by Mike Roussell, PhD T-Nation
Last December I spent a weekend with my friend and master strength coach, Joe Dowdell of Peak Performance, NYC. Naturally, I asked him for a new program, and he immediately pulled out a strength program that included only one workout.
I asked where the sheets for the other workouts were. He said that was it – just one workout.
Seven exercises (three of which could be considered accessory), repeated three days a week for a month.
I wasn't buying it. "That won't work," I said.
Joe politely informed me that I was wrong, so I decided to put him and his program to the test and see if minimal-type training could get me strong.
We picked the deadlift as the benchmark with the goal of getting me to pull 500 pounds. Late in October I pulled 420 pounds for 1 rep and failed at 450, and I didn't deadlift again until I started Joe's program in January.
Fast forward to April after following Joe's program for about three and a half months – I smoked 500 pounds. I added 80 pounds to my deadlift. So the Master Trainer was right after all. There, I said it.
Here's what else I learned along the way:
1. Variety is Overrated
I used the same workout, three days a week for four weeks. This means in 16 weeks I only did four different workouts.
It was awesome. When you do the same thing day-in and day-out you get really good at it, and one of the reasons I was able to add 80 pounds to my pull in such a short time was that I got really good at deadlifting – I deadlifted (a variation such as the Romanian deadlift) three days a week for nearly four months.
Strength is a skill, and Joe says decreasing variety so you can master the skill of a movement is greatly underrated.
Here's the first 4-week block of my deadlifting program. I repeated it Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 4 weeks.
2. Get Better With Each Workout
Every workout I got better – I added weight to the bar or did more reps. Towards the end of my journey I couldn't add weight to my deadlift every workout, but I did get better on the supporting exercises. That was my rule: get better, somehow, every session.
3. Don't Use Your Brain's Default Network
In the book, Your Brain at Work, author David Rock talks about two thought networks that your brain functions on, the default network and the experience network. The default network is the one that you usually use, hence "default."
In the book he gives a great example of the two networks in action. You're sitting on a dock by a lake drinking a beer. The default network in your brain is thinking about what you're going to have for dinner, how you fell off a dock as a kid and almost drowned, and what you need to do to get caught up at work.
The experience network is your brain thinking about the cold taste of the beer and the way the breeze feels on your face.
When lifting, using your default network is a recipe for failure. Your default network will run through all the reasons why you can't lift the weight, the five ways it could go wrong and you'll get hurt, and how you should just do something easier.
Live in your experience network and weight training becomes meditative. Get in that moment. Grab the bar, tense your body, and rip it off the ground. I only missed lifts on the days that I fell back into using my default network.
4. Limit Energy Leaks
Energy used getting psyched up is energy you don't have to lift the weight. One day I got psyched up for a lift, but when I bent down I couldn't budge it.
My training partner, fellow T Nation author Todd Bumgardner, looked at me and said, "Dude, you're leaking energy all over the place with your pre-lift crap. Take a breath, get tight, and lift the weight." That became my ritual. No more energy leaks.
5. The Closer You Get to Your Max, the More You Need to Self-Regulate
The closer I got to pulling 500 pounds, the more I had to self-regulate the weight of my lifts. One Saturday, 455 felt light and I pulled it for 3 sets of 3. The following Monday it felt extremely heavy, so I did it just for 1 set of 2. The day that I pulled 500 I wasn't planning on it, but I felt good and 475 went up easy, so I went for it.
6. Deadlifting is Hard on Your Body
Deadlifting three times a week wears on your body. Strength Coach Keith Scott from Impact in South Jersey says that in his 21 years of training clients, nothing is harder on the body than regular heavy deadlifting. This makes placing an emphasis on recovery even more important.
7. Tension in Your Lats is Greatly Underrated
During the deadlift, developing and holding muscular tension in the lats is essential for keeping everything aligned, especially as the weight starts to get heavy.
8. Strong Deadlifts = Strong Body
Along with getting a stronger pull, I got stronger everywhere else: stronger Romanian deadlift, stronger bench, and stronger push press. You can get big biceps and still have weak legs, but it doesn't work that way with deadlifts – they get you strong all over.
9. Perfect Your Form Early
It's very important to perfect your deadlifting form early on as the heavier you go, the more your body will want to divert from proper lifting technique. You want your deadlifting groove to be cemented so your body automatically knows what to do, even when things get heavy.
10. Your Back is Going to Round, so Just Stay Tight
Once I started lifting around 90% of my max, my back started rounding a bit. There was no way getting around this – the weight was heavy. But focusing on keeping tension throughout my body helped keep my form sound while preventing injury, allowing me to keep moving up in weight.
11. A Good Training Partner is Worth His Weight in Gold
I've trained alone for about 8 years, but having a good training partner is irreplaceable. Todd even came to the gym one day when he wasn't scheduled to train just to coach me through some lifts. The fact that Todd can also out-pull me by almost 150 pounds kept me humble as well.
12. Your Program Doesn't Need to be Fancy to Get Results
Effort and sound periodization are what added 80 pounds to my pull, not some sexy program with lots of variety. Remember, basic movements, block periodization, and adding weight to the bar is what gets you strong (and maybe a little more sexy).
13. Deloading With Volume But Not Intensity Allows You to Peak Each Month
Joe de-loaded my program every fourth week by decreasing the volume, but not the intensity of my lifts – 4 sets of 3 would become 2 sets of 2. This was great as it allowed me to keep lifting heavier weights even during my de-load, so each month I got a mini "peak" while still reaping the benefits of deloading.
14. Getting Strong Means Getting Mentally Strong
To get strong you need to be mentally strong. There were many mornings when my alarm went off at 5:20 AM that I didn't want to get up and deadlift, but I did.
Natural bodybuilder and fellow nutrition PhD Layne Norton has become famous for squatting heavy 3-4 times a week. His secret is simply not being a wimp and just doing it. Don't worry so much about overtraining; trust in proper periodization, and get after it.
15. Meeting Strength Goals is One of Life's Most Rewarding Things
My life is full of rewarding things, but ever since I stopped competing athletically, something's been missing.
Many people set body comp goals and those are great, but it's not like you wake up one morning and discover that you've achieved your goal of 6% body fat– it's a much more gradual process. But hitting a strength goal is awesome as you either do it or you don't. Three and a half months of training down to one rep; less than 20 seconds. The rush of success – immediate and awesome.
I hate being wrong, but I love getting stronger and learning new things more than I hate being wrong. So I had no trouble telling Joe that his minimalist, "too basic" program was just what the doctor ordered, at least for this PhD.
My next goal is to catch Todd in the deadlift. I don't know if I'll succeed, but I do know that it will be basic, focused work that gets me there.