The Strength Training Honeymoon Period

By Eric Troy

Learning a lift is not the same thing as receiving instruction on a lift and demonstrating a basic grasp of the technique. Learning is a more complex and ongoing process.

Let's examine two different hypothetical training situations, both novice lifters beginning their first real strength training program, to see how they learn the lifts.

The first trainee: You

So let's say you want to start strength training and OF COURSE one of the lifts you choose is the bench press. We could be talking about overhead press, squat, deadlift, rows…you name it.

The first thing you do is have someone show you the basic technique. Or if you don't have anyone you watch videos and read instructions to prepare. Well..some people don't even do that. It looks so simple they just get under a bar and start pushing it up and down. But let's assume that you at least TRY to learn something about the technique.

So typically you use an empty bar and spend a couple to ten minutes getting the basics down with that. Then you put a bunch of plates on the bar and do 4x6, 3x5, 6x4 or whatever reps and sets you have been told are best for beginners.

And your off to the races! This time, we'll say you did 4x6. Either to failure on the last set or a little short of failure, again, depending on what you've been told is the best. Then next workout you put 5 or so pounds on the bar and do the same thing again. And again and again.

This scenario, of course, is repeated with the other lifts in the program. And it works. Or so you think. You're able to add weight to the bar for a while. If not every workout then at least most workouts or once a week. You're getting stronger fast!

No, you're adding weight to the bar fast. While your busy counting reps and sets what little technique you managed to pickup is quickly going out the window. You cannot maintain a proper scapular position. The bar starts and ends in different places. You lift your ass in the air and arch your back in a tremendous effort to get in those last, all important, one or two reps. You're compromising your shoulders and even hurting your back. Setting yourself up for all sorts of heartache down the road.

Those few extra pounds you put on the bar FASTER now..even 40 or 50 extra pounds, won't mean anything in the long run.

In fact, I've heard it said that this is an instinctual way to train. Given the chance, we will simply go in and try to put weight on the bar each workout and progress in a linear fashion. And it's true. Putting weight on the bar is instinct. But I don't think "4x6" reps has anything to do with it!

The second trainee: My way

A good bit of time has been set aside for this initial session with the bench press (and one other "lower body" lift). Good learning takes time. You can't do it in 45 minutes or less.

The first few times he trains the lifts and perhaps as many as 4 to 5 sessions depending on his comfort level he concentrates only on honing the technique and getting quality time with the lifts. He doesn't worry about reps and sets. He doesn't worry about failure or lack of it. He doesn't worry about incurring fatigue. In fact he avoids fatigue.

To an observer, it would appear as if he is training more like an advanced lifter than a typical beginner. Except he is not trying to train with near maximal intensity.

Beginning with the empty bar he concentrates only on the setup. He gets into the proper position on the bench. He receives the bar from a hand-off (best case..if not he does the best he can to unrack the bar and maintain good positioning) and he does a few reps trying to get comfortable with the TECHNIQUE of performing a rep. He actually does it slow. Going through the motions, so to speak.

He does no more than three reps at a time depending on how tough it feels. He is trying to avoid getting fatigued. He rests liberally in between. Liberal in this case doesn't mean a lot of rest, but he takes as much as he needs or wants.

And he does this quite a few times. Get in position. Receive the bar. Go through the motions. Rest. Do it again.

Then when he feels comfortable with technique some weight goes on the bar. The amount of weight depends on the trainee, of course.

Now, he is lifting, not just going through the motions. But the emphasis is on QUALITY. Again no more than three reps at a time. Plenty of rest. He does three or so sets like this. He is not straining. It is easy and fluid. If it feels difficult no more weight is added to the bar. If not, he puts some more on and repeats.

Between each set, he is recovering almost completely. There is no aim to be exhausted at the end of this training session. Or to get a muscle pump. The only aim is to learn the lifts and get a reasonable amount of quality volume in while loading the bar only as much as that quality can be maintained. When the weight on the bar negates this the session ends. If this happens too soon due to too aggressive loading of the bar then the weight can be backed off and some more practice can be done with lower weight.

Pretty simple. And he does the same thing for the next workout. Only without all the time with the empty bar. A good starting point is about 10 to 15 percent less than the greatest weight used on the preceding session.

It seems to conservative. But only subjectively. In fact, he actually ends up lifting a greater overall volume than the first trainee AND puts more weight on the bar. And he doesn't compromise technique. The second session he will be much more comfortable than the first trainee.

But will he be stronger? Don't you need a certain amount "stimulus" or reps and sets?

You need stimulus. You need repeated exposure. For this trainee the 'stimulus' IS the practice. The repeated exposure. And the added benefit of doing this practice with MORE weight on the bar. More weight on the bar is NOT the aim..but it is entirely possible and likely. That is because recovery is being allowed to take place between sets. The typical scenario has you resting for a predetermined period and doing a predetermined amount of reps and sets. Meaning there is only so much weight you can handle to get the job done..and you STILL will not get the job done as well.

This second trainee recovers more completely before the next session. In fact recovery has already begun during the firs session. He's practiced the lift a GREATER number of times, used more weight in the end, AND recovered more.

If, after repeating a few more practice sessions he were go on the SAME program as trainee one, he would probably start the program with more weight on the bar. Even if he were to stop progressing at the after the same time period as the first trainee he would still be in much better shape. He has more weight on the bar AND he is able to maintain proper technique.

Except that he wouldn't do the same program. That program is too restrictive.

But that's it for the honeymoon period. That's the general gist of it, anyway. It's not a program it's learning the lifts.

If you've ever spent long period of time engaged in a monotonous, repetitive task, you know what is at work here. Those that have worked on assembly lines or loading trucks or anything like that know what this feels like. The first few times you may even find yourself daydreaming about doing that task. As if your mind is obsessed with it. Even when you're not consciously aware of it, you're mind IS somewhat obsessed with it.

Say you ARE on an assembly line. You are getting payed by the piece. The only thing on your mind is keeping up and going as fast as possible. The first time it's a disaster. Your fingers fumble and you ruin as many pieces as your complete. You wonder how the workers around you got SO fast and SO good. Impossible, your end the day worse than you began.

You lie in bed that night with the assembly line running through your head, your fingers blistered and aching. The second day your improvement is miraculous. You are still slow but your don't ruin so many pieces. By the fourth day it's old news. You know you can hang now and pretty soon you'll be the fastest and best assembler in the room.

You didn't THINK about what you were doing. You were too desperate trying to do it. You got better DESPITE the worst possible learning environment. It happened naturally without any conscious involvement from you. You were doing this eight hours a day! You get better or it's the unemployment line.

Imagine if your first week you were expected to only work of one hour and to get as many pieces done in that hour as possible. Then after the first week you were thrown to the wolves, so to speak, and you were expected to make quota.

You wouldn't. You'd be in trouble.

Yet this is exactly how most beginner programs work. You are expected to go right into the program with minimal exposure and MAKE QUOTA.

Well…I don't want to end up with the products that person assembles and I don't want to be the guy to have to fix that trainee. We can't spend eight hours a day fuddling with the lifts but what we have with the honeymoon period is much more time than is typically spent on QUALITY rather than just quantity. Which makes the time spend much more efficient.

So that's it.

If you need help with any particulars, including individual exercise form, please let us know. You can comment right here on this page or ask via a thread in the forum.

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This page created 09 Jul 2009 17:27
Last updated 03 Jan 2014 14:22

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