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The 8 rules of maximum force

Die 8 Regeln der maximalen Kraft

Getting really strong is a marathon. There are lessons you need to learn, injuries you need to recover from and time you need to invest to get the most weight on the bar.

The good news? You can significantly reduce the time it takes to achieve some really good strength numbers if you're willing to learn, focus and act smart instead of overzealous... and all of this will also require you to accept some of the boredom that accompanies it.

Not every training session will set you on fire, but every single training session is a stone that will help you build a foundation and a mighty house that will eventually stand on that foundation. Here are some of the foundation stones you need to lay.

1 - Simplify your training sessions

If you can't move 150 kilos doing squats, then you probably don't need to do safety bar box squats with chains. It's quite possible that you just need to perfect your squat technique and spend a lot of time doing squats.

The exercises will do a great job of building yourself up - especially as your technique improves. Trying to add variations of variations of these exercises to your training is time poorly spent.

Strength has a strong neural component and the more often you perform an exercise, the more efficient you will become. The more variations you use, the less time you can spend in the neural zone getting better at your primary exercises.

Choose the exercises you want to get good at and work from a minimalist's point of view when it comes to exercise selection. If your strength is stagnant and your technique is pretty solid, ask yourself if you've been doing too many variations - or too many exercises in general - during your training.

2 - Perfect your technique

Before you try to improve your weak points, you need to ask yourself the most important question of all: Does my technique need to be corrected?

Even if you are using technically sound form in an exercise, it may not be serving you in the way you want it to. Why? Because there's a difference between making a muscle work harder or making it move maximum weights. To emphasize one is to not emphasize the other. These two goals require opposite intentions and physical approaches:

  • If you want to make a muscle work harder, then you need to increase the tension in a specific area. To achieve this, you have to put the muscle in a less favorable position in terms of leverage. People who do this (bodybuilders) try to make a light weight feel heavy.
  • If you want to move maximum weights, then you need to use synergy. Engage as many muscles as possible. To achieve this, you need to be in a more leveraged position relative to the bar so that it becomes easier to move. People who do this (powerlifters and strength athletes) try to make a heavy weight feel light.

To optimize the lever ratios relative to the bar, the trainee must first be aware of where they are strongest or more dominant from a muscular perspective.

Examples: An exerciser who has massive quadriceps but weak hips might benefit from squats with a higher bar position that are more quadriceps dominant. An exerciser with strong gluteus and strong hamstrings might find that they can move more weight in deadlifts using a sumo stance than using a normal stance.

And what about weak points? Okay, sure, it's important to bring your weaker muscle areas up to par with the rest of your body, but your weak points will always be weaker compared to your stronger areas due to natural leverage ratios and your ability to recruit certain muscles better.

You also need to analyze your technique to make sure you're not on the best path to future injury. Critical self-assessment is important for this - and you will only develop this after a few years under the barre or under the eye of a very good coach. Here are a few generally recognized technical corrections for the heavy basic exercises:

  • Conventional deadlift (starting position) - shins vertical, spine neutral, elbows back to activate the latissimus, load on the middle of the foot (this will feel more like the weight is on your heels, which is fine)
  • Sumo deadlift (starting position) - vertical shins, hips as close to the bar as possible, neutral spine position.
  • Bench press - wrists and elbows are in line, shoulders pulled back (shoulder blades pulled together), heels behind the knees at the level of the buttocks (move your feet back until your back is under so much tension that you feel like your spine is about to snap in half)
  • Squats - the shoulder blades are pulled together, the spine is in a neutral position, the weight is over the middle of the foot.

This is not an all-inclusive list, but it should have a cascading effect when it comes to getting you into certain positions or evaluating your positioning against the bar so that you can figure out what leverage ratios feel most natural for your body type and allow you to move the most weight.

The other part is cues and clues and understanding the reason for those cues. There are internal cues (which refer to what the muscles should be doing) and external cues (which refer to what the body should be doing in relation to an external source, such as the floor, the bench on the bench press, or the bar itself).

For example, the cue "push through the floor" when deadlifting is an external cue.

The cue "push through the hips" is an internal cue. Remembering these cues - both external and internal - is crucial to maintaining proper form.

3 - Attack the bar with all your might

This is not about hitting your head on the bar before the exercise, but about moving the bar at the highest speed you are capable of from the beginning to the end of the movement. Moving the bar aggressively is a form of compensatory acceleration training or CAT (compensatory acceleration training).

However, it is important to remember the "from start to finish of the movement" part. When most exercisers perform an exercise with a weight that is close to their maximum weight - like 90% of 1RM or more - they start the movement with a lot of force and acceleration. Then, when they get past the critical point of the movement - or the part of the movement where they realize they're really going to be able to do the repetition - they strain less and move the weight slower and looser through the rest of the range of motion.

With CAT, you continue to accelerate once you have passed the critical point of the movement. You train yourself to push the weight much harder through the critical range of motion and because you train this, you will learn that you don't need to push as hard as you thought you did at the beginning of the movement.

The speed at which you accelerate the weight from the start of the movement is one of the most important components when it comes to overcoming or failing at the critical point of the movement. If the speed is too slow to help you get the bar through the transition phase of the movement, then you will fail that repetition. This is why it is so important to start the movement with as much acceleration as possible and CAT will teach you to move the weight more powerfully as it hammers it into you to accelerate the weight from start to finish of the movement.

Squats and deadlifts tend to respond very well to CAT using percentages in the 60 to 75% range with higher volume and low to moderate reps. We are talking 4 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 repetitions.

On the bench press, the same set and repetition scheme will work well, though the percentages should be slightly higher in the 80 to 85% range.

This is reminiscent of what most people think of as speed training (speed work). However, to be effective, a speed workout must not be so light that it doesn't carry over to maximum weights, while also not being so heavy that the speed of the bar slows down significantly. This is where CAT can differ slightly from what is known as speed training or 'speed work' (which often uses 50% of 1RM weight).

4 - Choose appropriate maximum weights when training

Let's be honest, when you talk about max weights on social media, it's usually more about praise and attention than actually getting stronger. And if you're playing high poker, you can't get mad when you're challenged.

So you should reconsider this kind of maximum weight or do like Ed Coan. When asked about his max weights, Ed Coan said "I don't know, I never test my max weight during training. I save my best performances for competitions."

You can get as strong as you're ever going to be and you can achieve this without ever performing a true max repetition during training. That being said, there is a smart way to reach your max weight that isn't energy sapping. Think of it as determining an EDM (every day maximum) - a maximum weight you can reach every day.

Your EDM is the maximum weight you can reach even if you're having a bad day, if you're feeling a little sickly and even if you're in a bit of overtraining. This max weight takes into account potential fatigue and helps you establish a feasible baseline - which is especially important if you're using a training system based on percentages of 1RM. Use your EDM as a basis for planning your training.

If you have an outstanding day and set a new personal best and then base your training on that best, you will have days where you will miss the number of reps you planned. Eventually, you'll realize that your max reps will decrease because you've set yourself up for failure by training in a constant state of overreaching.

If you use your EDM, on the other hand, you will never fail an exercise or fail to complete all repetitions of a set. This will build confidence, a greater strength base to work with and allow you to use weights that will help you to underpin correct technique on a consistent basis. All of these are good things when it comes to developing maximum strength.

5 - Learn to value individuality

One of the biggest mistakes that beginners and somewhat advanced athletes make is that they see a really strong guy and think that they should do all the things he did to achieve what he achieved. However, this only makes sense up to a point.

The really strong guy has learned the basics of good technique, but he also tends to do things that intuitively worked well for him as an individual. These individually different things cannot be replicated with the same success.

In fact, apart from genetics and work ethic, the strongest people share a common trait. They have a very well-developed intuition about what will and will not work for them. This is an innate ability that makes them gravitate towards the types of exercises and set/repetition schemes that will work for them. They have the ability to manipulate even the smallest details of their training to overcome plateaus.

But even though the strongest people on the planet have a lot in common, they also have a lot of differences and they have had to figure out for themselves what works for them.

Caution: Jumping from training session to training session and believing that there is some sort of holy grail of training out there is a great way to get nowhere. You need to commit to different things, but experiment at the same time. You'll eventually find what speaks to your training soul while still benefiting from the philosophies that have stood the test of time.

Then you can manipulate small variables to see how they affect your training performance and how much you like them. Liking something while training is one of the main components of getting better at it, because if you don't really like something, you won't do it with passion and dedication.

6 - Periodize your training

There's no denying that it works. Too many exercisers - both the genetically blessed and the less blessed - have used it with great success. Yet when most people think of periodization, they think of a bunch of spreadsheets with percentages and training cycles planned around competitions. And this can also be part of a periodization, but you also need to periodize your entire training blocks from time to time and move some things a little more to the background while prioritizing others.

Within each macrocycle (a year or two) of training, there should be mesocycles (lasting a few weeks or months) and microcycles (up to a week) during which certain things go into maintenance mode and other things become a priority.

Exercisers often make the mistake of trying to develop too many exercises at once. For example, they will say that their bench press is going great, they are maintaining their performance on squats, but that their deadlift performance has been stagnant for a long time. But why are they still training bench press and deadlift with full commitment if they are stagnating in deadlift?

Do you have mesocycles within your annual macrocycle where you prioritize the following?

  • hypertrophy
  • Injury prevention
  • weak points
  • Squats
  • Bench press and/or variations
  • Deadlift
  • Competition

Each of these mesocycles plays an important role in developing maximal strength and they can't all be maximized at the same time. So use some periodization to figure out what should be prioritized at certain points in your annual macrocycle.

7 - Use transferable additional exercises

After nearly three decades of training, I can tell you that any "similar" exercise variation that allows you to use more than 100% of the weight you use on the main exercise is probably not transferable to that main exercise.

Many exercisers love rack pulls (deadlifts with a bar elevated on a rack) because they think they can improve their deadlift performance. But if you're not in the same mechanical position for rack pulls as you are for deadlifts, then your rack pull performance probably won't translate to your deadlift performance.

Often with exercise variations, we put ourselves in lever positions that allow us to use substantially heavier weights than the main exercise. Think of rack pulls. You can't be in the same position when performing regular deadlifts, which means the performance gains in rack pulls won't transfer to your deadlift performance.

"But I did rack pulls and my deadlift weights went up!"

Yes, I've heard this before - and one or two things have played a role here:

  1. You increased your upper back strength with this exercise.
  2. You were actually performing rack pulls from the same position as you do regular deadlifts.

I still recommend the 10% load rule. If an exercise variation allows you to move more than 10% more than the maximum weight you can use in the main exercise, then don't do that exercise. Choose exercises that are similar enough to allow you to transfer the strength gains from the exercise variation to the main exercise.

For squats, these are often front squats or safety bar squats. For bench presses, you can try incline bench presses or overhead press variations. For deadlifts, deadlifts with straight legs and barbell rows work very well.

You'll notice that the exercise variations I've listed don't really allow for heavier weights than the main exercise - and that's a good thing.

8 - Strengthen your weak points

This primarily applies to those who have already built up a good strength base and have good technique. Beginners just need to focus on getting stronger overall as their weak points are all over the place.

This is primarily a muscular issue and the reason why hypertrophy training should always exist within the framework of general strength training. The areas that are most neglected in strength athletes are often the result of overcompensation by neighboring stronger and larger muscle groups. Let's look at some of these:

Common weak muscle groups and why you need to strengthen them:

  • Weak lower trapezius - Train this for better shoulder stability, which is essential if you want to improve at any form of pressing.
  • Weak hamstrings - train these to stabilize your knees, which is necessary if you want to continue doing heavy squats without hurting your knees.
  • Weak biceps - train these to improve your elbow stability, which is very important for the bench press.

Remember that exercises that isolate individual muscle groups are not just for aesthetic purposes, but can also give you an edge in your strength development.


By Paul Carter

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