When I start working with a relatively new athlete (3 years of training or less), two of their most common concerns are that they have hit a “plateau”, or that they want to get stronger but are afraid of “overtraining.” The topic that will be discussed in this article is a concept I like to call “smart volume” for relatively new athletes.
One of the greatest benefits of being a new lifter is that you can pretty much blow your nose and it will make you stronger on one lift or another: the newer you are, the more often you should see an increase in your rep maxes every month. This concept seems to be lost on many beginners, however, and I feel that books like Starting Strength have contributed to it. While the book has introduced many males and females to squats, deadlifts and presses (even if the squat/deadlift form directions are a bit off), it has also introduced them to the concept of “overtraining”. Some of my newer clients are so afraid of overtraining that the idea of squatting more than one day a week makes have a panic attack.
Here is an example of the starting strength beginner program:
The Original Starting Strength Novice Program
Workout A 3×5 Squat 3×5 Bench Press 1×5 Deadlift
Workout B 3×5 Squat 3×5 Press 5×3 Power cleans
Workouts A and B alternate on 3 non-consecutive days per week.
While I understand the benefit of starting slow for someone who has never lifted before, there are people out there that are on their third or fourth cycle of this, and are wondering why they haven’t PR’d their deadlift in over a year. HINT: a 180lb male who thinks his strength has plateaued because his deadlift hasn’t increased in over a year has not actually plateaued, he is just not eating enough or is not doing enough volume. Volume is the name of the game for beginners, volume volume volume. The above Starting Strength workout will keep you so far from overtraining it is not even funny: you will barely leave the realm of warm-up after a while. If you are a 150lb female and you are having trouble adding 5-10lbs to your 140lb squat every 2-3 months, there are serious problems with your programming, and I would usually attribute it to a lack of volume.
When you are new, and your eating is on point, you can literally work your ass off at least four times a week, and you should have no problem recovering. This is where I want to discuss the concept of “smart volume”. When I say smart volume, I don’t mean doing the Filthy Fifty WOD to get yourself stronger, which is just silly. I am talking about doing high amounts of sets, with high amounts of reps under HEAVY weight. Not only will this make you stronger, it will stimulate muscle, tendon and joint strength. Volume should be the goal for all new athletes (I would argue that 4-5 years of training or less), regardless of the sport you compete in. This goes for Olympic lifters too: It can take a very long time for new Olympic lifters to hone their technique for snatch and clean & jerk, and as such, you will not be getting very strong from just doing those two lifts in your training. Instead, those two lifts can be considered your technique work, while all of the assistance work you do after (squats, presses, RDLs, high pulls) will be where you gain your main strength.
As I mentioned previously, I find it a little ridiculous that new athletes want to know what lifters like Klokov, Shaw or Misha are currently doing with their programming, and then try to copy it. Why would you follow the same programming that a world-class athlete is currently doing, when you have ignored what they have done on their path to be world-class? You are putting the cart before the horse, and ignoring all the volume they have performed in their beginning stages. Constantly focusing on sets of 2-3 reps for a couple of sets is not going to contribute nearly as much to your strength as heavy, heavy volume will. Not only will your muscle and tendon strength increase, you will be able to better feel out the weights when performing 4-7 sets of 5 or more reps, and build confidence when you are able to muscle through lifts as you get fatigued.
This is a huge reason why I love training for Strongman: there could be close to 200 different events that a show promoter can put in a show, and as such, you have to practice to be good at everything at all times. I know that sounds dangerously close to the “constantly varied” training model, but it rings true nonetheless. Not only do you need to practice everything at all times, you need to be strongly proficient for reps, not just for singles. Our events usually boil down to 2 methods: How many times can you lift this in 60 seconds, and how far or quickly can you carry this with a 90 second time limit. Occasionally there are “last man standing” events, but those aren’t as prominent as the 2 I previously mentioned.
If you are a new lifter, and you are still following a 3×5 model for all your lifts (sometimes even doing as little as 1×5) week in and week out, you should consider adding some serious volume to your training. My training partner Matt Falk is a perfect example of this: he took his deadlift from 515 to 660 in a little over a year by deadlifting in various ways as much as 4 times a week. It really goes to show that some of the claims coming out of Westside Barbell (workouts that last longer than an hour are a waste of time, or deadlifting more than once a week will impede your deadlift progress) are not all they are cracked up to be. I promise you that adding smart volume to your programming will do nothing but benefit your lifts, muscle mass, and overall confidence under heavy weights. Try it out yourself to see how it works for you, and contact us if you want to know different ways you can implement it.
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