Weight Training Benchmarks for Maximum Muscle and Strength Gains

We were training last Sunday and had finished barbell squatting. As we began bench pressing, I asked one of our young weightlifters what his five-rep personal record (PR) was in the touch-and-go bench press. I wanted to get an idea as to what would be reasonable for him to handle today.

He was thrown a bit. He verbally stumbled and stammered, “My best recent bench press is 225 lbs. for 5…no wait, it’s 215 for 5…”

Coach Nacho Del Grande was sitting next to me. He knew this boy and said, “215?! That was your best TRIPLE dumb ass!”

The boy snapped his fingers, “Right! Sorry coach, 215 for three was my best triple and 205 for 5 is my recent best.”

I shook my head and said to coach Nacho, “They care so little…they don’t even know what they’ve done…”

I knew this kind of talk would stir up Nacho. I could see steam coming out of his ears.  He picked right up on the theme.  He addressed the boy.

“How many freaking lifters do you count in this gym right now?” The big man was serious; the boy saw he was in trouble and got a serious look on his face. The boy’s lips moved as he surveyed the room.

“Twelve coach, twelve lifters.”

Nacho paused a beat. “And you make thirteen….so, bonehead, do you really expect us coaches to keep track of your PRs – like I just did? Is that what you want!?”

I couldn’t help myself. “I think that is exactly what he’d like.”

This gave Nacho the excuse to do what I knew he wanted to do, tee-off.

“OH! So you think you are so important that I have your top set lifts memorized!!”

I said in a flat voice. “I think that’s what he thinks.”

The kid was just standing there, confused. He starting to get frightened, suddenly wide-eyed.

Del Grande was agitated. “OH! So you think I have your SH#T memorized!!”

“Pretty sure that’s what he has in mind.” I said, throwing more gas on the fire. My goal was to burn a message into his brain, one so deep that would last the rest of his natural life. All the other lifters stopped lifting when Nacho rose out of his seat to his full 6-3, his eyes ablaze.

DAMN IT! Why are we wasting time on Dumbo’s that don’t even know their own PRs?? How can we plot your next move when you don’t know what you’ve done!”

“This guy is not a lifter, he’s a hobbyist.”

Nacho began a series of wild gestations. “EXACTLTY! Well Mr. HOBBIEST – this isn’t BOWLING, this isn’t MIXED FREAKING DOUBLES WITH THE SMITHS AT THE COUNTRY CLUB!  This is our RELIGON!”

This was better than a movie.

“He’s an atheist!” I yelled.

All serious athletes need to know with great exactness their current personal best efforts, in all the differing exercises, using all the differing exercise variations and techniques, in all the different rep ranges. That is a lot of PRs.  You will also have differing PRs depending on bodyweight. You will have differing PRs for single-set PRs versus PRs for multiple-top sets using a static weight. We need benchmarks.

The strategy is to create a multitude of personal best efforts, benchmarks, then systematically seek to exceed them. Only by continually and repeatedly assaulting the barriers of our current limits and capacities are performance and physique improved. There is no sense comparing our current self to a self of yesteryear; factually, the eternal goal is to improve upon our current self.

How can we assault benchmarks if we don’t know what they are?

Have a PR in every lift you do. Have PRs in all the different rep ranges. To further complicate the already complicated, bodyweight needs to be factored in and notated. This amounts to a hell of a lot of benchmark personal records – how do you keep track of it all?

A serious athlete logs workout results.

The athlete logs every exercise type, every set, rep and poundage. The act of logging creates written benchmarks: limits and capacities are identified; once identified, the athlete seeks to exceed them. Log training results and review the log once a week. That takes all of five minutes. Here is a classical progressive resistance training log entry…

Date     4-3-18                                       bodyweight     202

Overhead press off rack                      95x5, 135x5, 165x3, 195x5, 195x5, 195x4

Pull-ups                                                  1x8, 1x8, 1x7, 1x6, 1x6, 1x5

Curls, spider curls, dumbbells           40s x9, 45s x 7, 50s x 7, 50s x 6, 35s x 12

Dips (weighted)                                     1x12 bodyweight, 1x8 w/25, 1x6 w/35, 1x5 w/45, 1x15 bwt.

Session duration: 33 minutes

*Super-setted (alternated) overhead barbell presses with pull-ups, used identical grip width on both bench and pull-ups. Alternated spider curls with dips.

There is a lot of terrific information contained in this 75 numerical/word encapsulation. We know the entire content of the session, every exercise, every technique used, every set, rep and barbell / dumbbell poundage. We know the duration of the session and we know the athlete’s bodyweight and when the session was done.

Athletes that log typically make the log entry as soon as the set is done. While recovering and recuperating and gathering themselves for the next set, the athlete sits and writes it down in the little spiral notebook kept in the gym bag (Old School) or inputs into a cellphone. Either way the data entry is done while the set is fresh in the mind. Those that wait to log until the session is over, or worse, until the arrive home, are sure to misremember.  Cardio training benchmarks are equally easy to log….

Date 4-4-18                 bodyweight     201.5

Mode                           racquetball

Duration                     three sets, 44 minutes

Intensity                      heart rate average for 44 minutes, 141, 81% of age-related heart rate max

Calories oxidized        577 calories burned

This is a goodly amount of information contained in just 29 words of numbers and words. This small log entry tells us the day, bodyweight, the mode (R-ball) the intensity level generated and the number of calories oxidized in the 44-minute session. This degree of cardio data is made possible by wearing a heart rate monitor while performing aerobic exercise. Why would you not want to know how hard your heart is working in relation to the work you are doing? That would be like lifting free weights without knowing the poundage.

Data accumulation is praiseworthy – but only half the battle. The real battle is interpreting the data accumulated and formulating a prescription. What is the response to the data?  Implement a prescription and monitor the results. Within the proscribed timeframe, is the protocol successful or not?  The never-changing goal is to successfully institute a progress-stimulating protocol.

The entire athletic training world revolves around numbers; numbers that can only be assembled if the athlete goes to the trouble to log training results and then review those results. Clues exist within the numbers. Clues that can be used to formulate tactics that jump-start progress where none exists.

The only constant in hardcore athletics is stagnation and inertia. The elite athlete needs a quiver full of proven-effective training modes and methods. By have a wide range of protocols at your fingertips, the stagnation logjam can be overcome. Get to logging. Without logging there can be no planning.

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.