I like to use this quote from American record-breaking powerlifter Ed Coan when coaching young lifters and beginners because it reinforces the importance of technique every time you lift a weight.
“Once you start treating the light weights like heavy weights, the heavy weights will go up a lot easier,” Coan said.
If you think about it, there are three types of weightlifting for anyone looking to get stronger. There’s light weight with more reps (12-15+), medium weight with medium reps (8-10), and heavy weight with fewer reps (1-5).
All offer different benefits compared to basic calisthenics resistance training. Sure, you can build muscle and get stronger with calisthenics, but the limit tends to be the lifter’s body weight. Although you can add weight vests to lower the rep range of calisthenics and achieve many of the benefits of lifting, switching your workout to a lifting cycle could instead be a natural progression from a calisthenics-only routine that helps prevent injuries and major injuries can help strength gains.
Muscle building and/or strength building
Most people who start lifting want bigger muscles. Bodybuilding is most effective when the focus is more on building bigger muscles and burning excess fat, making those muscles more visible. The good news for this group is that you can start with light weights and higher reps and see great results as muscle size increases as you get stronger.
However, there is a limit to adding more strength when lifting light weights. Finally, if you want to develop more strength, you need to increase the weight and decrease the rep range. In fact, building strength often requires a cycle in which muscle size is first increased, then strength can be added with either a medium rep cycle or a low rep heavy cycle. Depending on your goals, these three methods can be done individually, but they work best when they all support each other in some way, especially in the early years of strength training.
This is what my personal training cycle will look like this year, aiming to build muscle and add strength but also maintain calisthenics and cardio scores. This is ideal for those serving or aspiring to serve and need to pass military proficiency tests but also need to add strength for other rigorous activities required by the military profession.
High repetition and light weight
Focus on a 12-15+ rep range for all exercises on both upper and lower body days. I recommend 2-3 upper body days and 2-3 lower body days per week, although you can do a full body day 2-3 times per week if you prefer.
This cycle can be performed with machine lifts as well as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, and TRX free weight training routines. Depending on your skill level, the total number of sets can range from 2-3 sets for beginners to up to 10 sets for advanced muscular endurance athletes.
For week 4, consider a deload week, shifting the focus from lifting to more calisthenics and cardio maintenance, mixing up all the test events from your current military fitness test, or trying future tests for military enlistment or special programs.
Medium reps and medium weight
Focus on heavier weights that enforce a rep range of 8-10 reps per set. You may find that the heavier the weight and the fewer reps, the more challenging it is to recover. You can rearrange your split routine as your weights get heavier and focus on upper body pulls one day and pushes the next, followed by a leg day. Depending on your skill level, you may want to repeat the three-day split throughout the week, or skip it if you’re not ready.
This will be another deload week of calisthenics and cardio as a recovery week before the next cycle of heavier weight training. Depending on your goals and situation, the deload week can simply be a simple training week used for pure recovery rather than focusing on a different energy system and training style.
Fewer reps and heavy weight
Focus on even heavier weights that enforce a 4-6 rep range with a few 1-3 rep exercises. When lifting this heavy load, proper form and comfort while lifting is a must. Make sure you’re in good form before attempting 1-5 reps at your maximum power range.
These exercises are hard on recovery and require extra rest, sometimes up to a few minutes, between sets. Personally, I like to focus on my breathing and take quick breaths, then do active rest like walking, cycling, or some core exercises for a few minutes. I find these help me stay warm and ready to lift the next set.
Some classic heavier lifts are five sets of five bench presses, squats, and deadlifts, but you can apply this combination to many other machine exercises as well.
This is a partial unloading week as above, followed by a few rest days and a final test day to see if the five-rep, three-rep, and/or one-rep lift has improved over the 12-week cycle.
If you’re thinking about adding weightlifting to your training routine, my advice is to remember Coan’s quote and practice light weight to build muscle, but also master the technique of lifting heavier weights. Eventually the heavy weight will feel lighter.
The system I’m using above is more of a block periodization model for tactical athletes who need to maintain cardio and muscular endurance metrics, as well as build strength and general endurance.
— Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness writer who is a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook Store if you want to start an exercise program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to [email protected].
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