It sounds unbelievable. I can scarcely believe it myself. But here’s how it went down.
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Lets start with the results…
|Start (around May 2nd, 2022)
|End (around May 27th, 2022)
|e1RM=714 lb / 323kg
665×1 at 8RPE (.34m/s)
|e1RM= 751 lb / 340kg
700×1 at 8RPE (.33m/s)
|e1RM = 448 lb / 203kg
415×1 at 8RPE (.25m/s)
|e1RM = 486 lb / 220kg
450×1 at 8RPE (.26m/s)
|e1RM = 787 lb / 357kg
705×1 at 7.5RPE (.34m/s)
|e1RM = 841 lb / 381kg
770×1 at 8RPE (.30m/s)
It was an incredible block to say the least. And there is context that you need to be aware of too. We’ll get to that…
The Early Block
As I alluded to in the title, this is a 2-block sequence. All the fun in the table came in the 2nd block, but the groundwork for it was laid in the first block.
I competed on March 19, 2022. The week after was a short pivot week. The Early Block began on March 28 and ran for four weeks. The overall character of the block was to emphasize higher rep, higher fatigue work. I wanted the limiting factor for my sets to be somewhat metabolic in nature — more than is usually the case. Keep that in mind as we go deeper.
Let’s start with exercise selection. Since this was immediately following a competition, I was interested in stepping back from the competitive powerlifts — especially bench. I’ve noticed over time that continuing to hammer away at the same exercise for months and years without a break seems to result in a “desensitization” of sorts. A great example of this can be seen in my bench. I’ve been able to train it mostly uninterrupted for very long stretches. For the last competition I did, I finished with 202.5kg — a solid 15kg below my best. In the run up for that competition, I was training bench 5 days per week for 90min sessions — just for bench! My bench already was not progressing. It was hard to imagine that doing even more bench would change things significantly. So I went the other direction.
Exercise selection for the bench in the early block consisted of several variations. I kept one session of close grip feet up bench in the week. The rest of the pressing consisted of Military Press, Incline, dips, and isolation work like Flies, tricep pushdowns, and Front Raises.
Exercise selection for squat and deadlift followed similar alterations. I used a Transformer Bar (setting SSB-2) as my main squat variant. Other workouts included Front Squats, Belt Squats, and occasionally RFE Split Squats (aka Bulgarian Split Squats). I used Trap Bar Deadlifts as my main deadlift.
I also had a second deadlift session that utilized Split Deadlifts. Keep in mind that I was/am returning from a long term back injury that kept me from competing for 6 years. I wanted to get additional work on hip extension without significant spinal loading. In a home gym, this can be challenging, which is why I eventually settled on Split Deadlift and it’s become a movement that I think is valuable.
Protocols during the Early Block were focused on building rep capacity. This block was not so interested in building 1RM strength directly, although that was a nice side effect. It was focused on improving the number of reps I could do with 70% of the current e1RM. This is an important distinction. To take 70% of a static number (say last comp’s 1RM) and drive the reps up could be a result of several adaptations. To improve the number of reps done with 70% of an accurate, current e1RM shows an improvement in rep capacity that is hard to argue with.
The protocol might be something like this… x5 at 8RPE followed by 70% AMRAP. Then maybe some 80% triples if more work was required. The x5 at 8RPE set would provide an accurate benchmarking for performance. Then the 70% set is adjusted to the current e1RM.
Over the course of this block, my 70% AMRAP (Incline Bench) went from 250×11 to 260×12. Not a huge difference, but adding a rep was meaningful. In the space before this block began, I was scoring closer to 10 reps with 70% for upper body pressing movements, which is below average.
Other protocols would include x6 at a 9RPE for benchmarking, then follow with 75% for multiple sets of 5 with 30s rest periods. In hindsight, I would tailor these protocols a bit more — likely going to 1min rest instead. When I reached a 10RPE, I would rest several minutes and start again until my desired workload was reached. I also used MyoReps with isolation and other “SPE” slots (to include the Split Deadlift). I attempted to balance the intensity at a level that would maintain my central stress around baseline, but push up the peripheral stress well above it’s baseline. Your precise intensities will depend on your current conditioning (baselines) and what your body responds best to.
The Pivot Week
After the Early Block, I took one week as a “pivot”. This was a bit different as I did not reduce workload at all. I felt my fatigue management had been handled well, so it was not needed. During this week, I re-introduced competition style squat and bench for higher reps. At high reps, my bench strength looked pretty good which 1) was a positive indicator for improved rep capacity and 2) pointed toward the non-bench training being effective for retaining strength. This is also the week where I squatted 545×12 and Front Squatted 600×1. The Front Squat was a lifetime goal and something that came as a surprise.
The Late Block
This is where the magic happened. The idea here was to shift the emphasis dramatically. Intensity went way up, but not so much that my peripheral stress baselines would drop. By in large, reps on everything went down. I also reduced RPE for back-off work — sticking mostly to 7RPE for most sets. There is a time and place for low RPE back-off work and this was it.
Obviously competition lifts were re-introduced. Most isolation movements were dropped in favor of movements that targeted weaknesses. For me, Triceps needs to be a focal point in the bench, so I opted for several close grip variations and band variations. Besides the comp lifts, lower body training consisted of belt squats (done heavy), RFE Split Squats, and the classic bilateral RDL. I decided to re-introduce RDLs at this point because everything had been well tolerated and given the goals of the block, I needed to go heavier. This was better suited to RDL.
Protocols shifted to focus on heavy weight, low rep, low (~7) RPE, and near-complete rest breaks. One example might be to start with x4 at 9RPE, then 85%x2 for multiple sets.
The other difference to this block was mental. I was hungry for comp lifts, for heavy weights, and I believed in the approach. I EXPECTED progress — and a lot of it. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.
If you know how I think about training, I can sometimes be agnostic about mechanistic theories. The most important thing is the result that you got. We can make careful observations and improve training effectiveness, even if our theories about why it works are wrong. And the mechanistic theories are often wrong or incomplete. But over the years, I’ve come to notice that the theories are important for generating belief, so even if that’s all they do, they are worth considering on those grounds alone.
I don’t think all hypertrophy is the same. We know that lifters can get similar hypertrophic response from volume-matched programs between 30% of 1RM and 90% of 1RM. So maybe the net hypertrophy is the same, but it seems obvious that the capabilities gained by the person who grew from doing 30% to failure would be very different from the person who did multiple sub-max sets at 80%. And I don’t think that’s reducible to “the skill of lifting heavy weight” either, although that is surely part of it.
So the capabilities gained are going to be different if you train at low reps / high load vs high reps / low load, even if net muscle size is similar. And those capabilities come from somewhere — specific adaptations at several levels all the way down to the cell.
My intent with the Early Block was to train in a way that taxed me metabolically. I wanted to improve my reps at 70% of 1RM and used that to infer improvements in my ability to generate ATP, buffer waste products, etc. And also hypertrophy — probably biased toward sarcoplasmic hypertrophy since that is the cellular tissue most responsible for the systems being taxed. Of course it was not exclusively that, but processes in the body are seldom binary.
The Late Block on the other hand sought to create overall tension, hence the emphasis on 80%+ loading and low RPE. Loading at 80%+ should be enough to get full motor unit recruitment even in the first reps of a set. Keeping the RPE low means that cellular metabolism shouldn’t be the main limiting factor or cause a bunch of extra fatigue. Which allows us to focus more on creating mechanical tension.
While you may have suspected that I’m hypothesizing a slight bias toward myofibrillar hypertrophy (and you’d be right), that’s not the only adaptation. This loading also will help with the “skill” of heavy lifting. It will enhance high-load technique, lateral force transmission, tendon stiffness, etc.
What made this block so special?
Honestly… it’s hard to say. I’ve been training for 25 years — I expected these days were gone. As I reflect on what happened, there are a handful of differences between this sequence of blocks and past ones.
The first difference was the re-sensitization phase. Taking a block away from comp lifts is not typical for me. I’ve seen it happen before that, upon returning, there can be a performance boost for a time.
The second difference was the sequence itself. Lots of people have done light/heavy sequences before, including me. They don’t all result in blocks like this. But the details matter. The specific intensity for each block was carefully selected. In the early block, I aimed to maintain “Central Stress” (a measure of the intensity of the training) slightly below baseline while the rest of my energy got poured into “Peripheral Stress” (a measure comparable to “effective reps” in a way). When I got to the late block, the emphasis switched. The intensity was selected relative to my own baseline, which could vary from person to person.
The last difference that stands out is my mentality. It’s hard to describe. There was a bigger-than-usual expectation of progress and a willingness to load more on the bar. I do think it had a positive impact, but surely the “secret” isn’t just willing your way to PRs. It’s been tried before by pretty much everybody. So although helpful, I don’t think this was the thing that made all the difference.
Overall volumes were similar to what I had been doing. These results cannot be explained by changes to volume — either up or down.
You can and should make modifications to this strategy. The first modification would be in exercise selection. In the Early Block, a general balance of movements across relevant muscle groups were chosen. There was possibly a slight bias toward perceived “weak” muscle groups, but not a large one. The bias was much more pronounced with the “Late Block”, but even then movements were selected to be an overall developer, then given a slight emphasis. Consider the Bench + mini band. This is a small amount of band tension that shifts the emphasis slightly toward the triceps, but the chest and shoulders should still receive a significant stimulus.
Protocols should be modified as well. I selected intensities that would allow me to accomplish the primary goal while not letting the other areas of development languish. I did this primarily by looking through the lens of Stress Index. During the Early Block, I sought to somewhat maintain (slightly detrain) my Central Stress baseline. All the remaining resources were thrown into Peripheral Stress. Then in the Late Block, this switched.
There is significant margin for experimentation here. One could try a higher or lower “maintenance volume”. One could try more or less polarized protocols to get it too. There are many possibilities worth exploring.
Q: How much of this progress was regaining lost ground?
A: Some. On March 19, I totaled 895kg in competition with maybe a few more in reserve. My e1RM total at the start of the Late Block was 883kg. My e1RM total at the end of the Late Block was 941kg. So out of a ~58kg gain, about 10-20kg was regaining lost ground.
Q: What was your nutrition like during this period?
A: I was in a caloric surplus and gained about 2-3kg (from 120kg to 123kg). Kristin Lander of Fiercely Fueled Nutrition handled my nutrition. We utilized an approach that emphasized protein and carbs, with less emphasis on fat. I really noticed a difference in recovery once we dialed in nutrition pre/intra/post training.
Q: What was your sleep like?
A: Terrible. I average about 5.5hrs of sleep per night and am often awoken by kids who need something (we have 18mo old twins). But it’s been this way ever since we started having kids, so I guess I’m as used to it as a person can be. It’s also getting better too, so I can’t wait to get back to a normal sleep rhythm. All in due time.
Q: What about supplementation?
A: I used a pre-workout (caffeine, citrulline malate, Alpha GPC, Tyrosine, collagen, sodium). I used creatine post workout. That was about it. As always, no WADA banned substances were used at all.
Q: What would you change for next time?
A: I would have less emphasis on the intra-set-rest in the Early Block. I would do more straight sets of fairly high reps (~12 depending on your central/peripheral baselines). If I felt like mixing it up, I would include some myo-reps. I would save the intra-set-rest stuff for the pivot week.
Q: Do you expect results like this again?
A: That seems foolish doesn’t it? But you can bet I’ll be running this sequence again with other modifications. Not really in hopes of getting the same result, but in hopes of getting a still-substantially-positive result.
Q: What makes this different from a volume block / intensity block?
A: Devil is in the details. I think the removal of the comp lifts in the Early Block is potentially big. Also, it wasn’t merely “volume block”. But the volume was done a certain way to emphasize certain adaptations. Additionally, the overall volume selections, and the intensity selections were carefully chosen to fit my training history, recovery ability, and response. It can be difficult to explain in article form, but it’s a very repeatable process that we also do for our AAC clients.
Thank you for reading! If you would like to see the block in its entirety, plus get the ability to modify it and deploy it for athletes or yourself, check out the RTS Training Lab. We will also have additional information on how to make modifications, essential elements, etc.