Sunday, June 2, 2013

Misconceptions Regarding Super-High Rep Training - By Jay Kiiha

Reprinted with permission of The Iron Master


A good deal of attention has been given as of late to 20 and higher rep schemes to increase muscular bodyweight and strength. Although what works for one individual does not always hold water with another, I have never had especially good luck with this type of routine.

I recall a few years ago, in an attempt to break one of my father's old records, I worked into a program of 50 rep bodyweight Olympic style squats.

At the time, my program consisted of an abbreviated routine of pressing and rowing movements followed by 3 sets of squats eventually leading into a "death set" of fifty. After six weeks, I had worked to the level where my final set of squats put me onto the floor for 11 hours and significantly elevated my pulse for the next hour after that.

Surely, I figured with that sort of extended effort, I would be able to "bump up" my single rep effort in the lift at least a few pounds. To my surprise, however, I had actually lost strength and bodyweight as a result of the high rep routine. It took the better part of five months of hard low rep efforts to return to where I was before I started the program. When I have used twenty rep approaches in the squat, I have met with similar but less dramatic results.

Is my contention, then, for all serious strength athletes to avoid high rep approaches to the squat and deadlift? Not by any means. I would like to make the suggestion, however, that when one devotes most of one's time to fatiguing oneself to a frazzle, one primarily increases one's threshold of pain for the endurance of high rep strength movements. For those who are interested in competing in strongman contests, where both might and endurance are tested, high rep programs are an excellent means to train for a test of power that may take several minutes to complete (i.e. truck pulling, stone carrying, etc.) On the other hand, trainees who are interested in strength first and endurance second would do best to avoid super-high rep (20 or more) training altogether. This is not to say that aerobic movements are worthless, just that total aerobic fitness is best achieved by training in an aerobic fashion; not by combining strength and aerobic movements. The same goes for strength. If you want to be strong, concentrate on building power - don't concentrate on endurance.

I realize to many in the nouveau strongman/strongman crowd this may come as anathema. Who could deny that there isn't something damned manly about vomiting into a rusty bucket following some kind of super-duper, high rep set? I also am aware that the sort of training first proposed by the Peary Rader, Mark Berry crowd has had its share of major success stories where individuals were transformed from weaklings into muscle men as a result of the breathing squat.

For the beginner, super-high rep programs are great at introducing the concept of intensity to the newbie who has never lifted a barbell and has no idea how to mentally push oneself to complete a limit single.

Unfortunately, for the intermediate or advanced trainee who isn't starting from scratch, super-high rep training fails to build much in the power department. When one looks to the training programs used by the champions of the past, one thing should stand out to the reader. Most, if not nearly all, past champs rely heavily upon near maximal low rep (1-5) sets to achieve strength success.

To back this statement up, let's take a look at two typical mid-50's training programs used by two exceptionally strong men: Norbert Schemansky and Doug Hepburn. In their prime, each of these men represented the "the flower of their sport." Both men were not only World Record holders, but both men also remained on the top for very long periods of time. In addition, because we are examining routines from the 1950's the usual (and too often relied upon excuse, in one man's opinion) bit about their training successes being the result of steroids and not hard work cannot be applied.

In 1952, Norb Schemansky was at the top of his game. Not only did he win the Gold in Helsinki in the 198 lb. class, but he did so in capital fashion establishing three world records in the process (C&J 3913; Snatch 3081; Total 980H). On October 14, 1954, Norb jerked the Apollon wheels three times in succession at 224 bwt. For those who are unfamiliar, the Apollon wheels were a detached set of locomotive wheels which were joined by a non-revolving 1.93 inch diameter bar. The entire apparatus weighed in at 366 pounds. John Davis and Norbert Schemansky were the last men to ever lift the wheels overhead.

While in his prime, especially when he was a heavyweight, Schemansky was the world's strongest Olympic lifter and certainly one of the strongest men to walk the face of the earth. To achieve this kind of strength, he typically relied upon a three rep training routine consisting only of presses, snatches and clean & jerks (Fig. 1). He also occasionally added squats and bench presses for variety. Note that during a typical workout Norbert did not attempt to hit the maximum lifts of which he was capable. Schemansky stated in the Vol. 9, October 1992, issue of The Iron Master that "Limit weights should be restricted to once every three or four weeks. One should not work any more than 80 to 90 percent of his limit in training."

If we are to examine Schemansky's program in detail, one first notices the low number of reps used, but second it becomes obvious that Schemansky did not rely heavily upon the usage of assistance exercises to reach his goals.

Modern trainees can take heed to Norbert's example by sticking to basic whole body movements, rather than wasting time by overspecializing on isolated muscle groups to improve strength.

Much like his contemporary, Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn was less an Olympic lifter than a power athlete/modern strongman. Even though he won the 1953 World Championships, Doug's greatest accomplishments were in the power lifts. Not only did he break the 500 pound barrier in the bench, but Doug also pulled off such feats (while in training) as a 760 pound full squat with a five second pause and a crucifix with a pair of 105 pound dumbbells.

Doug Hepburn also relied upon a very low rep scheme to surpass the strongest of his day. While in the process of going where no man had gone before, Doug's bench press routine consisted of training the bench twice per week while using an ascending series of single reps which led to a maximum weight (See Fig.2). When Doug reached the point where he could pull off six singles with his maximum he would add ten pounds and begin the process again. Much like Schemansky, because he was performing a max lift six times in a row, he was using weights well beneath what he could use on a single one rep attempt; but just the same, he was using weights more than heavy enough to give him a very difficult workout.

Although everyone responds differently to how often they need to recover from a maximum attempt, it has been my experience that the best way to gain strength in a given exercise is to work up to a series of singles within 30-50 lbs. of one's target weight and supplement it with a series of low rep assistance exercises which build tendon and muscular power to augment whatever one is attempting to do. On a personal level, I have attempted to apply this strategy to my own training for the past year and have managed to gain twenty pounds of solid muscle along with increasing my previous bests in the deadlift and Olympic squat by thirty-five and fifteen pounds respectively 

The only disadvantage to training with heavy singles is that because one is constantly hovering near one's maximums, greater attention must be paid to one's aches and pains to avoid injury. Because I don't possess the recovery times of a Norb Schemansky, it usually takes me at least 2-3 months before I am able to work back up to a maximum squat or deadlift after breaking a personal record without ending up on the floor with a super-fatigued lower back. As such, when training with singles, I have found it best to attempt only one thing at a time and to cut back when simple fatigue begins to cross the line into pain and injury. That is to say, when attempting to build up to a record in the deadlift, it is wise to reduce one's squats to a medium-heavy weight or even eliminate back squats altogether in favor of heavy front squats.

In conclusion, it is not my aim to discredit high-rep training. It would be dogmatic and irresponsible to deny the physical and psychological benefits many have reaped from milk, rest and all out sets of twenty, thirty or even fifty rep exercises. It is simply my contention that in an attempt to turn our eyes to the past and build upon the sage advice of our iron game elders, we have placed too much of a focus on the endurance-strength movements popularized by mid-century bodybuilders and physical culturists and have forgotten about the important lessons of the benefits of low and single rep training taught to us by men such as Anderson, Schemansky and Davis which helped to keep America on top of the lifting world for almost three decades. If you have yet to try single rep training, I urge you to give it a try - I think you'll be amazed by the results.



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