Muscular Strength: “the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to exert maximum force”
You’re probably familiar with the Mel Siff ‘Supertraining’ standard definition of muscular strength… and you’ll probably be familiar with some of the more common strength training systems such as Berger or negatives.
Whilst there are a number of different types of muscular strength – relative, absolute, limit and reactive for example it is commonly accepted that for all types, neural factors play an important role.
Contributing factors to improvements in strength include adaptations and desensitization of sensory receptors, rate of tension development, intrinsic skeletal factors and rate coding – this refers to the increase in motor unit firing rate and synchronization.
All of these come from high load training. Whilst a beginner (and possibly even more advanced trainers) may see improvements in strength from low load training through ‘law of diminishing returns’ it is important to life heavy when wanting to increase true strength.
The different training systems discussed in this article all revolve around manipulating heavy weights to increase stress – and therefore adaptation – to the central nervous system.
In reality there are no best rep, load or density schemes to maximize strength, but there are a number of tried and tested training systems that you get you there fast. Here are some of the best advanced training systems to improve muscular strength…
1. Wave Loading
Introduced at a NSCA conference in 1991, and popularized by Charles Poliquin in 2003 when he introduced his 1-6 principle to the Western world, this training system consists of groups of 3 sets where each set gets progressively heavier but performed with less reps – similar to an ascending pyramid. Once complete the lifter starts the wave again but adapts the load so that set 4 is heavier than set 1 (see table for an easier way of understanding it).
The number of sets can be adapted to become a relatively short wave-based session, or multiple sets included to form a much more demanding training session. Here’s what a wave loading session might look like:
2. Ratchet Loading
This system is similar to wave loading in that you still use waves – the difference though is that you focus on manipulating the reps by increasing them from one wave to the next. It is done by completing repeated blocks of two sets.
Set 1 focuses on potentiating your central nervous system by priming it in anticipation of set 2. Set 2 itself is much more demanding and requires your full effort in order to achieve muscular failure.
By aiming to keep your rest periods low – 90-120 seconds, you ensure potentiation and keep productivity high.
Again you can use your discretion on total number of sets and the actual loads used but aim for starting loads in excess of 75%1RM. Here’s what a ratchet loading session might look like:
3. Contrast Loading
This particular training system sees you contrast sets of high load with sets of a lesser load. It increases potentiation and total volume whilst working in the strength phase.
To complete a contrast loading session you would work between 1 rep with an extremely high load (90-95%1RM) and contrast this with around 6 reps working with a lighter load (70-80%1RM).
Although 6 reps is suggested, this is just a guide – the idea of the lighter sets is to rep out to failure. Potentiation and/or fatigue will dictate whether or not you complete less than, or more than this number.
Here’s what a contrast loading session might look like:
4. Cluster Training
Clusters allow the lifter to perform an increased number of reps with a high load due to the use of short inter-set rest periods- simply, you can do more reps with a heavier weight!
Classic clusters have been around since the 1970s through Carl Miller’s weightlifting work, and subsequently popularized with coaches such as Poliquin. Since then there have been a few variations introduced such as Maximum Growth Clusters, but they all work on a similar premise.
A standard approach to cluster training sees you take 85%1RM (5-6RM) and perform 3 mini reps until a total of 12-15 reps have been reached. Between each mini set you would use only 15-20 seconds rest – long enough to put the weights back down and reset. Repeat 2-3 times in total or use coaching discretion based on training phase to decide on total sets and volume.
It is important not to reach momentary muscular failure during each mini set itself, as productivity will invariably diminish due to pre-synaptic inhibition.
You don’t have to use 85% loads – but it does have to be heavy. See the table below for example using different loading strategies. Here’s what a cluster session might look like:
Summary – advanced training systems to improve strength
There are a number of different training protocols aimed at improving strength that use variations on high loads. Trial and error will tell you if any of these methods are more beneficial than others so try them all and see what you think.
All of these training systems increase both neural fatigue and mechanical tension – key variables when planning strength -based training – this allows for the excitation/recruitment, and then fatigue of higher threshold motor units that would otherwise not be involved. The more motor units recruited (and presuming that they themselves are subsequently fatigued), the greater the training effect.
Use your judgement – all of these methods are advanced, require good technique and need a solid foundation of pre-existing strength to fully benefit from them. They won’t suit everyone, but if you are able to fit them in your program you’ll see the benefits very quickly!