If You Aren’t Getting Stronger, then What the Hell Are You Doing?
Of all the attributes of fitness that people can train, strength has to be the single most useful attribute of them all. Its positive effects on lean muscle mass, bone density, connective tissue strength, body awareness, and one’s ability to produce powerful movement is second-to-none. It’s as simple as that.
Now, only if it were that simple to gain strength at different levels of advancement as it is to argue for strength’s usefulness. Sure, the beginners can screw around and throw more weight on the bar every workout, but that doesn’t work forever. If it were that easy, then everyone could flip cars and tear phone books. It ain’t that easy, not everyone can do crazy feats of strength.
So let’s say you are a beginner, and want some help with getting stronger. You could find some books on strength training. Try searching “strength” on Amazon under the fitness section and see what you come up with – Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength comes up as the first result. This is to be expected, as the strength and fitness community seems to regard Starting Strength as the go-to program and training manual for beginners. Given that it only involves performing two alternating workouts with three exercises each, putting additional weight on the bar after each successful workout, and eating a lot, it’s no wonder why it has such a solid reputation.
Not before long, a beginner will exhaust progress on a program such as Starting Strength. What now? Things have gotten a bit more complicated because now you’re unable to just keep increasing the weight on your lifts every workout. Do you increase weight every other workout? Once per week? Once per month? How many workouts do you need per week? Rippetoe authored another book that can help answers those questions for you.
My Review of Practical Programming for Strength Training
Let’s go back to those search results I linked two paragraphs ago. If you scroll down further, you will find Rippetoe’s other training book, Practical Programming for Strength Training. This is sort of resembles “the sequel” to Starting Strength, although it is much more than that.
To describe this book in one sentence… I can say this book aims to teach a lifter or coach how to create and apply a strength program at any level of progress. Compare this to Rippetoe’s prior book, which aims to teach the basic lifts and is centered around a single beginner’s program.
The chapters of Practical Programming for Strength Training consist of the following topics:
- Stress, recovery, and adaptation.
- The importance of strength, particularly for athletes (but, really, for anyone).
- Basics of training programs.
- Novice programming.
- Intermediate programming.
- Advanced programming.
- Special populations and strength training.
The unifying theme in this book is stress, recovery, and adaptation. Any strength training program, whether it be novice or advanced, is based around stress, recovery, and adaptation. Practical Programming helps you understand this premise and apply it when you are trying to create a strength program for yourself or someone else.
In each of the stages of experience that this book goes over, the length of time needed for stress/recovery/adaptation is discussed. Sample programs are given for each of those stages of experience. For example, the novice section summarizes Starting Strength, as that’s obviously the author’s choice of beginner’s programs. Actually, that is the only example given in the novice section. Meanwhile, the intermediate and advanced sections give a large number of sample programs that help drive home how much stimulus and time for recovery is needed at different stages of training.
Within those chapters also are also considerations for common problems or needs at various stages of training. For example, most of the sample programs in Practical Programming are 3-days-per-week workouts. Some lifters may find 3-whole-body workouts per week boring, or the workouts may take them too long. So, a number of sample programs are compiled in the book that four-days-per week routines. Such an example is nice because it shows some consideration for real-life scenarios.
The intermediate section of the book primarily focuses on the Texas Method. The Texas Method is well known for increasing one’s strength on a weekly basis once newbie gains have been all used up. Basically, the Texas Method involves a brutal “volume day” early in the week as stimulus, a “recovery” day to allow for repair, and an “intensity day at the end of the week to put up a new personal record. This section gives awesome instructions on how to use the Texas Method along with its various stages. As the trainee becomes more advanced with the strength training, the Texas Method will go into different phases to allow progress to continue. The remainder of this section discusses “splits”, AKA the four-day programs mentioned earlier.
As the book progresses to the advanced stages of training, the history and workings of periodization is discussed. Periodization is essentially the cycles of training that are planned and used once a trainee/athlete needs more time to improve strength. The way it’s laid out in this book is that there’s a period of high volume training, followed by a deload, and finished with an intensification phase in which progress is finally seen. Just as I said before, there are multiple sample programs here. In this section, there are numerous sample programs for athletes of different sports.
Everything is described in pristine detail. Examples are given FOR EVERYTHING. Like with the sample programs, an idea is laid out, and then made easy to understand in the real-world. The writing is clear, crisp, and incredibly easy to understand. It’s not that it is written at a low-level, but the author’s ideas are so straight-forward and well-written. It just flows straight into your brain as you read it. As informative as it was, it was a relaxing read as it took little effort to assimilate the author’s ideas in my brain.
Some Criticisms of Practical Programming (That is Somewhat Useful)
As I said before, the bulk of the sample programs in Practical Programming for Strength Training are in a three-day format. Now, these sample program are merely an illustration of the ideas presented in the book, and aren’t intended to be followed literally.
The issue is, however, that there isn’t much discussed in the book about strength training daily or twice per week, for example. Many people have successfully trained with super-low to super-high frequency. It would’ve been nice to see some discussion regarding increasing training frequency as a means to speed up progress, and how to successfully implement such a plan. Likewise for low-frequency training; some thoughts on implementation would’ve been appreciated.
The other issue I have is with the sole focus being stress/recovery/adaptation is within the framework of volume-recovery-intensity. In both Texas Method and the advanced sample programs, everything is essentially a period of high volume, followed by a deload, followed by a period of high intensity and new personal records.
Why do I care? Well, other styles of training/programs follow a different mode of stress/recovery/adaptation. Bulgarian-style training is famous for its high frequency, and everyday is essentially an “intensity day” in which lifts are performed with near-maximal weights. There’s also more old-fashioned programs, such as Doug Hepburn’s Heavy Singles routine. This program involves performing heavy singles at 4 sets of 1, adding a set each workout until 10 sets of 1 is hit, which will take 3-4 weeks. Then the weight is increased and the lifter starts with 4 sets of 1 again. This type of routine keeps intensity high the whole time, but gradually increases volume, until it is dropped again. This drop simultaneously allows for recovery while actualizing new strength gains.
Nothing is mentioned regarding these “alternative” methods that have been quite successful for some lifters. Practical Programming makes it seem as if “traditional” periodization is the only way to train for strength, when indeed it is not.
These criticisms aren’t entirely negative in the end, because they’ve pushed me to experiment with frequency alternative methods of stress/recovery/adaptation. Along with a better understanding of how the body adapts, I am better at recognizing if a program is working or not, or if a program will work or not. Whereas before I’d program-hop to find “the best thing out there”, I can easily look at what’s worked for me before, and recognize what I can try to change to keep progress going.
With this experimenting and such, I’ve discovered my upper body responds well with much more frequency, while my lower doesn’t need an overkill. Had I’ve not read Practical Programming for Strength Training, my curiosity for training frequency would have never been sparked. Then, I may have not discovered this important observation about my own body.
Mark Rippetoe’s Practical Programming for Strength Training deserves to be in any lifter’s or coach’s library. It has helped develop my ability to analyze and design strength programs for myself and others. It reviews the basics, and makes sense of programming at various stages of training. It is never difficult to grasp the information in this book and is a very enjoyable read. Being under $20, it is worth the investment many times over. This is despite any criticisms I may have with it.