Should you always lift heavy to maximize your strength gains?

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If you are reading this, perhaps you are a powerlifter, an Olympic lifter, a bodybuilder, or a competitive athlete from another sport requiring maximal strength, or perhaps you are simply a recreational weightlifter intending to maximize its strength.

It is a well-known fact that your body will adapt specifically to the stress you provide it. Therefore, one can expect that training heavy will lead to an increase in strength – and this is true. However, if your primary goal is to maximize your strength, you may ask yourself if you should always lift, or even as you heavy as you can. The below article will provide you with the fundamental notions needed to answer this question, as well as with some guidelines.

How do we get stronger?

There are 7 mechanisms directly impacting strength:

  1. An increase in contractile units – It is a proven fact that hypertrophy via addition of contractile units in parallel leads to an increased strength. This phenomenon is called muscle proteins anabolism, or myofibrillar hypertrophy
  2. An increase in the number of fibers in a muscle – It is speculated that muscles can also grow via the addition of cells, a process called hyperplasia. This phenomenon is however believed to minimally contribute to overall gains in size and strength
  3. Improved coordination or increased number of muscles recruited during a lift – This phenomenon is responsible for the major strength gains when beginning training. However, its importance in strength gains decreases as motor schemes become closer to perfection
  4. Increased ability to simultaneously recruit a higher number of muscle fibers – Increased muscle fibers firing rate – When attempting to lift a heavy load, individuals increase the strength of the brain to nerve signal. As the intensity of this signal increases, the pace of contraction (called firing rate) of the recruited muscles increases until it is maximal (achieving tetanic contraction). If brain intensity signal keeps increasing, then other nerves and associated muscle fibers (called motoneurons) will be recruited. In untrained athletes, the maximum number of muscle fibers recruited in a maximal voluntary effort can be far less than 100. However, as athletes become trained, their ability to recruit a greater number of fibers is increased. This phenomenon is also responsible for the major strength gains when beginning training. However, its importance in strength gains also decreases as motor schemes become closer to perfection
  5. Improved ability to explode – To move a still object, you not only need to counter is weight, but also beat its inertia. To do so, you need to generate the highest peak in force by exploding or generating a brain signal that will recruit at once, the greatest number of muscle fibers. This is exactly how Olympic lifters can move tremendous amounts of weights. If you instead only slowly recruit these fibers, your lifts will be much longer, and require a much higher amount of total energy.
  6. Ability to relax antagonist muscles – Beginners are known to contract several unnecessary and even some opposing (antagonist) muscles when attempting to lift heavy. In the early stages of training, improvement of ability to relax opposing muscles may have a significant impact on strength gains. However, strength gains associated to this phenomenon becomes negligible after several years of training.
  7. Flexibility of antagonist muscles –  Muscles are like elastics. When stretching, they can provide a non-negligible resistance to the desired muscles. However, most lifting movements are in normal ranges of motion. So, this resistance may not be important in the majority of the lifts for most athletes. Nonetheless, very large lifters may need to regularly stretch muscles as well as frequently perform full amplitude movements to ensure sufficient flexibility of antagonists to avoid loss of force during lifts. It is noteworthy to know that individuals retaining high levels of water may have a lower flexibility, since inner water stretches the cells, thus reducing its capacity to further extend.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors determining strength, and we only covered here the main physiological aspects, and have not covered the psychological aspect, which is also a strong determinant of performance.

Now that you know the main determinant of strength, the question remains – What should you do to maximize these, and therefore your strength?

  1. One of the biggest challenge of coaches and athletes is to determine:
  2. Which physical qualities to train
  3. How to train those qualities
  4. To what extend (both in terms of amplitude/intensity and volume)
  5. At which frequency
  6. And in which order

Some important principles to keep in mind are:

  1. Body adaptations are specific to the stress – as an example, if you deprive a muscle of oxygen (a phenomenon called hypoxia), it both will trigger a number of physiological changes (ex: dilation of blood vessels, increase in heart beat power and frequency, and increase breathing amplitude and frequency) to immediately restore oxygen levels, as well as structural and biochemical adaptations (ex: strengthening of heart and blood vessels muscles, angiogenesis / growth of new blood vessels, increase in red blood cells count, increase in hemoglobin, increase in mitochondria efficiency, and increased production of bicarbonate ions / blood pH buffer) to better tolerate and respond to future stresses.
  2. Within the limits of the individual’s capacity, adaptations are generally proportional to stress amplitude and volume.
  3. Adaptations and their consequences cannot be considered as single and independent events.
    1. A single trigger can lead to multiple stresses. For example, performing a single set of a resistance training exercise, using a relatively heavy load to exertion, can not only lead to structures tension stress, but also cellular damage and even metabolic stresses, such as oxygen depletion and tissues acidification due to accumulation of lactic acid.
    2. Each of those stresses can stimulate the body to orchestrate multiple synergistic adaptations to counter all effects of such a stress.
    3. Some adaptations have an incidence on other physiological processes and physical qualities – As an example, adaptations leading to an increased oxygen transport may lead to an increased energy (ATP) production capacity, especially if the previous was a rate limiting factor of the process of the later.
    4. Furthermore, the impact of a single adaptation can have a multiple level cascade effect on other processes and qualities – As an example, an increase in blood flow can lead to an increase in oxygen transport capacity, which can lead to an increase in energy production capacity, which can increase the recovery rate and capacity, which can lead to an increase in hypertrophy following resistance training, and even to a subsequent increase in energy requirements and upregulation of various other metabolic pathways. This sequential effect can be used to maximize gains from application of a given stress by previously providing a first stress improving the adaptation capacity to the second. As a well-known example, professional team sports as well as most armies impose to their athletes or troops a 2-3 weeks high intensity cardiovascular and endurance-oriented training camp before beginning specific training. The reason is that adaptations following a high intensity cardio and endurance training will increase the individual’s capacity to sustain high training intensities and/or volumes, as well as improve their recovery rate and capacity, shortening their needed recovery time and increasing their gains following later specific trainings.  For this reason, even if adaptations are specific to the stress, training of a pre-requisite or gain rate limiting quality (such as endurance) is sometimes preferable to training the desired quality (such as strength). In other words, integrating endurance training at the beginning or during the training calendar can sometimes, in the end, lead to greater strength gains than only training for strength.
  4. Specific and global stress loads must be prioritized as well as balanced with recovery capacity, together with available time and energy.
  • All recovery and adaptations processes during and following training require systemic efforts and substantial cellular energy.
  • Those requirements are additive.
  • Chronic high training
  1. Anabolic response (leading to increased contractile proteins synthesis, and therefore strength) diminishes when high intensity training become chronic

Conclusion

  • Individual’s condition level (training load capacity as well as recovery and adaptation rate and capacity) and other training loads must be taken in consideration when determining intensity, volume and frequency of heavy trainings
  • Training types other than heavy lifts, may also directly or indirectly help gain strength
  • Training programs should be dynamic and meet the momentary needs with respect to the end goal.
    • o Periodically reducing training loads (otherwise called deconditioning) may help renew body response to subsequent heavy training loads.
    • o Training intensity should be cycled to progress until unloading is needed.
    • o Overall training plan should evolve by transitioning from training of pre-required qualities to focusing on physical quality associated with primary goal – This means that a strength athlete should incorporate much cardiovascular and endurance training at the beginning of the season, and progressively increase volume and intensity of resistance training, while reducing volume (number of sets) and frequency of endurance training as he approaches his strength competition date.

Programming and Planning

The science (and art) of composing training sessions is called Programming, while the science of designing a training (and nutritional) calendar is called Planning and requires the ability to orchestrate all training types, and the mastery of Periodization (which involves cycling and transitioning training phases).

What should you do?

If you find all this science complicated, don’t worry.  I will make it simple for you. Just follow the guidelines, and if you want a turnkey recipe to jump start your strength gains, just follow the “ready to eat” training programs below.

Guidelines

  • Start by a 2-3 weeks conditioning plan, ideally 7 days per week, integrating both heavy lifts and endurance lifts, and incorporate lactic anaerobic cardiovascular training in between exercises:
    • Focus only large muscles groups, and compound movements
    • Begin with whole body movements, followed by lower body movements, and finish with upper body large muscle groups
    • Begin each muscle groups with heavy lifts, and continue with endurance lifts
      • Heavy lifts should represent 20-30% of total number of sets, and pyramid the weight from 8MR to 2MR (MR means that Maximum Repetition at an effort of 100%)
      • Endurance lifts should consist of extremely high repetitions (30-50 repetitions) exercises
    • Lactic anaerobic cardiovascular training is intended to build VO2 Max as well as lactic acid tolerance and clearance capacity and should consist of high intensity cardiovascular or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) training before or between exercises to metabolically stress your body and force it to generate power despite the exhaustion.
  • When your training capacity and recovery rate enable you to perform sufficient training volume at high intensity as well as recover in time for the next workout, then you can switch to a strength training plan.
  • Strength training plans can either designed to maximize strength while minimizing hypertrophy (mass), or to maximize strength by also increasing muscle mass.
  • Strength only training plans should only consist of progressively heavier lifts, while strength and hypertrophy training plans should include heavy lifts sessions alternated with endurance lifts days.
  • Training intensity and lifted weights should be increased every couple of training sessions, until a plateau is obtained, then decreased to decondition the muscles.
  • When training intensity is increased, training volume should be decreased. As the late Mike Mentzer said it so well, “You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both”. Therefore, heavy days should be shorter, while lighter days can be longer.
  • Total training volume and duration of conditioning plan depend on initial and desired condition level.

Examples of training plans

Conditioning plan – Alternate both training days, 14-21 consecutive days

Day Exercise Beginner Advanced athlete
Sets Repetitions Sets Repetition
1 Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Full body heavy lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Leg heavy lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Leg Endurance lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Leg heavy lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Leg Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Leg Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Leg Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
2 Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Full body heavy lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Upper body heavy lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Upper body Endurance lift 4 10RM 6 6RM
Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Upper body heavy lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Upper body Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Cardio high intensity 1 5 min 1 5 min
Upper body Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM
Upper body Endurance lift 4 20RM 6 40RM

Strength only training plan

Exercise Athlete level Frequency Week 1-2 Week 3-4 Week 5-6
Heavy lifts Beginner 2 x / week 5 x 12RM 4 x 10RM 3 x 8RM
Advanced 3 x / week 10 x 8RM 8 x 6RM 4 x 4RM

 

Strength & Hypertrophy training plan

Day Exercise Athlete level Frequency Week 1-2 Week 3-4 Week 5-6
1 Heavy lifts Beginner 1 x / week 5 x 12RM 4 x 10RM 3 x 8RM
Advanced 2 x / week 10 x 8RM 8 x 6RM 4 x 4RM
2 Endurance lifts Beginner 1 x / week 8 x 15RM 6 x 20RM 4 x 25RM
Advanced 1 x / week 16 x 30RM 12 x 30RM 10 x 40RM

 

In conclusion, we can see that lifting only heavy may be acceptable for athletes only wanting to gain strength, however, even for those, weights should periodically be reduced to avoid building tolerance.

Pierre Vinet, BSc. Biochemistry, Master Studies Biomechanics

Health & Fitness Professional

About the Author

Pierre Vinet is a Master Trainer who graduated in Biochemistry at Quebec University, and continued post graduate studies in Biomechanics. His fields of expertise include biomechanics, nutrition, exercise physiology, strength training, muscular hypertrophy, fat loss and longevity. to Over the last 40 years, he has trained thousands of individuals, including Professional athletes, as well as personally won the State Championships and was finalist at the National Championships at several occasions in both Bodybuilding and Olympic Taekwondo. For more information, you may visit www.pierrevinet.com, or reach him at pierre.vinet@pierrevinet.com.

 

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