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You have to build your base first Since I began this series for Ironman, I ve received numerous letters

asking me to review reader s programs and make suggestions for improvement. Many of the inqui ries have come from people who train at home, usually alone, and there have been quite a few high school coaches who wanted to make sure they were doing the cor rect thing for their young athletes. Invariably, they were all making the same m istakes. They weren't doing or recommending exercises that will build a solid st rength base, and the programs almost always called for too many exercises. They failed to take into consideration one of the basic tenets of strength training: You cannot proceed past your base. It takes time to establish a solid base, and you have to do it with pure strength exercises; that is, exercises that hit the major muscle groups, not the small ones. This rule of training is so simple that it's easy for zealous individuals or coa ches to overlook it. Despite the prevalence of the idea that more is better when it comes to a strength program, it's not always true. More isn't always better, especially during the formative stages of any strength routine. That includes r ank beginners as well as people who are starting back on their programs, even if they were previously advanced trainees. Part of the reason for the more is better philosophy is that there are so many u seful exercises to choose from and also a great variety of programs to copy. When it comes to strength tra ining, everyone is an expert, from the personal trainer to the volleyball coach who has never actually lifted a weight in his entire life. Nevertheless, he's re ad that a major university uses a certain program, so it must be beneficial for his athletes, right? Maybe, and maybe not. Before I set up an off season strength program for a particular sport, I ask the coach what he or she thinks the team needs to improve the most. Generally they want to improve foot speed or jumping ability. Then they usually add, "How about squat jumps? I know that such and such university is doing them." I explain that while I do believe in the value of squat jumps, the athletes aren 't ready for them. They'll first have to spend some time building a firm strengt h base in their hips and knees, for the squat jump is a ballistic movement that places a great deal of stress on the knees, hips and back. Once they've done suf ficient strength work, I'll add squat jumps to their programs, but it can be har mful to do them too soon. Some coaches request that I include complex Olympic-type exercises in their athl etes' programs because they've just come back from a conference where so-and-so from such and such university told them how beneficial they were for his team. I explain that we're talking about apples and that coach is talking about oranges , since his university happens to be a major Division I school with blue-chip at hletes who stay on campus all summer so they can train. That isn't the case at H opkins or at most high schools. When my athletes return from summer vacation, fe w have spent much time in the weight room. Some have done a little training-but not any serious work, and there's a big difference. Consequently, they have to t ake some time to rebuild their base of strength before trying to include high-sk ill, complex movements in their programs. For example, I'm a staunch advocate of the value of the power snatch, especially for athletes. Yet I know that if I include it in a lifter's routine before he's spent adequate time building a solid strength base, it won't be the least bit b eneficial. Someone who can only handle 95 pounds on the power snatch isn't reall y doing much for his back strength. He'd be much wiser doing some pure strength work for his back first. Then, when he adds the power snatch to his routine, he' ll be able to handle 155 pounds or more and get some real benefits.

I compare the process of building a solid strength basis to that of training for a marathon race. You don't start off trying to cover the whole distance. In fac t, you begin rather conservatively, gradually adding miles until you reach a num ber designed to ensure you a solid endurance base. Then you start adding differe nt exercises to help you run faster, especially at the finish. In strength training you start with basic movements and work them diligently. Th en, once you reach a certain level with them, you start adding work, choosing ad ditional exercises with an eye toward improving your weaker areas. That way your entire structure will grow stronger proportionately, which is a critical factor in long-range development. Most routines contain far too many exercises. You simply cannot do an advanced, or even an intermediate, program with a beginner's structure. Too many exercises will spread your energy far too thin, and you'll get minimal gains, if any. If you only do a few exercises in a workout, you can put lots of energy into the m, and the gains will come much more readily. If you want variety, you can chang e the core exercises at each session. There are plenty of good ones to choose fr om, but the point is that you cannot do them all in the same workout. You can, h owever, do them throughout the week. Another often overlooked factor is balance. That's one of the main reasons I lik e doing one primary exercise for each major muscle group at every session it ens ures a better balance in the total program. I realize that some split routines a re beneficial, and I even recommend doing them for variety, but they're not the best routines for building a solid foundation. Split routines only enhance stren gth once the base is established, and the best way to accomplish that is by trai ning all the groups during the same workout. Often, when I set up a program, athletes argue that by the time they get to thei r third core exercise, they're tired, so they get very little out of it. That's understandable, but if they continue to train consistently and use the heavy, li ght and medium concept, they'll soon have lots of energy for that final exercise . It's simply a matter of conditioning. The idea of building endurance has important implications for athletes. Contests are won in the final minutes, not the early periods. The wrestler who can reach into his reserves at the end of the match will emerge the victor. The football or basketball team that can rally in the last few critical minutes will almost a lways win the game. The runner who has built a solid base will be able to sprint to the finish. The ability to finish strongly isn't just a mental thing. It's mostly a result o f physical conditioning. No matter how desperately athletes want to dig in and d o just a bit more, if they haven't done their homework, training wise, all the w ishing in the world isn't going to help. The heavy, light and medium system has proven successful for all of my athletes for many years. The football players have the best situation for building a soli d base and achieving high levels of strength development. They begin their off s eason programs in early February and conclude in early May, which gives them thr ee months in which they can slowly elevate their workloads and their intensity. They have a built-in rest period at spring break, which is helpful, as most are a bit overtrained by then. When test week comes around, most do all three lifts in the same session and they all break personal records on each of them, even th e third exercise. Some surprise me. Augie Maurellli, an offensive lineman, established three gym r

ecords in one two-hour workout: a 605 squat, a 330 clean and aI,3IO total; he al so did a 3755pound bench-and accomplished it all at a bodyweight of 215 and with no nutritional aids. His foundation was so solid from all the years of base wor k that he was able to excel on all the lifts. He also pressed 305 off the rack a nd clean and pressed 265 for good measure the next week. The ability to draw from a strength reserve is directly related to building a so lid base and then expanding it. Programs that recommend doing only one taxing ex ercise per workout and then resting until you feel totally fresh before lifting again don't take into consideration that important factor. I always compare buil ding a solid foundation of strength to building a pyramid. The bottom has to be firm, and the crown can never rise higher than the base. Some believe they can c heat on that idea, but they're mistaken. Another, often overlooked component is the selection of exercises. It's not alwa ys enough to merely include an exercise for each of the three major muscle group s. For example, I receive many letters from people who only do bentover rows for their backs or who restrict their upper bodies to one movement, the bench press . Quite a few shun squats and do leg presses instead. Unless there's some medica l consideration for avoiding certain exercises, it's always better to do a compo und movement. It's also a good idea to build variety into your routine in order to hit all the groups from different angles. You may be thinking, Isn't that a contradiction? For years you've been saying th at I should keep my workouts simple. If I need to do a variety of exercises, how can I get them all in a basic program? There are several ways to build variety into a basic routine. For one thing, you can change your core exercise for the three major groups at each workout. Havin g said that, I'll make one exception. If you're able to squat, you should squat at every session, as it is without a doubt the best exercise for strengthening y our hips and legs. When it comes to your back and shoulder girdle, there's a lot to choose from. I believe in the value of changing the angles on upper bodywork , so flat-bench presses, inclines, overhead presses and dips are useful. There a re many excellent compound movements for your back, like deadlifts, power clean s, power snatches, clean and snatch high pulls, bentover rows, good mornings, s tiffflegged deadlifts and shrugs. Here's a plan that incorporates variety but avoids overtraining. For your should er girdle select one of the core exercises to do at each workout, and use dips a s an auxiliary movement. That will have you doing benches one day, overhead pres ses the next and inclines the next. For your back try using an A and B system, a lternating your primary exercises every other week. One week do deadlifts, good mornings and shrugs, and the next do power cleans, stiff-legged deadlifts and hi gh pulls. After you do the core exercises, you can spend time working the smaller groups w ith one or two auxiliary exercises. One or two is enough in the beginning, and t rainees often make the mistake of going overboard. They adhere to the idea of on ly doing three core movements but then stay in the gym for another hour working their arms or chest. Two sets of 20 on the smaller groups will get the job done. In the early stages of training, more is definitely not better. There's also some confusion concerning sets and reps performed in the formative stages of training. A great many programs prescribe three sets of rather high re ps. The thinking is that the higher reps force lifters to use lighter weights, w hich enables them to learn good form with less risk of injury. Nevertheless, there are drawbacks to the concept. When people do 10 or 12 reps o n any exercise, they often tire and their form begins to break down. That's part

icularly true for any high-skill movement such as power cleans, power snatches o r even high pulls, and it's the reason I use five sets of five, even for rank be ginners. It's been my experience that lifters can better concentrate on their fo rm when they're doing five reps, rather than 10 or 12. It also enables them to m ove their numbers up gradually, so they work their attachments more than they wo uld with higher reps. In fact, I reserve higher reps for more advanced athletes, as I've found that trainees get very little out of the higher-rep formula until they form a solid base-except when they're doing auxiliary exercises, that is. Recently, a high school football coach came to visit me. His athletes were doing three sets of 10 on the big three: bench, squat and power clean. I conveyed my objections to their using high reps, especially on the power clean, and he came back with an objection of his own. The five sets of five wouldn't yield as much total work, he argued. I got out a pen and paper and asked how much one of his a thletes was currently using on the squat. He said most did the same: 75, 85 and 95 for 10. That came to 2,550 pounds. If those kids did 75, 95, 115, 125 and 135 for five, which they should easily be able to handle, it would yield 2,725, Tha t's more than they get from the three sets of 10, and there's the added bonus of pushing the intensity higher. Next he protested that five sets could be too time-consuming. I didn't agree, fo r I've found that I can move athletes through five sets of five faster than I ca n three sets of higher reps-and for the simple reason that they recover much mor e quickly with lower reps. Most programs that start off with higher reps lower them gradually over several weeks so the athletes are eventually doing eights or sixes. Seldom, however, do they increase the number of sets. In other words, even though the intensity is m oving up, the total workload is dropping off. That's backward. As the athletes b ecome stronger, they need to expand their base. That means more work, not less. I also like five sets of five because, once lifters start progressing, I can add a back-off set of 10 rather easily. After someone has done, say, 185x5 in the s quat, he can use 135x10 for his back-off set. The 135 will feel relatively light , since he's handled 50 pounds more. The extra set will really add to his total workload-and it's not so easy to do that if he's already using 10 reps. The formula is to stay with the basics and do only one core exercise per session for each of the major groups. Build as much variety into your routines as possi ble, and include one or two auxiliary exercises at each workout, giving priority to your weaker areas. If, for example, you know you need more triceps work, don 't fool around doing set after set of curls. When you're building your base, sta y with lower reps. As you progress and can better recover from a hard workout, s lowly add to your load with back-off sets. Keep track of your total workload and slowly but steadily increase it until you feel you're doing enough. At that point you may decide to change your focus and try some form of split rou tine or specialize on a weak area you want to improve. If you want to reach a hi gh level of strength fitness, you must take the time to build a solid base first . Otherwise, your pyramid is going to be quite short.