In theory, weight training is simple: lift weights and over time you become bigger and stronger. In reality, there is a little more to it than that.

Not everyone responds to the same program in the same way. Some people don't respond at all. Sport scientists call these people "non-responders". But before you start calling yourself a "non-responder", think about some very practical advice -- try a variety of programs and see what works for you. While you may be a "non-responder" with one program you could also be a "high-responder" with another. That could also change in time. Today a "high-responder" with one, tomorrow a "low-responder", and finally a "non-responder". Then you're back to the experimental stage, looking for something else that works.

Thankfully, it doesn't need to be a guessing game. Sport scientists in the former Soviet Union developed a highly effective and comprehensive long-term training approach that takes one from using simple calisthenics all the way to becoming a world class athlete.

Process of Attaining Sports Mastery (PASM)

While you may not be an aspiring Olympian, you probably want to get from point A to point B using the most direct route. The underlying theme is to begin with general adaptation and progress towards specific adaptation.

The process can be further broken down into different qualification levels.

Elementary Stage: General Fitness and Diet

This stage is characterized by weak and unpredictable motor patterns, dynamic instability and low perceptual ability (think about throwing a ball with your non-dominant hand). The goal during this stage is to increase trainability by enhancing agility, balance, coordination and flexibility through low intensity activities such as calisthenics, stretching, running, jumping, climbing, swimming, etc.

Over time, variability decreases and neuromuscular coordination develops, creating a framework for subsequently developed motor skills. With an integrated motor system, it becomes possible to train effectively.

This stage lasts several years and is typically completed by the middle of puberty.

Acquisition Stage: Specific Motor Patterns

It is assumed that trainees in this stage have a good diet and level of conditioning. Trainees wishing to enter this stage that do not meet these requirements will need to allocate an appropriate amount of training volume towards remedial activities from the previous stage. As fitness improves, the volume and focus on these activities can be reduced to maintenance levels.

The primary objectives here are to learn the basic lifts (bench press, squat, overhead press, bent over row, deadlift, and pull up) and increase muscle mass. This is achieved with a high volume of compound exercises at low to moderate intensity. As in the previous stage, motor skills progressively advance.

Good form and repetition are the keywords. This stage typically lasts one year.

Proficiency Stage: Lightly trained

By this stage, the trainee has differentiated themselves from the general population. The scientific terminology is "trained". Having acquired good form in the basic lifts and built a foundation of muscle mass, more intense training methods can now be effectively utilized.

Additionally, while the basic lifts are excellent overall exercises, they are not the last word. Due to individual differences between people, e.g., body segment lengths, they will not develop the individual muscles involved to the same degree. As such, continued development will require identification of undertrained areas followed by the application of specialized corrective work. With the careful selection of secondary exercises, progress will continue (since the need for secondary exercises arises from individual differences, each trainees' requirements will differ).

The typical duration of this stage is two years after which the trainee should have completed around 10,000 repetitions of the basic lifts.

Mastery Stage: Highly Trained

Training at this level is highly specialized and usually centers on competition.

Your Natural Muscle Limit

There are limits to natural muscle growth. Someone just starting out can usually gain up to 0.5 lb of muscle per week provided they eat enough. However, eating too much will lead to additional body weight gain but it won't come from muscle mass.

Someone that has been training for some time and is closer to their genetic limit will gain muscle at a slower rate and so will require less calories in excess of their maintenance level.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Untrained: 2 lbs muscle per month (+20% calories per day above maintenance)
  • Lightly Trained: 1 lbs muscle per month (+15% calories per day above maintenance)
  • Moderately Trained: 0.5 lb muscle per month (+10% calories per day above maintenance)
  • Highly Trained: 0.25 lb muscle per month (+5% calories per day above maintenance)
  • Elite: Negligible

1. Training Organization

1.1 The principle of super-compensation

The immediate effect of training is a depletion of the capacity to perform work. Recovery begins following training and concludes with a temporary overshoot of the initial work capacity.

This overshoot is called super-compensation and it is the root of why adaptation ultimately occurs. Therefore, the intention of the exercise/recovery pair should be to stimulate super-compensation.

Figure A: Super-compensation

Figure B shows the results of well timed super-compensation cycles.

Figure B: Gradual increase in performance

Magnitude of Stimulus

Exercise is the stimulus. The magnitude of stimulus is commonly refered to as the "training load".

Figure C illustrates three classifications of training load. The retaining load is the amount of work your body is currently adapted to. A training load of this magnitude results in the maintenance of your current fitness. Less than that will result in a decrease in fitness. Only a stimulating load, or overload, will result in super-compensation.

Figure C: Different training loads

It is also important to realize that a training load that classifies as a stimulating load for a beginner will likely result in detraining of an advanced trainee.

In other words, because of adaptation, a stimulating load today will not always be a stimulating load tomorrow. To continue producing a super-compensating response to training, the training load must increase. This is the idea behind progressive resistance training.

Minimum Overload

In theory, a greater load results in a larger response. In practice however, a greater load requires a longer recovery period and so diminishes some of the performance gains.

Ideally, the training load should be the minimum overload required to simultaneously drive progress and allow fast recovery, while avoiding the risks of excessive overload.

In practice, that means once you do a little more than you did before, call it a day.

Figure D: Relationship between load and recovery

Since the magnitude of a training stimulus must increase over time and because a greater stimulus requires a longer recovery time, the super-compensation cycle gradually lengthens as one progresses in ability. Eventually, it becomes impractical to produce a sufficient stimulus with a single workout.

Figure E illustrates the cumulative fatigue acquired over several training sessions if recovery is incomplete. Many trainees inadvertently enter this type of training without knowing how to make the most out of it.

Figure E: Gradual decrease in performance

Figure F shows how this can be used to setup a multiple week super-compensation cycle. Instead of looking at each workout as a separate loading session, followed by a separate recovery session, think in terms of weeks, i.e., two or three loading weeks followed by a recovery week. Training organization at this level is usually called a mesocycle.

Figure F: Accumulation/Intensification Mesocycle

In figure F, a hypothetical trainee exceeds recovery capacity for three weeks then reduces the load on the fourth week to initiate super-compensation. During the fifth and sixth week, the trainee takes advantage of recovering work capacity to set new records by switching to a lower volume but higher intensity loading protocol. This is why it's not unusual for a trainee that finds it impossible to break through a plateau to power through one after taking a break.

Notice that super-compensation in this case is created by the additive effects of many training sessions.

For a beginner, super-compensation can result from a single exercise session and take as little as 48 hours. Progress is rapid for the beginner. An advanced trainee may require several weeks before super-compensation occurs. Obviously, the best results come from starting with short cycles and only lengthening them as they become necessary.

1.2 Different ways to stress your body

There are four variables accounting for training stress.

  • Load: i.e., 5 sets of 5 reps at 300 lbs for 7500 lbs
  • Intensity: expressed here as
    Intensity = Load x 100
    Volume x Total
    where volume is the number of workset reps and total is the sum of bench and deadlift 1RMs.
  • Frequency: training sessions per week
  • Rest Intervals: amount of time spent resting between sets

This program will manipulate these variables in order to produce significant results in a relatively short period of time.

1.3 Different effects of variables

A high intensity training load will place stress on different systems than a high volume load.

  • Central nervous system (central fatigue): High intensity loading leads to a depletion of neurotransmitters. Symptoms are psychological and include lack of motivation, poor mood, impaired cognitive ability, etc..
  • Metabolic/Structural (peripheral fatigue): High volume loading leads to a depletion of energy systems, accumulation of waste products and tissue breakdown.

In figure G, the CNS gets a rest during the high volume hypertrophy mesocycle while the muscles get hammered. The opposite occurs during the high intensity strength mesocycle, allowing the muscles to super-compensate.

Figure G: Volume vs Intensity

1.4 Accommodation and using benchmarks

Over time the body will decrease its response to a continued stimulus. So in order to keep making progress, training must vary. However, since the body adapts specifically to the applied stimulus, training must be stable. Because training must paradoxically be both variable and stable, it is useful to employ a benchmark to evaluate the effectiveness of variable training (this program uses the sum of the squat, bench and deadlift as the benchmark).

2. Exercise Selection and Concepts

2.1 Weak points

A major part of making long term progress is being able to identify and address weak points. A weak point could be a problem with:

  • joint mobility
  • muscle flexibility
  • weak muscle
  • movement pattern
  • poor technique

The most common muscle weaknesses are the vastus medialis, hamstrings, scapulae retractors, and external rotators.

2.2 Failure

  1. Technical Failure: You fail to complete the rep using proper form and tempo. If the set tempo requires slow movements and you can only finish the set by going fast, that's failure. If you are supposed to hold the bottom position for two seconds and you bounce it out of the hole, that's failure. If you need a short pause between reps and it's not a rest-pause set or you need excessive breaks between sets, that's failure.
  2. Concentric Failure: You are unable to lift the weight for another rep.
  3. Static Failure: You are unable to hold the weight at any point in the range of motion.
  4. Eccentric Failure: You are unable to lower the weight under control.

Absolute failure is when you fail on all 4 types.

Technical failure will always occur first. That is where you should stop the set. Other than for reasons of injury prevention, the recovery time is shorter allowing greater rates of progress.

Of course, in order to recognize technical failure, you will need good technique to begin with (check YouTube for technique demonstrations). Also, don't neglect tempos and rest intervals. Doing so would introduce unplanned variations of training stimuli.

2.3 Types of muscle tension

  • Maximal Effort (ME): Doing an all out set with a mass above 90% 1RM. This increases CNS efficiency with a minimal impact on hypertrophy. Due to a higher risk of injury it is not recommended for beginners. ME is useful for hypertrophy in that heavier weights can be used for RE and SE.
  • Repetition Effort (RE): Using a submaximal load and lifting it until concentric failure. This has a greater impact on muscle metabolism and hypertrophy with a lower risk of injury. RE improves ME potential through greater muscle size.
  • Submaximal Effort (SE): Similar results with RE but stopped at technical failure. Because of greater control at the end of the set, this method is useful for technique development.
  • Dynamic Effort (DE): Using a submaximal load and lifting it as explosively as possible. DE helps improve ME.

2.4 Types of Progression

The objective in weight lifting is to make progress over the long term. In the short term, we have to deal with the fact that as the body is adapting to training, training becomes less effective. Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to alter the stimulus so as to maintain progress over time.

  • Mass: increasing the weight lifted
  • Reps: increasing the reps performed
  • Sets: adding additional sets
  • %RM: increasing the intensity of the lifts
  • Rest Intervals: decreasing rest intervals between sets
  • Tempo: increasing the eccentric tempo, decreasing the concentric tempo, and increasing static holds
  • Movements: moving from partial range of motion lifts to full range of motion
  • Methods: changing set styles e.g., drop-sets, supersets, rest-pause sets, etc.

Any well thought out training plan will vary these types of progression in a way that makes sense.

2.5 The lift pyramid

  • Primary Exercises: These are major, compound lifts (e.g., bench). They allow the use of the heaviest weights and place the highest demand on the body and nervous system. Use any of the four types of muscle tension.
  • Supplementary Exercises: These have a similar movement pattern with the primary exercise and are used to place more emphasis on specific muscle groups (e.g., close grip bench). These have a slightly lower demand on the body and nervous system. Use any of the four types of muscle tension.
  • Accessory Exercises: These do not necessarily mimic the technique of the primary exercise, but contribute indirectly to its performance (e.g., dumbbell flys). These are usually isolation exercises and use lighter weights, placing a low demand on the body and nervous system. Use the repetition effort method.
  • Corrective Exercises: These are used to correct problems or very specific weak points (rotator cuff exercises). Use the submaximal effort method.
  • General physical preparation: a wide variety of non-weightlifting-based movements that improve conditioning and athleticism (stretching, running, etc.).

When your goal is to build strength, supplementary exercises are the secondary exercise of choice. When the objective is to refine an already developed body with targeted hypertrophy, use accessory exercises in addition to the primary exercises. Just remember this: similarity is for strength and variety is for hypertrophy.

Regardless of your goal, the primary exercises will be the center of your exercise program. The secondary exercises come and go as needed. When progress on the secondary exercise stalls, simply rotate in a new variation.

3. Progress Rate

Suppose you bench 100 lbs and squat 200 lbs this week. Next week you bench 102.5 lbs and squat 205 lbs, corresponding to a 2.5% weekly increase. It may not seem like much at first, but you'll bench 360 lbs and squat 720 lbs at the end of the year if you maintain that rate.

Realistically, more than tripling your lifts in a year would place enormous stress on your body. Something will go wrong along the way preventing that rate of gain from actually happening. Your actual progress over the course of the year will average less than 2.5% even if you do everything perfectly. Sometimes it will be faster, most of the time slower.

Progress will be most rapid in the initial phases of training when a new stimulus is introduced, then slow as your body adapts to it (see Figure J). For optimal long-term strength gains, weekly progress should range between 0-5%.

Sustained progress over 5% per week is just asking for trouble since the muscles, nervous system, tendons, and joints all have different recovery times. What the muscles need for growth would be too much for the CNS over the long-term. What is needed for strength gains would be too much for the tendons and joints.

Figure J: Accommodation to training stimulus

Once your body has adapted to the stimulus (plateaued), in order for progress to continue, the training variables must change (i.e., volume, intensity, frequency, density, progression type, exercise selection, tempo, etc.).

Ideally, a well planned variation of training variables will result in progress over time resembling Figure K.

Figure K: Cumulative progress