Putting a finer point on strength training minimalism

Strength training minimalism is simplistic and, if done right, quite brutal. The effectiveness resides in the brutality. Low-rep powerlifting  forces the body to strengthen and grow. The sheer physical effort required to maximally exert in the three lifts is unrivaled for building muscle and experiencing a concurrent increase in strength and performance.

There is something miraculous about exerting maximally, for one repetition in competition, and 1-6 reps in training, rarely more. Concentrating on these three particular movements has a synergistic transformative effect on the human body. Powerlifting is the penultimate training mode for creating muscle and strength. Strength has three separate and distinct types or subdivisions, each requiring a different protocol.

  • Absolute strength is the powerlifter’s strength and best exemplified by maximum efforts in three compound multi-joint exercises: the squat, bench press and deadlift. These are short stroke movements where a maximum payload is moved for minimal reps over short distances with no regard for velocity. This kind if training includes a lot of grind speed reps, isokinetic and isometric efforts.
  • Explosive strength, best exemplified by Olympic weightlifting; is when moderate payloads are moved with maximum velocity for relatively long distances, the intent is to create upward momentum in the clean, snatch and jerk. Explosive strength can be exhibited in many different ways using various tools, such as an Olympic bar and bumper plates, and expressed using different benchmarks.
  • Sustained strength or strength endurance occurs when light weights are lifted at various speeds using differing ranges of motion for long durations. An MMA fighter running up a steep hill while carrying a 100-pound heavy bag would be a good example of a sustained-strength drill. High rep kettlebell drills will also task and peak sustained strength.

Of the five bio-motor attributes (speed, strength, endurance, agility and flexibility) strength is the King because strength bleeds over into speed. There is no speed without strength. Training for absolute strength takes the least amount of training time, compared to the amount of time needed to optimize explosive strength or strength-endurance. Absolute strength acquisition takes less time because it is maximally intense. There is always an inverse relationship between volume and intensity.

The greatest powerlifters in history trained each of the three competitive lifts one time a week. Power training enables the athlete to handle extremely heavy poundage; big weights dig big muscular inroads. A good 200-pound athlete will have a 400-pound raw back squat (2 x bodyweight,) a 300-pound bench press (1.5 x bodyweight) and a 500-pound deadlift (2.5 x bodyweight.)

A good 200-pound Olympic weight lifter will snatch 200 and clean and jerk 300. It takes a hell of a lot longer to recover from a set of 5 reps with 350 in the barbell squat than it does to recover from a set of 150 x 3 in the snatch. It takes longer a lot longer to recover from a 435 x 5 set in the deadlift than it does to recover from a 220 triple in the power clean. The sheer weight used by the power trainer creates a huge physiological impact.

The type of body shock associated with hardcore power-training is never experienced by the local fitness adherent using bodybuilder tactics, curling 65-pounds for multiple sets of 12 reps; or doing sets of seated presses with 30-pound dumbbells. Lateral raises are hardly noticed by the body while a set of limit squats or deadlifts will dig a muscular inroad just this side of death. Those that pump away with pee-wee poundage never trip the hypertrophy switch while those that power lift never fails to trip the hypertrophy switch.

Progress guides our hand. 60-years of continual power empiricism tells us that when it comes to absolute strength, less is better if less is heavier and more intense. The squat and deadlift – done using our techniques – works many of the same muscles: glutes, erectors, abs, upper thighs and hamstrings. Elite power-men place the squat and deadlift at opposite ends of the power training week to maximize between-session recovery time. The two most favored power training splits were,

  • two-day a week: day 1 squat, bench press, arms; day 2, deadlift, overhead press
  • three-day-a-week: day 1 legs; day 2 bench press and arms; day 3, deadlift and pressing

Classically, assistance exercises are used to augment the three lifts. On leg day, the lifter might also perform calf raises, leg curls or other back or front squat variations. On chest and arm day, the elite lifter will use different width grips in the flat bench. They might do barbell inclines or dumbbell flat benches. Assistance back work could include deadlifts off a block, rack pulls or Romanian deadlifts. Some type of overhead pressing is usually done on deadlift day.

In a pinch, when life and circumstance forced power men to cut back, significant gains were had by those that utilized strength training minimalism once a week. All three lifts were done in a single day in a single session and that would be all for the rest of the week. Men won national and world championships and set world records restricted to once-weekly strength training minimalism.

Strength training minimalism works. Is it ideal or idealized? Absolutely not. There is no attempt to assert once-weekly superiority or to suggest one trumps all other frequency training splits. However, strength training minimalism deserves a seat at the training table, it is a valid tactical arrow for the training quiver. In a pinch, when life demands it, substantial gains can be had for extended periods training all three lifts in a single weekly session. The key to gains combines gut-busting effort with highly specific exercise techniques and periodized programming tactics.

Technically, the three lifts need be executed in pristine fashion, full range of motion exercise digs the deepest possible muscular inroad. Tactically, once-weekly efforts are periodized, preplanned, i.e. sets, reps and poundage goals are forecast ahead of time and set into a timeframe. Weekly goals are reverse-engineered over a 12-week, three-month period. The 12-week cycle is broken into three, four-week micro-cycles tucked inside the macro cycle. Each successive week the athlete stairsteps performance, slightly upward, ever upward. Small, incremental steps compound over the months.

As long as the goals are realistic, a competent, consistent trainee will successfully execute every preplanned rep and poundage goal. The classic power cycle typically starts off 10% under capacity and ends with a 2% to 5% over capacity, a significant increase in all the measurable benchmarks.

If you decide to try once-a-week strength training minimalism, don’t make the common mistake of changing this Simple Simon approach. Everyone wants to add more sets or exercises; trainees cannot wrap their head around the idea that a single work set (after adequate warm-ups) in each of the three exercises is enough. They cannot get their heads wrapped around the idea that one session a week is all that is needed. Everyone wants to add in sets and exercises and add more training days.

When more exercises are added you shoot your wad performing extra squats or extra leg exercise and by heavying up legs effectively destroy your deadlifting strength needed later in the same session. Multi-set squatting, extra leg exercises will pre-fatigue glutes, erectors, upper thighs, abs and upper back. Your squatting will kill your deadlifting. Deadlift that is to be done, literally, within a half hour of squatting.

The frequency and the minimalistic exercise menu are self-justifying: hit every weekly benchmark, without fail, do so for 12 weeks and you are the smartest guy on the block: you just achieved all your goals with the least amount of time.

The greatest powerlifters in history worked up to one all out top set in each of the three lifts one time a week, world record holders like Jim Cash, Ed Coan, Doug Furnas, Kirk Karwoski, Mark Chaillet, Dave Jacoby…this list could go on and on. These men showed that training a major lift once a week was not just doable but preferable.

A smart athlete will have an ebb and flow in their training frequencies, shifting from periods of low-frequency/high-intensity training into periods of high-frequency/moderate-intensity training. Shifting training frequencies in dramatic fashion on a periodic basis is a surefire stagnation-buster. Visit once-a-week strength training minimalism the next time you are burnt out or unable to train during the work week.

Be aware that there are viable, result-producing radical training alternatives lie outside the box of conventional thinking.  Limited menu/ultra-low volume strength training is the irreducible ultra-basic of absolute strength training. Give this radical approach a try when you are tired of running on the gerbil wheel of non-productive conventional fitness.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.