The Secret to Lifting Success

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Working out without a plan is like running an obstacle course blindfolded. You may reach your goal, but you'll do it more slowly and less efficiently. Crafting your workouts on the fly may lead to strength improvements over time, but your gains will fall way short of what you can accomplish by following a pre-set training program.

Training is more complicated than jumping from one exercise to the next, or switching around workout days and times to suit your convenience. A set routine is specifically designed to promote progress and improve performance. If you want to make strides over your competition as quickly and efficiently as possible, train smart by following the basics of a proper training routine: frequency, consistency and strictly adhering to a prescribed plan.

Athletes who followed workout plans designed for progression made strength gains averaging 50 percent more than athletes who did not.


To make strength gains, you need to exercise your muscles regularly. Working muscles, such as the quads during a Squat, increases their ability to forcefully contract, which translates to improved strength. Without consistent use, a muscle gradually loses its size, power and ability to fire. In fact, these attributes can be lost after as few as 48 to 72 hours post-workout, depending on your level of inactivity.

To maximize your training program for muscle development, you need to work out three to four times per week. This number is critical, because it combines the optimal amount of exercise with much needed rest. "The guy who's training four times a week is going to get more change and adaptation than the guy who's training [only] twice a week," says Eric Lichter, Ohio State's director of football performance (watch video of Eric Lichter's off-season speed training philosophy for football). Yet, it's important to accompany this intense and focused training with downtime, or else you're at risk for overtraining and potentially sacrificing performance gains.

"An athlete needs to train when he's physically rested and ready to train as intensely as possible," Lichter says. He recommends 36 to 48 hours of rest before reworking a muscle group. This eliminates any residual fatigue from previous exercise, reduces the risk of injury and allows you to give your maximum effort.


A training program's goal is progress. Without it, you're just maintaining. According to Barry Kagan, University of Maryland assistant strength coach, "If you lose your consistency, you'll experience negative effects, like the loss of strength and conditioning. When you try to get back into it, you'll end up being so sore that you won't be able to perform at a high level." (Watch a video interview with Barry Kagan about training Maryland men's soccer).

Inconsistency prevents your body from getting into a routine of development. "You're giving your body mixed signals," Lichter says. "The inconsistent stimuli won't force your body to change at the rate at which it's capable."

Try to perform your training at the same times and days of the week. Stick to a program and avoid skipping workouts. You can expect dependable performance from your body during training sessions, essential for making progress. Then, you can track gains and identify strengths or weaknesses in your program. As Lichter says, "It's important to adhere to a schedule and see progression so you know you are getting stronger."

Follow Every Rep of a Plan

A proper training plan is not a loose collection of exercises with random numbers for sets and reps. It's precise on all counts and specifically designed to enhance progression so you can improve in your sport.

"A lot of science goes into making the athlete successful in the actual lift or training cycle," Lichter says.

So, a key to training successfully is to follow prescribed sets, reps and rest with diligence. Typically, a tracked rep/ set progression coincides with training improvements and goals, while planned rest allows your body to recover. A report in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research indicates that athletes who followed workout plans designed for progression made strength gains averaging 50 percent more than athletes who did not use a progressive program.

Second, it's a misconception that more time in the weight room results in great progress. It's important to meet training requirements, but excessive workouts sabotage performance gains. Don't add an exercise on a whim or spend too much time between sets. Says Lichter, "If you're training intensely, you're going to have a pretty sufficient breakdown of the body, and at some point, training becomes unproductive."

Lichter recommends spending 45 to 70 minutes in an intense training session. After this, your body won't be able to produce the power and force required to train intensely, and your mind will lose the focus needed for giving your max effort. Exceeding this limit can actually inhibit muscle development.

Research suggests that as you reach your training threshold, testosterone (the key hormone for muscle development) decreases and cortisol (a hormone that inhibits muscle growth) increases. Your body is protecting its stored energy from overuse. However, it negates your training efforts by accelerating muscle breakdown.

Beyond the effects of cortisol, technique also suffers when muscles are overly fatigued. For example, "Athletes overstride when they're fatigued," says Bob Braman, Florida State head coach for track and field. "Without a strong abdomen, you get tired, and you can't keep your body high in a power position, causing you to reach with your feet." (Watch a video interview with Bob Braman about strength training for runners.)

While progress is the main goal, lots of thought goes into keeping you safe in the weight room, a place where "too many athletes get injured," according to Lichter. "[Following] a [training] plan reduces the risk of injury, so if you deviate from the plan, injury can become more likely."

Only you can determine the effectiveness of your training plan. If you adhere to a schedule, you'll see positive results. If you skip workouts and train at your own pace, your development will lag. "Taking an unplanned break in a training cycle puts off getting better and stronger," Lichter says. "Inconsistency leads to inconsistent improvement."

Put Lichter's advice into action by sticking to every rep of OSU's in-season program for high-priority lifts.

Weight (% of 1 Rep Max)
Power Shrug
Power Pull
Bench Press
Bent-Over Row

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