More on The Acquisition of Baseline Strength

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.”
Marcel Pagnol


To address a common theme that germinated from the What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough” post, let’s consider how best to go about acquiring adequate strength.  This note was representative of the questions I received on this subject:

“…How would you suggest attaining these minimums? 5×5, 5/3/1, De Vany’s alactic workout, negatives, or something else?…”

The truth of the matter is, all of these schemes can (and do) work.  As the Dali Lama says of religion, though, you can only ride one pony at a time, so just pick the one favorable to your inclinations and ride it.  The implication here being, of course, that all paths lead to the same “destination” (for lack of a better term).  In my experience, the set/rep framework is not nearly as important as is the execution of the individual repetitions therein (discussed in this post).

And remember, too, that there are some subtle differences between acquiring a base level of strength and maintaining that strength once you’ve moved beyond baseline needs.  I’m currently emphasizing the strength end of the modality continuum in my weight room workouts, utilizing a 21-rep, extended-set, rest-pause framework.  That framework, though, is not nearly as important to my goals as is the execution of each individual repetition; just look back over the last week’s worth of strength-endurance emphasis work for an idea of how I go about this.  I choose to add an element of endurance (via the reduction of recovery time between reps) to my strength work, which is consistent with my goals (I’ve little need to increase raw-end strength at this point in my career).  Would this same organization work for someone just starting out?  No doubt it would; pick a pony and ride.  Really, building a baseline level of strength is the easiest part of the iron game.  Don’t try to over-think it.  Pick 5 or so compound movements covering the entire spectrum of movement patterns (push, pull, squat, pick up from the ground…) and pick a set-rep scheme that feels comfortable – a 5 x 5 scheme is as good as any a place to start – just remember to apply the proper rep execution to your chosen framework.  Use a simple push-pull split over a three or four-day per week schedule.  Now, as one progresses, the n=1 questioning/reassessing must ensue.  This becomes the deal breaker, one’s ability to progress beyond the basics.  What better suits the trainee?  Raw-end strength?  Strength-endurance?  Is the trainee better suited (built) for squats, say, or deadlifts?

Pick a pony and ride, reassess, adjust, and carry on.  Want to emphasize raw-end strength?  Drop the reps to the 1 – 3 range, and increase the between-set recovery time – push it all the way out to the 3-minute range.  Want to work-in more endurance?  Follow the template I’m currently using, that is to say, decrease the between “set” recovery time.  And remember, there is no cure-all permeation of this theme – there is only a better-fit, right now, for a particular trainee.  Bust ass, and let n=1 rule the day.

And I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t plug the Paleo diet/lifestyle here.  There simply is no better diet for building strength and muscle, and shedding fat.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a very good article on the importance of the pull variations of the Olympic lifts in the building of overall power output.  The benefits of these movements are obvious for the more athletically inclined out there.  This is just as important, though, for the bodybuilder-minded – hypertrophy being built upon a foundation of strength and power.  Thanks to Mike Young, of Athletic Lab, for the heads-up on this one.

In health,

12 responses to “More on The Acquisition of Baseline Strength

  1. “Pick a pony and ride, reassess, adjust, and carry on.”

    And when the n=1 pony rides well (for whatever reason), ride it all the way to shore (pursue it to its logical conclusion). Maybe don’t mix land and water analogies, though, like I just did! lol

    (Water pony => Sea horse?)

    Many good insights here on how to overcome the Justificationist Addiction in the fitness arena.



  2. “Pick a pony and ride” = Just f*ckin’ do it. Anything.

    Too many people, who are in atrocious “shape”, will refuse to engage in any sort of exercise routine that doesn’t appear “optimal”.

    They’ll argue the fine points between CrossFit, HIT and Fagan’s hormonal deal, Starting Strength — when they would be better off just doing f*ckin’ anything!!!!!

    • The dilemma is that most people don’t know how to mix those ideas into a system and they really shouldn’t be trying to do that until they’re an advanced trainee.

      This goes back to what Keith was mentioning in the previous thread. More specifically as it is mentioned in Practical Programming: most athletes won’t need strength beyond an intermediate level. Just sticking with an ass…er, horse will get you there. 😉


    • Agreed. And to Skyler’s point, “Paralysis by analysis” is an ugly, ugly virus. At the end of the day, it boils down to this: lift something heavy, preferably over your head, and lift it as fast as you can. Repeat until your form breaks or your speed deteriorates. Take a few days off and do it again; faster, with more load and with less rest between sets. Get plenty of sleep and eat to satiation (but not beyond) with plenty of paleo-friendly food.

      Now, if I can figure out a way to stretch that paragraph to 500 pages, I’ll be set 🙂

      • My girlfriend was making fun of me the other day:

        “Are you reading forums again? Here’s the secret: eat well and lift progressively heavier weights. That’s the secret to big muscles. Where’s my fee?”

      • “lift something heavy, preferably over your head, and lift it as fast as you can”

        One of the simplest and best training tips I ever heard was to “pick something heavy off the floor and try to lift it above your head”.

        Using this approach you can fit in a hell of a lot of variation between the start and finish positions to target different muscles.

        Horse for courses!

  3. Ride, Sally, ride? 😉

    If general health is your goal: not really difficult
    If specific athletic performance is your goal: a little bit more difficult…
    If specific athletic performance is your goal, AND staying healthy is important: rather difficult, me thinks…

    And this is where TTP is so helpful! Thanks Keith!



  4. “Is the trainee better suited (built) for squats, say, or deadlifts?”

    I’ve heard this talked about from time to time, but have been unable to find anything that explains it. What makes one better suited for one over the other?

    • Many factors are involved, but the most general rule of thumb is leg length. The longer the legs (usually), the tougher it is to pull off a good squat, and, in most cases, the trainee will be better of deadlifting.

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