Progressive Resistance Training ABCs Revisited
I find it helpful to periodically revisit and reacquaint myself with the progressive resistance training ultra-basics. I do the same thing with books and movies. It drives my wife crazy. “How can you stand to reread War and Peace or As I lay Dying or The Bear or Dune every five years?! How can you stand to watch the Godfather Trilogy or Blazing Saddles or Dirty Harry over and over?!” I shrug and say I am simpleminded. I see new things rereading and reviewing every single time.
I recently found a huge cache of articles I had written many years ago. All the articles and essays were in differing stages of completion. I thought them totally lost, a victim of moving from the city to the country. Found last month in the back of a drawer, the raw data contained a massive amount of material. I am working my way through the 600 found pages that covers (roughly) five years of my life. As I reread and reviewed these old essays, a theme emerged.
What came through as I read my cache was a disenable effort on my part to formalize and codify the systems I had been exposed to. In a very short period of time I had fallen under the direct influence of three powerlifting Gods: Hugh Cassidy, Mark Challiet and Ed Coan. I felt duty-bound to record the incredible systems used by these incredible men. I used an amalgamation, a synthesis of the three iconic and uniquely different systems to create Kirk Karwoski. Kirk was the monster that ate the world and I was Dr. Frankenstein.
Kirk trained at Challiet’s for years when he was very young - so he got his deadlift facts learned right. I consulted weekly with Ed Coan (for a number of years) and I would quiz the Great One on the next tweak for “the kid” as Ed referred to Kirk. Essentially, the optimal approach for Kirk lay halfway between the ridiculously low volume Mark espoused and the almost bodybuilder-like template Ed used.
We were taking progressive resistance training to the next level: the buy-in was Cassidy’s approach to intensity: all out, blood-on-the-floor, man up or step off. This twice a week. Brutality cubed. You had to eat like a starving Armenian to survive the twice weekly pounding, each session lasting a jam-packed two hours. We were drinking a gallon of whole milk a day in addition to indiscriminately stuffing our faces at every meal.
The goal was to grow gargantuan; morph from human into inhuman, from zero in super-hero. And when you are in your teens and 20s, why not?? Dare to struggle, dare to win. Everyone that stuffed their faces and power-trained properly grew muscle and that is a flat damned inconvenient fact. Did the face stuffer add an unacceptable amount of body fat in the process? Not necessarily. It depended on what nutrients you stuffed yourself with: lean protein and fiber could be eaten in unlimited amounts but too many of the wrong kind of carbs created body fat.
There are certain commonalities between effective strength systems, logical truisms about progressive resistance training and how best to trigger dramatic improvements in physique and performance. Things should periodically be restated and ultra-basics revisited. Fundamental ideas and concepts taken for granted are soon forgotten.
Why we strength train
- Progressive resistance training, done right, skillfully stresses muscles (or group of muscles) to the degree necessary to trigger hypertrophic muscle growth. Muscle is built and strengthened in response to the self-inflicted physiological stresses of serious resistance training. Hardcore progressive resistance training is lightyears different than conventional “strength training,” the type taught civilian trainees by staff personal trainers at the commercial gym or the local YMCA.
- Conventional strength training, mild and sensible, is insufficiently intense to generate hypertrophy. Sub-maximal resistance training is an ineffectual waste of time. The exertions are too modest to trip the hypertrophy trigger. A confusing aspect of the muscle building process causes trainees to draw the wrong conclusions: when a person is new to progressive resistance training and embarks on a regular and consistent “strength training” program, the lightest payloads are enough to trigger hypertrophy.
- Just about any resistance training program will obtain results for an untrained body for a short time. Once the virgin body is no longer virgin, results cease. For most folks this golden period of incredible results lasts from six weeks to six months. The trainee draws the wrong conclusions and insist (with easy assurance of the blissfully ignorant) that they know this routine works because of the incredible results they obtained from it when they first started out. The misguided novice turns the routine into a religion.
Machine training is inferior….
- Mild progressive resistance training is best done on resistance machines. Machines are wonderful: comfortable, safe, no need for spotters or assistance. At my local YMCA the new norm is to remain sitting on the device in between sets and text or tweet. Act offended if someone requests to use the machine during the seated texting done between sets. “How dare you! Can’t you see I am tweeting about my workout!”
- There is no benefit to sitting or lying down on a resistance machine and performing a sub-maximal set of half-hearted reps. Hardcore resistance training uses free-weights to near exclusion, barbells and dumbbells, crude tools, that dig the deepest possible muscular inroad. Exercise machines eliminate the 3rd dimension of tension, the need to control side-to-side movement. This fact alone makes machines 33% less effective at digging an inroad. Barbells and (particularly) dumbbells force muscle stabilizers to fire while machines allow stabilizers to lay dormant.
- Exercise machines, with few exceptions, are isolative, they work a single muscle to the purposeful exclusion of its muscular neighbor. The smoothness and ease of use (factually) makes machines inferior to crude tools (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells) that force groups of muscles to work in balletic synchronization in order to complete the muscular task.
Limits and capacities
- The hardcore continually seek to assault the limits of their capacities, understanding that that only by working up to or past (some expression of) capacity is the body stressed to the needed degree. Capacity is nuanced and subtle, a shifting target that has many expressions and benchmarks. There is a critical distinction between the degree of effort extended by “normal” individuals during their strength training and the degree of effort exerted by an elite progressive resistance trainer.
- The adaptive response cannot and will not be triggered by sub-maximal effort. There needs to be truly herculean effort exerted on the part of the trainee, otherwise the physiological inducement is insufficient. Something of physiological significance must occur during the workout, otherwise there is no physiological incentive for the body to strengthen itself or grow muscle.
- Something profoundly traumatic must occur in every training session; something that is sufficiently stressful to trip the hypertrophy trigger, the cellular equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Cellular fission does not occur casually or in response to sub-maximal effort. Strength training creates new muscle; with muscle comes concurrent increases in power and strength.
Anabolism and nutrition
- To optimize the adaptive response, to obtain maximal benefit from hardcore training methods, nutrition is used to establish anabolism and accelerate recovery. Anabolism is a metabolic state-of-being wherein all the prerequisites for strengthening and growing a targeted muscle are present and accounted for. All that is needed is a progressive resistance training session of sufficient intensity.
- Once a muscle is trained, to complete the growth phase, the muscle needs to be fed and rested. Healing and growth occur after the actual workout. Results can be positively or negatively influenced by what is done outside the gym post-workout. Stress alone is not enough. The muscle growth equation has three component parts, train the muscle, feed the muscle, rest the muscle and grow the muscle.
Flooding the body with quality nutrients establishes anabolism. Protein is considered first amongst nutrients (fat, carbs, protein.) The optimal post-workout replenishment is rich in protein. Muscle is protein, ergo when muscle is torn down, as it is in any and every effective, hardcore training session, the optimal replenishment is a massive influx of protein.
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.