Part 2: The Repetition Maximum Continuum

Triathlete Strength Training PrimerPart 2: The Repetition Maximum Continuum

Hello SAPT blog readers!  I trust you all had a great week, and are eager to learn more about strength training and the myriad of benefits it has to offer.  We talked about periodization in our last blog post, but how about a quick recap.

Periodization is the manipulation of exercise selection, intensity, and the set/rep scheme throughout the year in order to provide optimal results.  We use periodization in order to avoid entering a state of overtraining, take a more intelligent approach to our training methods, and maintain long-term athletic development.  The conventional model of periodization involves four distinct phases: the preparatory period, first transition period, competition period, and second transition period.

Basic periodization for a runner
Basic periodization for a runner

During each of these phases, we manipulate the intensity of our training loads, by either removing or adding weight to the bar, in order to stress different performance attributes. But, what types of performance attributes are there?

Well, we have strength, for one.  Strength is usually thought of in terms of absolute strength, which would be the maximum amount of force a muscle or muscle group can produce.  The main objective of a powerlifter is to increase their absolute strength as much as possible in order to lift enormous loads.   We can also train for power, which is defined as the amount of work done per unit of time.   Power is the rate at which work is being performed, and is especially relevant to athletes that are required to compete for shorts bursts of time.  A hockey player or football lineman would be wise to spend a significant amount of time training to improve their power.  Last, but not least, we can train for muscular endurance.  Obviously, a marathon runner or triathlete aims to improve their endurance above all else.  Success in these two sports demands a huge aerobic engine from the athlete.

Rep_Max Continuum
Rep_Max Continuum

This is where the repetition maximum continuum comes into play.  The numbers on the figure to the right order <2 through 20.  These refer to the amount of repetitions of a given exercise we are performing with a given weight.

Therefore, the 4 on the figure would refer to a weight that you can lift 4 times, and only 4 times.  For example, Jim can perform a back squat with 225 pounds 4 times, but will not be able to lift it for a fifth rep.  If he added weight to the bar, he would not be able to complete 4 repetitions.  225 pounds is Jim’s 4-rep max (4RM).

As you can see, these different performance attributes exist on a continuum.  Strength is trained to a very high degree when training in the 2 to 5 rep range, but it is also trained slightly when we are lifting lighter weights for sets of 15.  As a matter of fact, power follows a similar trend.  The continuum tells us it’s important to lift heavy loads when we are focused on training to improve our strength or power, and lighter loads if we are attempting to improve our muscular endurance.  We will still see improvements in strength and power when working with these lighter loads, but they won't be as dramatic as when we were working with heavy weights.

You may notice there is a “hypertrophy” range according to this continuum.  Traditionally, research has led us to believe that working in the 8-12 rep range has been superior for building size.  There is a recent study performed by Brad Schoenfield et al. that seems to dispute this theory.

The researchers took 20 participants who had been weight training for at least 1.5 years previously, and separated them into two groups.  One group performed a bodybuilding style program, lifting lighter relative loads for more repetitions (3x10 reps per exercise), while the other group performed a traditional powerlifting style program lifting heavier loads for fewer reps (7x3 reps per exercise). The goal was to examine the effect lifting different relative intensities would have on muscle growth, so the researchers made sure the total amount of weight lifted (volume, or total tonnage) was equal between the groups.

After 8 weeks of weight training, the researchers found that both groups experienced a similar amount of muscle growth (the biceps brachii was measured and both groups achieved about a 13% increase in size), but that the powerlifting group experienced significantly greater improvements when it came to strength.  This tells us that there may not be a magical “hypertrophy” range after all.  The comparison of two different styles of lifting while accounting for volume implies that muscle growth is largely genetic, and will occur to similar extents if you are following a program based on the principle of progressive overload regardless of the exercise intensity.

One very important takeaway from the study was the physical toll each program had on its participants.  The lifters who followed the bodybuilding protocol experienced far less fatigue and injury (2 powerlifters had to drop out due to joint injury), as well as spent much less time in the gym (17 min vs 70 min) then the powerlifting group.

What can we extrapolate from this?  Performing a program that utilizes lighter relative loads and a higher rep range will allow us to build muscle size while limiting the amount of stress we are subjecting our joints to, however, we will never see optimal strength gains training this way.  Therefore, it is imperative for triathletes to spend some time in the lower rep/higher weight side of the continuum in order to improve strength and power.

Also, we know that our bodies adapt to stress through the S.A.I.D. principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), and we experience diminished returns as a result of consistent training.  This means we will adapt to whatever specific stress we are applying to our body in a specific manner, and, as time goes on, we will see less and less of an improvement if we continue to apply the same stimulus.

This is why periodizing our training is so important!  We want to cycle the type of stress we are applying to our body in order to drive performance improvements.  By rotating between heavy, moderately heavy, and moderate loads, we’re working to improve different performance elements dictated by the repetition maximum continuum.  As triathletes, there will be certain times of the year that we want to focus on improving our muscular endurance, and certain times of the year when we really need to be focusing on strength or power production.  The challenge is to determine when to focus on each, and as we continue through the series, I’m going to teach you how to do just that.

Stay tuned for next Thursday’s post, where we will begin to break down the preparatory period and what a triathlete should be focusing on during the off-season.

The Triathlete Strength Training Primer

Part 1: An Intro to Periodization - Seeing the Bigger Picture Part 2: The Repetition Maximum Continuum Part 3: The Preparatory Period a.ka. the Off-Season Part 4: Off-Season Periodization Part 5: Off-Season Periodization, cont. Part 6: The First Transition Period Part 7: The First Transition Period, cont. Part 8: The Competition Period - In-Season Strength Training Part 9: In-Season Template Part 10: Post- Season Training