Simpleton Guide to Poliquin Training

Part I
Sometimes, when I'm talking to Coach Poliquin about training methodologies, muscle fiber ratios, and all the assorted high-tech, laboratory aspects of weight training, my eyes start to glaze over?not because I'm bored or anything?but because he has lost me; lost me as surely as if he had driven me out to the desert in the back of his four-wheel-drive Jeep of knowledge, kicked me out naked into the midst of scorpions, rattlers, and cacti without so much as a bottle of Evian water, and left me to flounder out under the searing sun where I start to slowly bake and fricassee.

He'll continue expounding on the intricacies of what he knows better than any one alive, and I'll find myself playing little games to make him think we're still sharing the same planet: "Yes Charles, yes, it's so clear?why didn't I see it before?" Meanwhile, I'm staring at his nose, or fantasizing about that blonde I saw on the beach the other day, the one with that metallic thong that split her declivities so deftly in two as she bounded toward the surf, her bottom as brown as a berry and just as juicy... "Yes Charles, yes, don't stop, don't stop!"

Don't get me wrong; I'm not exactly a lightweight when it comes to the science of weight training. I've read more than my share of studies, articles, and books, in addition to having years and years of practical experience. And, I've played Sherman to Charles Poliquin's Peabody for practically longer than anyone else. I'm sort of a Poliquin clone; a juvenile, ill-formed, way-down-on-the-evolutionary-scale clone, but a clone nonetheless. Still, I'll never know everything Charles knows, regardless of how much I tag along with him like some sort of loyal hound dog.

The point of all this is that I can now formulate my own, Poliquin-esque workout routines without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth. What I've done is taken seven of his principles and committed them to memory, so much so that I can't do a single exercise without taking them into consideration. It's kind of like that best-selling business book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but instead, I prefer the less elegant, more humble title, "A Simpleton's Guide to Charles Poliquin's Training Principles".

If you learn these seven principles and apply them to your workout routines, you'll have the next best thing to getting Charles to design your own, individualized programs. What's more, you'll more than likely experience more progress in your training in a short period than you have in the previous five years. Here, in a nutshell, are the seven principles I've adopted (I also gave them my own descriptive names):

The Borg Principle

Anybody who's ever watched the newer versions of "Star Trek" knows about the Borg. They're the bad-ass creatures who can't be beaten using conventional methods. Blast them or their ship with phasers, and they adapt. The only way to keep them off balance is to set your weapons on a constantly shifting frequency so they can't adapt. 

Well, your body is the Borg. It's designed to adapt. When you keep doing the same exercises in the same order, for the same amount of reps, using the same hand grip or foot stance, the body adapts. In effect, the nervous system becomes ""hardwired" to that particular routine and consequently, fewer muscle fibers are recruited, less energy is used, and fewer demands in general are made on the body. You become an expert at that routine, and after a surprisingly short time, you stop making progress.

If, however, you keep shaking things up, "changing the frequency," so to speak, the nervous system does not adapt. Instead, what happens is that the body?the muscles?grow stronger and bigger to survive the onslaught of your attack. Research (by Poliquin and others) shows that, in most cases, the body begins to adapt after having performed a particular routine 6 times. After that, it's time to shake things up again. 

Yes, to the Borg, resistance if futile, but in weight training, resistance to becoming stale is mandatory.

The Principle of Shifting Rep Ranges

Most trainers are hopelessly mired in the old 8-10 rep range scheme. It's as automatic for them as putting two spoonfuls of sugar in their morning coffee; getting a monthly haircut from Rudy, the gay stylist; or watching Dawson's Creek on Tuesdays and wondering what that Joey chick is going to look like when she gets a little bit older. It's largely habit. True, there's a lot of evidence that doing midrange reps is maybe the best compromise between rep ranges designed to build strength (between, say, 3 and 5) and rep ranges designed to build endurance (anything above 12 or so). However, to maximize results, you should work your muscles in all 3 rep ranges.

Muscle fibers are "typed" according to their oxidative capacities and how fast they fatigue. Historically, fast-twitch fibers (the ones best suited for growth) are worked by a combination of lower-rep, lower set routines. Fine. Except that muscles are also made up of slow-twitch fibers. You can't very well ignore them if you want to maximize gains. 

Therefore, you should juggle low-rep training (from 4 to 6 reps), intermediate-rep training (8-10), and high-rep training (12-15, or even 15-18) to make the best progress.

The II-B or Not II-B Principle

We just got done talking about fiber types. Well, true muscle physiology types (the kind that wear lab coats with the sleeves torn off) refer to these fibers using cute little alphanumeric terms, like II-A or II-B. These numbers refer to their oxidative capacity. Now, type II-B fibers are generally known as fast-twitch fibers and are the ones called on to do very heavy lifting. When you experience strength failure, much of it's due to the fact that these type II-B fibers have petered out?they just don't have the endurance of the other muscle fibers. They're like the fat truck driver who lives down the street; huge SOB, real strong, but can't run more than 10 feet without kissing the pavement. 

After these fibers are fatigued, it's hard to engage them fully in subsequent exercises. However, the other fibers, the type II-A guys, will still be fresh, and they're best stimulated with reps of between ten and twelve.

The point here is that you should do your heavy weight, low-rep movements first in the workout. Then, after those fibers are baked, go on to your higher-rep movements.

The Rest Principle

Somewhere along the way, taking short breaks between sets got confused as "intensity". If, after all, you're breathing heavy like a high school kid at a Tracy Lord film festival, you must be working intensely, right? Wrong, Viagra breath. In weight lifting, intensity refers to how close the weight you're using is to your one-rep maximum. If I lift 200 pounds ten times, regardless of how much I huff and puff, I'm not engaging in a high-intensity set. If, however, I push 300 pounds up only 3 times, my intensity level is very high.

With that in mind, let me say that people tend to rush between heavy sets in order to maintain a high heart rate. Heart rate has nothing to do with your goal here. If you want aerobic capacity, run 10-miles a day and turn into one of those pairs of lungs with some sinew attached that you see whipping along the parkway every morning wearing T-shirts that say something like, "Greater Orlando 225K Grapefruit Extravaganza Race".

The more intense the set, the more rest is needed between sets to allow for neural recuperation. If you don't rest long enough between intense sets, it's a safe bet that your lactate levels will still be high and that they'll interfere with your performance on the next set.

Typically, if you're working heavy, you should rest between two and three minutes in-between sets. On less intense sets, you can rest anywhere from 45 seconds to 90 seconds.

The Time-Under-Tension Principle

Muscle growing isn't just about reps and rest periods. It all comes down to something called "time under tension". In some circles, time-under-tension refers to the amount of time you spend tailgating that Ford Pinto that's doing about 45 in the fast lane. It also refers to the time your muscles are actually working and weight, sets, and reps all play a part in the equation. For instance, if you do a set of 10 reps, but you pistoned them up and down like the pelvic thrusts of one of those horny baboons in a National Geographic special, your total time under tension was about two seconds. Muscle is not going to grow when your time under tension is inordinately low (see the next principle for more info on "time under tension").

Typically, and depending largely on your muscle fiber ratio (some people have more fast-twitch fibers than slow or vice versa), your time under tension should be anywhere from 30 seconds to about 70. Any more or any less is counterproductive over the long run. (Determining your exact muscle fiber make-up is probably a little more complicated than we want to get into here in this article).

As you progress from one set to another and you tire, you have one of two choices: reduce the weight, or reduce the number of reps. Given that choice, you should always reduce the weight and keep the rep range the same or roughly the same. In other words, if you just did 8 reps at 200, you'll need to reduce the weight about 4 or 5% on the next set in order to do 8 reps again.

The Change the Beat Around Principle

In the previous principle, we talked about time under tension and we mentioned the wisdom of keeping the duration of a set somewhere in the 30 to 70 second range. How do you do that without doing 30 to 70 reps? The answer is something called tempo. For instance, if I'm doing sets of dumbbell bench presses for sets of 4 to 6 reps, my time under tension is going to be something like 15 seconds if I do them at "normal" speed. However, if I slow them down, particularly on the eccentric, or lowering part of the movement, I'll increase time under tension.

Whenever you look at a Poliquin workout sheet, you'll see numbers that look like 302, or 501, or something similar. They do not refer to different styles of Levi's jeans. Instead, they refer to tempo, and the first number indicates how many seconds you should take to perform the eccentric portion of that particular lift. For instance, a "5" means you should take a count of five to lower the weight. The next number refers to the pause taken between the eccentric and the concentric portion of the movement, while the last number refers to how long it should take you to raise the weight.

Okay, so what this means is that if you're working in a 4-6 rep range, you have to adjust the tempo in order for that set's time under tension to reach at least 30 seconds. Along the same lines, if you're working in the 8-10 rep range, the tempo should be a little quicker so that you won't exceed the 30 to 70 second time-under-tension frame.

The Yin and Yang Principle

Muscle builders always talk about the endocrine system; the muscular system; or even the cardiovascular system. But, they hardly ever talk about the neurological system and that's a big mistake. Consequently, neural recuperation is ignored.

Ever wonder why 99 out of a 100 trainees do multiple sets of a particular exercise in succession? For instance, they'll do one set of bench press, followed by another set of bench press, followed by another set of bench press. In between, they'll pretend to pull a loose thread on their toe-jammy socks while sneaking a peak at Ms. Hooters while she's doing dumbbell flyes. This supposedly allows the athlete to recuperate in-between sets.

Well, amazingly, research has shown that you'll achieve better recuperation by performing a set for an antagonistic body part in-between sets. For instance, if you do a set of dumbbell bench presses, do a set for your lats in-between and then go back to your next set of dumbbell bench presses. You'll experience less of a drop in strength in between sets. No one is sure why, but you can bet it has to do with the neurological system.

Some of you who are new to Charles' workouts may have noticed that he often labels his exercises as "A1" and "A2" or "B1" and "B2". This refers to the order of exercises. "A1" is usually the first exercise for a particular set for a particular body part, while "A2" refers to the second exercise and that exercise is almost always for a dissimilar body part. After completing A2, the trainee rests for the predetermined amount of time and then goes back to his second set of A1.

Other examples include doing a set of barbell curls, followed by a set of triceps extensions; or a set of squats followed by a set of leg curls.

There are plenty of other Poliquin Principles, but my feeble brain can only digest so much. It's like buying panties for my wife out one of those big Victoria's Secrets clearance bins: they all look so nice, but I can only fit so many in my wheel barrow. 

Anyhow, these are the ones that I use to formulate my workout programs. Next week, I'll show you how I use them to constantly formulate new, incredibly effective workouts without rupturing too many brain cells.




Part II
In Part I of this article, I carefully picked out seven of Charles Poliquin's principles and tried to make them a little easier to understand. Of course, as I mentioned, picking out only seven was a little like trying to pick my top seven favorite Hanson songs?okay, bad analogy. Trying to pick seven was like trying to choose which seven of my family or friends would get to go into the shelter with me when one of those Hollywood-movie asteroids blows up my town. Should I pick my dear, dear, grandmother, or that girl walking by who I've never met but who has a perfectly glorious rack? Anyhow, I made my choices based partly on cold logic and partly on emotion, picking some that worked particularly well for me or that suited my personality.

Hopefully, I made some of them easier to understand, especially if you're new to Charles Poliquin's ideas. Regardless of how well I explained them, though, they're essentially worthless unless they can be incorporated into a workable routine. 

In the beginning, I practically had to book some time on a Craig Supercomputer to help me figure out a Poliquin workout for myself. I mean, geez, with all the other things I had to factor in like speed of contraction and muscle fiber types, etc., etc., I was lucky if I didn't get confused and mistakenly devise an elaborate tap-dance routine: De Camptown Ladies sing this song, oh da-doo-da-dey?.

Anyhow, I eventually got pretty good at it, but I found that I'm a little too goal-oriented and compulsive and I found that a completely pre-planned workout was causing me too much anxiety. I looked at the whole thing as a checklist and I couldn't relax and enjoy myself until I had methodically gone through the whole thing. It felt too much?like work.

So, I adapted. I devised a system using the Poliquin principles listed above and made a workout that had some structure, but was variable enough to suit my personality.

First, I arranged a seemingly logical split:

Day 1: Chest and Back
Day 2: Biceps and Triceps
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Quads, hams, calves
Day 5: Off*

*I don't work shoulders directly?I know that sounds nuts, but I think that anyone who habitually works chest and back is already getting plenty of shoulder work. My aim is to keep my shoulders healthy so that when I'm eighty, I can still throw lumps of stale bread at the pigeons that congregate around my park bench.

As I mentioned, I don't do well with set-in-stone structure. I need a little leeway to do what I want to do occasionally, or to have another choice or two in case the machine or weight I want is being used by some yutz who's telling his entire life story to his personal trainer in-between sets. 

Therefore, I combine structure and spontaneity. Before I go into the gym, I've mapped out the first exercise (using the appropriate Poliquin Principles) for each body part I'm going to work that day and only the first exercise. As an example, the "written-down" portion of my chest and back workout will look like this:

A1)  Incline Barbell Bench Press Weight Used Sets(4)  Reps(4-6) Tempo(402)  Rest(120secs)

A2) Wide-Grip Chin-Ups Weight Used** Sets(4) Reps(4-6) Tempo(402) Rest(120secs)

**With chins, I'd strap some additional weight onto my waist.

Again, these are the only two exercises that are set in stone for this particular workout. More on that later, but let's take a look at the parts of this exercise prescription and see which principles they employ:

The exercises themselves: Note the "A1" and "A2" designation? For you Poliquin neophytes, that simply means I'll do one set of the A1 exercise (the incline presses), rest two minutes, and then go on to the A2 exercise (the chins). I'll rest for another two minutes and then go on to the second set of the A2 exercise. This incorporates the "Yin and Yang" principle explained in Part I of this article which, in a nutshell, says that you experience better recuperation when you do another set for the antagonistic body part in-between sets. So, you might consider pairing chest and back; biceps and triceps; and quads and hams.

Reps: Sets of relatively low reps target the type IIB muscle fibers, and these are the fibers that have the least endurance. Therefore, I do these low-rep sets early in the workout while these particular muscle fiber types are still fresh (the "IIB or not IIB" principle). 

Tempo: Note the 402 tempo indicated in my example workout. This tells me that I should take 4 seconds to lower the weight, no pause, followed by a 2-second concentric or lifting phase. By doing these slow, controlled reps, I'll ensure that my time under tension will be close to 30 seconds, which again suits these muscle fibers best (the "time under tension" principle, and the "change the beat around" principle).

Rest: Again, different muscle fiber types respond better to different rest periods, and type IIB fibers?which are being targeted here in my first group of exercises?respond better to longer rest periods. It may be difficult for traditional muscle builders to wait this long between sets, but it's the absolute correct thing to do if you're after additional strength and size.

Now, I'll record my weights and reps achieved for this workout, and I'll continue to do so for the next five workouts. Remember the "Borg Principle," the one that says your body becomes "hard-wired" to a particular routine? Well, it's true, and you really shouldn't do the same exercise or group of exercises more than 6 times in a row. After that sixth workout, I'll pick two new movements for chest and back. For instance, my "A1" movement might even be dips, doing 4 sets of one rep each, with a tempo of 15015 (that's right, 15 seconds on the way up and 15 seconds on the way down). Likewise, my "A2" movement might be close-grip chins for a 15015 tempo. 

You're probably wondering why I record these first two exercises and no others. Well, as mentioned, the completely structured, completely-planned-beforehand workout doesn't work with me, mentally. I find myself thinking about the next set while I'm still doing the current one. But, by keeping careful records of the first movement for each body part, I can determine if my workouts continue to be effective. For instance, if I fail to either increase the weight or the reps on each subsequent workout, I know I'm not hitting it hard enough on the subsequent movements. 

You, however, may prefer a lot of structure. If that's the case, simply write out your entire program beforehand using Chuck's principles. Just make sure you change your program after every 6th workout or so (that's every 6 workouts for that particular body part or parts).

Let me reiterate that the above exercise combo isn't my entire chest and back workout. Hardly. But after this, I free-wheel it, doing a combination of exercises that employ the Poliquin Principles but change constantly from workout to workout. This keeps me amazingly fresh (mentally) and allows me to keep making far more progress than I might have had I stuck to a completely pre-determined workout. 

For instance, after I've done these first two low-rep exercises, I'll want to do some mid-range rep training (approximately 8-10). Consequently, I'll often do two exercises that:

A) Work the muscle slightly differently, i.e., flat-bench dumbbell presses instead of incline barbell presses, and bent-over rows instead of chin-ups.

B) Incorporate a slightly faster tempo. Since I'm doing 8 to 10 reps, I don't want to do incredibly slow reps because that will bring my total time-under-tension beyond the 30-70 second range I've established for myself. Consequently, my tempo will probably be about 202 or somewhere in that range.

C) Require less rest. Since, by doing higher reps, I'm working the fiber types that have greater recuperative abilities, I'll rest only about 60 seconds in-between sets.

Okay, so we've done a few sets in the low-rep range and the middle-rep range. That means that a good portion of your total number of muscle fibers have been recruited and put to work. That leaves your slow-twitch fibers. They've barely broken a sweat and they're laughing at all the low-endurance fibers that are gasping, wheezing, and massaging their bruised sarcomeres. Time to put these high-resistance fibers to work with some high-range rep training.

I've got several options here for doing high-rep sets, but generally, I'll throw out the Yin and Yang principle when I do them. In other words, I'll do the same exercise for three consecutive sets without bouncing back and forth between two exercises for two antagonistic muscle groups. Sure, the Yin and Yang principle is designed to allow for greater recuperation of a muscle groups, but given that you're doing work specifically for muscle fiber types that have great endurance, we can temporarily ignore the Yin and Yang principle during high-rep sets.

For instance, I might do three sets of dumbbell flyes for 12 to 15 (or even 15 to 18) reps each, with only 45 to 60 seconds of rest in-between sets. Then, after I've completed all three sets of flyes, I might do three sets of one-arm dumbbell rows, again doing 12-15 reps (per arm) and taking only 45-60 seconds of rest in-between sets.

There are other options, too. I might, on occasion, do three sets of vertical bench presses (machine), doing a 6,6,6, rep-scheme where I do 6 reps to failure, wait 10 seconds, reduce the weight, do 6 more reps, wait ten seconds again, and reduce the weight and do a final 6 reps. After resting for 45 seconds to 60 seconds, I'd do the next set. In this just-mentioned scenario, I'm using heavier weights than I might for a straight-out set of 15-18, but I'm still fatiguing the high-threshold slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Obviously, there are as many exercise possibilities as there are walrus bones in the dumpster of an Eskimo diner, but the key is, at least for me, to employ as many of the Poliquin principles as I can in each workout. Rules, of course, are occasionally meant to be broken, and I don't always hold fast to every principle 100% of the time. The key to being successful in this and any endeavor is to be creative. Experiment, but keep the basics in mind. Deciding to use hedge clippers to remove an ingrown toenail certainly falls under the category of creative, but it just isn't going to work that well, is it?