Friday, April 26, 2013

Suboptimal Conditions, Programming, and Progress (Guest Post)

(Note from Andrew: The following article is the first Strength Musings guest post, and it is written by my buddy Ian Gerber. Ian is a very strong lifter, an incredibly knowledgeable coach, an astoundingly diligent student, and also one of the most amiable guys I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I am excited and honored to share his work with you here on my blog. Enjoy!)

By Ian Gerber   

The clients I deal with on a daily basis have school, work, families, and other hobbies. Their nutrition is inadequate and their recovery is suboptimal. In spite of all of these external factors, they still want to get strong. Typically, before they come to me, many of my clients have spent 3-4 months trying to get a basic linear progression (Starting Strength) to work. These clients are not dumb. They know that the fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line, and they made the intelligent decision to apply this knowledge to their programming.

Thus, they begin their progression. The first week goes well. The second gets a little harder. The third week might be when they experience their first hiccup. Maybe they have a bad day on Wednesday - perhaps due to consistently failing to eat enough food – and they miss their squats. So they repeat this session on Friday and complete it, barely.  The fourth week entails missing reps during their squats sets not once, but twice.

Consequently, they reset their progression by reducing the load by 10% and they begin to work their way back up. This process continues for 2 or 3 more months. By this time their squat may have gone from 95 pounds to 165 or from 115 pounds to 200 for three sets of five. Then, sadly, their squat just stalled, and stalled, and…stalled. Similarly, their bodyweight and muscle growth also become stagnant. Throughout this entire process, they may have gained only 3 to 5 pounds because they have not eaten enough to make significant structural changes.

At this point, frustrated with their lack of progress and looking for a way to move forward, they come to me. We do a few sessions, during which we often clear up many of the technical errors they did not notice. Their bar path is now moving in an efficient straight line, just like their linear program. However, their nutrition and recovery are not always supportive of the linear progress their plan urges.

Now, I absolutely agree that a simple linear progression, a la Starting Strength, is the best way to get strong, fast. While I would love to have a nutritional consultant work with my clients and force them to eat more dead animals and fat, this is not necessarily feasible. My subtle - or, sometimes, not so subtle - hints reminding them they need to eat more to make their linear programming work are often answered with “Yeah, I know, but….”

What, then, can be done? Some people simply cannot structure their lifestyle to meet the recovery requirements of such a demanding program. This is okay. Many critics will say it is not, but I have realized that my job is to help my clients get stronger by any means necessary.  Many times, this means deviating from “The Program” and making adjustments to help a trainee get stronger in spite of their suboptimal situation and imperfect habits. These adjustments will increase the flexibility of an individual’s program and allow for the day-to-day variation that life and a suboptimal recovery situation often necessitate. 

The tweaks described here have been used by myself and other lifters I work with during stretches of time where there is a shortage of food and sleep, debilitating stress and busyness, or a focus on other obligations and activities. Additionally, I suspect these simple changes could be very helpful to in-season athletes as well, as they are often forced to deal with similar circumstances. So, without further ado, here are a few tips that can promote progress under suboptimal conditions. They may not be groundbreaking, but they certainly work!

1. Utilize Rep Ranges Rather than Specific Numbers of Reps

Like I said, this is nothing revolutionary. Rep ranges are commonly employed, though we seem to see them more in “fluffier,” muscle mag type publications. I believe that many of us who train for strength become unreasonably tied to the idea of a specific number of reps and the effect associated with that number. Sets of five are great - nearly everyone agrees on that. Fives are known to offer a good blend of strength stimulus and metabolic stress. However, locking yourself - or a trainee - into a specific rep range can have frustrating effects if recovery is not optimal. If a linear progression is being followed, with 3x5 or even 5x5 being used, there is only one way to show progress, and that is by adding weight to the bar. Conversely, if a rep range is employed instead, then the trainee can demonstrate progress by adding weight and/or doing more reps.

I have found this to be a helpful change for trainees who have what I call “camel’s back syndrome.” These trainees are fine up to a certain load. Unfortunately, once one more proverbial “straw” is thrown on the bar, their technique breaks down. For this trainee, slowing down the progression and allowing them to accumulate more work with weights they find manageable can be helpful. However, no one wants to perform the same weight for the same number of repetitions in consecutive workouts. That’s just…boring. Rep ranges bypass this issue by adding the motivation of setting a “rep PR.”

Another advantage of rep ranges when compared to a set number of reps is the ability to achieve a very simple form of auto-regulation. There are two cases in which this is useful. One is very obvious, in which a trainee has come in tired, stressed, under-recovered, and ill-prepared to lift well. In this case, rather than having to perform the workout as written and attempt to grind out pre-set numbers of reps, the trainee can simply work as hard as they can that day. This may mean sticking to the lower end of the rep range (for example, doing only four reps in a planned rep range of 4-6). The physiological benefits of this strategy come with mental benefits as well. By keeping the weight on the bar constant for a few sessions, the trainee becomes familiar with the load and better understands the effort required to move it effectively. Thus, they can call upon this experience to perform better during their next session, and they can be confident in going for more reps to promote progress.

This protocol gives a lesser feeling of defeat than completely “missing” in a sets across setup, where getting four reps often makes it feel like one shouldn’t have even come to train that day. A second psychological benefit of this setup is that it decreases pre-training stress, especially in the case of suboptimal conditions. Rather than having a daunting “5x5” or “3x5” on their mind all day, trainees can know that they have something more manageable to overcome. This serenity can sometimes result in a rep PR, as the decreased stress and increased confidence can lead to a boost in performance.

Another positive aspect of rep range training is that it can be a good introduction to handling heavier weights, while also maintaining the net physiological effect of a set of 5. For example, a trainee squat workout could entail the following:

Set 1: 2-4 repetitions
Set 2: 4-6 repetitions
Set 3: 6-8 repetitions

This approach has an overall average rep number of 5. However, it has the advantage of a contrast between the sets. For clients that are ready for heavier work, the set of 2-4 can accomplish this without making the entire workout high intensity. For the “camel’s back” trainees, I have found that limiting the rep number on truly heavy work can do wonders for the maintenance of technique. For each of the two following final sets, the weight is lowered and more volume is accumulated.

If a trainee is regularly training in suboptimal conditions, but has a particularly strong day, they can benefit from this approach as well. In a standard sets across approach, the first set has an arbitrarily lower intensity than it must, because multiple sets must be completed at the same weight. If the aforementioned trainee comes in and does a few sets across, they may have left something on the table - especially on the first set. Here is where the auto-regulation tools come in handy: the number of repetitions achieved will be reflected by the trainee’s condition that day rather than a number written on a piece of paper. In the case of the trainee who feels good, they can push as far as they can go with that weight, trying to make new ground rather than terminating the set.

2. Reduce “Grinding” Training Volume

Progressive overload is obviously a necessary component of becoming stronger. However, its application can become a serious issue for those with the aforementioned “camel’s back syndrome.” For such trainees, 200 pounds may be a good training weight that is executed solidly. However, 205 forces them out of their groove, and the five pounds that bump them up to 210 are the final straw. Here, training at a higher weight only reinforces bad habits and strengthens the musculature required to move in a mechanically unsound manner. I am a good example of this phenomena and its lingering effects. In my first meet, I squatted (a massive) 353 pounds. However, in training, I could not get my hips and shoulders to consistently rise at the same time out of the bottom of my squat with anything above 225 – which was approximately 65% of my maximum at the time. At any weight beyond two plates, the dreaded “squat-morning” came into effect. Even today, if the bar gets out of the groove in a squat, I always drift forward in a similar manner. Although I have addressed the issue and greatly improved my control, my musculature initially developed to support these poor mechanics, which has made the correction process long and arduous.

When, for the sake of progress, a trainee has been grinding away at weights that force technical errors, a similar issue arises. Therefore, one of the best adjustments I can make for them is to apply rep range training to ensure that progress is happening at more manageable weights. For a time, priority can be placed on achieving a greater number of technically sound repetitions rather than adding more weight to the bar. Typically, replacing half of the traditional sets across scheme with rep range training is effective. Additionally, the other half of this scheme can be made up of submaximal low rep training. An example would be 8x3 for the squat or 6x2 for the bench or the press with a weight that the trainee is confident handling. These protocols are often performed with strict 90 second rest periods. The points emphasized in this submaximal training approach would be perfecting set-ups, having efficient bar paths, rehearsing proper mechanics, and moving the bar quickly.

This work can be thought of as “heavy” dynamic effort work – although, as an aside, I do not believe that true DE work is appropriate for most of the individuals I work with. The repetitive, low rep sets provide a stimulus that can be effective in correcting technical faults, whether they are due to motor control issues or inadequate strength in the relevant musculature. An example of a useful application of this method could be the “old” me. I would prescribe 8x3 at 245 pounds, done every 90 seconds. As long as my focus was adequate, I could get in 24 reps where my quadriceps actively extended my knees and my hamstrings anchored my back angle. This would contribute to my understanding of the correct “feel” of the movement, as I would discern the sensation of squatting properly with a somewhat challenging weight. In addition, those 24 reps would serve as a physiological stimulus to accumulate work on my quadriceps and hamstrings as they worked properly.

An advantage of this style of submaximal training for trainees in suboptimal conditions is that it does not represent a stimulus where muscular or technical failure is inherently possible. No matter how challenging or stressful an individual’s day was, or how little they’ve eaten, they should be able to confidently perform this work. Although not maximally challenging, they will leave the gym with greater confidence in their capabilities because of the numerous repetitions they performed.

The selection of loading for each exercise is more about how the sets look and feel, rather than a specific percent. The reps of the final sets will often be slower, but the lifter should never approach failure.

3. Incorporate More Assistance Work

This recommendation is probably the most controversial of the three - at least it will be to lifters like me who stick to bare-bones barbell training. I am a firm believer that the majority of trainees should have a program centered around the basics. If someone is trying to get stronger (and bigger), they should obviously squat, bench, deadlift, press, and do chin-ups. If possible, an individual should exhaust the efficacy of these movements alone before adding any other work (again, this is why a properly done linear progression is my first choice for someone who wants to get stronger). If a trainee is eating enough, getting ample rest, and performing only these basic movements, they can make a ton of progress in a short amount of time.

Again, however, this is not possible for many individuals. Therefore, a program that utilizes rep ranges and reduces grinding training volume can be rounded out with some assistance work. I would utilize assistance work in this case for two reasons: to add overall volume and to strengthen lagging musculature.

Often, when someone transitions to an alternative approach like the one posited above, the volume on the main lifts is reduced. The biggest change is usually a decrease in squat frequency from 3x to 2x/week. On the upper body lifts, frequency is usually kept the same, while the total number of repetitions performed is reduced. In this case, it can be useful to make up some of the lost volume of the routine with a few assistance lifts. Selecting exercises in this case is as simple as picking a useful movement that works the musculature that has lost some volume. In the example of the squat, rear foot elevated split squats could be used. Again, sound mechanics can be reinforced, and the structures can accumulate more work without the stress having to come from the main lifts.

My clients often come to me with issues that go beyond how they are conceptualizing their technique. They often have a weakness in a specific area that is holding back their performance of the main lifts. These issues can be resolved over time by utilizing sound mechanics on submaximal work, but this process can be helped along by the inclusion of carefully selected assistance movements. For the trainee who has trouble maintaining a neutral spine while deadlifting, the first fix is always to cue a tight lower back. Because this is largely a motor control issue, it is vital to use any number of tricks to get them to understand the proper position during the actual movement. Beyond this, back extensions, Romanian deadlifts, or both, can be useful. These movements will teach the trainee the feel of the hamstring tension required for proper spinal position. In addition, the hip extensors and spinal erectors will be strengthened under mechanical conditions similar to the deadlift.

There you have it, three alternative approaches to aid the gains of those training in suboptimal conditions. I hope that you, the reader, attained something valuable. Even if your training is going great right now, be sure to store this info for when times inevitably get tougher. Lastly, don't hesitate to ask questions about these tips and their application in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading! 


  1. Really good article. Does Ian Gerber have any more articles around on the net, or his own web site?

    1. He doesn't, unfortunately. I'll let him know you liked this though, and hopefully he will write more great articles in the near future. Thanks for reading!