By Charlie Shotton-Gale

Programming for strength has been featured a lot in the media, particularly since the rapid growth of disciplines such as CrossFit and World’s Strongest Man.  However, the information can easily be blurred depending on the level of your ability and the type of supplementation you take, such as Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).  

This article aims to dispel some of the myths of how to write suitable programs to improve your strength, supported by science and experience, directed at people who don’t take PEDs, a subject which will be explained later.

Programming for beginners.

This includes:
- Those who have never picked up a bar
- Those who have been training in a gym but mainly on machines
- Those who have never stepped foot in a gym
- Those who have been seeing a trainer/coach for under 1 year
- Those who have been weight training for under 1 year

We are going to look at:

- What are ‘newbie gains’?
- How men and women gain strength differently
- What happens in the first 2 years of strength training
- Why simple programs can be effective

If you have spoken to anyone in a gym or a professional trainer, I am sure you have heard of the term “newbie gains”.  This simply refers to the fast neural and physical adaptations undergone by people who have never weight trained before.  Understanding these adaptations can help you be more effective in your program writing.

The physical effect of strength training is evident: you increase your muscle mass.  This is particularly true of men.  Delmonico (3) and Ivey (6) show that as men grow the size of their muscles, they get equally as strong: strength and size are linearly correlated (11).  This factor continues to be true until elite level.  Therefore, it is vitally important that all novice powerlifting programs utilise bodybuilding elements.

This is less true for women though, as they have been shown to improve in strength, but without gaining a lot of muscle mass, leading researchers to conclude neural adaptations have taken place (3).  These studies focus on the changes the Motor Unit undergoes during training (13).  A Motor Unit is an individual muscle’s control centre. As you train more, this unit goes through many different changes, such as the amount of muscle it can control, the rate at which it can activate, and the way it switches muscles on and off; for example learning to use both bicep and triceps muscles as support muscles for the arm to overcome the weight in a bench press.



During strength training, the body produces satellite cells, which occur deep within the muscle at a cellular level.  What is important to know about these is they donate their nuclei, their control centre, to the changing muscle fibre, fusing it to the muscle.  This is termed satellite cell proliferation, and is incredibly important to remember later on when you become an elite lifter.  But for now, what you need to know is that it is important to try to continue this donation of nuclei from satellite cell to growing muscle fibre (5).

When you are developing your strength, simple linear programs can be effective, due to the quick increase in muscle mass and the huge amount of neural changes you experience, as well as the physiological changes occurring deep within the muscle.

A linear program can be as simple as performing the exercises once each per week, with assistance exercises afterward to focus on increasing muscle size, often termed “bodybuilding”.
You continue this until you can no longer do 5 reps on a given weight.  Then, you either drop the reps down to 3 reps and continue adding weight, or start again but add 5 – 10 kg on to your original starting weight.

You can continue this for up to 2 years, and still see successful increases in strength and muscle mass.


If you are planning to do a competition in your first year, you will want to complete a “build up” or a peaking phase, in which you continually increase the weight each week and drop the reps as and when you need, until you are at your 1 or 2 rep max.  This will allow you to know, roughly, what you will be able to do in the competition. However, this is for another article as it is beyond the scope of this topic.


Programming for intermediates

This includes:
- those who have been weight training for between 1 and 3 years consistently
- those who have completed between 1 and 3 powerlifting competitions or have been competing for between 6 months and 2 years
- those who have been strength training moderately in the gym, but have complimented it with a very physical sport such as rugby, American football, Gaelic football, Aussie rules football, etc. for at least 2 years.

We are going to look at:

- Why strength improvements become difficult
- How to overcome this
- How important detraining or “deload” is
- What kind of programs include these changes

If you have been consistently strength training for over a year, you may find improvements in your strength begin to reduce.  This is due to the body changing and adapting to the workload.  Unfortunately for us, when we continue training, our bodies go through repeated episodes of damage and repair.  Each time we damage our muscles, the extent of damage is reduced and thus the repair process is quicker.  Why is this unfortunate?  Because after a period of time, it becomes harder and harder to damage the muscle effectively enough to create progress in our strength or muscle size; this is known as the Repeated Bout Effect (RBE).

As Mchugh (7) indicates, “Despite numerous studies that have clearly demonstrated the repeated bout effect, there is little consensus as to the actual mechanism. In general, the adaptation has been attributed to neural, connective tissue or cellular adaptations. Other possible mechanisms include, adaptation in excitation-contraction coupling or adaptation in the inflammatory response.” In simple terms, we don’t really have any evidence for the reasons why RBE occurs.  What is important for us, as strength athletes, is that we understand it occurs, and how to overcome it.


Greg Nuckols' article Grow like a new lifter again? (4) discusses, in more detail than I am able to here, the mechanisms behind overcoming the effects of RBE.  Several studies have shown that utilising a deload phase can overcome these mechanisms by restoring the anabolic (growth) signaling pathways (8) of the body, which imitates the newbie gains we discussed earlier (9, 10).The above studies show that a deload phase of training, up to 3 weeks without weight training, can give as much improvements as continuously training.  Now you might be thinking “well, if they produce the same, why rest?”.  The studies also discuss that those who did rest showed signs of improving at a faster rate, and were studied mostly on novice lifters, indicating that you can elicit faster improvements in strength on even novice lifters, who improve at fast rates anyway.


Remember, our aim is to try to regain the growth experienced at the beginning of your training, continually promoting satellite cell proliferation, symbolised by the graph.  You are aiming to trick your body into an anabolic state before it gets too used to the overload you are subjecting it to.  This is how non-PED (Performance Enhancing Drugs) lifters can get the anabolic effect, to a certain extent, without using the PEDs.

Successful programs that utilise this deload and regain philosophy include the Wendler’s 5/3/1 program in which you build up for 3 weeks then deload for 1. If we are going to look entirely at the science, then this program is a little too short to truly utilise the body’s growth mechanisms, as most of the studies were based on 6 weeks of training and 3 weeks of deload.

In my experience, a 6-week training phase gives the body a good amount of time to adapt to the training cycle, without too much overload to the joints, energy system and the enjoyability factor.
Knowing strength athletes, as I do, giving them 3 weeks in which they are not allowed to pick up a weight is unrealistic; I struggle to keep some of my athletes out of the gym for a week!  So I would recommend a deload phase of between 10 to 15 days.

Programming for elite

This includes:
- those who have been weight training for over 5 years
- those who are at an international level of competing
- those who rank in the top 10 in their weight category at international level

We are going to look at:

- What happens when size becomes a less important factor for increases in strength
- The latest research on programming for elite lifters

Much of the information we have discussed so far can be utilised for an elite lifter, with the additional notion that past a certain point, neurological changes trump physical changes to improve performance.  At an elite level, it has been demonstrated that muscle mass is no longer perfectly correlated with strength (1), but that neurological changes surpass the importance of the size of muscle.  Now we delve into some serious, and much debated, science regarding the physiology of strength, namely the Henneman Size Principle versus Selective Motor Unit Principle (2).  I won’t discuss this too much, as I have left the reference for you to look at, but essentially the Henneman Size Principle states that the brain orders muscle to activate in size order, from the smallest first to the largest last.  For its part, the Selective Motor Unit Principle suggests the brain recruits the muscles it deems most suitable for the task, in order of usefulness.  Whichever theory reigns true is a moot point at this level, compared to understanding the notion that how the brain utilises muscles is more important than the size of the muscles, a factor our programs need to consider.  This can be done by selecting a high percentage of your 1RM (Repetition Max) as training weights such as 75-90%.

As an elite lifter, you will couple this information with the developing research on strength training that shows that for non-PED lifters, training each exercise 2-3 times per week can maintain the protein synthesis needed for muscle generation, and can continually overload the neuromuscular system into developing the neural pathways needed at elite level (17, 15).

Programs that utilise these theories include the Sheiko (14) program, Smolov and Smolov Jr (12) and the Norwegian training program (16).

Each of these programs - all to different extents - train each exercise 2-3 times per week at high volumes, but with low rep counts. For example, Sheiko and the Norwegian Program often use 5 sets of 2 or 3 reps, Smolov varies from 4 sets of 8 to 10 sets of 3 reps (it must be noted here that the Smolov programs are more peaking programs and not suitable for long term adherence, hence the vast difference in volume to the other two).

All the science aside, the most important factors to consider when developing programs for strength are:
- Level of ability of the lifter
- Time available for training
- Enjoyability, and thus adherence, to the program by the lifter
- The lifter’s ability to perform exercises and their derivations
- Previous injuries that may influence movement patterns of the lifter

It is great that we have the Internet to learn how to improve ourselves. However, nothing can replace tailor-made planning for development.  Whether it is in the form of a great coach or a program developed through critical reading of all the information available is down to the person. Adhering to a generic program though - no matter how great someone else has developed by using it - will never be as good as developing a program customized to your needs and goals.

The importance of programming for non-PED lifters is primarily centered around the issue of rest and recovery.  PEDs are designed to help a person recover quicker, and therefore increase the volume of work completed.  If we are unable to adhere to this volume of work, then we have to think carefully about how to best push our bodies without breaking them.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview on training methods for three different levels of lifter. Although it is not detailed in the research, theories or applications of programming for strength and powerlifting, its aim is to point you in the right direction when creating and designing your own programs.


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