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When we start strength we would be foolish if we didn’t take advantage of the amazing grace period that comes with it – easy and fast strength gains! Assuming you are a novice to heavy-weight compound lifts your body will adapt rapidly to the stress of training as long as you give it the necessary building blocks to recover, and as a consequence you will get stronger rather rapidly. Linear progressions work for many reasons, but primarily because of 3 things: 1) the practice effect – you learn to move better and therefore are more efficient; 2) Muscular recruitment – your body adapts and learns how to recruit and fire more muscle fibers as part of the movement; and 3) Accessory work usually means the weak links have gotten strong enough to support the load the major muscle groups were already capable of lifting. Take for instance the front squat – a stronger core and higher elbows lead to the athlete staying upright in the bottom under heavier load, the legs were not necessarily where the improvement happened.
A novice lifter requires only a basic linear progression in order to get stronger, but people often scoff at linear progressions because they think they are “too basic.” Linear progression (LP) means we add a little more weight every time we lift. Below is an example of a 6 week linear progression for two athletes. Athlete X has a sports background but has never really lifted heavy weight before. On day one this athlete squatted 135 for 5 reps – 6 weeks later by adding 10 pounds every week the same athlete is at 185. Athlete Y has even less athletic experience and is a bit more cautious. Still, by adding 5 pounds every week athlete Y finds themselves having increased their 5 rep max by 30 pounds over a 6 week period. Sounds too easy right? Wrong! Throw on 5 pounds a week for 16 weeks and imagine you just added 80 pounds to your 5 RM back squat in 4 months, then reconsider whether LPs are “too basic.”
The novice effect persists for varying lengths of time depending on how much athletic and strength training experience the individual has. For some this effect can last as long as 6 months before it stalls if the increases are small. 2 pounds a week would yield a very respectable increase of 72 pounds over a 6 month period by following a basic LP. In an ideal training environment where the goal is to train – meaning slow and steady growth – a new lifter should start with a modest weight and use LPs until they exhaust their ability to improve. LPs are best done in the moderate rep ranges (6, 5 or 4 RM with 5 being most common) in order to take advantage of the effects described above. This is contrary to a testing environment which would see an individual attempt and often fail a max effort lift frequently. If we spend our time attempting and failing lifts we are not capitalizing on the basic principles of getting stronger – practice, time under tension, volume, and neuro-muscular adaptation. Serious “Rep max” (especially 1 RM) testing should not be attempted with Novice lifters – it doesn’t serve a purpose.
All novice lifters at CrossFit Ironstone will start strength using 5 Rep linear progressions. Each week we will add a few pounds depending on the lift and repeat. This will continue until all gains from linear progression have been exhausted.
Many affiliates go the next step beyond a basic linear progression by changing the prescribed number of Reps week to week. The idea behind this is that you should spend time under a heavier load (and thus less time under that load) to build the capacity to recruit more muscle fibers simultaneously. Often this gets programmed as a cycle involving reps in the 5, 3, and sometimes 1 rep range followed by a volume or deload week where we back off high percentage work and allow the muscles to adapt and grow stronger by moving lighter weight quickly for more reps.
If you truly want to focus on long term gains the real secret to training is to approach your 5RM, 3RM, and even 1RM weeks exactly like a linear progression – you do not need to max out or hit the point of failure on any given week. When the next cycle starts all we do is take the numbers from last cycle, add a small increment, and then start a new cycle. When you get to the gym warm-up, hit the work-up sets, and hit your target weight. If it is a PR, awesome! Bank it and move on. If it felt easy even better, that means you have more room to progress week after week. Resist the urge to throw more weight on the bar and go again. Save the true rep max testing for when testing is specified, until then focus on getting stronger week after week.
At Ironstone we will be using the 5/3/1 template for our more experienced lifters. We will teach you how to do Wendler’s 5/3/1 properly and arm you with a calculator that tells you exactly what you need to lift that day. In a true 5/3/1 template we make gains by repping out at our target weight for the week, rather than by adding more and more weight until we fail a set. It is a calculated, linear style approach to getting stronger that incorporates by percentage work and a varying Rep template. A Blog post specifically on how to use the program and our calculator will follow.
The Hatch Squat Program, Smolov, Smolov junior, and others like them are simply targeted efforts to improve specific capacities using the principles we have already discussed. They use percentages, different rep prescriptions, higher frequency of squatting and a varying template to load volume over the course of a cycle and increase strength. Do they work? Absolutely! But they are designed for more advanced athletes who need more time under tension to continue to get stronger. The goal is to make substantial gains quickly, and then try and maintain those gains afterwards. Programs such as Hatch Squat are excellent, but often come at a time cost to training other skills, which is why so many athletes will only do a cycle or two of these programs once a year in the off-season before putting their new found strength to work for the remainder of the year. The point of CrossFit for the general population is to be well rounded – so in training for general fitness we will rarely adopt a program designed only to increase one specific capacity. If you take part in one of our dedicated strength programs, you may see one of these.
In our programming the strength for the day will look something like this depending on what level you are at:
Strength Level 1: Back Squat
3 x 5 Reps Ascending Warm-up
3 x 5 Reps @ Target Weight*
*Add 5-10 pounds more than last week. All work sets at the same weight.
This is exposure 1 of 8 in this cycle.
Strength Level 2: Back Squat
5 @ 40%
5 @ 50%
3 @ 60%
5 @ 65%
5 @ 75%
5+ @ 85%*
*AMREPS as possible on last set with good technique.
% based off your Training Max for this Cycle
This is exposure 1 of 8 in this cycle. Next Exposure is a 3RM week.
Both will be programmed on Beyond the Whiteboard in order for you to Log your results easily. Because each week builds off the last it is VERY IMPORTANT that you log your results, write them in a notepad, or save them in your phone.
Situating the estimate: why strength bias? – Crossfit with a Strength Bias
THE linear progression we all learn first – Starting Strength
The Greyskull Linear Progression – you could follow this program no matter what your goals are for a very long, long time.
The Cube Method – A super cool Strength Program that treats exercises, training method and training day like a big rubix cube. Each week you turn something to change the pattern.