By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
You can’t get stronger all the time and this is a simple truth that we must recognize. Training allows us to approach the physiologic limits of our current neuromuscular (mind-muscle) development, muscle size, and our body weight’s genetic ceiling for absolute strength gain. This is different in each individual and while it’s a hard pill to swallow, sometimes the training must radically change progress to occur. What follows is one technique to maintain or increase absolute strength while focusing on other aspects of physical development such as conditioning, hypertrophy, etc.
Before we delve into this topic we need to address just why strength can’t be increased forever and ever until the cows come home. More specifically, what precludes the acquisition of strength for an individual? Most notably, the factors contributing to this plateauing of strength gain are injury, non-compliance, muscle size, body mass, and genetic factors.
Injuries happen, period. They are an unfortunate consequence of pushing the envelope of physical development, over reaching, or just plain old bad luck. Conversely, injuries from weight training are amongst the lowest in all physically demanding activities. When lifter’s approach continually work at circa maximal strength levels something will inevitably will get nicked or injured. By definition, things that are in this circa maximal category represent a significant challenge to be lifted successfully. An example would be a 400lb squatter working with 350lbs or more regularly. 350 pounds represents 87.5% of this lifter’s best effort so it could be logically interpreted that it’s much harder to maintain picture perfect form and technique under these circa maximal loads. While sets of 225lbs allow this lifter to illustrate text book squats, they also no do elicit the same adaptations in the lifter as the heavier squat. Training at higher percentages of a lifter’s best efforts will influence their absolute strength, force, and power production the most, however these types of techniques can only be used for punctuated periods of time when the potential for injury, stagnation, and overreaching are taken into consideration. Thus, we must explore other options for physical development that do not require the handling of circa maximal loads (relative to absolute ability) but that still exert enough stress on the lifter to cause positive adaptations. I introduce to you, Cruising Strength.
Most lifters perform the hardest exercise first when they are fresh and can produce the most amount of force. The Cruising Strength program takes this archetypical program and flips it on its ear by placing the hardest exercises last in the order. Take for instance, a sample squat workout.
Typical Squat Workout
Back Squats x 5 x 5
Romanian Deadlifts x 10 x 5
Walking Lunges x 10 (each side) x 3
Glute-Ham Raises x 15 x 3
This type of squat workout will continue to produce gains in strength and size for a long period of time, but like other things in life, it won’t work forever. Cruising Strength involves switching the exercise order to fatigue the primary movers in the big exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, etc. Think of this as an extended pre-exhaustion technique. The benefits of this style of program is a focus on bringing up lagging muscle groups that are causing weak points in a lift by being able to handle more weight and volume in these movements since the lifter is now fresh for these “accessory” movements. Additionally, by moving the bigger exercises towards the end of a workout less weight can be handled on them initially, thus there is a smaller risk for injury from handling too much weight. Conditioning is also improved by forcing the lifter to do a squat, deadlift, or press under fatigue. As the lifter progresses in the Cruising Strength program, he or she will become adapted at generating high levels of force even when fatigued. Another benefit of this style of training is that fatigue can result in an increased awareness of a particular muscle group’s function in a movement. In case you’ve never been conscious of your hamstrings’ function in a squat, try doing a relatively heavy set of 5 after lunges and RDLs, you’ll see what I mean.
In general, this programming option is good for bridging strength cycles together with an eye towards shoring up weak muscles, recovering from overreaching, and conditioning. Here is what a 3-day split on using this style of programming might look like:
Walking Lunges (weighted) x 10 reps (each leg) x 5 sets
Lying Leg Curl x 15-20 reps x 3 sets
Romanian Deadlifts x 10-12 reps x 4 sets
Back Squat x 5 reps x 3 sets*, 15 rep back off set
A Glute Ham Raises x 15 x 3
B Deadlift x 5 reps x 1 set, x 15 reps x 1 set
*When moving the squat towards the end of the workout, work up to a set of 5 where the speed of the bar starts to slow down. This will be your first work set of 5 and the point from which you’ll start your progression by adding 5-10lbs to this lift each week. Do the same for the deadlift, press, and bench press. Alternate A/B each training day.
Dips x 8-12 x 5 sets (weighted after warm up sets)
Chin Ups x 10 reps x 5 sets
1-arm DB row x max reps x 3 sets
A Lateral Flyes x failure x 2 sets *
B DB Flyes x failure x 2 sets *
A Press x 5 reps x 3 sets, 12 reps x 1 set *
B Bench Press x 5 reps x 3 sets, 12 reps x 1 set*
*Alternate A/B each session
Days 3/4: Rest or Conditioning Days
Day 5: Repeat Day 1
Day 6: Repeat Day 2 with B template
Days 7/8: Rest or Conditioning Days
Day 9: Repeat Day 1
Day 10: Repeat Day 2 with A template
This has a person training 18 times in a month, which is a slight increase in frequency from the standard 4x a week/16x a month training setup. Progression in this program includes both adding weight and adding reps, either is fine as long as it’s more on some level. This program could be ran for 3-6 weeks after a big strength cycle or even longer if someone was hypertrophy/conditioning inclined. A person might find that they can only handle 70% of their previous working sets for 5 reps on the squat, press, and deadlift initially. After a few weeks however, they should be getting close to their previous weights that they handled when they were fresh, only this time they’re fatigued. When they transition back to more traditional programming they will find that their increased conditioning will help their quest for strength by allowing them to recover more quickly and train harder. In addition, the higher volume nature of this program supports hypertrophic muscle gains, which help by improving the leverages of muscles. Perhaps the best thing about this program is that the big lifts are still included, so the lifter gets to continue to practice them even in a fatigued state. Many hypertrophy or conditioning specific programs omit things like the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press and this does not serve the lifter well because when they return to these movements the motor pattern they previously had will not be as robust as it would if they were still practicing the movements.
At any rate, I hope this helped and gave you some options on how to tweak your programming for awhile if you’ve been on the quest for strength for a long time. Some dedicated hypertrophy, conditioning, and weak muscle work can only benefit a lifter in the long run and besides, it’s only 3-6 weeks anyway, a microcosm in the shelf life of a lifter. Thanks for reading.