Training with Maximal
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: a large percentage of
professional bodybuilders are about as weak as a one-armed, octogenarian
stamp collector with severe arthritis. If some of these pro bodybuilders had
a bench-press contest with supermodel Kate Moss, Kate would win, emaciated
chest and all. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but over the last few years,
I've had the opportunity to train arms with a whole slew of pros, and it
never fails to chop their immense egos down a few notches. Why? Because
simply, I can generally handle more weight than they can, using stricter
form, even though they're usually up to 70 or 80 pounds heavier than I am.
Why am I so much stronger? The secret to my superior relative strength comes
from the regular use of maximal weights. Most bodybuilders stick religiously
to a 6 to 12 rep range when training arms. In most cases, 6 to 12 reps is
the best range for building up the arms, but like anything else, it only
works for a while. I'm utterly convinced that one of the reasons
bodybuilders fail to achieve their growth potential is that they're simply
too weak for their cross-sectional muscle area.
When you look at a hypertrophied thigh of a weight lifter or power lifter,
it's most often a case of "what you see is what you get." Yet, in
many bodybuilders particularly in those that use massive doses of anabolics
and growth hormone their size rarely reflects their strength.
Believe it or not, I've seen at least three Mr. Olympia contestants that
couldn't even bench press 315 pounds for six reps, and that was in the
off-season, when they're supposed to be their biggest and strongest. One of
them even asked me to open up a peanut-butter jar for him. Okay, I'm kidding
again about the peanut-butter jar, but my point is, there are plenty of
strongman contest competitors with massive arms who are every bit as strong
as they look.
What's the difference? Drugs, you may ask? No. Many strength athletes also
use anabolics, but the main difference is in their choice of training
methods. As a general rule, strongman competitors train using few exercises,
done for multiple sets of low reps with long rest intervals between sets.
I recently used one of these IFBB pros as a guinea pig to test my theory.
Milos Sarcev, a very popular and widely known professional bodybuilder was
in the midst of serious muscle plateau. When I convinced him to start using
heavier loads in his workouts, his physique skyrocketed. As a result, being
narrowly edged out of first place, he almost won the prestigious Night of
the Champions competition. Maybe he took solace in the fact that he knew he
could easily beat the winner in an arm-wrestling contest.
Why Use Maximal Weights?
As I've said time and time again, the nervous system is the forgotten
component of bodybuilding, and training with maximal weights targets this
area by improving the link between the central nervous system and the
muscular system (see Table 1). This is what German exercise physiologists
refer to as intra-muscular training. By using this method, the trainee will
learn to access a greater percentage of motor units in a given cross-section
of muscle tissue.
Neuromuscular Basis for Maximal Weights Training (Poliquin, 1988)
Increased neural drive to muscle
Increased synchronization of motor units
Increased activation of contractile apparatus
Decreased inhibition of protective mechanisms of muscle
The remainder of this article will explain how to increase your arm strength
dramatically by using a progression of varied set and rep patterns. The end
result will be bigger arms that are as strong as they look.
Here, in a nutshell, are the set and rep patterns for a 12-week arm strength
WEEK ........SETS .....REPS
4 thru 6 -----6 ------2 to 4
7 thru 9 -----2 ------6 to 8 to absolute failure
10 thru12 ----5 ------5 / 4 / 3 / 2 / 1
Weeks 1-3: The 5x5 Training Method
This method is one of the more classical methods of developing size and
strength. It was popularized way back in the fifties and sixties by British
bodybuilder Reg Park (who happened to be a hero of Arnold Schwarzeneggar's),
but it's still highly effective.
The method experienced somewhat of a revival in the late seventies when
strength coach Bill Starr published his classic book, "Only the
Strongest Shall Survive." Starr used the method often and believed it
to be a staple in developing strength.
Below, in table form, is a sample 5x5 program using 200-pound close-grip
bench presses. The goal is to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions with 200 pounds,
but if you're like most people, your first workout will fall short a few
reps in the last sets (column B).
You should only increase the load if you can do a full 5 sets of 5 reps. If,
however, you weren't able to do at least 14 total working repetitions, your
chosen load was too high, as seen in column C.
Correct Warm-up Typical First Workout Weight Too Heavy
45 x 5 ----200 x 5 ---200 x 4
95 x 5 ----200 x 4 ---200 x 3
135 x 5 ---200 x 3 ---200 x 2
185 x 5 ---200 x 3 ---200 x 2
200 x 3 ---200 x 2 ---200 x 2
If you count up the reps in column C, you'll find that this particular
trainee was only able to do 13 total working reps. Two hundred pounds is too
much weight in this instance, and the trainee should have used perhaps 5
If, however, the trainee was able to do 5 sets of 5 reps, in either the
first workout or subsequent workouts, he or she should increase the weight
by 5 or 10 pounds. The key is to keep adding small increments of weight
until the 3-week training period is over.
Here's a sample arm workout using the 5x5 method:
Weeks 1-3 (5x5 Reps 402 Tempo 120 Second Rest Interval)
A1: Seated Dumbbell Curls
A2: Parallel Bar Dips
Increase resistance by either hanging a plate off a weight belt or by
holding a dumbbell between your feet.
B1: Scott Reverse Curls
B2: Lying E-Z Bar Triceps Extensions
Weeks 4-6: The Patient Lifter's 6x4 Method
This method requires that you start off with a weight that you can handle
comfortably for 6 sets of 2 reps. Depending on how neurologically efficient
you are, the weight will be anywhere from 80 to 87% of your 1-rep maximum.
The goal is to be able to eventually use the same weight to do 6 sets of 4
reps. Why is it called the "Patient Lifter's" method? Because you
don't get to increase the load until you can do all 6 sets for 4 reps, using
a weight that you could initially only do for 6 sets of 2 reps. You'll
either get stronger or bore yourself to death by using the same weight over
Don't worry, though. You'll get stronger quickly and graduate to a higher
weight. The system works by the law of repeated efforts. You'll force the
nervous system to accept the new load as being "normal." Be sure
to take at least 4-5 minutes in-between sets, though, to allow full recovery
of the nervous system. However, you can still pair exercises for the agonist
and antagonists together during the 4-5 minute resting period to maximize
the return on your training time. In other words, if you do a set of 2 (or
4) reps for biceps, you can do a set of 2 (or 4) reps for triceps while
you're waiting for the 4-5 minutes to tick away.
Here's a sample routine for weeks 4
Weeks 4-6 (6x2-4 Reps 501 Tempo 120 Second Rest Interval)
A1: Scott Close-Grip BB Curls
A2: Close-grip Bench Press
B1: Standing EZ-Bar Curls
B2: Rack Lock-Outs
Weeks 7-9: 2 x 6-8 Reps to Absolute Failure Method
Fans of Mike Mentzer will recognize the similarities between this type of
training and Mike's Heavy Duty training. Why do I recommend a Heavy Duty
type protocol? Well, because it works...for the brief time it takes you to
adapt to it, which is usually about 3 weeks.
If you've followed the program religiously to this point, you'll have been
doing between 20 and 24 sets for arms, per workout. By this time in the
12-week program, your arms will be ready to train at a lower intensity (in
terms of percentage of maximum) and use a method where the
time-under-tension, per set, is lengthened.
Before we talk about the rhyme and reason behind this 3-week training phase,
let's first go over the three types of muscular failure. The first type is
concentric failure. It simply means you can't lift the weight again. Then,
there's static failure: your muscles are so wiped out that you can't even
hold the weight statically at any point in the range of motion. And lastly,
there's eccentric failure. This is the point where you can't control the
weight as you lower it, regardless of what tempo you're using.
When you reach failure on all three types of contractions, you've reached
"absolute failure." Here's how a typical set would progress: After
warming up, you choose a weight that allows you to do between 6 and 8 reps
before reaching concentric failure. At that point, a training partner gives
you just enough assistance to complete the next rep, but you lower the
weight in a controlled fashion without any assistance. After doing 2 or 3 of
these assisted reps, your muscles should be so fatigued that you can't even
control the eccentric descent. This is absolute failure.
Of course, this may be problematic if you don't have a training partner. You
can, however, use single-arm movements like the one-arm French press or
dumbbell concentration curls that allow you to perform forced reps with your
The only other thing you have to remember is to increase the weight on the
next workout once you reach 8 reps.
Sample routine for weeks 7-9 using the 2
sets of 6-8 reps to absolute failure method:
Weeks 7-9(2x 6-8 Reps 302 Tempo 90 Second Rest Interval)
A1: Rack Lock-Outs Concentration Curls
A2: Lying DB Triceps Extensions
B1: Seated Hammer Curls
B2: Decline E-Z Bar Triceps Extensions
Weeks 10-12: The 5/4/3/2/1 Method
This method is a favorite of sports medicine expert Dr. Mauro DiPasquale,
who used to be a World Powerlifting Champion. It's also a favorite of mine
because it teaches me to count backward. You simply start off with your 5 RM
and add 2-3% more weight every set, doing one less rep each set until you
reach your 1RM. One added benefit of this method is that it teaches your
muscles and nervous system how to express their true, 1-rep maximum. In
other words, most people can't go from doing habitual sets of 8 reps to
doing a true, 1 RM until you've "taught" yourself how to recruit
Here's what a typical work-set progression would look like for a close-grip
bench press, assuming your 1RM for the movement is about 300 pounds:
Example Work-Set Progression (Using PlateMates or record plates, increase
resistance by 2.5-pound increments).
265x5 - 270x4 - 275x3 - 282.5x2 - 290x1
Obviously, you'll need to adjust the starting weight upwards by small
amounts as you progress. For instance, if you successfully complete all the
reps (5/4/3/2/1), you'll need to add a small amount of weight before the
Sample routine of weeks 10-12 using the
Weeks 10-12 (5/4/3/2/1 Method 120 Second Rest Interval)
A1: Decline Close-Grip Bench Press 321 tempo
A2: Scott One-Arm DB Curls 601 tempo
B1: Incline BB Triceps Extensions 311 tempo
B2: Standing Reverse Curls 321 tempo
General Tips for Training With Maximal Weights
Although training with maximal weights is fairly straightforward, there are
various things to keep in mind so that you can make the most of this 12-week
1. If possible, train in groups of two or three athletes. This will
make it easier to load and unload plates, as well as serve as a natural
"clock." In other words, when lifter B and lifter C finish their
sets, it's time for you to do your next set. Training partners also serve to
motivate you and help cut down the risk of injury.
2. Increase the weight or load by 1-3% when you achieve your rep
goals. Most gyms don't carry a lot of small disks, but you can buy Eleiko
Olympic disks of 0.5 kilograms and 0.25 kilograms from Sports Strength
Another alternative is to buy PlateMates. They're magnetized weights that
fit on the end of a bar. They sell both 1 1/4 pound weights and 5/8 pound
weights. They're a great thing to have anyhow, as they also attach to
dumbbells for making intermediate jumps in weight. I recommend you buy the
donut-shaped ones, as they also fit on hexagon dumbbells.
3. Record all sets, reps, and rest intervals for purposes of
motivation, monitoring, and program evaluation. Invest a few bucks in a
training diary and keep meticulous records. The more high-tech approach is
to use an Apple Newton, of course, like one of my clients. Unfortunately,
this method has inherent disadvantages. For some reason, training partners
"inadvertently" drop weights on them to see how far the computer
4. Try to pair agonists and antagonists together. This helps with
muscle recovery. The ability of a muscle to produce full motor-unit
activation may be enhanced when preceded immediately by a contraction of the
muscle's antagonist. It's also effective to alternate agonist/antagonist
exercises to increase motor unit activation, as long as you allow for enough
rest in-between sets.
5. Don't overdo it. Keep the workouts under 1 hour, as working out
longer will deplete androgen levels.
6. Make sure that you're motivated before you begin to work out.
7. Keep in mind that, contrary to popular bodybuilding methodology,
maximal weight training imposes lower energy requirements per time unit. To
put it simply, you won't burn as many calories and your caloric requirements
will be less during this training period.
In closing, let me say that maximal weight training isn't for everyone.
People who are only interested in having arms that aren't the least bit
functional should avoid them like the plague and work out with Kate Moss.
Author: Charles Poliquin