Tuesday, 26 May 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART II

Thank you for coming back for section II.  This will be much lighter on the science - as well as a little shorter.  We felt it was imperative that readers had a good understanding of the basics of the science before continuing on to more practical sections.  

Keep in mind that what follows is a very basic overview of how we organize the specifics of our loading parameters.  It goes into very little detail, but will hopefully give the coach a starting point when designing his or her own program.   Like all things, the devil is in the details - so how all of this is organized is another story altogether.  Feel free to comment, and ask questions below the post.  


Matt did an awesome job of explaining why we lift in the first section of this post.  If you didn’t read it, I encourage you to go back and do so before continuing on.  Understanding the why is  a necessity - whether you are the one writing the strength program or not.  Even if you have a dedicated strength coach who writes the program for your athletes, it is imperative that you have the ability to speak intelligently with him or her about the programming. 

It is important to understand that strength does not necessarily equal maximal strength.  While maximal strength is the maximal amount of force a muscle can generate, strength is simply the ability to generate sufficient  force to overcome inertia or a load.  Depending upon the amount of load, velocity of movement can be very high or very low, and anywhere in between (as discussed by Matt as the force-velocity curve first described by AV Hill in 1938).  Force is at its highest when there is virtually no velocity - while velocity is at its theoretical highest point when there is little to no force.  It is Hill’s FV curve that has formed the basis of organizing training loads and loading parameters for over half a century.  By dividing the FV curve into ‘sections’ - or differing abilities - coaches, scientists, and methodologists can effectively reduce an endless amount of decisions into manageable ‘groupings’.

To begin, I will first discuss where we first encountered the organization of loads, and how this influenced our programming.


As Matt described, there are many justifications for strength training - including improved tendon stiffness, more specific length-tension relationships, and potential hormonal adaptations.  However, the big three - at least in my simple brain - remain:

  1. Get bigger: as discussed by Matt as an increase in PCSA
  2. Get stronger: improving intra-muscular coordination 
  3. Get faster: a combination of inter- and intramuscular coordination

This is clearly a gross oversimplification, but this type of categorization has formed the basis for loading parameter organization for decades.  Beginning with former USSR Olympic Weightlifting Head Coach Alexander Prilepin, and continuing over the years with work from other coaches, scientists, and methodologists, the simplification of loading is an important piece of the planning puzzle.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Alexander Prilepin who first attempted to organize loads into groupings.  By retrospectively analyzing intensity (as a percentage of maximum lift) and volume of exercises of members of the Russian National Junior Team, he first confirmed the effectiveness of loading with near limit weights.  Further analysis lead Prilepin to identify the optimal volume of loading at lighter intensities, and it is the results of this study that formed the basis of the training philosophy of the Soviet Teams for the following decade, and was organized into the now famous Prilepin’s Table:

Table 1: Prilepin’s Table


I’m not sure if it was in Zatsiorsky’s* Science & Practice of Strength Training text that I first encountered the synthesis of strength loading parameters (what he calls ‘methods’), but I’m sure that this was the text that most influenced coaches in North America at the time (perhaps most notably Louis Simmons, who’s work has greatly influenced the S&C world on this side of the Atlantic). 

  • interesting fact: Zatsiorsky was a post-doc at the University of Calgary, where both myself and Matt went to school (and where Matt is currently finishing his PhD.  Matt’s supervisor, Walter Herzog,  knew Professor Zatsiorsky well ... true story!

Zatsiorsky identified three ‘methods to achieve maximal muscular tension’:

  1. Lifting a maximal load (maximal effort method)
  2. Lifting a non-maximal load to failure (repeated effort method)
  3. Lifting a non-maximal load with the highest attainable speed (dynamic effort method)
(he actually identified a fourth - the sub-maximal effort method - which is essentially the same as the repeated effort - but not lifting to failure)

He goes on to define the purpose of each method as:

  1. Maximal Effort (ME): improve neuromuscular coordination
  2. Repeated effort (RE): stimulate muscle hypertrophy
  3. Dynamic effort (DE): improve the rate of force development and explosive strength

The above was appropriated by Simmons and Westside Barbell, and has influenced countless S&C programs across the continent ever since.  

*A quick aside on influence:

It is OK (in fact, it is encouraged) to be influenced by sports other than that which you are programming for - but in my opinion, S&C programming in general has relied far too often on the flavor of the month.  

This began with the fascination with bodybuilding methods - strength coaches were overly enamored first with Nautilus-type machinery beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the 1990s with the influential Weider publications and others like Muscle Media 2000.  

Then along came  Paul Chek, and the ‘functional strength’ revolution.

Soon, the pendulum swung back in the other direction, and it was all about getting strong, and with the huge success of Westside Barbell, many sport athletes were now encouraged to lift like powerlifters.  

With the popularity of Strongman events on TV, athletes were soon seen carrying odd shaped implements, pushing cars around parking lots, and swinging sledge-hammers.  

Simultaneously, there was a big push from ‘therapy-based' coaches and the physiotherapy world to a movement that relied primarily on what has been termed ‘corrective exercise’.

Most recently - and somewhat ironically -  Crossfit has somehow influenced the S&C world, with athletes performing Olympic-lifting circuits, jumping up to high boxes, and finishing many sessions with ‘energy system development’.

And all the while, the one consistent influence that has never gone away is Olympic weight-lifting - and even this has had an overly influential impact on programming.  In the section on exercise selection (to come), I will offer my thoughts on the use of Olympic lifts for training other sport athletes. 

It is important to understand that good coaches maintain a core set of principles - and are far less swayed by the comings and goings of the various trends that permeate the industry. 

“An interesting point is relating the comings and goings of different strength training methods to scientific revolutions.  Thomas Kuhn outlined some basic requirements for the evolution of scientific theory.  One of the main tenants is that another theory is able to make better predictions, or explains everything a previous theory was able to explain - plus a bit more.  Why did Nautilus fail? It was a very technically driven cam-based system that was designed to develop the ‘strength-curve’.  Why wasn’t it able to overcome the paradigm of Weightlifting?  Similar to a scientific revolution, a new training paradigm really has to prove its worth with the best athletes, over the long-term.  Examples don’t make arguments.  So, as with all trends, the burden of proof remains at the front and centre for coaches and athletes” - Matt.  

Back to loading parameters - 

There are a lot of ways to do this,
And thus a lot of confusion.  
A lot of routine math,
And a lot of assumptions.  

Using Zatsiorsky as a jumping off point (stealing) - and influenced by Prilepin, Verkhoshansky*, Siff*, Simmons, and others, we added additional loading parameters (load, ROM, rep range, recovery, tempo) to the above to built an outline from which to work.

*BTW - although Matt and I were both greatly influenced by these pioneers, it is Verkhoshanksy’s contention that Siff misrepresented much of Verkhoshansky’s work - and in fact plagiarized much of Supertraining - taking both credit and money that belonged to Verkhoshansky.  In personal communication, Professor Verkhoshansky was very critical of Dr Siff, and never forgave him - even after Siff’s death.  This communication helped to put a lot of things in perspective for Matt and myself!

Matt built a wonderfully comprehensive chart that goes into a  fair amount of detail in regards to many of the important loading parameters:

Table 2: Jordan's Table

Breaking it down further - and to make it more digestible for both my simple brain, and our athlete populations, I formed something slightly less extensive:

Table 3: McMillan Table

I have given each ‘method’ a zonal number (method - as defined by Zatsiorsky - is potentially confusing and too generic in my opinion).  Zone 1 is dynamic effort - synonymous with explosive strength, or dynamic strength (speed-strength for purists).  Zone 2 is repeated effort - what is often understood as hypertrophy training, or work-capacity building, while zone 3 is maximal effort.  


Exercises should be performed at relatively light loads.  Dynamic effort is contingent upon the velocity of the mass, which is highly dependent on displacement (V = d/t).  Therefore, it is prudent that zone 1 exercises have a large range of motion (ROM), allowing the time for greater velocity. Depending upon the time of year, and the experience of the athlete you are working with, reps, sets, and recovery time can be manipulated within the ranges listed (more on this when we discuss organization of training).  As a general rule of thumb, we find that recovery time is relatively short when training in zone 1.  Anecdotally, elite level weightlifters training in this zone often require less than 60 seconds to recover from set to set - at least when the reps per set are held at 2 or less. 


Exercises in this zone are moderately loaded.  Rep ranges can vary tremendously depending upon the goal, and can even be as low as 2s and 3s when employed within a clustering scheme.  Typical rep range for this zone would be 8-12, but as a general rule of thumb, the  more experienced and higher the level of the athlete, the lower zone 2 reps will be.  Recovery time can be as short as 30 seconds, as we are primarily seeking for metabolic adaptations in zone 2. 


The primary objective of zone 3 is to improve maximal force production.  Newton’s second law of motion tells us that the force applied on an object is the product of its mass and acceleration (F=ma).  External forces are encountered in all sorts of human movement (e.g. a very hard landing during a vertical jump).  However, it is not simply the external forces at play when we talk about training maximal strength.  We have to consider the neuromuscular system, the duration and amount of intramuscular tension, and the muscle FV relationship.  As such, the development of maximal muscle strength  is more influenced by the ‘mass’ part of the equation than ‘acceleration’ - necessitating higher loads (in excess of 85% of 1RM).  Also, as Matt discussed, we must consider the force-length relationship (i.e. we use smaller range of motions for athletes who operate over smaller range of motions in their sport).  As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced the athlete, the higher the intensity we will prescribe in zone 3.  A young athlete will achieve maximum strength improvements and adaptations from 5x5@85%, while an experienced lifter will require something significantly heavier, and more intense.  Similarly, because the less experienced lifter’s inability to tax this system relative to the more experienced lifter, we will prescribe less recovery time.  Two minutes is often plenty of recovery for a younger athlete - while up to 5 minutes will be necessary for the more experienced. 


As you can see, I do not use a traditional numbered eccentric-isometric-concentric tempo scheme (unless I specifically want to focus on one piece of the movement).  Instead, I will prescribe a ‘controlled’ or ‘explosive’ tempo.  I may have a time of each contraction in my mind when coaching, but I would rather the athletes not have to count while they are lifting.  "Control" or "explode" is much better internalized for the athlete, and will allow for more intention throughout the movement. 

Note that tempo for zone 1 and 3 both states "explosive".  As Sale & Behm first noticed in 1993, it is the intended - rather than actual - movement velocity that determines training response.  Sale & Behm’s research put to rest once and for all the myth that heavy weight training made athletes slow. 

How you load each zone will depend greatly on the sport you are coaching, the training level of your athlete, the experience they have in the weight-room, and your specific  level of expertise.  It goes without saying that we would load an 18 year old freshman female sprinter far differently than we would a world-class 28 year old male.  The principles however remain the same.  And principle should dictate your programming.

Too often coaches begin at the end - they write their end-product program without a clear understanding of their training philosophy, their periodization scheme, or even an outline of their plan.   There is a set hierarchical understanding that is necessary for effective programming (more on this later in this series).  


By dividing the sessions into zones, we are effectively outlining an objective for each training session.  It is a jump-off point for the daily introduction to the training session.  It is imperative that the athlete knows exactly why they are lifting that day.  Are they in the weight room to get bigger?  Faster?  Stronger?  How will they go about doing this?  What are the specific objectives of each lift?  

This session introduction is the coaches’ opportunity to connect our why to the athletes’.

We know our why - but connecting to the athlete’s why is perhaps the most important part of being a coach. 

In the next section, we will discuss this often overlooked piece of the puzzle: how to create the optimal training environment, and how to squeeze the very best out of every training session.


  1. Nice! Succinct and very informative! Thanks Stu!

    1. thanks Carson ... much appreciated!

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  2. Great info, keep it coming Stu!

  3. Solid, when will next part be published sir

    1. Parts III, IV, and V are already up ... can read through links on the right of the page, under 'May' . Part VI coming next week

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