Strength Sensei 101
More insights into the pioneering training methods of Charles R. Poliquin
Two general categories of training variables are how hard you train (intensity) and how much work you perform (volume). While intensity often captured the headlines in muscle magazines, Charles R. Poliquin devoted considerable attention to training volume.
The Strength Sensei defined volume in the weightroom as the total number of repetitions completed in a given time frame. As such, the following formula could be used to determine training volume in terms of repetitions performed:
Exercises Sets Per Exercise Reps Per Exercise Total Reps Training Volume
5 3 8 120 = 120 reps
Using this weekly training frequency, here is the training volume for specific time periods:
One Week = 480 reps (4 workouts x 120 reps = 480 reps)
One Month = 1,920 (4 weeks at 480 reps = 1,920 reps)
One Year = 23,040 (12 months at 1,920 reps = 23,040 reps)
Although this data is interesting and may be a useful tool in determining the training volume for those with different levels of training experience, the limitation is that it doesn’t take into account the tempo of each exercise or their metabolic cost. For example, 10 reps in a back squat has a much higher metabolic cost than a barbell biceps curl.
Two other methods the Strength Sensei said used to determine training volume are training time [Miller, C., Olympic Lifting Training Manual, 1977, Iron Man Publishing Company, Alliance] and time under tension [Poliquin, C. and King, I. Strength Training for Alpine Skiing. Level 3 Seminar, Whistler, 1991.] Regarding this second reference, it should be noted that Australian Strength Coach Ian King worked with the Strength Sensei on several articles in the late 80s and early 90s. Giving credit where it’s due, Coach King developed the 3-digit tempo prescription formula, which the Strength Sensei later expanded to 4-digits to include the pause at the advantageous leverage position (for example, with the arms extended during the bench press).
One key guideline the Strength Sensei said should be considered when writing workouts is that there is an inverse relationship between training intensity and training volume. If the training intensity is high, the training volume must be relatively low. This topic extends beyond just saying that the more reps you perform the fewer sets are needed to achieve an optional training effect. Training intensity (that is, how much weight is lifted in relation to maximum effort for 1 repetition) must also be taken into consideration.
Here is a table the Strength Sensei published in 1989 providing more specific guidelines for the relationship between intensity and volume (i.e., Repetition volume thresholds for maximal strength development in relation to number of exercises per training unit). The key takeaway is that when more exercises are prescribed in a training unit, the number of reps prescribed has to decrease.
Number of Repetitions Per Exercise
Intensity Zone High Number of Exercises Low Number of Exercises
Per Workout (3-4) Per Workout (1-2)
95-100% 5-12 8-20*
90-95% 10-12 12-20
85-90% 13-30 25-40
80-85% 20-35 25-70
75-80% 28-50 40-100
*In this example, when training intensity is 95% or more of a maximum single repetition for a specific exercise, the top-end range of total repetitions should rarely exceed 20. This is in contrast to training in the 75-80% zone, where the number of reps prescribed could be as high as 100.
With this background, a strength coach or personal trainer can more precisely design workouts to achieve specific training goals. For example, the repetition bracket for increasing relative strength (i.e., strength per unit of bodyweight) could be 12-100 reps for a one-hour workout; for hypertrophy, 100-300; and for strength endurance, 300-720. [Poliquin, C. and King, I. Strength Training for Alpine Skiing. Level 3 Seminar, Whistler, 1991.]
Determining the optimal training volume during workouts is a key factor for achieving maximum muscular hypertrophy in both men and women. (Miloš Šarčev photo)
Of course, the Strength Sensei has discussed in many articles other factors that could affect the training volume prescription, such as gender, training age, nutrition, quality of sleep, ergogenic aids, and participation in other activities. On this last point, the Strength Sensei said a football player may still be able to train at a high intensity in-season but would need to lower their training volume significantly.
There are numerous loading parameters and other training variables that should be considered when determining training volume. There are guidelines, such as the ones the Strength Sensei discussed in many articles and seminars, but the bottom line is that designing workouts is both a science and an art! (TSS)