The 3 rules of strength

Written by Andrew Read

With all the fitness fads kicking around out there, you might think increasing strength is far more complicated than it actually is.  

Front-squat
The front squat in action

It may surprise people to learn that there are only three ways to improve strength: volume, intensity and density. To quote Monty Python, "Three is the number, no more and no less."

They are also written in that order for a very good reason. When a beginner comes into the gym for the first time, a smart trainer won't have them do a hundred reps of anything. To begin with, if you've just been sitting on the couch for a few years, anything will bring an improvement. Gradually, as they strengthen, we can add either sets or reps until we get to the point this becomes impractical. Depending on the goals, this can vary — for strength-related goals (which should be a focus for martial artists), our aim should be somewhere between 10 and 25 reps per exercise, while for muscle-growth purposes, that number could be anything from 30 to 150.

But sooner or later we can't add volume because it just gets unreasonable and sessions become too long. Even for endurance athletes, you can't just go from running half-an-hour to an hour, to two hours, to three... At some point you need to add intensity. Despite what the 'fatness industry' tries to tell you, intensity is only ever a measure of how much weight you lifted compared to your best all-out effort to lift the heaviest thing you can for one rep. This single-repetition effort is called a 1RM or 'single repetition maximum'. Every lift you do is then a percentage of your 1RM.

A set of 10 reps requires roughly 70 per cent of your 1RM (meaning, if you can lift 70 kg 10 times, then you'll probably be able to lift 100 kg once). Typically, we start beginners with a few reps to allow them to learn muscle control and to learn the movements. As they progress, we add volume, either in the form of a few more sets of the same number of reps or by adding reps to each set. So where they may start with three sets of five, at a certain weight they might end up with three sets of 10 with the same weight. But then it's time to get a little more serious and up the intensity.

As we add weight, a few things start to happen. To begin with, most novices can't actually work very hard in comparison to their 1RM. It's not unusual for a brand new client to lift something once and be unable to do another, but take five kilos off the bar and they'll get another 10. That kind of massive drop in ability shows a trainee who has a very poor nervous system, and shows they'll benefit greatly from lower rep/higher intensity strength work. At the point they're at now, they only need short rests, but once they start to really learn how to push hard — which could take years — they'll eventually end up needing to take much longer rests.

The energy system that powers these short duration sets is called the ATP/CP system. It provides energy for periods of up to about 10 seconds, although for detrained individuals, and particularly vegetarians, this could be as little as four or five seconds. To replenish the supplies of this, you're going to need to rest for about three minutes to get back to an almost full supply. So as you start to work with greater intensity, you tend to get a lot less volume done during a session.

And this is where training density comes into play. So far we've added volume and then intensity, but adding further intensity via higher loads means we end up training slower. Density is an effort to improve work capacity during training by doing more work in the same time frame. Let's say that last workout you were squatting 100 kg and did five sets of five, and it took you 15 minutes — meaning you did a set of five every three minutes. Total load lifted was 2500 kg in 15 minutes, giving you a density of 166.67 kg per minute. To improve at this point, let's say we now just drop a minute from our session so we lift 2500 kg in 14 minutes, giving us 178.57 kg per minute — an improvement of seven per cent.

Eventually we get to the point where it becomes physically impossible to keep reducing the time we get the work done in. At this point you have a decision to make based upon your own goals. If you're after greater levels of strength, you should add weight. Your total time will slow down but if you check, for comparison, what a squat of 110 kg for 25 reps in 15 minutes will do for you, you'll see that the density is 183.33 kg per minute (110 kg x 25 reps/15 minutes). It's still greater than what we started with, and as you progress, you'll end up with even greater density.

The other option is to add reps, so instead of doing five reps per set, you could aim to do sets of eight-to-10. Believe me when I say that if you nail 50 squats in 15 minutes with 100 kg, you'll have big legs (and a density of 333.33 kg per minute).

I know that it looks like the clear winner should be adding reps but if you're a serious martial artist, that workout will need some serious recovery and will keep you out of action for maybe an entire week. Lower-rep sets tend to have less likelihood of causing large degrees of muscle soreness, so I typically don't train my martial arts guys with sets above five reps for lower-body work, instead we seek more load/higher intensity.

Here's how to put all this together with a minimal, four-days-per-week plan that will see massive results. The exercises are bench-press and deadlift done on Mondays and Thursdays, and pull-ups and squats done on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Week 1–4

Begin with five sets of five with a given weight. Each week, add reps until you hit five sets of 10 with the same weight.

Week 5–8

Add 10 per cent weight to each exercise. Your reps per set should drop at this point and will end up looking something like 8-7-5-5-4 if you added enough weight. Keep adding weight until you find a weight that you can get five for the first set, and maybe the second but you can't for the other sets. So now it looks like this: 5-5-4-3-3.

Week 9–12

Start keeping tabs on how many total reps you do and in what time. Each workout, try to increase either the total reps until you can get five sets of five in a given time, or until you reduce the time by 10 per cent. In both cases, when you've achieved that, increase the weight and start again with the process from weeks five-to-eight.

You can follow this simple program almost endlessly unless you've got ADD and need constant variety. These short but effective workouts can form the foundation for massive levels of fight-specific strength yet leave you fresh enough to train hard on the mats.

Read more martial arts training articles.