Strength programming

It’s not what you think officer. It’s, uh, chalk! Yea, chalk and it went up my nose you see…
This is a general run down of strength programming to lift heavy weights, starting from the simplest program and going to more complicated ones.
Linear periodization
This is very simple and if you are a beginner, you should definitely use this scheme because it is the fastest. All you do with linear periodization is keep your sets and reps the same (say 3 sets of 5 reps) and increase the weight each workout. For anyone new to an exercise, you will be able to rapidly increase how much weight you lift. The key is to increase the weight gradually, not to jump up to the heaviest weight possible. In the beginning, you will gain strength largely from your nervous system becoming more efficient and so practice is more important than pure load. Since you increase weight quickly, the load will catch up in no time, so there’s no point in rushing it.
At some point you will be unable to keep adding weight. It is generally recommended that you take a week off, then decrease the weight by 10% and start the process again. You’ll pass your first plateau and eventually get to a second one. You can repeat this process until you reach the same plateau twice. Then you will need to change your programming to keep making improvements.
Double linear periodization
This is an advanced version of linear periodization that gives you more time at a weight before moving up. You will have a goal number of reps and sets to complete, usually 5 sets of 5 reps. Each workout you try to get all of those reps and better than the workout before. So say last workout, you lifted 100 lbs for 5, 5, 4, 3, 3. This workout you would stay with 100 lbs and try to add at least 1 rep, like doing 5, 5, 4, 4, 3. Once you get to 5 sets of 5, you add weight and start back over. This slows down your linear progression to give your body extra time to recover.
An even more advanced way of doing this is called ‘back filling.’ This is when you ‘fill’ a set up with reps to equal the one before it while keeping all of the other sets with the same reps as last workout. An example:
Workout 1 – 9, 7, 5
Workout 2 – 9, 7, 7. The last set was ‘filled’ up to equal the middle one.
Workout 3 – 9, 9, 7. The middle set was ‘filled’ to the first one.
Workout 4 – 9, 9, 9. The last set was ‘filled’ to the middle one.
Once you reach your target, like 3 sets of 10, you can then add weight and start over. The advantage to this scheme is that perfect form is emphasized. Because you are not doing as many reps as possible, but often stopping from doing more reps, you can keep perfect form and not compromise.
Linear + rest day
This is similar to normal linear progression, but you insert a lighter day for recovery. If you were working out 3x/week with linear progression on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, then you could do a lighter day on Wednesday. This would be an active recovery day while you continued to progress on Monday and Friday.
This is similar to linear progression but the reps gradually decrease. You will start with more reps but lighter weight (the base of the pyramid) and gradually decrease the reps but add weight. Some lifters use this as their main programming, but its probably most often used when getting ready for a competition. In powerlifting, you only need to perform 1 rep so, as you get ready for the competition, you should train with lower reps and heavier weight. Using a pyramid program does this very naturally while allowing you to get a lot of volume in the beginning with the higher reps. An example might be:
3 weeks of 10 reps
3 weeks of 8 reps
3 weeks of 5 reps
2 weeks of 3 reps, 1 week of 2 reps
Deload week
**Each week you add weight so plan accordingly
Conjugate periodization
A plan very popular in the powerlifting community is conjugate periodization. This consists of 4 main workouts during the week: 2 for the upper body and 2 for the lower body. There are also additional workouts that can be added which are for general conditioning. The workouts for the upper body and lower body follow essentially the same plan. There is 1 workout for max effort lifts – meaning lifting as heavy as you can or close to it with low reps (1-3 reps). The other workout is dynamic effort – lifting with as much speed as possible with the intent to improve the body’s ability to develop force quickly. This is done with relatively lighter weight but often the addition of bands and chains to help teach the body to accelerate (because bands and chains add weight at the top of the lift so you’re forced to accelerate to lock the weight out). On both the max effort day and the dynamic effort day, accessory lifts that help add volume and address relative weak points are used and the workout is finished with the repetition method. This is similar to traditional bodybuilding where you use lighter weight and go for volume to build muscle.
Explaining conjugate periodization is too complicated to cover briefly here, but there are some very good resources online and on YouTube. It is a very intense method and is probably best done in a group. The reason is that on the max effort days (when you go for a new record), you will almost always do better when competing with, and being fueled by, other lifters. I believe that a large component of this periodization’s success comes from the atmosphere of the gyms which allows lifters to truly get the most out of the max effort day. Its possible to be intense when working out by yourself, but it is much harder to reach that consistent level of motivation.
Wavy periodization
Finally, my favorite periodization – wavy periodization. It’s called that because the number of sets, reps, and the weight lifted all vary from workout to workout. The scheme I use is one I made based on Prilepin’s research. Prilepin was the coach of the USSR’s Olympic weightlifting team. He compiled a lot of data on his lifters which has been boiled down to “Prilepin’s chart” which can be found via a simple Google search. While the charts always show the number of sets and reps that should be used at a certain intensity of your 1 rep max (1RM), they rarely show how often you should train at that intensity.
If you’re writing your own program, though, that is very important so you can plan it out correctly. I’ll include the relative time you should spend training at the intensity range below.
55-70% for 18-30 total reps, 10% of your training cycle.
70-80% for 12-24 total reps, 60% of your training cycle.
80-90% for 10-20 total reps, 25% of your training cycle.
90+% for up to 10 total reps, 5% of your training cycle.
As you can see, most of the time is actually spent in the 70-90% intensity range, with testing maximal strength (90+%) basically only once per cycle. To determine the sets and reps you’ll use, I pretty much go with half of that intensity’s rep max. So if you can lift 75% of your 1RM for 10 reps, then you’ll do sets of 5 reps. At 75% you should do 12-24 total reps, so this would translate into 3-5 sets of 5 reps. I generally recommend you always start with lower volume rather than higher volume. If you get a good training effect from lower volume, you should do that until you no longer make improvement. Then you can increase your volume.
Now the other recommendation with this periodization is that you change the main movement you’re training with every 3 weeks to avoid nervous system fatigue. To make a program with this information, then you just have to decide if you want to train 2/week or 3/week. If you train 2/week, then you will have 6 total workouts which means 1 session at each intensity range except 70-80% which has 3 sessions. If you train 3/week, you’ll have 9 workouts which will be 1 at 55-70%, 5 at 70-80%, 2 at 80-90%, and 1 at 90+%.
A final component of writing the program is adding the wavy nature. I like to make it as different week to week as I can, so that almost every workout you do a different number of reps, sets, and weight.
For a 2/week cycle over 3 weeks:
  1. 3×6 (3 sets of 6 reps) @ 70%
  2. 5×3 @ 85%
  3. 4×6 @ 65%
  4. 4×4 @ 80%
  5. 3×5 @ 75%
  6. Test 1RM: 1-3 PR attempts
For a 3/week cycle of 3 weeks:
  1. 3×6 @ 70%
  2. 5×3 @ 77.5%
  3. 4×4 @ 80%
  4. 3×5 @ 75%
  5. 5×3 @ 85%
  6. 4×5 @ 75%
  7. 3×6 @ 60% (deload before PR)
  8. Test 1RM: 1-3 PR attempts
  9. 3x4x72.5% (lighter workout after 1RM test)

The United Strengths