The Best Program for Strength Athletes

“… There is no such thing as old school methods, only training plans that work and those that don’t. The key is to figure out the lifters’ strengths and shortcomings. The lifters that have an opportunity to train with me hands-on have a higher chance at success because of direct feedback and adjustments.”

The Situation

Having clear direction or sense of purpose when exercising is a good formula for success. A workout routine or program provides the infrastructure underpinning your purpose.

Many aspects of sports and fitness are accompanied by programs which implement proven methods and protocols needed to foster progression. Strength sports such as bodybuilding, olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting are probably the first choices that come to mind when discussing programs.

Training programs offered by Greg Nuckols

Deciding on an effective routine can seem intimidating if you are new to any of these strength sports. Finding the best program to accommodate your goals for strength or hypertrophy is a dice roll. A simple Google search for “programs for strength” will return links to about 148 million sites in less than one second. That’s amazing.

What’s even more astonishing are the results for “programs for powerlifting,” “workouts for strength,” as well as “programs to make me a champion powerlifter.” In fact, I searched the last phrase myself and was lost in a sea of boosters claiming to make me become bigger, stronger, faster. Search results for routines to enhance body composition for would-be bodybuilders gives me a headache, so I will spare you the trouble of getting the Advil.

Instead, I will focus this discussion on programs for powerlifting since this is the area from which I draw my experience. I have spent many hours, days, and weeks researching and analyzing varying programs and options to improve my own performance and knowledge of different training modalities. I will not offer an in-depth analysis of one program or another, just a brief introduction of the oversaturation of strength training programs and few tips about selecting the right program for you.

The Background

All strength sports can share some characteristics when it comes to a routine or program. The difference is the focal point and expected outcome as it pertains to preparing for competition or contest. The discussion surrounding powerlifting programming is unlike anything I have ever seen.

I recall a conversation I had with Hall of Fame powerlifter Steve Goggins when I mentioned that a few of my training buddies and me were discussing (or comparing) our programs leading up to the 2016 USAPL Raw Powerlifting National Championship. He was shocked and humored by the fact that people sat around and discussed programming. I’m convinced he envisioned a bunch of guys sitting in a circle with their legs crossed talking about their programming. However, his awe caused me to question why the hell we did that, why we (powerlifters) do that – discuss programming.

I began to wonder if coaches for professional teams actually met to discuss their latest program or how they tailored a popularized program to fit the needs of their team/athletes. I do not personally know any head coaches and I have never had the privilege to manage a professional sports team. However, I couldn’t imagine them sitting around talking about programs and how the program they follow has been beneficial. I assume they share training and coaching philosophy instead.

In the (not-so-distant) past, programming involved showing up, lifting weights, noting what worked and what felt good (and didn’t), and winning championships. We have become obsessed with adopting a scheme bolstered by some jackass online and think that we can copy it and make it work for us.

There are 1,000 ways to skin a cat; coaches and athletes around the world are trying to identify every single one. There are over 100 different programs that offer superior results and strengths gains. I am not referring to individual training/programming methodologies by a coach. This only represents actual programs which are marketed (with a name) to make you bigger, stronger, better. Here are some of the top programs that I can think of:

  • 5/3/1
  • Texas Method
  • Westside/Conjugate Method
  • Starting Strength
  • Juggernaut Training
  • The Cube

What the above programs have in common is that they offer their practitioners an opportunity to enhance their performance. How are you supposed to decide which one to buy into? This question is difficult to answer and is beyond the scope of this article. I want to help you understand that to optimize your performance you must stop searching for a magical, fast-acting remedy. The manufacturers of the well-known laxative, Dulcolax, is also marketed as fast-acting and its outcome can get messy.

Fast isn’t always best is the point I’m trying to make.

You will not see instant results just because you start some amazing new program. If you’re a novice lifter, you may have some immediate benefits from most popularized programs. However, advanced athletes do not see many benefits from these and will really have to divulge themselves into the different nuances of strength training programming.

Strength programs are a combination of the founders’ experience and proven scientific findings (in most cases). That is what makes each program special. However, choosing which is best for you is like shopping for a used car. The salesperson will polish it up nicely, tell you all the rewards of ownership, and then be the only benefactor once the sale is made. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Delineating between suitable programs can be a straightforward process and only involves a few forms of research. Just like buying that used car.

  1.  Word of Mouth

Discussions with lifters who have had success with one program or another is paramount. If someone you know and trust mentions a program, chances are you may be able to reap some reward — albeit modifications tailored to your training goals. It’s never a bad idea to get a second opinion if you are torn between multiple options.

Sharing success and pitfalls among friends is an age-old practice that will not lose steam. Social media certainly bolsters this action. I cannot stress enough how important mentorship is. If you have a good mentor then you should be able to seek their advice regarding what programs they feel are best.

  1.  Trial and Error

With an overwhelming amount of choices, it makes complete sense that you can get very far with basic trial and error. I once heard Louie Simmons (creator of The Westside Method, among other things) say that “everything works, but nothing works forever.” This was in response to a question regarding if a certain exercise was good for developing the triceps. The question wasn’t important so I latched on to the response because it is the simplest truth I had ever heard. What he meant by his answer was that, yes, this exercise will work. And this one. And that one. But the rule of thumb is that nothing works forever and changes must be made if forward progress is expected.

I have carried this rhetoric over whenever I discuss programming. Everything works, but nothing works forever. Variability is key. If you start out using 5/3/1 (very common for novice lifters) for a few weeks or months, switching to the Texas Method may not be a bad idea because eventually 5/3/1 may no longer work for you. Once you’ve had an opportunity to play around with a few programs that you like, you can keep and remove what worked and what did not.

  1.   Get a Coach

A good coach will not follow any specialized program. Your coach should adopt training methods from their own experience, scientific research, as well as fellow (successful) coaches. Steve Goggins is one of the most legendary powerlifters ever. His experience culminates over 30 years and he once held the all-time squat record of 1,032 pounds for 7 years prior to becoming the first man to squat 1,100 pounds in 2003. Steve offers programming and coaching and will confer with his long-time friend and powerlifting icon Dave Tate (Founder/CEO of EliteFTS) to get his opinion on training components.

This does not imply that Steve does not know what he is doing or that Dave has more knowledge than his friend. It proves that even though you are great at what you do, it can be a huge benefit to share ideas with others. Great coaches are always learning and seeking ways to improve their craft. I would rather have my coach use another proven competitor for validation than have him or her apply a one-size-fits-all program. If the program has a name, it’s not for me.

If you have a coach, ask him or her how they program their cycles or from where they derive their methods. If they cannot explain it simply and intelligently, then I would encourage you to get a new coach. Do not cloud your mind with fancy scientific words that have more than three syllables. Most of the time they don’t make sense and are only used to distract and impress.

“I use a periodized undulating synthesis of the mitochondria to conjugate the dependencies of your tangible strength measurables.”

See what I mean?

What about this?

“The program is a 8 to 12 week linear progress training template that starts at 65 percent of your one-rep max then gradually increases to 88 up through 93 percent of a projected one-rep max in each of the core lifts.”

The latter statement is much easier to digest and would spark minimal follow-up questions, assuming you have a basic understanding of what you’re training for. You certainly do not want to be left dumbfounded when trying to gain an understanding of your programming. Simple, progressive, and efficient is all you need from your program.

The Argument

Do not become prey to gimmicks and expert marketing. Whether or not you hire a coach isn’t important. Whatever you decide to implement to move past being a novice is up to you. Take some time to learn the differences between programs, and programming directly from a coach.

Many resources exist which can help guide you toward your decision. I will provide a few of these below. Just remember that everything works, but nothing works forever. Ensure that the method(s) you choose is rooted in exercise selection, intensity, frequency, periodization, and volume — the basics of exercise programming. No one will be successful long-term using piecemeal programming.

 

Additional Resources:

Into the Great Wide Open: The Texas Method and 5/3/1 – StartingStrength.com

WATCH: Dave Tate Analyzing Training Methods – elitefts.com – YouTube

The Development of the Russian Conjugate Sequence System – EliteFTS.com

The 3 Most Common Types of Training Periodization (and When to Use Them) – BarBend.com

Workout Systems: Westside Barbell Program – PoliquinGroup.com

Brandon Lilly’s Cube Method: Complaints and Criticism – Powerliftingtowin.com

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