Charles Poliquin was one of the greatest strength coaches that ever lived. It would take a large book to cover everything that I learned from Charles regarding strength training program design.
Here are 9 of the most important training tips that I learned from Charles Poliquin.
- Part 1: Neurotransmitter Based Program Design
- Part 2: Training For Structural Balance
- Part 3: Changing The Loading Parameters
- Part 4: Accumulation And Intensification Phases
- Part 5: Recording Your Workouts In A Logbook
- Part 6: Lactic Acid Training For Fat Loss
- Part 7: Time Under Tension For Hypertrophy
- Part 8: Sets Per Exercise When Training For Strength
- Part 9: Always Remember: No Pissing, No Moaning!
Charles Poliquin was an absolute genius in the strength training universe.
He introduced many entirely new training concepts such as neurotransmitter based program design, lactic acid training for fat loss, and training for optimal structural balance.
Many of Charles’ training routines such as German Volume Training and the Modified Hepburn Method are used by the best strength coaches in the world.
In this article I would like to introduce you to some of the most important training tips that I learned from Charles Poliquin.
If instead you are looking for some of Charles Poliquin’s favourite training routines then this article is for you:
Please note that Charles preferred to define all of the loading parameters of his routines. If you are having trouble reading any of the sample training programs provided in this article then please consult this article.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Neurotransmitter Based Program Design
Charles believed that you could get OK results as a strength coach if you used cookie-cutter training programs for all of your clients.
However, if you want to train world champions and Olympic gold medalists then you must learn to individualize your athlete’s training programs. After all, no two athletes are alike.
As Charles would say if you are a cheetah then you should train like a cheetah. If you are a sloth then you should train like a sloth. And if you are a mongoose on PCP then you should train like a mongoose on PCP!
I am sure you may have noticed that certain people just seem to gravitate towards certain training styles. It is hard to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger using a low-volume approach.
On the other hand, a traditional high-volume approach would never suit Dorian Yates’ stubborn personality.
Both of these athletes figured out the type of training stimulus that worked best for their own bodies, and they hammered it home until they were champions.
But why do different people respond optimally to such wildly different training approaches in the first place?
Herein lines the genius of Charles Poliquin. Charles developed an entire system that would quickly tell you what type of trainee you are and which types of routines you respond best to.
This system was based on cutting-edge brain research and traditional Chinese medicine practices. The name of Charles’ system is Neurotransmitter Based Program Design.
There are four major neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine, acetyl-choline, GABA, and Serotonin. You are either dominant in one of these neurotransmitters or you have a more balanced neurotransmitter profile.
As a general rule of thumb most individuals who are interested in strength training fall into one of three categories:
- Dopamine dominant
- Acetyl-choline dominant
- Balanced neurotransmitter profile
If you are interested in testing your own neurotransmitter profile you can do so at this link.
You will be completing the “Braverman Assessment.” It should take you about 15 minutes to complete. Just make sure you answer all of the questions truthfully!
If you score over 50 points in any one section (dopaminie, acetyl-choline etc.) then you are considered an extreme dominant for that neurotransmitter.
If you score over 40 points for any one neurotransmitter you are considered a slight dominant.
Finally, if you score between 30-40 points for every neurotransmitter then you are considered “balanced” and have no specific dominance.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these categories.
Dopamine-dominant individuals tend to have explosive personalities and a very high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
They tend to respond best to sets in the 1-3 rep range when training for strength and the 4-8 rep range when training for size. These may seem like relatively low rep ranges but these fast-twitch freaks make awesome progress when the reps are low!
One of the keys to making sustained progress as a dopamine-dominant individual is to change the exercises relatively frequently. A great strategy is to rotate back and forth between an “A” workout and a “B” workout for each body part.
- Workout #1: Legs “A”
- Workout #2: Legs “B”
- Workout #3: Legs “A”
- Workout #4: Legs “B”
These two workouts would feature similar but slightly different exercises. For example, you could perform back squats in your “A” leg workout and front squats in your “B” front squat.
Cycling exercises in this manner will help to prevent burnout and lead to better long-term gains for the typical dopamine-dominant lifter.
One of the best routines for a dopamine dominant lifter is cluster sets.
The idea behind cluster sets is to perform five sets of five reps with 90% of your 1-rep max. This is possible because you will be resting 15 seconds in between each of the five repetitions.
- Perform rep #1, rest 15 seconds
- Perform rep #2, rest 15 seconds
- Perform rep #3, rest 15 seconds
- Perform rep #4, rest 15 seconds
- Perform rep #5, rest 2-4 minutes, repeat!
Here is a sample cluster sets workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Back squat (heels flat / medium stance), 5 x 5**, 3/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Unilateral lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 5 x 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Stationary alternating DB lunge, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: Standing good morning, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 75 seconds rest
**Take 15 second rest breaks in-between each repetition as described above.
Acetyl-choline dominant lifters have a healthy mix of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. They tend to be very creative and quick-witted individuals. They also typically need lots of variety in their training to progress optimally.
The absolute worst thing you can do as an acetyl-choline type is to be “bored” with your training.
One of the best training strategies for an acetyl-choline dominant lifter is to cycle between accumulation and intensification phases.
They typically do best performing 2-4 week accumulation phases followed by 2-4 week intensification phases. A typical accumulation phase for the acetyl-choline dominant lifter might feature sets in the 3-6 rep range while a typical intensification workout might feature sets in the 6-20 rep range.
A great accumulation style workout for these lifters would be origin-insertion supersets for the arms. The idea is to superset a compound and isolation exercise together for the arms.
The compound movement overloads the proximal attachment of the muscle while the insertion overloads the distal attachment. The end result is an incredible training stimulus for growth!
Check it out:
- A1: Close supinated grip chin ups, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: 45 degree incline DB curls (supinated grip), 4 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Close grip bench press, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Overhead rope cable triceps extensions, 4 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
Balanced Neurotransmitter Profile
Those with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile respond best to higher-volume training protocols. This is true regardless of whether your primary goal is strength gains or hypertrophy gains.
In fact, these guys can be accurately described as volume freaks! Arnold Schwarzenegger, Milos Sarcev, and John Meadows are all perfect examples of guys with balanced neurotransmitter profiles.
“Slow and steady wins the race” is the motto with these guys.
It is not necessarily the effort in one set that counts, but the cumulative training stimulus from many sets performed over many exercises.
These guys can typically stay on a routine for a long time before needing to switch to something else. It is not uncommon for these guys to continue to make progress for 4-8 weeks before needing to change the exercises or any of the other loading parameters.
One of the best strategies when you have a more balanced neurotransmitter profile is to use training methods that prolong the time under tension of a set.
For example, the 6/12/25 method would be a GREAT option as an accumulation phase method for these individuals.
The 6/12/25 method is a special type of tri-set. A tri-set of course involves performing 3 exercises back-to-back for the same muscle group with only 10 seconds rest in between sets.
The thing that makes the 6/12/25 method so special is the rep ranges. You are going to perform 6 reps on the first exercise, 12 reps on the second exercise, and 25 reps on the third exercise!
This training method produces an enormous amount of muscular damage and metabolic fatigue which is great for rapid improvements in body composition.
Here is a chest / back routine you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Flat DB press, 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: 30 degree incline DB press, 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Wide pronated grip pull ups, 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Barbell dead stop rows, 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B3: Chest supported row machine (pronated grip), 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
Charles was a huge believer in training individualization and specifically using the Braverman Assessment and Neurotransmitter Based Program Design to produce superior results with his athletes.
If you are to train yourself, then you must read this article to learn more. And if you are working with a coach who believes in a one-size-fits-all approach, well, Charles would be shaking his head.
After all, individualization is a key part of the Charles’ approach to training.
Part 2: Training For Structural Balance
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
This was one of Charles Poliquin’s favourite quotes regarding structural balance.
If you haven’t heard the “weakest link” analogy, think about it literally:
If a chain is being pulled on then the weakest link will break first and sabotage the whole chain. This is true regardless of how strong the other links are.
As Louie Simmons of the Westside Barbell powerlifting club has correctly pointed out there is always a single weak muscle group that is limiting your overall performance.
If you want to reach your strength and hypertrophy goals as fast as possible then it is your job to quickly identify and optimally train these weak links.
So how do you identify weak muscle groups? Charles Poliquin’s favourite solution for quickly identifying weak muscle groups was structural balance testing.
There are other methods but structural balance testing is by far the fastest and most accurate method available.
Structural balance testing is a massive topic. I’ve previously written about it in the following 2 articles:
In this article I will cover some of the basics for testing the upper body.
In Charles’ experience coaching thousands of athletes most individuals have a group of upper body muscles that are extremely weak and limiting their performance. Here are the top 5 biggest weaknesses of the upper body in order of importance:
- The external rotators of the rotator cuff
- The lower traps
- Overhead pressing strength
- The brachialis
- The long head of the biceps
A weak rotator cuff is by far the number one structural imbalance in most trainees.
There are two main reasons for this: most people spend very little time directly training the rotator cuff and most people over-use certain exercises such as the bench press.
The external rotators play a critical role in your overall shoulder health. Trying to bench press big weights with a weak rotator cuff muscle is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe!
As a general rule of thumb you should be able to perform seated DB external rotations with a weight that represents 10% of your best 1-rep max shoulder-width bench press.
For example, if you can close grip bench press 300 pounds then you should be able to use a 30 pound dumbbell for approximately 8 reps on the seated DB external rotation exercise.
If you are new to the concept of structural balance then I highly recommend you start by training your external rotators. Your shoulders will be much healthier and you will be able to reach your long-term upper body strength and size goals much faster!
Part 3: Changing The Loading Parameters
I remember the first time I saw one of Charles Poliquin’s training routines I felt like a five-year-old child on Christmas morning. Finally, someone who defines all of the loading parameters of a training program!
OK, so what are loading parameters? Loading parameters are all of the variables that can be manipulated within a routine.
They include but are not limited to the following variables:
- The choice of exercises
- The order of exercises
- The number of sets per exercise
- The number of reps per set
- The precise exercise tempo
- The rest intervals between sets
- The methods of contraction
- The modes of contraction
If you want optimal results then you MUST clearly define all of these loading parameters in your strength training routines!
Most trainees are reasonably good at deciding ahead of time which exercises they want to perform. Don’t get me wrong, every day I hear people in the gym asking their training partner “what do you want to do today?”
Still, most trainees at least put some amount of thought into their exercise selection. Exercise tempo is another matter entirely. In fact, it is extremely rare to see anyone put any level of thought into their exercise tempos!
Out of all the loading parameters tempo is by far the most neglected. It’s not even close!
Most people only train with an X/0/X/0 tempo on every exercise. That is, they drop the weight down as fast as possible, then lift it up as fast as possible.
This is a huge mistake! If you want to get optimal results then it is critical to vary the speed of your muscular contractions at predefined intervals.
Actually Charles Poliquin was doing this with his athletes way back in 1982. He intuitively figured out that if you varied the speed of muscular contraction you made faster strength gains.
It was not until 2008 (26 years later!) that the scientific literature finally verified Charles’ theories on tempo. This is one of the many reasons I value real-world results more than scientific studies performed on untrained college students…
There are many strategies for varying the tempos of your workouts. One great option is to vary them over a four-workouts progression.
- A1 Back Squat, 4 x 8-10, 3/1/1/0, 180 seconds rest
- A1 Front Squat, 6 x 7/5/3 wave loading, 4/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A1 Safety Squat Bar Squat, 4 x 6, 2/2/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A1 Front Squat heels elevated / narrow, 3-5 x 5**, 5/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- ** Set of 5 performed as cluster sets w/ 15 seconds rest in between each rep
Note: workouts 9-12 use the safety squat bar. If you do not have access to one then here are my recommendations:
The Best Safety Squat Bars To Buy:
The bottom line is there is no single best training tempo. The important point is to vary them over time!
One of the more difficult aspects of program design is figuring out how frequently you need to vary the loading parameters.
As Charles used to say, “a routine is only as good as the time it takes for you to adapt to it.” Eventually your body will become “bored” of that specific routine and you will have to change things up to keep the gains coming.
Here’s the confusing part: some people get bored very quickly and have to change their routine very often while others get bored much more slowly.
As Charles used to joke, marriage is better suited for individuals with a balanced neurotransmitter profile. They really don’t mind being bored!
So how do you know how often to switch workouts (and how quickly your body gets bored of one routine)? As discussed earlier, according to Charles, this is a function of your neurotransmitter profile.
People with more dopamine and acetyl-choline tend to need to vary their workouts more often (every 2-4 workouts).
On the other hand, those with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile can often go 4-8 workouts on the same routine and keep making progress.
In extreme cases you would have a dopamine-dominant lifter (or a “fire” type) who needs to vary the training prescription every single workout!
For these guys one of the best options is to rotate through an “A”, “B”, and “C” workout for each body part.
- Workouts 1, 4, 7, and 10: “A”
- Workouts 2, 5, 8, and 11: “B”
- Workouts 3, 6, 9, and 12: “C”
On workout 10 they would change to a new set of routines (“D” / “E” / “F”). So even the most hardcore fire type needs to repeat their workouts eventually, just not on back-to-back sessions.
While this may work for a dopamine-dominant lifter most trainees will get their best results by performing a specific workout around 3-6 times in a row before moving on to something else.
- Workouts 1-4: “A”
- Workouts 5-8: “B”
- Workouts 9-12: “C”
- Workouts 13-16: “D”
Defining all of the loading parameters of your workouts and varying them at predefined intervals is one of the keys to strength training success.
One of the reasons so many people fail to make significant progress in the gym is they either change their workouts too frequently or stay on the same routine for months at a time.
If you change your workouts every 2-4 weeks then you are definitely on the right track!
Part 4: Accumulation And Intensification Phases
If you want to achieve long-term results then it is absolutely critical that you utilize some form of training periodization.
Periodization simply refers to a strategy for how you will organize and cycle your workouts in order to maximize your long-term training adaptations.
Charles Poliquin strongly believed that most trainees or athletes get their best results when they alternate back and forth between accumulation phases and intensification phases.
Accumulation phases are primarily designed to boost muscular hypertrophy levels. They are characterized by relatively higher rep ranges, shorter rest periods between sets, and higher overall training volumes.
On the other hand intensification phases are designed to help you build strength. They are characterized by relatively lower rep ranges, longer rest periods between sets, and lower overall training volumes.
Charles had his athletes alternate back-and-forth between accumulation phases lasting 2-4 weeks and intensification phases lasting 2-4 weeks.
This model of periodization is based on the research of the German sports scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher back in the 1970s. The basic premise is that the human body will adapt to any training stimulus after a given period of time.
As they say, you can’t argue with results!
For example, mechanical advantage drop sets are one of the best accumulation methods that you can use.
The idea is to pick 2-4 different variations of a single exercise and perform them back-to-back with only 10 seconds rest between exercises. You start with the variation that you are weakest on and finish with the variation that you are strongest on.
By sequencing your exercises in this manner you are able to progress from one variation to the next without decreasing the load you are using.
Here is a great mechanical advantage drop set for the lats that you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Wide overhand grip pull ups, 3-5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Medium supinated grip chin ups, 3-5 x AMRAP**, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Narrow neutral grip chin ups, 3-5 x AMRAP**, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
**Perform as many reps as possible with the same weight used on exercise A1.
Here is a fantastic video of Charles Poliquin taking a female client through this exact routine:
I recommend you watch the whole video if you are interested in learning more about mechanical advantage drop sets.
Of course you may want to include some rows for the upper back after the pullups to make it a more complete upper back workout.
You may also want to perform some exercises for the chest or even your entire upper body, depending on your preferred training split. The choice is up to you.
Of course intensification methods differ quite a bit from accumulation methods. The goal of an intensification phase routine is to improve the overall efficiency of your nervous system.
This is obviously a major goal of strength athletes but even bodybuilders stand to benefit from intensification phase routines.
When they return back to their higher-rep bodybuilding routines they will be able to handle more weight which is important for making sustained long-term progress.
One of the best intensification phase routines for most individuals is the 10 x 3 method. The idea is simple: you are going to perform 10 sets of 3 reps on an exercise.
If you alternate between sets for antagonistic body parts (as Charles had many of his athletes do) then you can perform 10 sets on two seperate exercises.
For example, here is a shoulders / back 10 x 3 workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 10 x 3, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Sternum pull ups, 10 x 3, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Seated Poliquin lateral raise, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Seated rope cable face pull, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
If you want to learn more about the accumulation / intensification model of periodization then I highly recommend you check out the following article:
You may also find the following article useful. It covers some of the best accumulation methods of all time:
Stay tuned for a comprehensive guide to the most effective intensification protocols. It is on my to-do list!
Part 5: Recording Your Workouts In A Logbook
Charles Poliquin has called the logbook the single greatest training tool that you can use. After all, “the palest of ink is better than the sharpest of memory.”
If you are not using a training logbook then you are MASSIVELY shortchanging your results!
I want you to take a good look around you during your next workout. I want you to count the number of people you see recording their workouts in a training logbook.
If you are in the typical commercial gym then you will be hard pressed to find even a single person using a logbook!
In my experience there are two types of trainees who actually have the brains to use a logbook: absolute beginners and highly advanced strength athletes.
The absolute beginners comment is relatively self-explanatory. It can be extremely helpful to have your workouts planned out and written down ahead of time when you are still getting used to lifting weights.
In my opinion it is a little more interesting that highly advanced strength athletes can often be found using a logbook.
Even many bodybuilding coaches such as Dante Trudel are famous for preaching “beat the logbook!”
Are these people so advanced because they use a logbook, or do they use a logbook because they are so advanced?
It is a little bit of the chicken vs the egg here. In my experience it is the former: they are so advanced because they have used a logbook for so long.
Over time they have figured out which types of routines work for them (because they are recording their workouts!).
Then they have made that logbook their bitch over months and years of time to where they are putting up weights that are so far and beyond what they were using when they started.
Why don’t more people use a logbook? I’ll tell you why! Most people are spinning their wheels making little to no progress in the gym. They don’t want a reminder that they’re wasting their time!
Sure, they go in and get a great pump. But they aren’t actually doing anything to cause long-term training adaptations.
If they used a training logbook this would be immediately obvious to them. In their eyes ignorance really is bliss: it is better to be blissfully unaware of the fact that they are spinning their wheels than to confront their lack of progress head-on!
It is similar to someone who goes weeks without checking their bank account because they do not want to face the reality that they are spending more money than they make each week.
Charles loved to use the “2%” rule when measuring progress. He believed that the average trainee should progress by at least 2% every time they repeated a specific workout.
This could include lifting an additional 2% in weight for the same amount of reps or performing at least 1 more rep per set.
The 2% rule is primarily dictated towards trainees with less than 5 years of consistent weight-training experience. After five years the 2% rule becomes the 1% rule.
If you are consistently able to progress by 2% from workout to workout then you are well on your way to reaching your strength and hypertrophy goals.
On the other hand, if you cannot progress by 2% from workout to workout then you know something is wrong. It could be that you are using a training program that is poorly suited for your genetics.
As you should already know by now Charles’ preferred method for program design was neurotransmitter based program design.
If you are a lion then you should train like a lion. On the other hand, if you are a grizzly bear then train like a grizzly bear!
If you are unable to progress by 2% from workout to workout then your training logbook will make it immediately obvious.
It is then up to you to figure out what you need to do to start progressing again. Of course you can save yourself a ton of time just by hiring an experienced coach.
Part 6: Lactic Acid Training For Fat Loss
Traditionally there have been two major schools of thought on how you should organize your workouts during a fat loss phase.
The first school of thought says that the best way to train for fat loss is through high-rep, high-volume workouts. The idea is that the higher training volumes burn more overall calories and help you to enter into a calorie deficit.
The argument is that getting into a calorie deficit is the key to weight loss, so the more you can create this calorie deficit through your workload, the better.
Countless bodybuilders have adopted this strategy while dieting. It does work reasonably well for dropping body fat.
Unfortunately there is a major problem with this dieting strategy: most trainees find they lose just as much muscle mass as they do body fat.
The second school of thought says that you should keep the weights relatively heavy during a cutting or dieting phase. If a certain training style built the muscle mass in the first place then it will do the best job of maintaining that muscle mass while you diet.
“Dance with the girl you brought to the dance” is the catchphrase of this second school of thought. Rather than using higher training volumes bodybuilders sometimes use strategies such as calorie restriction, insulin management, and thermogenics to drop the body fat.
It is true that you reduce the odds of losing significant amounts of muscle mass while dieting this way. The problem with this second school of thought is that the rate of fat loss is oftentimes very slow.
Charles Poliquin found both of these solutions to be severely suboptimal. He wanted his athletes to rapidly lose body fat while simultaneously building muscle mass!
This may sound like an impossible feat but it was actually the norm for Charles’ athletes. Charles solution to this fat loss dilemma is simple: lactic acid training for fat loss!
German researchers discovered as far back as the 1970s that the anaerobic pathway is far superior to the aerobic pathway for dropping body fat.
Basically the researchers found that an increase in growth hormone in the bloodstream was directly correlated with fat loss.
In fact there was a linear relationship: the more growth hormone someone produced during a workout the more body fat they lost!
The key to maximizing the amount of growth hormone you produce is to maximize the amount of lactic acid that you produce.
Therefore the ideal fat loss workout will be one that maximizes lactic acid production! It was this realization that led Charles to developing and refining several superior fat loss programs:
Charles used each of these different fat loss protocols with his athletes. Perhaps the most “extreme” of these protocols was his giant set protocols.
If you are looking to drop body fat as quickly as humanly possible then you may want to give the following quadriceps giant set workout a shot.
Check it out:
- A1: Front squat (heels narrow / elevated), 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Back squat (heels narrow / elevated), 3-4 x 12, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Walking alternating DB lunge, 3-4 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A4: Leg press, 3-4 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A5: Bilateral leg extension machine, 3-4 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 240 seconds rest
You may want to perform a giant set for the hamstrings following this quadriceps giant set for a more complete lower body workout.
If you go this route then you may want to select hamstrings exercises that are relatively easier on the lumbar spine.
Lactic acid training is without a doubt one of the most effective ways to train for fat loss. Charles was known for getting his athletes to sub-10% body fat in record time and these training protocols are a big part of the reason why!
Part 7: Time Under Tension For Hypertrophy
Most people use “straight sets” when training for hypertrophy. That is, they perform several regular sets of an exercise before moving on to the next exercise for that body part.
For example, here is one of the most popular chest hypertrophy workouts as recommended by numerous muscle building magazines:
- A1: Bench press, 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- B1: Incline bench press, 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- C1: Flat dumbbell presses, 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- D1: Cable crossovers, 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Charles Poliquin was never a huge fan of using “straight sets” for hypertrophy development. In fact Charles almost considered it a waste of time!
Ok, this might be a slight exaggeration. However Charles was of the opinion that there were FAR superior ways to train when your goal is increased muscular size.
Many of Charles Poliquin’s favourite accumulation phase routines had one thing in common: they prolong the time under tension of the set!
You may find the following equation useful:
(Hypertrophy) = (Load) x (Time Under Tension)
If you can find a way to increase the time under tension of a set without sacrificing the load used then you will dramatically increase the quality of your hypertrophy training stimulus!
Hypertrophy training methods are often associated with bodybuilding-style training protocols. However, many of Charles’ athletes were more interested in improving their athletic performance than looking good naked.
For these trainees Charles often used functional hypertrophy training protocols. Functional hypertrophy of course refers to an increase in the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
You know, the muscle fibers that have the greatest potential for getting stronger and more powerful.
One of Charles’ favourite methods for boosting functional hypertrophy was the “5 to 8” method. The 5 to 8 method is really a lower-rep version of Dante Trudel’s rest-pause sets. A 5 to 8 set looks like this:
- Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep, done!
This training method works so well because you are forcing your fast-twitch muscle fibers to work significantly longer during a set.
The 15 second rest breaks are just long enough for you to squeeze out 1 more repetition. These additional singles create a tremendous overload on not only your fast-twitch muscle fibers but also your nervous system.
Here is what a sample arm workout might look like using the 5 to 8 method.
Check it out:
- A1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 3-5 x 5**, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher unilateral DB curl (hammer grip), 3-5 x 5**, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Decline DB extension, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
- B2: Seated zottman curl, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
**Performed as a “5 to 8” set as described above.
There are obviously many more training methods that you can choose from that rely on prolonging the time under tension of a set.
If you want more information on effective accumulation phase protocols then I highly recommend the following articles available on Revolutionary Program Design:
- Giant Sets
- Drop Sets
- Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
- Rest-Pause Sets
- Forced Reps
- Eccentric Training
Part 8: Sets Per Exercise When Training For Strength
Charles was absolutely obsessed with numbers.
He kept very detailed training logs for all of his athletes throughout his entire career. During the 1990s he began performing advanced statistical analysis on these training logs.
Charles wanted to figure out why some of his clients were making faster progress than others and how to further improve his training programs.
This statistical analysis of his clients’ training logs eventually led to him publishing the first ever upper body structural balance testing norms way back in 1992!
But there were many other benefits to Charles’ obsession with numbers. One was the optimization of various set and rep schemes.
According to Charles you should perform at least six sets per exercise when you are training for relative or absolute strength. This six set rule specifically applies to the main 1 or 2 exercises that you perform during a given workout.
This is in sharp contrast to many powerlifters and strongmen who only perform 1-3 top sets per exercise.
Why did Charles go against the grain and recommend at least six sets per major exercise when training for relative or absolute strength?
The reason is simple: training for strength is all about increasing the efficiency of the nervous system. You are trying to improve your nervous system’s ability to fire and synchronize new motor units on a specific exercise.
Charles came to the conclusion after analyzing his clients’ training logs over many years that the body needs lots of practice with a specific weight before it “learns” to accept the weight as normal.
Think about it: a college student wouldn’t study for a math test by solving one set of problems. They would solve many, many problems to make sure they have the material down.
Training for strength is similar. You need many sets (at least six to be precise) of a load for your body to get the message and for optimal training adaptations to take place.
Charles used many, many different intensification protocols with his athletes who needed more relative or absolute strength. However, the one thing they have in common is they often feature at least six sets per major exercise.
For example, the Modified Hepburn Method is one of the very best ways to train for strength, and it usually involves 8-10 sets of singles on two exercises (!!) before moving onto the relatively higher rep work.
For example here is a 3/2/1 wave loading squat workout you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Kneeling unilateral leg curl (Poliquin method**** / foot pointing out), 12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3 x 6-8, 2/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a 3/2/1 wave loading protcol. For example:
- Sets 1, 4, 7, and 10: 3 reps
- Sets 2, 5, 8, and 11: 2 reps
- Sets 3, 6, 9, and 12: 1 rep
Anywhere from 6-12 total sets are performed in the above wave-like pattern. If you are having an exceptional day you can perform as many as 12 sets. If you are having a mediocre day then stick with 6 sets.
****Dorsiflex your ankles (point your ankles towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankles (point your ankles away from your shins) on the eccentric range. This allows you to eccentrically overload your hamstrings.
For more information on wave loading protocols you may want to check out this article:
Of course, some strength protocols including cluster sets and lower-rep drop sets may involve fewer than 6 sets per exercise. Charles Poliquin’s philosophy on training takes into account these exceptions to the rule.
But a single set on these protocols is much more demanding than a normal set, so 5 sets of cluster sets carries as much fatigue as 10+ sets performed traditionally.
There are exceptions to the six set rule, of course.
Louie Simmons certainly got his athletes plenty strong performing far less than six sets per exercise on his max effort work.
And adherents of Dante Trudel’s rest-pause training style or Dorian Yates’ high intensity training style have gotten freaky strong with as little as 1 set per exercise.
However, as a rule of thumb, Charles found that if you want to get stupid strong (as Stan Efferding might say), then you must perform at least six sets on the main exercise of the day during your intensification phases.
Part 9: Always Remember: No Pissing, No Moaning!
This was Charles’ favorite saying. He calls it “rule #1.”
In fact, Charles’ daughter could recite the rule “no pissing, no moaning!” by the time she was two years old!
I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but the United States definitely has a “victim culture.” It seems like everyone is competing with each other over who is the bigger victim.
If you want shit results in life then by all means go ahead and play the victim card. Pretend that everything is outside of your control and you have no personal agency in this world.
You’re never going to accomplish anything with this kind of mindset.
I don’t care if you have “bad genetics™” or if you are a “slow responder™” or if you’re a “hardgainer™” or any other bullshit excuse.
If you want to reach your goals then you will find a way to make it happen. This is as true in the weight room as it is in life.
You are not a victim. The universe didn’t commit some great crime against you because your arms grow slower than someone else’s.
This is what they call the “growth mindset.”
If you spend all day thinking about perceived injustices, things that aren’t fair, how life is rigged against you, then that is all you will ever see:
- Perceived injustices
- Things that aren’t fair
- That life is rigged against you
Instead, if you spend all day thinking about opportunity, success, and ways to reach your goals, then that is what you will see all day long:
- Ways to reach your goals
Re-read the last few sentences if you need to – they are that important.
This might be one of the most important Charles Poliquin tips that I have covered in this article. If you want to be successful and reach your goals (in the gym and in life) then you MUST adopt the growth mindset!
After all, “everything is always impossible until someone does it.”
I know how demoralizing it can be to train your ass off in the gym only to see little to no progress for your efforts. I know what it’s like to train for months or even years without getting the kinds of results that you know you are capable of.
Believe me, I’ve been there.
Regardless of how long you’ve been stuck, there is ALWAYS a way to make progress!
If you are not getting the results that you want then there is almost always a “lever” you can pull to dramatically increase your rate of progress.
Of course an experienced coach can help you bust through training plateaus more quickly than you thought possible.
So what’s it going to be?
Are you going to piss and moan that life isn’t fair and so has it easier than me and I won’t ever reach my goals?
Or are you going to take life by the balls, take advantage of all the incredible free information available on this site, and reach your goals in record time?
The choice is yours.
And you have no one but yourself to blame if you don’t succeed. I can’t stand the idea of wasting the little time I have left on this planet not reaching my goals.
I hope you feel the same way. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
All of the information that you need to make the best gains of your life is available, for FREE, right here on Revolutionary Program Design.
Charles Poliquin was a true strength training genius. I hope you can take these 9 tips and apply them to your own strength training program design.
If you can pull this off then I am confident that your progress will shoot through the roof!
“No matter what you do, you first have to have a vision… to see your goal, to believe in it, have faith in it and chase it. And then it’s fun to chase it. If you don’t have a goal or a vision, then you have nothing.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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