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The Stage System

Das Stage System

Here is a brief summary:

  1. The Stage System involves multiple levels of load on a given exercise. The first stage is performed with heavy weights. The second stage is performed with lighter weights.
  2. This system utilizes Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP). In short, heavy weights on a few sets will improve your performance on the following sets with submaximal load.
  3. This approach works best with exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses, rows and pull-ups. However, do not use this approach for small muscle groups such as biceps.
  4. By changing a few training variables, the Stage System can be used to focus primarily on strength, hypertrophy or speed.

Strength, mass or speed? Make your choice:

The Stage System is one of the most versatile and versatile strategies available.

Training for terrifying strength? It excels at this. Training to build mass so you can finally leave those medium t-shirts behind? It can also be adapted to hypertrophy. Want to get faster at your sport? That too can be covered with the Stage System.

What is the Stage System?

The Stage System covers multiple levels of load in the first major exercises of your training session. It is simple:

  • The first stage (2 to 3 sets) is performed heavy
  • The second stage (1 to 2 more sets of the same exercise) is performed lighter.

Here are a few examples of what this might look like:

  • 2x3 (heavy, slower), 2x6 (slightly lighter, slower)
  • 2x3 (heavy, slower), 2x3 (fast, light)
  • 3x2, 1x5
  • 3x3, 1x8

How does it work?

Here's the super simple explanation: Moving heavy stuff makes magical things happen!

The slightly more complex explanation: Moving heavy weights recruits more high threshold muscle fibers - especially in more experienced strength athletes. This means that you recruit more muscle fibers with a heavy load.

In addition, heavy contractions increase the sensitivity of muscle fibers to calcium. Basically, previous performances have left a "stamp" on our nervous system and our individual muscle fibers. This transient change can enhance subsequent performances via a process known as postactivation potentiation (PAP).

Historically, all attention regarding PAP has been focused on how it can affect subsequent force production. In other words, a heavy set of squats might help you jump a little higher in subsequent vertical jumps.

However, what a lot of people have overlooked is that heavy loads can improve subsequent performance with all submaximal loads - not just those used for power training.

This means that your heavy loads can improve your ability to perform more quality volume-oriented training with a higher percentage of your 1RM to build more muscle mass.

This is another example of why, all other variables being equal, a stronger strength athlete will have the potential to be a bulkier strength athlete.

However, to get the most out of the Stage System, we need to understand how to use it correctly for each individual goal.

Rules for the Stage System

Only use the Stage System for one of the exercises in a training session. It should always be the first exercise of a given training day.

The reason for this? Your first stage needs to be heavy, which is why the last thing you should do is perform this exercise as the second or third exercise of a training session when you're already exhausted.

As such, this approach is better for multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses, rows and pull-ups. Do not use this system for direct arm training or calf training.

In addition, the Stage System is not well suited for supersets as the potentiation is short-lived. Such potentiation lasts for 3 to 10 minutes. In addition to this, performing another exercise adds more fatigue to the equation and this can reduce the benefits.

Your first stage (the heavy stage) should always include multiple sets

Scientific research has shown that PAP is optimized by performing more than one set. It's almost as if it takes multiple sets to wake up the nervous system.

But even though the first stage should be hard, it shouldn't be absurdly hard.

Here's a rule of thumb: you should complete the concentric (lifting) component of the exercise in less than 3 seconds when moving the bar as fast as you can.

Your choice of weights should also be determined by your training goal:

  • Strength: Train heavier and perform more sets of 1 to 2 reps or above 90% of your 1RM weight during your first level
  • Speed: Work in the 68 to 85% range with high bar speed
  • Mass: 80 to 90% range

Aside from the guys who are all about strength, the goal of the initial stage is entirely to generate the heavy side of the contrast to optimize the PAP effect.

Always take enough time between stage 1 and stage 2

Exhaustion is your biggest enemy when it comes to optimizing subsequent performances. Heavy sets should make you strong and athletic, but not exhausted.

If you're exhausted when you move on to the second stage, it's either because you went too heavy in the first stage, or you simply didn't rest long enough before moving on to the second stage.

How to choose your weights

So how much should you reduce your weights from the first stage to the second? This will depend on your training history and individual differences in muscle fiber types.

The more slowly contracting fibers you have and the longer you have been doing bodybuilding training or endurance sports, the smaller the reduction will be.

The more fast-twitch muscle fibers you have and the longer your training history of moving really heavy weights, the greater the reduction will need to be.

As a general rule of thumb, you should reduce the weight by about 3% per repetition. Let's use a 2 x 3, 2 x 6 stage system bench press as an example:

  • 300 pounds x 3
  • 300 pounds x 3
  • 270 pounds x 6 (since 91% of 300 pounds is 273 pounds)
  • 270 pounds x 6 (the weight can also be chosen higher or lower depending on how the first set of 6 repetitions was performed)

Warm up and intensity

Don't count anything below 90% of your best weight of the day on the first step. In other words, using our 2 x 3 and 2 x 6 example again, this means that a 250 pound x 3 set counts towards the 300 pound x 3 warm-up sets and does not count towards the work sets.

This is more of an issue with somewhat to moderately advanced strength athletes who still need to get a feel for where their strength capabilities are. You simply won't reap the benefits described if your sets aren't heavy enough at your first stage and you're not doing heavy enough sets - so don't count until things get really brutal.

Using the Stage System for strength

Ask yourself the following question:

"Is the limiting factor of my strength my neural efficiency or the cross-sectional area (size) of my muscles?"

If you are not neuronally efficient, then perform more work during the first stage. This is most common with moderately advanced athletes who may look bulky but are not as strong.

If you need to get more muscular to get stronger, then devote more of your attention to the second stage. This would be more applicable to a lighter strength athlete who wants to move up a weight class.

Examples of both scenarios:

More muscular athlete who needs more neural efficiency to get stronger:

  • 6x1, 2x3
  • 8x1, 1x4
  • 4x2, 1x5
  • 3x2, 2x5
  • 3x3, 1x6

As a rule of thumb, you should stay in the range of 3 or fewer repetitions for the first level sets and six or fewer repetitions for the second level sets.

Neuronally efficient athlete who needs more muscle mass:

  • 4x4, 2x8
  • 3x3, 2x8
  • 3x2, 3x6 (The third set is extra heavy as the effect diminishes)
  • 5x4, 1x8

Stick to 2 to 4 repetitions for the first stage sets and 5 to 8 repetitions for the second stage sets.

Using the Stage System to build muscle mass

Using the stage system to build muscle mass is quite similar to the second scenario for strength from above, but you have a lot more leeway to do crazier things with your second stage.

  • 4x4, 2x7
  • 3x4, 2x8
  • 3x3, 3x6 (again, the effect diminishes on the third set, making it extra agonizing)
  • 5x5, 2x8
  • 4x5, 2x10
  • 5x5, 1x15-20

Stick to 3 to 6 repetitions for the first level sets and 6 to 20 repetitions for the second level sets.

Note: If you're too bold on the huge compound sets, you won't be able to perform a lot of quality training during the rest of the session.

The set of 15 to 20 reps in the last scenario is a good example of this. If you do this on a set of squats, then you should not expect to be able to perform deadlifts with a usable load or reasonable volume as your second exercise of the day.

Use high volume follow up sets sparingly. They may sound sexy, but if you look back at your previous training logs, you'll realize that you can perform more quality volume over the course of a training session if your training is in the 6-10 repetition range during the second stage.

Remember that the goal is to use this approach as a strategy to increase the training density of your program - more volume in less time.

Using the Stage System for speed

If your goal is to improve your speed/power, then technically you won't be using the Stage System. Instead, you'll be performing a workout with complexes.

This may sound like a play on words, but in the Stage System, all exercises are performed with the same exercise. In a workout with complexes, the heavy load is used on one exercise, while the lighter load (or no additional load at all) is used on another exercise.

An example would be performing heavy squats, after which you move on to either lighter jumping squats or vertical jumps using only your own body weight. The effects are similar, only the exercises are different.

However, you can still use the stage system to improve your strength speed - which is very important for long-term improvements in powerlifting. If you can move a bar faster, your chances of completing a heavy repetition will increase.

A good approach here is 4 x 1, 4 x 3, although the total number of sets in the first stage may fluctuate from week to week as part of a monthly program.

The single repetitions of the first stage are performed at around 90% of the 1RM, while the subsequent sets of 3 repetitions are performed at 60 to 70%, with a focus on perfect technique and bar speed.

This approach works really well for deadlift training. It's a great option especially on days when you're not feeling so great and your bar speed is slowing down. Cut your heavy training short and just try to be as fast as you can with perfect technique and a submaximal load.

As has been noted, you can change things up a bit with this approach and incorporate some variety in terms of heavy/slow and lighter/faster transition schemes. Just remember that potential will diminish, so you probably won't get huge gains from performing more than 5-6 sets of the second stage.

By Eric Cressey


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