When you first get into strength training it’s to get chicks or to make the football team —which could also lead to chicks. What you didn’t realize is that chicks want to see you cruising the streets in the latest whip (car) and they couldn’t care less that you had 18 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
Some of you may reject the idea that you picked up heavy stuff to impress girls. You may say, “No way man, not me,” or “I got into this to make myself stronger.” Look man, don’t deny it, embrace it. Everything in life centers around chicks.
In addition to getting broads, you also realized that with a better and stronger body you can probably kick the crap out of that jerk that punted your New York Jets football into the woods and then ride off into the sunset on his girlfriend. Everyone knows that having a big bench will increase your street cred, plus chicks dig big benches. Okay, chicks aside for a minute.
When you first got into lifting you got some results from doing a lot of basic training, like three sets of 10 reps. Maybe you took it a step further and started out overloading with more weight from one week to the next. I bet you started to get into everything you thought would make you better: forced reps, super sets, negatives and so on. The effects of your early training go a long way.
After a year or two of training hard, the gains start to slow down. The fun hammer is coming to halt your progress in its tracks. How does a person continue to make progress and not get hurt? How do the pros like Shawn Frankl, Dave Hoff and Donnie Thompson make any progress after they all have reached such a high level? What is their secret?
Pro secretsI hear many lifters talk about de-loading. When I asked Donnie Thompson about de-loading (or backing off), he laughed. “I do all my heavy stuff the last three weeks leading into a meet,” said Big D. Dave Hoff and many of the Westside boys do similar things by using various forms of a Circa Max. Frankl uses kind of an old-school, Ed Coan approach where he adds more gear and weight from one week to the next running into a meet. Frankl seems to be able to handle heavy weights for a long time with no de-load. Brian Carroll manages his volume and keeps himself from going too heavy in training by using a lot of doubles.
I hate seeing people write the word de-load in their training logs or that they had to shut it down because of severe forearm pain, or whatever. Stop being a bitch! But just because I hate the term de-load I’m not going to tell you that de-loading is totally worthless. However, I will argue that it’s probably not needed if you’re training optimally and not maximally all the time. If you are training heavy and doing overload work every week, then you will most likely need a de-load.
The amazing athletes I mentioned are in tune with how their bodies feel and how they react to a certain training stimulus. Plus, many top lifters have a trick up their sleeves. I call it underloading.
You may be asking, “What in god’s name is Underloading? And is it free? Because every time I turn around Mark Bell is reaching into my wallet.” Underloading is free — for now. Underloading refers to using less weight to lift more.
“Wait, time out!” you say. “Coach Bell, you’re trying to tell me I can use less weight to get better results?” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. This means you don’t always have to go heavy and kill your whole face to make progress. There are ways to trick your body into training maximally and optimally without overdoing it. Using underloading will help you go into your next workout fresh without feeling like you overdid it.
Underloading will work for you because it:
• Varies with similar exercises
• Allows you to stay fresh and keeps you ready to kill shit at all times
• Allows you to pack on muscle
• Controls volume and intensity
• Prevents injury by using less weight
• Allows you to get stronger with less
The Underloading Method
This is a method that will force you to use less weight but still make outstanding strength gains. Keep in mind that underloading is a method, not a training system. Underloading needs to be utilized within a sound training system like Westside Barbell. Implement this method for one- or two-week cycles, then resume your regularly scheduled programming. One of the simplest examples is to do something for reps instead of a max. Doing a set of three to five reps will still give you enough weight to get stronger, but it will also be a light enough percentage to keep you from destroying yourself. Remember, the athlete who can handle the most work wins. You can’t handle the most amount of work over time if you destroy yourself in one day. You need stimulation without annihilation.
Forms of Underloading
Most forms of underloading should be done in the one- to five-rep range. No gear, no belt, deep ply squats, deficit deadlifts, using a fatter bar. You follow? Your making lifts harder by adding range of motion or taking away supportive gear. All of the above methods will force you to use less overall weight, but you can still go for a max on them. You may find yourself 5, 10 maybe even 15 percent weaker on these lifts, but it will force you to work hard.
Let’s say your best squat is a 450-lb. box squat with a belt for one rep. Try doing a low box squat (about 3 inches lower than your normal box) max double with no belt. You may end up with around 330 to 360 lbs., which is about 75 to 80 percent of your 450 lbs. After you try this, you will see how demanding using 75 to 80 percent can be. At this point in the workout, you can add the belt and see what you can get for double. You may end up with 380 to 400 lbs., which is about 85 to 90 percent. The weights are still about 10 percent lower than your best. You just dipped your hand into the strength bucket and extracted a lot of points without being bitten.
Dynamic effort work, also called speed training or compensatory acceleration, has protocols suggesting the use of 50 to 70 percent of your one-rep max for multiple sets (eight to 10) for multiple reps (two to three), but you are moving the weights as fast as you possibly can. You are working on becoming more explosive by producing the most force possible. Although you are using less weight, you are producing similar amounts of force or even more force on this day then you would with a max lift.
Bands and chains allow for speed work to become even more effective by accommodating resistance. Bands and chains will force your body to accelerate throughout the entire movement faster. Force = mass x acceleration. The weights are lighter at the bottom of the lift, where leverages are the poorest. As you finish the lift, the bands are stretched as you get into a better mechanical advantage.
Dumbbell bench press is a great example of underloading, as even a 600-lb. raw bencher will only use 150 to 200 lbs. in each hand, which is 300 to 400 lbs. total — about 100 lbs. less then what they’d normally train with using a barbell. I like using 10- to 20-rep sets for dumbbell work.
Try further range of motion lifting, like dumbbell bench press, deadlifts while standing on mats or low box squats on to a 10- to 12-inch high box. The greater range of motion will make the lift harder and force you to use less weight.
Change from a stronger stance to a weaker one, or change to a weaker grip. For example, try doing a wide-grip bench press when you rule at close grip, or vice versa. Ultra-wide sumo pulls would be another example.
Add reps to an exercise. Try sets of 10, eight, six or five, instead of what we normally do: triples, doubles and singles.
Add tempo to the exercise. Use pauses, eccentric and concentric tempos. This refers to moving the weights slower to increase time under tension. An example would be counting to four on the way down in a bench press.
Finally, have the guy who is lifting off to you teabag you on the bench. Underwear is optional. This approach is probably overused at Super Training. Or have a pit bull chew on your undercarriage while doing Sumo deadlifts. This method, on the other hand, may need to be used more often at Super Training.
More details on underloading
The Underloading Method can be used by lifters of any level. However, a newer lifter may need to focus on handling heavier weights in order to prime their bodies for bigger weights. A more experienced lifter will be able to draw upon more muscle mass when using sub-maximal or lower weights.
The idea of underloading stems from years of training using Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell method. Simmons advises using to the lightest weights to lift the heaviest weights. He often talks about getting a big carryover. For example, at Westside they will smash a big squat off a box with bands in briefs and their suit, but they will do so with the straps down and no knee wraps. This forces their athletes to use less weight. However, at the very top of the lift, because they have a band on the bar, the weight may be about equal to what they do in a meet. When they do go to the meet they have extra gear to lean on for those world record attempts. Basically, you want to find optimal weights to get the best results.Some say a workout is only as good as how well you can recover from it. Using 100 percent too often can cause problems that can actually make you weaker or, even worse, leave you injured. An example would be when Jonny Knuckledragger says, “I do deadlifts out of the rack with 655.” Then he goes to the meet and pulls 555, full-range. Knuckledragger is already the man at rack deadlifts, right? He likes doing them because the veins in his shoulders pop out when he holds the weight at the top and screams. Knuckledragger loves getting the attention of the ladies, but they are only looking at him because he turns bright purple when he lifts. What he fails to realize is that he is working on something he is already good at when he should, instead, focus on something much harder. He should focus on a weak point — something that will make him use less weight and work harder.
Maybe he’s slow as dog shit off the floor. Deficit speed pulls against bands would help a ton in this situation. Deficit deadlifts are performed while standing on 1- to 3-inch mats. This exercise increases the range of motion, thus making it more difficult. The more difficult the exercise, the less weight that will be used. Knuckledragger can make some great gains by training with less weight rather than more weight. Another option, if you are good at a lift, is making it more difficult by adding reps, bands or chains. Knuckledragger could try 555 to 575 lbs. for a set of three in the rack if he is really that obsessed with rack pulls. The bottom line is, don’t let your ego paralyze your progress.
Points of difference
To better understand underloading, let’s look at the difference between overloading exercises and underloading. Underloading should be used with forms of overloading, which consists of exercises that allow you to use about 100 percent or more of your max. Conversely, in underloading we are looking for exercises that force us to use at least 10 percent less than our best. A quick example: I did 675 lbs. with the Zercher harness a while back. The next time I did the Zercher harness, I got up to 500 lbs. for six reps ith no gear, off of a lower pin. The 675 lbs. for one rep was more like a strength test and the 500 for six was more like a strength builder. I personally use underloading on my max-effort days. I flip flop back and forth between under- and overloading as I see fit. Normally I do two weeks of some type of underloading followed by one week of overload. I use overloading less because it’s more demanding. I choose to either overload or underload based on how I feel, what I did the workout before and what I did the week before.
I’m looking for a solution that’s optimal. Oddly enough, bands and chains do a little bit of both under- and overloading. Again, weights are lighter at the bottom and heavier at the top. They allow you to overload the top of the lift but they also force you to use less overall real weight on the bar, which is important when using a method like underloading. Bands and chains can be demanding but, in my opinion, they allow for a safer way to get to bigger lifts due to the fact that you’re not just loading up tons of iron on the bar.
A.J. Roberts recently hit a 1,140-lb. squat, and the heaviest squat he did in training was a 935 lbs. with the cambered bar (underloading). Roberts also hit a 695-lb. squat with 440 lbs. of bands. That equals 1,135 lbs. at the top of the lift (overloading), which is needed as a meet gets closer. Both squats were done to a parallel box in gear. The same is true with his 50-lb. deadlift PR. Roberts did a block pull with 800 lbs. for two reps, which is 97 percent of his 825 in the meet, but a partial range of motion. The partial range movement allowed him to go heavy, handle a big weight and not over-tax himself. Could he have done 800 lbs. for two from the floor? Maybe, but who cares? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. (That statement of awesomeness was made by my fat little world-record-holding buddy, Donnie Thompson.) The rest of the time Roberts worked on skills, form, explosive strength, speed and mental prep. All of his hard work combined led to an unheard of 175-lb. increase on his total.
I recently did a 1,003-lb. squat in a competition (measly compared to Roberts, Hoff and Carroll but hey, I’m trying) and pulled 760 lbs. The heaviest weights I handled were on a reverse band lift, which is a form of overloading — and that was done only once in eight weeks. The heaviest squat I did was about 940 lbs., the heaviest pull was 635 or 655 and some chains.
The rest of the training time was spent on being fast, becoming more mobile (aka building the supple leopard) and keeping the best form I could. In addition to that, I am constantly learning and adapting.
Powerlifting legend Donnie Thompson came and trained with Super Training for four weeks and, in that time, I saw the 390-pounder use 515 to 550 in the deadlift for sets of five while maintaining an 800-lb. raw pull. Thompson likes using sets of five as a form of underloading. He’s using more reps to limit the amount of weight he can use, but still build up the proper muscle stimulation needed to pull 800. Super D also squats 500 to 550 lbs. raw on his dynamic/recovery day for sets of three, while doing kettle snatches for sets of six to raise his work capacity and force the muscles to work hard with weights that are measly compared to his 1,260-lb. world-record squat. Remember why I said we all started training? To get chicks. Super D has 99 problems (one of them being that he is nearly 400 lbs.), but getting a chick ain’t one of them. (See Donnie’s rep deadlift workout below.)
Both over- and underloading have their place in making a bar-bending, ass-kicking power athlete. Underloading is a fantastic method for building strength the old-fashioned way. Overloading is effective in many ways as well, but it can kick your ass if it’s overdone. Overloading for geared lifters is how they can be so strong when they take the gear off. Now, here me out on this before you raw peeps jump down my throat. Powerlifting gear allowed Scot Mendleson to bench over 1,000 lbs., but Mendy also holds the raw world record with a bench of 715 lbs. By using powerlifting gear (or my Sling Shot), you can get in some great overload training, which over time can make you stronger.
The great Ed Coan used a lot of underloading in his training. He’d use reps, paused squats and stiff-leg deads to allow him to train optimally, but not maximally too early in his training cycle. Coan trained his ass off to be the best, but do you recall seeing him do lifts that were at 100 percent in the gym? Maybe he did, but most of the videos show him leaving a little something for the next training session — and, even more important, for the next meet.
As a meet got closer, Coan would begin to start to “overload” his body by using lifts and gear that would allow him to lift the most. I put overloading in quotes because Coan told me recently that he never took maxes in the gym. Think about that for a minute. He also said he never missed a weight in training. Wait a second. Really? That tells us that even the Great One left a little in the tank when he was training. In addition, underloading-type methods early in the cycle helped Coan lay down the bricks for a bigger foundation going into the heavier training sessions. You remember that all this strength training and muscle building is to get chicks, right? Well, Coan has had a very pretty girlfriend for more than 20 years. If he wasn’t so strong and jacked, I seriously doubt his personality and height (5’5”) would have gotten him any women.
No missed reps. Ever.
Leave something in the tank. This leaves something to the imagination and keeps you intrigued. Kind of like how a chick in a skirt is sometimes hotter than a naked chick. Leaving a little strength in the tank also keeps you in a positive frame of mind at the end of the workout, and going into the next one.
Wrap. If you’re not in the gym to get jacked or to get strong, then what are you doing there? Even those of you who want to lose body fat or get skinny, that is done out of the gym, not in the gym. You lose body fat and keep bodyweight in check by controlling the foods you eat, not by burning an extra 300 calories on an elliptical. If you want to go from dud to stud, then you may as well train properly to get the fastest results and the hottest chick possible. Use the underloading method and feel yourself get reloaded for future workouts. The next time someone says, “Hey, how much can you lift?” you don’t have to give 20 excuses on why you suck. You’ll be able to look them right in the eye and say, “A lot more than you!”
“Look how strong I am!”
This phrase normally means you’re probably telling a lie somewhere else. “Look how strong I am with my 700-lb. rack pull!” Then it comes time to do 700-lb. full range in a meet and you can’t budge the damn thing off the floor.
Louie Simmons says that if you’re about 10 percent stronger on an exercise, it’s time to flip over a few more rocks and find the next one that’ll take you to the next level. I’d go as far to say to try finding exercises you’re 10 percent weaker at and utilize them two or three times per month on your max-effort days. Let’s face it, doing things we are not good at sucks — but sometimes it’s necessary, right? I hate reading, but I love lifting. Well, you can’t get better at lifting unless you’re educated. I hate to write; I practically finished high school at a fifth- or sixth-grade reading and writing level. But here I am, writing to help spread the word. Do the things you suck at, and get ready to go from dud to stud. Remember, it’s what you think you already know that prevents you from learning. Do not let your ego paralyze your progress. PM
This article originally appeared in the July/August edition of Power Magazine.
© Power Media, 2011.
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