When the priority is to improve strength I take one of two approaches:
- Prioritise training density
- Prioritise maximal training load
Here’s how they differ…
The ‘Rep Zone’ approach
I’ve written previously about the ‘Rep Zone Concept’ – this is a density based approach that focuses on accumulating a volume of reps within a given intensity bracket. Reps are easy, shying well away from failure, and there’s little variation in the exercises used.
The ‘Record Board’ approach
The Record Board approach is a good old-fashioned intensity way of tackling things. The goal is to perform the prescribed number of repetitions at the heaviest load possible. A few working sets may be prescribed within the session but there will typically be just one or two true working sets.
How it works
The premise of Record Board training is as follows:
- Pick an exercise
- Perform a rep max – this could be anything from 1RM or a 15RM depending on your goals
- Next time out you either perform the same number of reps with a heavier weight or more reps with the same weight
It’s simple but it’s brutally effective. Naturally, you’ll have to take a few sets to work up to your true working set. You may also want to include a couple of lighter, back-off sets if you need to get the volume in there.
Where to use it
Naturally this lends itself well to the big lifts (squat, dead, push, pull) but that’s not to say it can’t be used as effectively with assistance and even isolation lifts, you’ll just need to adapt the amount of reps you’re looking for and probably give yourself a few extra work sets to accumulate sufficient volume.
The strength of the Record Board
This approach gives you a clear goal and a clear focus. You have a target to hit and you focus all your energy on getting there. The Record Board approach really harnesses motivation and helps crank up the intensity you can put into your training. We should never underestimate the role psychology plays in performance, not just in terms of being able to train harder and maximise physical adaptation but also to battle-harden our minds to competition.
Cycling rep targets
If ‘name a training programme’ was a Family Fortunes question I’d wager that 5/3/1 would be the top answer. Using 3-4 week mini-cycles with increasing load and decreasing volume is a successful and time-tested way of periodising training; why tinker with a classic?
An example cycle
- Session 1 – Heavy set of 5
- Session 2 – Heavy triple
- Session 3 – Heavy single
- Session 4 – Easy/deload session (if required)
Variation, variation, variation
I think that one of the keys to making the Record Board approach work, at least if you’ll be using it for a number of training cycles, is to vary your exercises. Start by choosing the key exercises for your programme (i.e. back squat, trap bar deadlift, bench press, prone row). These are your bread and butter movements, the ones where you want to see the gains. Now pick 3-4 variations – for example, with the back squat we could have safety bar squat, front squat, squat from pins, etc. Try to choose lifts that target the weaker aspects of your key lift.
I think that a good way to organise things is to break up cycles of your key lift with a cycle of a variation. Here’s an example:
- Cycle 1 – Back squat – 5/3/1/D
- Cycle 2 – Safety bar squat – 8/6/4/4
- Cycle 3 – Back squat – 5/3/1/D
- Cycle 4 – Front squat – 8/6/4/4
- Cycle 5 – Back squat – 5/3/1/D
Cycling in this manner means that you have 8 sessions between record attempts in your big lifts, plenty of time to get stronger and hit your target.
Rep Zone vs Record Board
It’s important to say that these two approaches aren’t exclusive. Think of them like strength training and endurance training. You utilise them concurrently but to different proportions depending on what you need to focus on at a given point in time. It’s also different strokes for different folks; some respond better to the volume and density they get with the Rep Zone approach, some better to the heavier load and reduced volume with the Record Board approach.
These approaches are just ways of framing thought processes that, at least to me, make a bit of sense. However, let’s not forget that training is a simple process; good programmes and approaches to training share 99% of their DNA. What matters is that you stick to the principles of good training and, perhaps more importantly, good coaching.