, and apparently that’s what brings results.

Let’s use the Planche as an example again. Do you really believe that simply trying full or straddle versions eventually will lead you to mastery? Do you believe that training it spontaneously will bring results? Unless you are a 50 kg dude, do not even dream about it. Smart manipulation of training volume, intensity and frequency, small victories in form of mini-PRs every session, patience, and discipline – that’s what will help you with the goal.

Read this article for more information.

Take-home point: small victories will lead you eventually to the big one.

Lesson 5: You can getaway with ridiculous stuff if you train an exercise heavy only once per week

That’s actually the secret of my successful programming. Just kidding. Or am I?

Seriously, if you train a certain exercise heavy only once per week, you should not worry that much about screwing up. Just imagine that your body will be able to rest for full 7 days from this certain movement pattern.

Sometimes you can allow yourself to do something crazy like several “ladders to 10 and back” in the end of the session, and getaway with this much volume if you train the move only once a week. Is this necessary though? I don’t know. Experiment.

There are times when training a move or a position only once a week isn’t enough. This is true for all the exercises that require decent skill in addition to strength: the Handstand, the Planche, the Front Lever, etc. There is a trick I came up with to reap the benefits from both worlds of high and low frequency.

Let’s take the Handstand as an example. Instead of wasting time and energy on holding it until your eyes bleed every day or every other day, you can try a smarter approach:

1. Test your maximum hold. Let’s assume that it is 30 seconds.

2. Train the Handstand hard once a week (say, on Monday). You can use FSRS if you want. The possible workout for the 30-sec max example can look like this:

Set 1 – 25 sec;

Set 2 – 25 sec;

Set 3 – 20 sec;

Set 4 – 15 sec;

Set 5 – 10 sec.

Total: 95 sec.

3. Two-three times per week on different days do 3 sets of 50% effort. In this particular case, 3 sets of 15 sec. You shouldn’t feel tired at all. It is skill practice.

4. Your training week in a given example can look like this:

Monday – HS (strength)

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – HS (skill)

Thursday – Off

Friday – HS (skill)

Saturday – HS (skill)

Sunday – Off

5. Finally, progress ONLY in “strength” sessions. Leave skill work without any change. After 4-6 weeks retest your maximum and recalculate everything else.

Of course, if you train strictly the Handstand, then you probably can getaway with more volume. The given template is designed to be used in addition to your current strength training routine.

To learn more about heavy-once-a-week approach, check out this article.

Take-home point: remember to rest. Sometimes once a week is better than every day.

Lesson 6: Simplicity defeats sophistication

It is so easy to overcomplicate things that you have to stop yourself from doing so constantly. It is harder than it sounds. We are used to believe that all the useful things have to be complex. However, in reality, simplicity is the ultimate complexity. It is counter-intuitive, I know, but look around. I guess, the most successful cellphone is iPhone. It is complex inside, but for the user, it is a screen and a button. Isn’t it amazing how simple this concept is? Take a look at gymnastic rings. What people do with them is definitely complex, but the implement is ultra-simple.

If you look at strength training from this perspective, you will be amazed how simple it should be. You need only a bunch of compound exercises and the discipline to get stronger in them. That’s it. If you want to change your appearance, then look at what you eat because that’s exactly what matters.

It works for any area of life. The simple method will outperform the complicated one every time. Just try it.

You can read more about simplicity here (as well as in any Rough Strength article)

Take-home point: if in doubt, choose simple over complicated.

Closing Thoughts

Maybe this is not the most scientific article you have ever read, but it highlights right things for you. Who can you believe the most if not yourself? What if all the world exists only in your imagination? Who would you listen to in this case? In all seriousness, your experience is the most accurate teacher. Absorb what it teaches you and learn your life lessons. Thanks for reading.

Play rough!

Alex Zinchenko

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

Do you have any thoughts? Let’s chat in comments.

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2 thoughts on “6 Lessons in Effective Strength Training

  1. Caleb

    You are absolutely correct that simplicity is the ultimate complexity. Trying crazy things are over training will not help you achieve results.


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