The Subtleties of Once a Week Strength Training
Once a week strength training. More than meets the eye…
Dave Jacoby (above) misses an 865-pound squat weighing 239. Dave won six world powerlifting championships. A long-distance trucker during his competitive days, he was forced into once a week strength training and made lemonade out of lemons.
There has been such a strong response to our once a week strength training protocol that we recently shared with the wider public. Elite strength athletes and elite military have used this protocol with great success for decades. The strategy, born out of necessity, is predicated on the stratagem that “It is not so much what you do, or how much you do – it's how hard you do it.
The second foundational premise for once-a-week strength training is that training with a fully recovered body is critical for increasing absolute strength. By training when the body is not fully recovered ensures subpar results. How could it not? How could training with a fully recovered body not trump training when 87% or 71% recovered?
Once-a-week strength training has its genesis in elite competitive powerlifting. These men were interested in one thing and one thing only: becoming stronger in the three competitive powerlifts, the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift. They discovered that the worst thing they could do was to train a lift before being fully recovered.
The pursuit of pure strength led these power pioneers to sheer away any and every extraneous exercise. Like a purposefully lightened racing Ferrari, specificity and sparseness, when paired with better recovery netted tremendous gains in pure power and raw strength. The acquisition of brute strength automatically increases lean muscle mass. Powerlifters discovered that they could only train a lift once a week.
Once-a-week strength training was created by powerlifters denied the ability to train during the week. Life circumstance, overtime at work, sick kids, whatever prevented elite lifters from training during the week. What to do? Quit?? No way. The solution was, rather than spread the three lifts out over the training week, do all three lifts on one day, squat, bench press and deadlift on Saturday or Sunday. Was this ideal? No. It was necessity, the mother of invention.
These once-a-week powerlifter thought that, a best, this would be a way to tread water, to not lose what these elite lifters had fought so hard to acquire. A counterintuitive occurrence took place: the lifters that would have been thrilled to just retained the strength they’d acquired experienced strength spikes: they weren’t treading water they were suddenly getting stronger.
Like some weird lab accident where the scientist accidently knocks over a beaker and discovers a cure for malaria, the once-weekly strength trainers found that their strength skyrocketed. The key to the increases was lay in the exercises selected and lifting when totally and completely rested and recovered: train the body as a whole; rest the body as a whole.
Most strength experts expressed complete incredulity that once a week strength training would work to any degree – that once a week strength training could actually dramatically improve a person’s current levels of strength, muscle and power seems mythical, impossible.
“Imagine a magical mystical training routine known only to power demigods. This routine requires Herculean effort and is so potent and so powerful, so devastating and traumatic that it can only be used once a week – no more! To use this potent strategy more than once a week is greedy, counterproductive and potentially injurious. Do it right and you are catapulted to the next level of performance and physique – do too much and be cast backwards!”
This is Tolkien Lord of the Rings stuff. The experts kept telling us that this approach could not possibly work for a whole host of irrefutable, science-based reasons. We were puzzled, were we to believe the experts or our own lying eyes. The blowback we got put me in mind of the old science cliché “Well, empirically it works fantastically and consistently – but how does it work theoretically?”
Many men in my social circle of world champion powerlifters and Tier 1 active duty spec ops fighters have used this strength training strategy for decades: weight train once a week, get stronger and more powerful. Now get on with the rest of your life. This minimalistic menu is amplified by full and complete recovery. This foundational approach was wedded to tactical periodization. The key to success was to make consistent, infinitesimal weekly strength gains for months on end.
Did you ever have a J.O.B. that was so demanding, so stressful, so horrific, so hard and difficult that training during the week was out of the question? No time, no energy. When most of us are faced with this type of dilemma, i.e. “There is no way given my current set of life circumstance that I could train during the week.” We punt – we say to ourselves, ‘I just don’t have the energy or time to train during the week and if I can only train once a week – what’s the point?’
The inference being that there are no gains to be had if training is limited to once weekly.
That is factually inaccurate. There is a long history in powerlifting of men winning national and world championships and setting world records training while only training once a week. Most folks are ignorant of the fact that elite powerlifters would squat, bench press and deadlift once a week.
Classically, the elite lifter trained each lift once a week. They would position the squat and deadlift at opposite ends of the training week on account of these exercises use many of the same muscles. Often elite lifters pair up squats and bench presses. There is no inherent “muscular conflict” between squats and bench presses (they use different muscles.)
Squats and bench presses in the same session go together “like peas and carrots,” to quote the great 20th century Zen philosopher Forest Gump. Many elite lifters already paired squats and bench presses. In a pinch, just throw some deadlifts onto the end of a squat/bench session and be done for the week.
Periodization is preplanning: each successive week for 10-12 consecutive weeks the poundage and reps are manipulated, continual progress must be coaxed. The once-a-week, squat/bench/deadlift trainer typically begins a “cycle” 10% below capacity and seeks to end 2-5% above current capabilities and capacities. Bodyweight is manipulated upward or downward in synchronization with the cycle.
I trained once weekly and won the Connecticut state drug-free (ADFPA) championships in 1989. I squatted 660, benched 365 raw and deadlifted 680 weighing 220. I trained once weekly with the boys at Ken Fantano’s hardcore super gym, the Muscle Factory. Once-a-week squatting/benching/deadlifting at Ken’s created three guys that could squat 900+ and bench 600 + raw. This in a gym with 100 members.
For the typically over-trained weight trainer, likely following a high volume/moderate intensity bodybuilding-style approach, a protracted dose of result-infusing once-a-week training comes on like a cool breeze on a stifling hot day. Once a week strength training allows over-worked muscles a chance to rest, heal, recover and grow. We encourage the athlete to engage in copious cardio in any and all sport-related activities during the week. Fitter creates leaner. Leaner is better.
Two day a week power split
The classical powerlifting templates of the power elite were arrived at through empirical study rooted in outcomes. The elite followed wherever results led them. Pursuit of world records shaped the training.
Day 1 squat, bench press, triceps
Three days later…
Day 2 deadlift, overhead or incline press, biceps
Three day a week power split
Day 1 squat, leg assistance work
Day 2 bench press, bench assistance, arms (biceps/triceps)
Day 3 deadlift, deadlift and back assistance work, overhead presses
No lift or body part was done more than once a week. First and foremost, remember that results led them to limit training a lift to once weekly – an elite lifter would train a lift ten times a week for ten hours a day if that is what yielded the optimal results in power, muscle and strength. The world champions and world record holders came to realize that quite the opposite, training an exercise once weekly was not some terrible hinderance, it was optimal.
World record holders discovered that squats and deadlifts use a lot of the same muscles, erectors, upper thighs, hamstrings and abs. Doing squats and deadlifts once weekly meant core muscles were being blasted twice each week. The iron elite discovered (the hard way) that repeating a lift before being fully recovered inevitably resulted in subpar subsequent workouts.
The key to building strength and power is to start with a fully rested body. Pristine techniques are combined with battle-tested tactics. Tiny weekly poundage increases are attained weekly as the lifter stairsteps upward towards the overarching goal. The predetermined overarching goal is arrived at after twelve weeks, three months, of sustained and unwavering effort.
Every week a small incremental goal is established and attained: a mere 10-pound weekly bump in squat and deadlift poundage each week for 12 weeks results in a 120-pound increase over the jump-in weight. A mere 5-pound a week increase in the bench press and overhead press results in a 60-pound increase over the 12-week cycle starting weight.
Once a week strength training subtleties and nuances…
- Attain periodized weekly goals, be realistic, most trainees start cycles off way too high
- 1st four weeks: velocity! at cycles’ start all weights manhandled, maximally explosive
- Start cycle with light weights, ingrain full range-of-motion, archetypical techniques
- Loaded, controlled, precise eccentric followed by explosive concentric
- 2nd four weeks: techniques are mastered, the real training commences
- Reps are cut, poundage increased, learn to embrace and fight through sticking points
- Cycle a periodized bodyweight goal – go up or down – don’t stay the same
- Don’t burn out on squats: don’t shoot you’re wad at the beginning of the workout!
- Benches can take more work: different grip widths, put more space between squats/deads
- Regardless the exercise, work up to one top set and move on
- 3rd four weeks: At cycles end, poundage peaks, grind sets in, pure low-end torque is created
- Hit your realistic weekly numbers and you have done your job
I do not consider once a week strength training as an end-all be-all that sweeps all that has come before it off the table. I do think once a week strength training deserves a seat at the table and please don’t tell us this can’t or won’t work because we have way too many flesh-and-blood examples of the uber-elite that have used and improved with extended doses of this uber-minimalistic approach. I train a bunch of regular guys every Sunday and we have documented their sensational gains.
I would portray this approach as another valid arrow for the strength training quiver of the serious athlete. As the elite know, the only constant in the quest for strength and power is stagnation. The elite athlete changes training routines on a periodic and systematic basis, anticipating stagnation in advance of its onset and switching to a new and radically different direction to jolt the body out of its complacency.
Once a week strength training deserves a spot in the rotation of every athletes’ annual training program.
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 multiple 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.