What can I do on days where I do not workout at Power Train to help gain strength?

by Mitch Davis

First, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting out of the mindset that more is better. More is not better, more is more. Some of the most impressive performance increases I have seen are with clients that I have reduced total volume/frequency/intensity with. The human body can only recover as much as we allow it. So, constantly searching for “more” is not the solution. However, to leave it at that, is just downright mean, especially considering this is a legitimate question that many of us have asked at one point in our fitness lives.

Let’s start with the downside. Unless you have your training plan in advance, it is very hard to not overtrain. Meaning, if my coach has a heavy week scheduled, with lots of compound lifts [back squat, deadlifts, bench press] and lots of power movements [snatch, clean, and jerk], and I am unaware of this, I might wind up doing more work than my body is able to recover from. Second, we must understand that any athletic or performance [strength, power, endurance] gains are simply allowed through the CNS. If I do not give myself adequate rest between certain movements, my body does not have enough time to recover. This could be seen by trying to attempt a 1-rep-maximum back squat 7 days in a row. It can also be seen by trying to do a 1-rep-maximum back squat on Friday night after the worst week at work, cranky kids, a flat tire, and a really tough week of training.

So, we know this isn’t a perfect situation. How can I still try and increase strength if I wish to do “more” work, outside of class. First, be patient. It takes time. But we all know. Second, be consistent. If you go to training 4 times a week, then once, then 6 times, then none, then 5 times, then once, this is not consistent. Stick to a schedule, your body will thank you. Again, you all know this, so. you’re looking for the answers of “what do, need strength”.

Compound movements: Squat, hinge, push, pull. Some examples would be as follows:
– Squat: Back Squat, Front Squat, Split Squat
– Hinge: Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift
– Push: Strict Press, Bench Press
– Pull: Pendlay row, seal row, snatch grip row

We want movements that incorporate many muscles, not isolation-style of training [i.e., the biceps curl].

Now, you might be asking, what should I do for reps? Well, that depends, but for generalized purposes, understand that there is a continuum:

Absolute Strength --> Strength --> Strength Endurance. Absolute strength would be a 1-rep-max and strength endurance would be higher order rep schemes. To me, anything about 10 to 12 [based on who you are taking advice from] is going to be all strength endurance. So, the simplest of solutions? Stick to the middle of the road. Aim for 4 – 8 reps. What about sets? We want to be careful of volume, considering we don’t know what is coming at us the next day at training. For many of us, 3 or 4 sets is more than adequate per exercise. Well, what about rest? For strength gains, science is pretty rigid on this one: 2 – 5 minutes of rest between sets. For many of us, that 2-minute marker seems to be the best, as it A: Is enough time to rest between sets, B: prevents you from getting bored by doing nothing, and C: doesn’t have you stuck at the gym for 6 hours because you’ve spent your entire workout resting.

This is just an example of how you would try and incorporate an extra exercise or two before or after training to help with strength gains or on a day where you’re not training with your coach. I believe that for many of us, we will see improvements [adaptations] by simply doing “something” rather than nothing. So, why is it that we aren’t experiencing growth, change, adaptations, strength [or whatever else you want to call it]? Because we have probably never tracked a metric [your weights, sets, reps] a day in your life. One of the latest trends in fitness is bragging about how routine is the enemy. I am sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but that is false. There is no such thing as muscle confusion. In fact, one of the worst things you can do for continued success in the weight room is to not have some type of linear progression. Now, let’s move beyond linear progression and focus on an even more important concept. You have to stinkin’ track that linear progression so you know what you’re doing. If you randomly add weight to the bar, without any type of structured approach, you are guessing, not actually training in a linear progressive model.

Let’s toss this all into one example to show how we can incorporate everything. Please understand that program design is much more than this, and please don’t think this is just a freebie of “go do exactly this”.

Back Squat, 4-week progression:
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps; 2 minutes of rest between sets.
Set 1: 135 pounds
Set 2: 140 pounds
Set 3: 145 pounds
Week 2: 3 sets of 5 reps; 2 minutes of rest between sets
Set 1: 140 pounds
Set 2: 145 pounds
Set 3: 150 pounds
Week 3: 3 sets of 5 reps; 2 minutes of rest between sets
Set 1: 145 pounds
Set 2: 150 pounds
Set 3: 155 pounds
Week 4: 3 sets of 5 reps; 2 minutes of rest between sets
Set 1: 150 pounds
Set 2: 155 pounds
Set 3: 160 pounds

In 4 weeks, you went from 135 pounds on your very first attempt, to 160 pounds on your very last attempt. This is 25 extra pounds of weight you are able to lift over the course of a month. Now, if you know me, you know I’d say something like, “The chances of this happening are almost impossible, as strength gains are not as linear as something like this”, and you’d be correct. What happens if on week 2, I go to back squat my third set of 150 pounds and I only get 4 reps, not 5? Well, the following week, I might start at 145 pounds for a set of 5, then try 150 pounds. Holy smokes, I got 5 reps this week. I can try for 155 pounds. Do we see how there is an ebb and flow when it comes to your training? There is no law, no requirement, no standard that says you cannot fail a set, that says you can’t take weight off the bar if you guessed too heavy.

Do we also see the tremendous importance of notes when it comes to training? I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast; I am not going to remember what I did in the gym 7 days ago. Tracking your results lets you know your progress, areas you need to work on, if you are plateauing, ratios between lifts, and so much more.

Bottom line: If you want to get stronger, be consistent and patient. Stick to compound movements that use many muscle groups, not singular muscles [this is not a dig on isolation movements, I love me some biceps curls]. Track your results and take notes. Understand that there is no law that says you cannot take weight off the bar if you’ve misjudged.

Friendly reminder, the above is just a perfect-situation example. Things are so much more complex than this when it comes to what happens in training and how to effectively design a training program. For those of you who are curious on what it takes to write a program, we can absolutely have that discussion in a later blog or Q&A, but I don’t want to get into that unless there is some interest, because, as we have seen, I tend to ramble, and a conversation like that, might make some of our brains melt 🙂

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Mitchell Davis is the Director of Remote Coaching at Power Train Sports & Fitness.  He is a PhD candidate at Liberty University where he is pursuing his doctorate in Health & Exercise Science.  He has been a coach and educator for 13 years, serving in roles such as collegiate strength and conditioning coach, high school strength and conditioning coach, adjunct professor, personal trainer, and fitness consultant.  

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