Training For Pure Strength: Your Ultimate GamePlan

Not everyone who trains with weights has the goal of building muscle. If you’re more interested in getting strong than getting big, then you need a different game plan for the bodybuilder training alongside you. In this article, I’ll lay out the variables you should take into account when constructing your strength training program. I’ll also provide you with tried and tested strength programs for beginner and advanced trainers.

We can define strength as the ability to exert force against a resistance. However, there is more than one kind of strength. Compare two guys. One can bench press 400 pounds but maxes out at 33 push-ups. The other guy can only bench 255 but can whip out a hundred push-ups at the drop of a hat.

It’s an impossible question to answer because it involves comparing apples with oranges. The bench presser is exhibiting pure, or absolute, strength, whereas the push-up guy is demonstrating muscular endurance.

Training to build pure strength requires high-intensity training paired with lower rep ranges and longer rest periods. Muscular endurance training, however, is achieved by using low to moderate weights with shorter rest periods. During this type of workout, you increase the total work capacity per session. The use of exercise combinations such as supersets and giant sets will help to challenge the body to keep working as it experiences fatigue.

An effective strength training program will be built around 4 key variables:

  • Training Volume
  • Training Intensity
  • Fatigue Management
  • Rest Between Sets

Volume refers to the amount of exercise performed over a set time. When it comes to strength training, focus on the volume of intensity per training session or training week. The goal is to work up to higher relative intensities to train the nervous system.

The intensity of load is expressed as a percentage of the max weight you can perform with proper form for one rep of an exercise. This is known as your 1 rep max or 1RM. The training load will determine how many reps you can do in a set. Higher intensity most often correlates to lower reps ( 6 or fewer). When your goal is to build strength, lower rep ranges are best to maximize intensity.

An effective way to do this is to use a pyramid set and rep scheme where you start with a couple of high rep warm-up sets (10-12 reps), then increase weight for a 6 rep set and continue adding weight and decreasing sets with each succeeding set.

Managing fatigue is vital for maximizing strength as well as lowering your risk of injury. The RIR based RPE scale has been developed to represent ‘reps in reserve’ (RIR) and how this relates to your perceived rate of perceived exertion (RPE). We can consider ‘reps in reserve’ to be how much you have left in the tank.

Score Description
10 Max effort
9.5 No RIR but cold increase load
9 1 RIR
8.5 Definitel 1, maybe 2 RIR
8 2 RIR
7.5 Definitely 2, maybe 3 RIR
7 3 RIR
5-6 4-6 RIR
3-4 Light effort
1-2 Little to no effort

When you are training for strength development you should, after your warm-up sets, be working between levels 8 and 10 on the RIR based RPE scale.

Another aspect of fatigue management is deloading. This is a light week during which you train at the minimum volume needed to maintain your strength levels. The harder you have trained, the longer the deload you will need before you can return to, or build on, that level.

Every fifth week is an ideal time in a training schedule for a deload. Beginners should reduce loads by around 10-20 percent for this week, while those at an advanced level should reduce set volume by around 30-50 percent of where it peaked over the previous weeks of training, as well as reducing the RIR by two points.

When you are training for strength gains, as opposed to muscle growth, you should rest longer between sets. Beginners to strength training should rest up to 5 minutes between sets to allow for full recovery of your muscular and neurological systems. Intermediate and advanced strength trainers should rest between two and five minutes, with longer rest periods as you near your 1 RM.

Pure Strength: Beginner

Exercise Sets Reps
Machine Horizontal Row 2 6-8
Machine Shoulder Press 2 6-8
Barbell Bench Press 5 5
Triceps Pressdown 3 6
Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press 3 6

Here’s a workout example:

This advanced workout achieves progression through increasing training volume and expanding exercise selection. Building strength at a more advanced level is achieved primarily through upping the load used - as with the beginner program, you should aim to ascend load with each set, working up to peak intensity on the last set of each exercise within each workout.

Exercise Sets Reps
Machine Horizontal Row 2 6-8
Machine Shoulder Press 2 6-8
Barbell Bench Press 6 6,5,4,3,2,2
Triceps Pressdown 4 6
Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press 4 6
Exercise Sets Reps
Push Ups 3 15
Barbell Bench Press 3 12-15
DB Shoulder Press 3 12-15
Triceps Pressdown 3 12-15
Cable Chest Fly 3 12-15

Perform the first 3 exercises as a giant set, where you go from one move to the next with no rest. Take 3-5 minutes rest between sets.

Exercise Sets Reps
Push Ups 4 15
Dumbbell Bench Press 4 12
Cable Chest Fly 4 12
Triceps Pressdown 3 12-15
Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 12-15

When you’re constructing your strength training program, make use of the four key principles:

  • Training Volume
  • Training Intensity
  • Fatigue Management
  • Rest Between Sets

and you’ll be able to optimize your time under the heavy iron while also preventing over training and managing your training phases. Apply yourself consistently, and you’ll get stronger by the day.

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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

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