Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Base Building Part 2

In part 1 of base building I addressed the issues of fatigue and supercompensation.  Basically, managing your degree of stress and recovery is what allows you to have supercompensation (get stronger), and that's really what "progress" is.

If your training is so hard, and ran at such high percentages that you rarely allow supercompensation to take place, then basically you're literally working hard for nothing.

I made a point to mention guys I know, that train super heavy all the time and will tell you "that's how you get strong".  And it is....in doses.  This is the reason why in my peaking cycles you do end up in the 90%+ range for a few weeks.  The weeks preceding that however, are all in the 60's, 70's, and 80's.

To borrow again from the interview with Mikhail and also a quote from Andy Bolton.....

Bolton -

The biggest reason why most dedicated guys FAIL to get STRONGER (or don't get strong as quickly as they'd like) is because they train too hard.

We've all seen these guys...

They want to max out every single week.

And this might work for a few weeks, but then the ACHES and PAINS set in, their strength starts going backwards and they sometimes end up INJURED.

When I was younger I made this mistake and I paid the price.

Maybe you have too.

Just know that very few athletes can get away with maxing out on the same exercises week in, week out.

I certainly can't.

I tried to play that game and eventually realized it didn't work for me. So I found a better way - a way that allowed me to not train as hard and still get STRONGER.  

From Mikhail - 

 "The best method to change your plan is (and it works 100% of the time) – to cut intensity (as in weights on the bar) to around 60-70% and work on volume – reps and sets.

Forget about PRs, forget about shit like “I deadlifted 300kg today, and i am going to deadlift 350kg in half a year following this plan”, forget it.

Just cut your weights, stop going for 1RM once or twice a month. If you have a plateau, then you can say that you’re in the pit.

It takes a lot time to escape from there, and actually I am in the same place right now. Before the Worlds championships 2012 I was in the best shape, but then at some moment I forgot the need to stop and as a result I didn’t even get to a final during World championships.

So, to escape a pit of plateau you gonna do volume. Relatively little weights, and more reps. That’s it."

So here you've got two of the greatest powerlifters in the world, both telling you that everytime they decided to get too heavy in their training, they went backwards, stalled, or got injured.  This is something I have found happening in my own training more and more over the past many years.  That every time I got overzealous in my poundage/programming/intensity, I got a quick run up, hit a wall, and then regressed.

After that I would often have to train for months just to get back to where I was BEFORE the regression.    

What most fail to understand is, this is your body finding equilibrium in that whole fatigue/recovery/supercompensation paradigm.  If you find yourself regressing (this is really just being in a state of fatigue) and you continue to train hard to work your way out of that hole, you're really just digging a deeper hole into recovery.

I've heard some guys say "well I trained back out of it."  Sure I get that.  That's normal.  The body will eventually regulate and recover, but you'll flat line back out to where your BASE was before.  Not above it.  So the lifter that is all happy because he's "squatting X amount, again" really made NO PROGRESS.  He's happy that he's simply back to where he was before training went to shit.  Does this make ANY sense?  You trained so hard that you failed to allow recovery, then you kept training through that, just to get back to where you were BEFORE you got stupid.

Makes me want to slap my forehead and say "I coulda had a V8!"

So as I wrote, you trained hard....for nothing.  Maintaining your base level of strength is very easy and only requires you only get in the gym and do SOME work.  Maintenance is easy, but often times guys find that just working for maintenance, actually gets them stronger.  This is very, very common.      

So why do other somewhat strong guys tell you that I'm wrong, and that you gotta train fucking super heavy and do singles and all that shit?  

It's really simple.  It works. 

That's right, it works.  There's no denying it.  It does work....with a caveat.  It only works for so long, and there comes a point of diminishing returns.  

So the cycle works like this.  

  • Dude starts lifting
  • Trains heavy, makes progress fast (as a noob)
  • Because progress is made, feels training heavy all the time is THE WAY to go
  • Gets to a certain level of strength and can say "I lift X amount of weight, so I have to be right."
  • Dude is awfully enamored with his strength but fails to mention he hasn't hit any new PR's in years
  • I know dozens of strong guys that fall into this category  
  • This is the "failing to evolve" syndrome in these kinds of guys training life cycle
So a lot of strong guys do get stronger pushing the boundaries of training hard, and the intensities.  However as the REALLY elite guys will tell you, this will only work for so long.  When you aren't smart enough to learn how to back off, and massage your training rather than trying to drive gains with a sledge hammer, you will make little progress, and often go backwards.  

"Gaahhhhddd!!!  I pulled 725 for a double last week like it was nothing!  Fucking 700 was stapled to the floor this week!!!  What the fuck am I doing wrong?!?!"

I wish I had a dollar for everytime I heard something similar to this.

If you are a novice trainer, I do recommend training far heavier because you're simply not going to be moving enough weight to send that fatigue curve too sharply down.  Your recovery time back into supercompensation is going to be very fast.  This is why noobs can do most anything, and get stronger.  So train heavier, and harder, and go balls out.  I also recommend novice guys train as long as they can without planned layoffs at all.  Again, you're just not stressing your system enough to worry that much about recovery.  

This isn't to say that new guys can't benefit from this method of thinking, I just think they are better served learning how to train as hard and heavy as possible for as long as possible.  You're not going to be able to do this forever so take advantage of it while you can.  

Endurance training - 

Strength athletes could learn quite a bit from endurance based athletes about programming.  Before someone chimes in with "different energy systems" and slow twitch this and fast twitch that, spare me.  We're still talking about performance and the human body, and I've already quoted two of the strongest guys ever that also back up this evidence.  So let's just get that out of the way right now.  

If you spend some time researching say, a Marathon athletes training schedule you will rarely see them actually running the full 26.2 miles.  Maybe a 20 mile run here and there.  The entire preparation for the race is spent, you know, PREPARING to run the 26.2 miles.

So I looked through some marathon training peaking cycles and here's one I found, just for example.......

Not one time does this have the athlete actually performing at the level of the competition he/she is preparing for.  The longest run is 22 miles.  You know what percentage of 26.2 miles that is?  About 85%.  It's amazing how those same ranges keep popping up in regards to elite athletic performance.  Of course, someone will bitch that "that's marathon running!" but I don't care.  If we're talking about peak level strength, that requires priming the body, and peaking.  You can't run around at your +10% strength level 24/7.  I don't care what ANYONE tells you.  It's bunk.  Nor would the average marathon athletes body stand up to doing 26.2 miles every week, unless they were some freak of nature.  And as we've been over before, never use exceptions to create rules.

So we see here, the endurance guy doesn't actually try to perform his/her "event" during training.  So why do strength athletes?

This is what strength athletes often do in their training thoughts......."I need to be able to deadlift 500 in competition....therefore I need to deadlift 500 in training,"

This does not make sense to me.  It also doesn't seem to make sense to the majority of the very elite lifters I know, because they rarely, if ever, do this.  Ed Coan said he never maxed out in the gym once.  EVER!  Think about that.  The greatest powerlifter of all time, had no idea what his best "gym maxes" were because well, he never maxed in the gym.  This is pretty much an alien concept to most guys now because they have a need to know what they can do in the gym.  I can't ever get a response that makes sense to me why this is, but to each his own I suppose.  I always thought you should save your best ones for the meet.  If you're not doing a meet, I don't see a reason to max out in the gym.  Improve your 3,5,8 rep PR's.  You got stronger.  Continue on then.

To me, training is supposed to be something you do in order to set you up for the big dance.  Your training should be something you do to make you stronger, NOT something you use to demonstrate strength.  That's what competition is for.  I've written this a million times, I've heard guy after guy after guy say "I hit that easy in training, I don't know why I missed it at the meet."

If you are training to hit bigger numbers, you should NOT be missing lifts in training.  I mean, I have to laugh....you're STRENGTH TRAINING.  Not GYM MAXING.  You're training in the gym should be spent getting you stronger.  This does not require you to train at 90+%.

"But Paul, you said training heavy was still important!"

It is.  So let's talk about using calibration in the heavy sessions.

Calibration of heavy training - 

Calibration can be used in both intensity (% of 1RM) and volume.  It all depends on how you are feeling on that particular day.

So if it's a heavy deadlift day, and I plan on doing block pulls, I know I'm going to work up to top set of 3-5.

The key word here, that causes confusion, is "top".  Top or even sometimes "max" doesn't really mean "limit".  It just means, in this instance, "max" or "top" for that day.

"This is as heavy as I'm going to go today.  This is the MAXimum amount I will use for a triple today."

One of the things I like to think about when I do that, is that I like to leave enough room to beat that set of 3-5 the next week, and that top set the week after that.

So think about that.

Week one, right out of the gate, the heavier and harder you take that "top set", the harder it's going to be to beat in two weeks when you come back to it.  Guess what happens eventually?  That's right, you stall for longer, and have to reset where you are.

The other part of this calibration is that if you're having a bad training sessions, you can get that snappy 3-5 top set in, do your work and get out.

So you can/should roughly have an idea of a goal for your heaviest movements as to what you'd like to hit.  For deads, I work these a little differently than my squat and bench.  The dead doesn't seem to enjoy being trained heavy that often, and using light/moderate poundages from the floor with a heavy block or rack pull on alternating weeks, seems to work well for me, and most.

Like so......

Week 1 -
4" block pulls or pulls from below the knee - to a top set of 3-5
Elevated Stiff Legs or Romanians - 2x5 @ 70% of what you pulled from the blocks/rack
Shrugs - to an all out top set of 8

So as you can see, the calibration takes into account that you could have either a good session, or shit one.  Thus, the stiff legs are dictated by what you hit on the top set of block/rack pulls.

It's up to you to calibrate how heavy you are going to take that "top" set.  Again, my advice here, is to hit something crisp the first week, so that you can come back to beat this week after week until you stall for a few weeks.  You could even start at 5's, until you stall at 5's, then go to weeks of 3's until you stall there, then back off, and repeat.  If you decide to just outline some simple goals, even better.

On the light days, I am simply starting with 50% for 5 sets of 3.  That's 50% of the meet goal at this point (725) for 50%.  If I am overshooting that then I will know later because this will eventually ramp up into the high 70% range.  But not higher.  Remember, you're still pulling heavy every other week from the blocks or rack.

For squat and bench "heavy" days, it's more defined.  Now because front squats are my priority right now, I'm simply programming using 70% and 80% of my EDM (everyday max), which I programmed in as 405, which is stupid easy and something I could easily do for a set of 5 at the moment.  So think about how light my "work" sets are.

To just keep it simple, on the heavy front squat days I do 3 sets of 3-5 at 80% (325) then just add 90 pounds (415) onto that and do 3-5 sets of 5 with regular squats.  Pretty simple.

In contrast, on the light days I use 70% (285 but I just slap on 275) and slap on a mere 50 for squats.  Remember, it's a LIGHT day.  It should be a session where you got the work in, but by no means was it taxing.  You should feel better after the workout than you did before it.

For bench, it's 85% of my EDM (I figured in 425) so 365.  Bench I think, responds a little better to higher programming than squats and pulls as far as reps go.   On the "heavy" days it's 3 sets of 3 all paused.  If I am feeling good, I will go ahead and do another set or two of triples.

On the light days, it's 75%, so 315 for 3 sets of 8, and if I am feeling good and blast all these reps I add in 3 sets of 5 after that, and maybe even 3 sets of 3 after that.  ALL reps paused.  This will build tremendous bottom position strength.

I actually alternate my heavy and light bench sessions.  So you end up only benching "heavy" once a month.  Because every other week I do inclines via the 350 method, and then the next week I do a "light" bench day.  The next week is incline, then the "heavy" bench session.

That's really the very basic outline of the light and heavy days.

So to lay it out for you based on what I wrote in part 1 including intensities -

Week 1 -
Day 1 - Heavy Pulls
Block or Rack Pulls (mid shin and below the knee) - to top set of 3-5
Elevated Stiff Legs - 2x5 @ 70% of block/rack pull
Shrugs - top set of 8 all out

Day 2 - Light Squats
Leg Ext - 8x20
Fronts - 5x5 @ 70%
Squats - 3-5x5 @ +50 of fronts

Day 3 - Light Press
Incline Press - 350 method @ 225
Light shoulder and bicep work

Week 2 -
Day 1 - Light Pulls
Deadlifts - 5-8 x 3 @ 60%
Rows - 350 method
Shrugs - 3x20

Day 2 - Heavy Squats
Leg Ext - 8x20
Fronts - 3-5x3-5 @ 80%
Squats - 5x5 @ +90 of fronts

Day 3 - Heavy/Light Bench (these get alternated)
Bench - 3x8, 3x5, 3x3 @ 75% or 3-5x3 @ 85%
Reverse Grip Bench - 3x20

Some pointers

  • For the love of GOD please do not ask "when should I add weight?"  Milk the fuck out of the poundages you settle in with on the bar.  Sam Byrd said before he starts adding weight for a meet cycle he stays with 5x5 @ 425 (60%) until he can blast every rep as powerfully as possible.  So in other words, just because you get your 3 sets of 8 (you may not at first) doesn't mean you need to add weight on the bench!  I haven't moved up on front squats in like 2 months.  I don't need to.  I'm still milking 275 at this point.  
  • You can constantly be working on moving weights with greater and greater force, until it's just silly ridiculous.  And then, do it for 2 more weeks.  This is not a quick run up or peaking cycle.  This is BASE BUILDING.  You don't need to add weight every session in order to increase that.  Get stronger by learning how to apply more and more force to the weight you already have on the bar.  And 60-85% is PLLEEENNNTTTYYYY!!!!  
  • In part 3 I'm actually going to lay out how I will implement carb backloading into this training paradigm so that you can train hard as fuck, be strong, and keep fat accumulation to a minimum.  This part is going to look pretty cool actually.  


  1. Paul, absolutely love it. Keep it coming brother

  2. Great articles. I should leave my ego at the door, and focus on making the reps as explosive as possible. What you've been talking about all along...

  3. Awesome that tied a few ends together, quick question about if you were to add the optional pressing in. The light low volume days are fairly self explanatory but how would you program in heavy/high for it?

    Hate to ask about assistance since I know its a pain but what do you think of choosing an area each day that needs hypertrophy and doing a 350 set with it then a 100 rep set as prehab while using this loading? Thanks I appreciate all you write.

    1. If you want to do another pressing day have a heavy/high volume overhead day one week, then a light/low volume day the next week. Preferably on the weeks that run counter to what you're doing on the second pressing day.

      What you see above includes "assistance". Stop worrying so much about assistance work.

    2. Thanks Paul, just finished reading The Cube by Brandon Lilly and it seems people are starting to stand up and take in what you have been preaching for years, I can't help but see the crossovers between your writing and programming used here. Its good to see.

  4. Speaking of assistance work. Running the 350 on front squats with the 365, fuck you very much! I think I'd rather just be kicked in the balls than walk around the gym like a drunken sailor afterwards.

  5. Another great article Paul. Charles Staley echoes the same principles in a recent interview with Critical Bench (http://www.criticalbench.com/interview_Charles_Staley.htm).

    I'm looking forward to the next installment.

  6. Great article! Really hits home for me. I was one of those guys. I had to go heavy or nothing. 34 and now on the upswing! I never would be able to keep going and improving. I see now my old peers, very few of them lift weights at all. Revving the enging at 90% for singles will just break down the engine. Thanks for the great blog!

  7. Awesome article Paul, your writing is so helpful and really makes us all better lifters. I did have a question though, if you're doing more of a bodybuilding type cycle using a heavy/light system (like above) would you recommend pushing your reps on light days even if you're using pretty conservative poundages? Or do you think you would make better progress using those days to just "get the work in"?

    1. If you're doing bodybuilding I'd suggest using the big-15. Always use the right tool for the job.

  8. Injuries, sickness, -10% sessions 90% of the time. You are going lighter and building a philosophy around it, but reading your articles I'm convinced you are on a bad path. Be careful with your body Mr Carter.

    1. I have no idea what you're talking about. I had the flu this year, first time in ages and there was an epidemic. I had three -10% sessions the week before I came down with the flu.

      I've been setting PR's for months now. So I have no clue what you're talking about.

  9. Bingo, dude.

    There has been times when I performed the same amount of reps/sets with the same amount of weight--for up to three or four sessions. I do this for a reason! So, I can dominate that weight I chosed before I add more reps or another set. I don't always do this, but when I feel I am really pushing it...and it know its going to be ball-breaker, then I know that was one hell of a taxing workout. To think about beating that workout the next time, then the next, it quickly becomes a mental obstacle. If you dominate the weight, or as you put it, milkkk the weight, you feel THAT MUCH MORE confident moving up. You do not want to be battling with personal doubt AND heavy weights. You want to come in full force knowing you got it locked.

    I been on the same boat as you for a while dude. 60-85% of your 1max intensity is plentyyyyy! I been solidfying my base strength for roughly 9-10 months now, focusing on reps and volume with a heavy n light approach. I never been stronger and I already feel that much more confident that my Max will be much higher even though I almost never come close to 90% now.

    As I said, the more I see your writing---the more I see we got shit in common. I'm definitely looking forward to your part 3 carbo-backloading. This is a nutrition approach i can STICK with easily and effin' enjoy it!

  10. As someone who's done both marathon training, and powerlifting, your analogy is spot on. For 99.5% of the population, if they did an "overdistance run" it would either be the duration of the marathon, or mileage-wise a bit longer, at a much different pace.

    I'd say analogy wise, it's the equivalent to, if I wanted to deadlift 500, doing a rack pull, or a shrug, or something so I'd get an idea what the weight was like.

    Worst part of the marathon training - the tapering, usually 3 weeks of wondering about how if you never ran 6:52 pace for 26 miles, how the hell you were going to do it in the race. Ang, guess what, tapering works.

  11. Dude starts lifting
    Trains heavy, makes progress fast (as a noob)
    Because progress is made, feels training heavy all the time is THE WAY to go
    Gets to a certain level of strength and can say "I lift X amount of weight, so I have to be right."
    Dude is awfully enamored with his strength but fails to mention he hasn't hit any new PR's in years

    This has pretty much been me. I made crazy success when I started lifting and ever since then I've hit a plateau or got weaker. This is why I started your Strong-15. I completed week four today. I've only been lifting for a couple years so I'm worried I could be training heavier than I am but I'm still sticking to the program as is. I was doing an intermediate 5x5 program before and bumping my weights up too quickly when I barely hit 5 reps on a top set. At the time I didn't realize how dumb this was. I will evaluate the results at the end of the Strong-15 and go from there. If I hit PR's is this something I could run again? If anything I may go back to the 5x5 and run it smarter.

    1. Up to you. It really comes back to doing what you believe in and tailoring it to suit your strengths and recovery ability.

  12. Great stuff Mr. Carter. This series really hits home for me. Quick question for you. I'm currently experiencing a steep decline from accumulated fatigue, but only in the deadlift. My squat, bench, and press are all moving up steadily. In your opinion, do you think this can be corrected by backing off the heavier weights only on the pull or should I be reigning in all lifts? Thanks for what you do.

  13. Coming off my first proper diet period would you recommend implementing this base method or a big 15 cycle with the goal of hitting a PL meet after a short peaking cycle at the end over the next 4 months? Size/weight isn't really a goal, more so a return to/exceeding previous strength levels.

  14. Good article Paul, it'll take a couple of reads to get it straight. Its interesting that today I was reading an article by Dave Cieri, (that may not even be his name), big bencher, and he mentioned that he never maxes in the gym, ever, only at meets. He's done 600+ in competition, but his regular gym lifts are really quite a bit lower, like in the 40-60% range, for reps. I thought he pretty well echoed what you've been saying.

  15. On behalf of all the lurkers who come here, but don't always feel they have something to add to the conversation, I just wanted to say a quick thanks. Your blog is so freakin' interesting. I lift pretty light, but I love to dick around in the gym and try new stuff. Those hundreds and now 350s have been a great test of resolve. Right around that 50 rep mark I start feeling less like a big guy, and more like a scared little kid. This article in particular, just reminded me of how athletic accomplishment is really a mirror of how we live our life and accomplish our goals.

  16. When I read this stuff, it brings the greatest of all time, KAZ, to mind. He trained like an effing animal of course but look at his training: primarily sets of 8+ and he didn't need weeks off every 4 weeks because even though his weights were mighty, he wasn't grinding himself into dust with 3s and singles except for right before a meet.

    Keep it up, Paul!


  17. This was right on the money. Coming from a 3x/wk 5x5 program from the web I couldn't deadlift S*** last week. So I skipped it. The extra week of recovery made it all happen. This morning I pulled 195kg for 5 clean reps from blocks and hit a top set of 8 with 160kg on shrugs. The best aspects were the Stiff Legged Deadlifts from a box - 138kg never felt so easy. I feel fresher now that I've lifted and not killed myself this morning. I'm a believer in LRB

    1. Managing fatigue is a huge factor in training.