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Maximizing Muscle Strength

This is an excerpt from Jim Stoppani's Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength-2nd Edition by Jim Stoppani.

Training to maximize strength tends to be a much simpler pursuit than training to maximize muscle mass. The basic workout samples provided with the training splits discussed in chapter 8 are from tried-and-true training programs that work exceptionally well when the resistance used and reps performed are cycled. However, as the saying goes, everything works, but nothing works forever. And so, when a standard program fails to deliver the strength gains you expect, it's time to try something out of the ordinary.

This chapter covers strength training methods that are effective for maximizing muscle strength. As in chapter 6, the techniques are categorized by the type of acute variable of training that is being manipulated in each workout. Also as in chapter 6, each technique is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 for four critical areas:

  1. Time - the amount of time that the specific workout typically takes to complete. This helps you immediately determine if this training technique will fit your training schedule. The higher the number, the longer the workouts for that specific technique will take to complete.
  2. Length - the amount of time required to follow the program consistently for appreciable results to be noticed. This helps you determine if you have the patience required for a certain program to demonstrate adequate results in strength. The higher the number, the longer this technique must be followed for results to be realized.
  3. Difficulty - the amount of weightlifting experience required to use the program effectively. This helps you decide if you have enough training experience to take on specific strength training techniques. The higher the number, the more training experience you should have before attempting that particular technique.
  4. Results - how effective the program seems to be for strength gains in most people. This helps you estimate how much strength you can expect to gain with each program. The higher the number, the greater the gains in strength you can expect from a particular program.

Each strength training method provides a sample table to show how this particular technique can be used. Some of these tables provide full training programs complete with sample workouts to be followed over several weeks. Others provide only brief details on cycling weight throughout the program. For these you are encouraged to use a basic training program, as shown in chapter 8, but incorporate the weight, rep, set, or rest changes as outlined in the sample program table. Try the advanced strength training programs discussed in chapter 9 by cycling them into your training program along with the basic programs discussed in chapter 8. These advanced programs are great to turn to when your strength gains have reached a plateau. The unorthodox nature of many of these programs will offer a unique stimulus to the muscles, which will encourage strength gains. In the programs, weights are given in pounds; please see appendix for metric conversions.

Programs That Manipulate Sets

When it comes to quantifying the strength training workout, the set is the unit that all lifters understand. It signifies how much work you are actually doing. Therefore, manipulating the work in a workout is a logical way to alter workouts in an effort to boost strength. This section covers three strength training techniques that alter the sets during a workout. The first method incorporates sets that are completed only when the muscle is too exhausted to complete another rep. The second method involves using a set system that is based on time. The third method decreases the number of sets it takes to complete a set number of reps.

Failure Training

As defined in chapter 1, muscle failure is the point during an exercise at which the muscles have fully fatigued and can no longer complete an additional rep of that exercise using strict form. While bodybuilders tend to complete all their sets to failure, powerlifters rarely, if ever, train to muscle failure. In fact, the programs in chapter 8 are not meant to be used with muscle failure. Each set is done for a certain number of reps with a certain amount of weight. When the number of reps prescribed for that set are completed, the set is over. In most cases, you will feel as though you could have completed at least one more rep. This is how most powerlifters train to increase muscle strength. Many believe that training to muscle failure can hinder strength gains. However, research from Australia suggests that training to muscle failure may enhance strength gains. The key appears to be the number of sets performed to failure - and that number appears to be one.

Australian researchers discovered that when trained lifters completed one set to failure of the four sets they trained with on the bench press for eight weeks, they had double the strength gains of lifters who did not complete any of the four sets to failure. And in a follow-up study, they discovered that doing more than one set to failure on the bench press for eight weeks offered no additional increase in strength gains. In fact, when comparing the two studies, the strength gains reported in the study using multiple sets to failure were less impressive than the strength gains reported in the study using just one set to failure. The reason may be that performing only one set to failure allows for enough stimulus to be delivered to the muscle fibers without fatiguing the muscle too much, which can limit muscle strength during the workout when training with too many sets to failure.

Taking advantage of this knowledge is rather simple. Choose any basic strength training program offered in chapter 8 and be sure to perform the last set, and only the last set, of every exercise (except the abdominals) to muscle failure. See table 9.1 for a sample training program that takes the last set of each exercise to failure. One caveat about training to failure is safety. For obvious reasons, it is not a method to be used by those who train alone, except when done with exercises that use machines or where it is easy to return the weight to a safe location - such as the deadlift, dumbbell bench press, Smith machine squat, or barbell curl. Under no circumstances should anyone training alone perform any barbell pressing exercises, barbell squat, leg press, or hack squat to failure or close to failure. These exercises all require the help of an adequate spotter to ensure that the last rep is done accurately and safely.

More Excerpts From Jim Stoppani's Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength 2nd Edition