Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Flexible Protocol for Size and Strength

By Andrew McGunagle

Ask experienced lifters how to get bigger, and they will often tell you to get stronger. Ask experienced lifters how to get stronger, and they will often tell you to get bigger. While these answers are fairly accurate, they are not particularly helpful for guys who are skinny and weak, but want to become big and strong.

I believe that guys who are skinny and weak should not train exclusively using protocols for one objective (strength/size) in order to achieve the other (size/strength). Focusing only on strength or only on size and employing specific, specialized protocols in order to achieve that objective is not an effective strategy for these sorts of trainees. Often, low-volume strength routines do not allow for sustained progress in inexperienced lifters, as these lifters' limited size eventually becomes an obstacle for further progress. Similarly, high-volume hypertrophy routines usually lead to the same frustrations for these young lads, as they are not strong enough to gain appreciable size.

The solution for these skinny and weak individuals is to employ protocols that enable them to lift relatively heavy weights to improve their strength while also allowing them to accumulate enough volume to grow. In this article, I would like to offer a flexible protocol that meets both of these criteria.

Part 1 - Work up to a top set: The first part of this protocol involves warming up and working up to the heaviest weight you can lift for the designated number of reps. So, if you plan on doing sets of five reps (which I recommend for skinny and weak guys), then you will incrementally work your way up from light weights to the most weight you can lift for five reps. This is already a fairly standard procedure for most lifters, and I don't think a lengthy example is needed to demonstrate this simple process.

It is worth noting, however, that you are not required to do the exact number of reps that you plan on doing for your top set during each of your warm up sets. If you plan on doing a top set of five, for example, then doing only three, two, or even only one rep as you approach your top set will allow you to conserve some of your energy. This strategy can be a bit problematic for newbies who have no idea how much weight they will be able to lift for their tops set, though. If you are unsure of how much weight you will be able to use for your top set, then be conservative. If you underestimate yourself, don't be afraid to add some more weight to the bar and do another set.

Part 2 - Do some back-off sets: After completing your top set, take five to twenty pounds off of the bar and do another set, doing the same number of reps you did for your top set. If you want the training effect to be more strength-based, then do not take much weight off the bar and only do one or two more sets. If hypertrophy is your primary goal, then take off a bit more weight after your top set and do as many as four to six back-off sets. Also, you can use the same weight for each of your back-off sets, or you can decrease the weight slightly from set to set. Experiment with this part of the protocol and figure out what tweaks allow you to complete the highest number of high-quality heavy reps.  

Part 3 - Go to failure: Following your back-off sets, you are going to take a little bit more weight off of the bar and you will wrap things up by doing a set of as many reps as possible. Push yourself to take this set as far as you can within the boundaries of acceptable lifting form. The number of reps you will complete in this set will vary, as it depends on how you are feeling on that particular day and how much weight you took off the bar. If you are consistently completing more than twelve reps for your final set, then you are probably decreasing the weight too much. Also, do your best to maintain control of the bar and use good technique. All too often, when lifters are told to do as many reps as they possibly can, they start pumping out ugly, uncontrolled reps. I urge you to take the set to failure without compensation (as many reps as you can, but no half reps, no bounced reps, and no ugliness).

Example - Bench Press:
  1. 45 lbs x 5
  2. 95 lbs x 5
  3. 135lbs x 5
  4. 165lbs x 3
  5. 185lbs x 3
  6. 200lbs x 5 (Top set)
  7. 190lbs x 5 (Back-off set #1)
  8. 190lbs x 5 (Back-off set #2)
  9. 180lbs x 9 (Set to failure)
If you want to get both bigger and stronger, then you must lift heavy and you must accumulate a fair amount of volume. In order to do this, you must employ protocols that allow you to satisfy those two requirements. The protocol that I offered does just that, and it also provides lifters with some variables they can tweak to account for how they feel during each session. If you feel great, then you can set a PR with you top set, follow that up with a number of back-off sets, and then set a new personal rep record with a lighter weight. When you feel like garbage, do the best you can with your top set, only do one or two back-off sets, and finish up with a well-executed set to failure. Work within this proposed framework and strive to add weight and/or do a few more reps every session, and you will definitely be  on your way to the promised land of size and strength.

The Promised Land.
Thanks for reading!


  1. Andrew, I realize this was posted over a year ago, but just wanted to drop a line to tell you how right on I think this piece is. I was directed to this blog by reading a post on Mike Tuchscherer's forum referencing your article on Elite, and have read most of your blog over the past couple days.

    For my part, this kind of approach has led to dramatic improvements over the past six months, (by coincidence I pieced together a very similar method for my own use). All three powerlifts have improved pretty significantly, (SQ-475 to 500, BP-320 to 360, DL-555 to 580). And this is pretty much what I do, work up with progressively heavier singles, take a rep PR in the 1-5 range if I feel good, then drop down and do some backoff work. I'll add that long-paused benches and paused squats have served me well as backoff work in addition to regular rep work.

    Improving in this sport really is about cutting out the fluff and getting better at what matters, little-by-little. The system you outline here is, in my opinion, about as good a way to do it as you'll find.

    1. Thanks, Zak, I really appreciate the compliment! Awesome progress in all three lifts, by the way. That all-around strength is outstanding! Shoot me an email if you ever need any ideas for training/mobility/whatever, and I'll be glad to help.