I find programming for strength training something most people know they should do, but rarely take the step to do so. I have known many people who say they are going to follow (insert the latest training program here) and maybe follow it for a week or 2 before jumping on the next program. Program jumping is the biggest mistake I see when working with beginners. For any given program you need to give it at least 3 months to see any real progress. And again if you are a beginner just about any basic program will work for a given time. I must add, that the best thing you can possibly do for yourself is to hire a qualified coach to do your programming for you. I find when people do their own programming, they avoid their weaknesses, and only work on their strengths. Of course it is more fun to do the things you are good at, BUT you will reach a point where you will stop improving until you bring up your weak points. For now if you are interested in hiring a coach then look no further and check out the consulting page for more information.
Most strength athletes make programming all too complicated when it really should stay as simple as possible. If you need a calculator every time you train trust me you are doing it wrong. I’m not saying using percentages aren’t a good way to go about training, but they are only estimations. You need to start with some kind of base so testing maxes is a great way to start your own programming to see where you stand. A common mistake made by beginners is testing their maxes nearly every week. As a beginner, you should be making progress every week, but grinding out ugly one rep maxes are a sure way to beat yourself up, and stall your progress completely. Reps build strength, and it’s also important for building strength to not go to failure on compound movements.
Your first exercise of the day should be your primary movement, or what the priority of your training is. For example if you are a strongman and you have a competition with a log press coming up, then the log press will be the main movement of the day. The rep range will vary based on what your competition will be as it could be a max, or for repetitions. Either way, strength should be a priority so beginning with heavier reps as in 3 or less is a great way to start. Following hitting a heavy 3, for example, you can then lower the weight, and do a high repetition set to work on hypertrophy, and conditioning. If you are a powerlifter, this can work the same way, and programming is even easier as you are training for the same movement each competition. Starting with the bench press, begin with heavy repetitions. I have always found that working on heavy doubles and triples is what builds strength for me, and most of my clients. I know some people like to begin with an explosive movement such as med ball throws before pressing which is fine. What you don’t want to do is wear yourself out with a 30 min dynamic warm up, get under the bar, and sell yourself short because you have already wasted so much energy. You should be fresh and warmed up for your main movement, so keep your warm up to a minimum.
You’re next exercise should be something similar to your main movement but working on a weak point. For example: for bringing up your deadlift, let’s say you are weak off of the floor, so your choices could be: deficit deadlifts, snatch grip deadlifts, or speed deadlifts. This is where you have to be honest with yourself and work on the weak point of your lift. Everyone likes to do what they are good at, but great lifters do the things they suck at. I’m sure many of you have seen plenty of lifts online of heavy deadlifts done from 18 inches, or more to work on lockout strength. I see absolutely no point in maxing out from that point in the lift when it is already a strong point for you. Using myself as an example, I rarely do raised deadlifts because my weak point is off the floor. If I can’t break the floor with 700lbs there is ZERO reason for me to do lockouts above my knees with 900 just so I can post a video doing so. The exception to this would be if you are training for a strong(wo)man competition with a raised deadlift, of course.
Following your main accessory movement should be should be some lighter bodybuilding movements. This is another part of programming where I see a lot of mistakes. Your body can only recover from so much. After two fairly heavy movements, you need to increase blood flow to the muscles for both hypertrophy work, and injury prevention. I don’t mean to pick on powerlifters and strongman competitors but this is where many of you get lazy. Again this comes down to weak points, so let’s say your triceps are weak in either sport, then the bulk of your accessory work should be focused on isolating the triceps. I have yet to meet a big bencher, or overhead press that didn’t have huge triceps. Let’s look at an example of what some accessory work can look like for the bench press to bring up the triceps:
Bench work up to a heavy 3
2 board close grip bench 3 x 5
Dips 3 x 8-10
Rolling tricep extensions 3 x 12
In this example there is a big focus on the triceps, so lockout strength is made a priority here. Some of you may wonder why there is no direct chest work here, but I generally like to program a second day of pressing which focuses even more on bodybuilding movements that is used more as a light recovery day. The second pressing day is perfect for more isolation work such as high rep flyes, and dumbbell presses.
To finish each training session I like to have a short bout of conditioning. Whether you like it or not your cardiovascular health is important in the long run of things, no matter how strong you are. Even when I am at my heaviest I never want to walk up a flight of stairs and be out of breath, or bend over to tie my shoe and break out in a sweat. As a powerlifter, your conditioning should be very simple. You don’t want to sacrifice recovery, so anything you do doesn’t need to be all-out leaving you on the ground, gasping for air. Conditioning is very important as a meet is generally a long day. I find when my cardio is up I’m still ready to deadlift after 10 hours of competing. Many times in strongman it comes down to the last event, and many competitors, especially heavyweights, are spent after the 4th event which is usually some kind of carry medley that drains you. The better your conditioning is the faster you will be able to recover in between events/lifts. Sled work I find is the best for powerlifters as there is no eccentric part of the motion, so very little soreness will come from it. I do recommend strongman events for powerlifters, but again keep them on the lighters side. Farmer’s walks are great for helping with your deadlift, and nothing will increase your grip better. Ending your squat sessions with yoke, or sandbag carries will literally work every muscle in your body.
We covered a lot with powerlifting as to why conditioning is important but in strongman the rules are a little different. Generally at any given strong(wo)man competition you will have at least one conditioning medley that will leave you on the ground gasping for air, so you will not need to end your sessions with light conditioning. Structuring a strongman program is much more complicated then powerlifting as you need to be ready for heavy static events, as well as being able to move quickly with heavy weights. Let’s use the example of a pressing day again using the log. In my recent competition I had a 280lbs log for reps, cleaned once. In training I began with a lighter weight of 250 and would do multiple sets at the weight for 2-3 reps. On the last set I would do max reps, so I could increase my conditioning for the event while getting comfortable with the weight before the max rep set. Each week, using simple progressive overload I would increase the weight based on how many reps I got on the max set of my previous week. By the final week of training, before the competition, I had worked up 300lbs for 4 sets of 3 with the last set maxing out at, I believe, 5. In between sets I would also keep my rest, at the most, 90 seconds, so by the time the competition came around the weight was extremely easy.
The only day I have an exception for starting with an event is when I squat. I prefer squatting first in the training day, then following it with the yoke for example. Also like I stated earlier there is always some kind of conditioning medley in the competition and I would generally put it following the yoke. I’ll use the example of my last training program when I had a yoke followed by a max sandbag carry. I would begin with a front squat, as I believe front squatting is much more applicable to strongman then back squatting is. I would then follow front squatting with the yoke. Usually just 2 working sets on the yoke, one heavier than contest weight, and one under contest weight for speed. My competition weight was 800lbs for 60ft, so training would be 850-900lbs for 60ft followed by 650lbs for a speed run. I would then use the same set up on the sandbag going around contest weight followed by a lighter sandbag for a longer distance. As you can see this is a pretty brutal training session so I wouldn’t go crazy on the accessory work. I would generally end with some glute ham raises supersetted with some ab work and call it a day.
Again strongman can be very complicated to train for so to make something clear I am writing this assuming you have what you need to train for the events. I like to train the events spaced out throughout the week, BUT I also have all the equipment I need to do so right in my gym. Training strongman events is very taxing, and will beat you up very fast if you do not train smart, and are able to recover. Training all of the events in one day is not a good idea! There are generally 5 events in a strong(wo)man competition. I know after a competition I’m beat for a good week or 2, so imagine training all 5 events all in a row each week. Even cycling a speed event with a heavy one in a given training session could last over 3 hours. If you are someone that trains at a commercial gym during the week, and travels to a strongman gym on the weekends then keep it to 3 events, and rotate them each week to keep making progress. Also in case you haven’t yet check out my article on how to train for strong(wo)man without the implements.
A couple things you have to keep in mind with what I have written. This is only sharing some of the basic things you can do when setting up a program. You should also always deload! I deload on the 4th week of each cycle, and then start a new program with some adjustments and new exercises. You should deload somewhere around the 4th to 6th week no matter who you are. To read more about deloading you can read more here. There have been books written about how to progress each week, so there is a lot more than can be said after what I have given you here to start with. Any questions or comments please drop a line on the facebook page or below in the comments.