Fitness Friday: Basic strength, work capacity, and a blueprint for continued strength gains in the squat, deadlift and bench press

Getting stronger in the big lifts has huge benefits. And it can improve over time if you do it the right way.

I’ve done some research over the years to find things that work in terms of strength training. Two methods come to mind: the 5-by-5 rep scheme, and the importance of volume training. The former is something promoted by the well-regarded author of the book “Starting Strength,” Mark Rippetoe, and the latter is something I picked up from listening to Westside Barbell founder Louie Simmons.

Let’s look at that 5-by-5 first. What it has you do: Using the “big lifts” – bench press, squat and deadlift — you’re going to start by selecting a weight you can comfortably do for five reps. Do the set, then add some weight for the next set, and do five more. You keep doing this until you’ve completed five sets of five, and that last set should be a struggle – one where you’re probably not going to get all five reps. Once you get to the point where you can complete all 25 reps, it’s time to move up the weight in all the work sets. Repeat this cycle for 12 weeks, and you’ll pack on some strength on those lifts.

Now for a curveball: When you’re working with rep ranges like five or less, your body will tend to grind down. You’ll keep progressing, but it will slow and eventually stall. That’s my experience, anyway.

Enter Louie Simmons.

If you don’t know who Simmons is, here’s the short of it: He founded the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, and using what he learned from American and Eastern Bloc strength coaches, he came up with a system that helped his gym produce more world-record powerlifters than just about anybody. Simmons knows his stuff.

One of the things he said he discovered is that when his athletes would get to the end of a training cycle, they’d grind down and, to paraphrase his words, walk into a meet with a lack of conditioning.

What he meant by that is they’d be stronger at the end of the cycle, but not as strong as they should or could be. As their lifts got heavier, their total reps per workout got fewer. Sometimes, they’d miss their lifts at the meet – a fate no competitor wants. So, he split his lifters’ workouts: One day would be heavier weight/lower reps, and the following workout with the same lift would include lower weight, but a lot more reps.

And that’s how the legend of Westside Barbell was born.

So how would that look for you? Let’s set up some squat workouts combining these two methods. Say your leg day workouts are Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure you’ll have other leg exercises besides squats, but I’ll let you figure out what those are (I provided some examples in last week’s post). You’ll be doing them after you squat anyway. All weights I’ve listed below are used only as an example. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you/challenges you and go from there, but remember, that last set of five should be at a level where you won’t get all five, and when you do, it’s time to move up in weight on all of your work sets.

Monday squats (5-by-5)

Warm up:  Empty bar, 10 reps; 135, eight reps.

Work sets (5 reps each) 185, 205, 225, 245, 265

Then do the rest of your accessory leg work.

Your Thursday routine will look at lot different. Lighter weights, more reps. It’s volume all the way, baby. How I’ve been doing this for leg day is a deal I call “death by squats.” In this routine, you’re going to pick a weight that is light for you. You’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps, and you’re going to rest precisely one minute between each set. Use a timer to keep yourself honest. Again, the work set weight is just an example. You’ll need to figure out what’s “light” but doable for you.

Thursday squats (Death by Squats)

Warm up: 10 reps, empty bar.

Work sets: 10×10, 135 pounds, 1-minute rest between sets.

Now catch your breath, get a drink of water, go find your spleen, and continue with your leg day accessory lifts.

Why does this combo work? For starters, you’re getting good volume on both days. You’re getting 25 reps of work set weight on Mondays, and a whopping 100 reps on your high-volume day. That’s a lot of squats! But importantly, you’re getting a good combination of reps with heavier weights AND a bunch of volume with the lighter weights. The variation will boost strength AND work capacity (a term Crossfitters know, and a trait all of us should emulate, even if you have an aversion to Crossfit).

You can do similar plans on your bench day (I call it a “press” day) and on your deadlift day (my “pull” day). I’m not sure I’d do “death by bench” or “death by deadlifts,” but you can find a way to use lighter weights with high rep ranges to give you a similar effect. On my volume bench day, I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets, and then do four sets of 15, adding 10 pounds to the bar with each set. On my deadlift day, my volume workout has been doing 3-4 sets of Romanian deadlifts at 12 reps a pop. And if Death by Squats sounds a little too extreme, feel free to use a different combination of sets with lighter weights and higher reps. In the squat, I’d advise something like four sets of 15-20 reps with lighter weights on your high volume day. In any  case, I’m using much lighter weights than what I use in my work sets during my 5-by-5 days.

Bottom line: Get some good volume with heavier, challenging weights. And then in your next workout, dial back the weight and jack up your volume.  And let the gains begin.

Next week: We’ll get into the weeds of running, and a form of speed training that will blast you into shape.

Bob Doucette

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