“What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”– George Leonard
Strength training is a harsh mistress.
And then, when you just think you’ve figured everything out … it stops.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
In training, as in many things, there is a law of diminishing returns. You will make the biggest gains when you’ve just picked up the barbell, and then the rate of improvements in strength and size will slowly taper off. This is exemplified by a study from Japan.
The researchers had seven young men train the bench press three times per week for 24 weeks and continuously measured their muscle thickness and strength. They lifted ten reps for three sets, and every time they completed all reps they increased the weight for the next workout.1
The young men made rapid gains in strength and muscle size over the first few months, but as the training progressed, the gains came slower and slower.
If the study would have continued for another 24 weeks – almost a full year – we would probably see the slope of the lines decrease even more, perhaps not even seeing any progress at all between occasional measurements.
Advice From a World Record Breaker
Some time ago, I had the pleasure of picking Alexander Eriksson’s brain regarding how training changes in the long-term for beginner, intermediate, and advanced powerlifters. Alexander is the reigning European powerlifting champion, has several World Jr Championship titles, and has broken seven world records.
Here are his views:
“If we break competitive powerlifting down to its simplest training principle, it’s about one thing: achieving progressive overload that increases your 1RM. To do so, you simply need to manage training stress and recovery. This is true independently if you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter. However, what differs between them is the breadth of options that are considered adequate training and recovery.”
He explains that the beginner and intermediate lifter both have a great breadth of opportunities when it comes to planning their training; they will respond well to most training stimuli and can simply focus on learning the lifts and following a structured training program.
“Ultimately, as an advanced lifter, you have a much narrower interval where you can plan your training. There’s not really any low-hanging fruit, and you simply have to monitor progress and keep on grinding. The focus of the advanced lifter should be to build a sustainable and holistic process. This will make the journey enjoyable and also helps you find the small keys that help you progress in the long run.”
Alexander’s views ties in well with those of James Clear, on where to focus:
“For the beginner, execution.
For the intermediate, strategy.
For the expert, mindset.”
The beginner simply needs to get his or her reps in with a barbell. The intermediate needs a structured training program. And the advanced needs to prepare for the long haul.
Meet the Plateau
Most of your time as an advanced lifter will probably be spent on what you perceive to be a plateau. No noticeable strength gains, no noticeable growth of muscle size, and no obvious technical improvements.
This is the reality for anyone at a high skill level, and if you want to walk the path to mastery, you better get used to it.
If you stick to your process of practice and training, however, the plateaus won’t last forever. Oftentimes, a long plateau ends with a short but exhilarating burst of progress. Over the course of a few weeks or months, you make the progress you’ve been trying to make for a long time, perhaps half a year or more.
Have you finally discovered the silver bullet? The magic training program? Probably not. More likely, the burst of progress is simply the manifestation of your accumulated training over the last months or more. Sooner or later, quantity transforms into quality.
After such a short burst of progress, you typically regress slightly, and then finally settle on a new plateau. Only this time, the plateau is on a higher level than the last one was. And then you simply have to return to the grind.
How Often Can You Expect to Get Stronger?
As we outlined in the previous parts of this series:
- The beginner can expect to get stronger from workout to workout.
- The intermediate can expect to get stronger from week to week.
- The advanced, then, can expect to get stronger from month to month, or from training block to training block.
The beginner simply adds a few pounds to the bar between each workout and knocks out the same number of reps as last week. For the intermediate lifter, progress is slower, and you must intersperse your heavy workouts with light and medium workouts in between. But every time a heavy workout rolls around, the intermediate lifter takes a step forward in terms of strength, being able to add a few pounds to the bar.
As an advanced lifter, this is kicked up another notch. One week of training is no longer enough for you to see a significant, noticeable strength gain in your lifts. You need more accumulated training (time spent on “the plateau”) before you can expect to break through and add a few pounds to your best lifts.
Keeping with the classification from Practical Programming, the advanced lifter could expect to see noticeable strength gains from month to month, or a little later on: from training block to training block.
How long is a training block? Usually something like 6–12 weeks. In my own coaching and most of the strength programs in StrengthLog, we typically build blocks that are around 6–8 weeks in length.
The goal is to get stronger at the end of a training block.
The beginner breaks new ground every workout. The intermediate does so every week. Your aim, as an advanced lifter, is to break new ground every training block.
You will train hard during the block to take a step forward at the end. Oftentimes you will succeed in doing so – sometimes, you will not.
Just like the intermediate lifter cannot train hard every workout in a week, you cannot train hard every workout (or even every week) in a training block. Keeping with the light-medium-heavy approach, I recommend you to start your training blocks out at a light intensity. Both the weight on the bar and the total training volume should be at a quite easy level.
As the weeks go by, you progressively make things harder. You add a set, a rep, or a few pounds to your workouts and slowly build up the tonnage and your momentum.
Thus you engrain the habit of improving, and as the training block nears its end, you are approaching your previous record levels of strength. Psychologically, the increasingly heavy training is preparing you to challenge your old limits of strength. Physically, the training stimulates and strengthens your body, even if you haven’t yet noticed it.
When you roll into the last week of the training block, you give it your all to take that one step forward in your training and break new ground. Typically at this point in the program, the thought of your upcoming workouts makes you both nervous and excited by the challenge. Your training and planned workouts take up much of your thoughts throughout the day, and all in all, this part of a training block brings a certain kind of psychological and physical intensity that is difficult to maintain for much longer than one or perhaps a few weeks at a time.
Hence, the need for periodization: After you’ve finished one training block, and hopefully shattered a few PR’s, you follow the light-medium-heavy adage and drop back down to a few light weeks of training – the beginning of your next training block.
Advanced Training in Practice
Let’s get down to brass tacks: How heavy should you train? How many sets? How often?
Like you read in part 2, it is harder to give examples of advanced training programs since as lifters progress in their training, they become less homogenous, and the importance of individualization increases.
Therefore, we will describe how we’ve designed the progression in our advanced squat program, Squat Samba, so that you can use that information to plan your own training. Or if you’d prefer: download our app, register for premium, and try the program yourself.
Squat Samba is designed so that it can be trained continuously for several cycles in a row. You squat twice a week: one heavier session progressing mainly in intensity (% of 1RM) and one lighter session progressing mainly in volume.
The breakdown of the programs progression is this:
- The volume (in terms of sets of squats) increases over the first few weeks and peaks in week 3, following an inverted U-shape. The final week, containing the max attempt, functions as a taper and also something of a deload before the next cycle.
- The peak % of 1RM climbs from 85% in week one, to 102.5% (your new max attempt) in week 6.
- The average % of 1RM increases gradually over the course of the six weeks, from 71–72% of 1RM in the first few weeks, reaching 76% at most in weeks 3 and 6.
Here’s a visual representation:
The gist of the program is that you start off in a somewhat comfortable place, and then increase the volume and your training weights gradually from there, trying to push your limits just enough to stimulate new gains. Then you finish the training cycle with a taper and a max attempt in week six.
This is just one out of countless ways to set up a strength training program as an advanced lifter. The point is that you cannot train hard all the time, but you still need to systematically push your limits by moving forward.
Our app StrengthLog contains advanced training programs for the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, and more. While the beginner and intermediate programs are free, the advanced programs require a premium subscription.
To Infinity, and Beyond
The longer you’ve trained, the more training you will probably have to put in between each significant increase in strength. You should plan according to this. Set up your training in a progressive manner, so that six to eight weeks from now, you’re breaking new ground and hitting PR’s. Then it’s back to the grind for another training block.
Some lifters never progress past their first real plateau. The advanced lifter recognizes that it is part of the journey, and shows up in the gym for the next workout.
Previous parts of this series: