Approaching Strength: Counting It Out

The Strength Portion of Class. What goes through your head when it is time for Strength?  Is it your favorite part of class?  Do you look forward to it each day?  Is it your least favorite part of class?  Do you try to hide in the bathroom for 20 minutes?  Do you have mixed feelings?  You’d like to get better, but you are sometimes lost?  No matter your attitude about strength, having a plan of attack for your strength session will help you be more productive, whether you enjoy the experience or not.   There are several ways you can approach the strength portion of class. Each serves different purposes.  One approach may not work for everyone.  Additionally, one athlete may choose several different approaches depending on the exercise and his or her goal.

Feeling It Out

This approach consists of not having an end goal in weight.   When an athlete is just feeling the movement out, she or he would make small, consistent jumps for the entire strength session.  This approach is appropriate for new athletes and athletes returning from injury.  It allows the athlete and the coach to get feedback from each rep and make small, controlled jumps. this gives the athlete an opportunity to focus intently on technique and form without overloading on weight.

Staying Put

Staying put during strength can take place at any point in a strength session.  An athlete may have made a few jumps in weight when he or she decides to stay at the same weight for several sets.  An athlete might choose this approach to drill a specific technique element or form cue.  For example, if a coach tells you that you are pulling too early on a clean, you may choose to stay at a single weight and practice patience on the pull.  You may do that for several sets to ensure that your muscle memory has retained the cue.

Often, we get a cue right one time and then add weight.  The additional weight changes the feedback we get from the bar.  This may make it harder for us to repeat the form or technique element we are working on.  Keeping the weight the same helps us drill the skill into memory.

Counting it Out

For athletes looking to gain strength or maybe even PR, it is helpful to have a target weight in mind for the final set of the lift.  This can apply in many situations, but two stipulations are that form and technique should be on point and the athlete should have a previously established personal record on the lift.  Using this previous number, the athlete can plan the new target for the day’s lift.

Several factors will help determine this new number. How the athlete is feeling, any injuries, how much the athlete has been training that day or week, other movements in the class, and the athlete’s current feel for the lift are all elements that will help set the new number.  The best way to explain this process is to show it in action for some fictional athletes.

Female Athlete, Power Cleans x3

For example, let’s say the Strength is Power Clean x3.  Our fictional athlete had a rest day yesterday and is feeling strong and injury free.  The last time she worked power clean, her technique was efficient.  Today, she wants to try and lift pretty heavy.  She checks her x3 numbers in Wodify and notices that in June of 2016, she had a PR of 115.  She also sees that she lifted 110×3 last month.  Based on how she is feeling, the way her last cleaning session went, and her numbers, she decides to plan for 120 today.

At this point, it is time for some backward planning.  The Strength portion of the class will have 8 total sets–4 warm-up sets and 4 working sets.  The athlete knows that for her, it makes the most sense to have some small jumps in the very heavy sets.  She knows that she has a tendency to make technique errors under heavy load.

She thinks small jumps will help her stay on point or adjust technique.  So, she plans set 8 at 120, set 7 at 115, and set 6 at 110.  She feels pretty confident at this weight, so she thinks that set 5 can be 100 lbs.  Now, her working sets are planned by thinking about where she wanted to end up.

Since she has determined her first working set number, she can now turn her attention to the warm-up sets, which she will plan from the bottom.  The first set is bar only x5, so she will do that with the 35-pound bar.  Knowing her first working set will be 100lbs, she plans her 4 warm-up sets to be 35 (bar only), 55, 75, 90.  These are medium jumps that will allow the athlete to focus on technique and speed while also adequately preparing her body and energy systems for the heavier sets.

Now, she has a plan for all eight sets that focus on where she wants to go and prepares for a sensible, effective way to get there.

Male Athlete, Deadlift x5

Here’s another example for a lift at a heavier weight.  Our fictional athlete is working on deadlift.  He is an experienced lifter who is feeling healthy but fatigued.  The rep scheme for the day is deadlift x5.  There will be 4 warm ups sets and 5 working sets, with a three-minute rest between sets.  The athlete’s x5 PR is 355.  Since he is relatively fatigued and his WOD yesterday was back-intensive, he decides to go for 335×5 today and focus on strong technique through all 5 reps.  Here is his plan for his working sets:  9-335, 8-325, 7-315, 6-305, 5-295.

Now he can plan his warm-up sets.  He decides on the following:  1 (light warm up)-135, 2 (medium warm-up)-185, 3 (med/hvy warm up 225), 4 (heavy warm up-275).  This plan has large jumps in the warm-up phase, but considering that it is a less complex lift and that the lifter is experienced under heavy load, this plan will give adequate time to work technique and prepare his body for the heavy lift load in the working sets.

A Few Notes

The most important thing to remember when planning your lifts in the manner above is to be flexible!!!  Your totals and the factors impacting your lift may be totally different than the examples above or the other athletes in your class.  Don’t lift based on someone else. Honestly consider your health, your experience and technique, your mental state, and your fatigue level when making decisions.  Not every day is a great day for counting it out, either.  Use some of the other options above when appropriate.

Finally, be flexible with your plan.  If you start lifting and things don’t feel right or go well, you may need smaller jumps.  If you are feeling great and your technique is flawless, you may make 10 lb jumps instead of 5 on your working sets, for example.  When you are in tune with your body and your lifts, you can make adjustments as you go.  Think of the plan as a guide, not a prescription for the day.  If you are new to counting it out, it may help to write it down, planning from your goal number backward through the working sets and then upwards on the warm-up sets.

Whether you choose to feel it out, stay put, or make a counting plan, it always pays to consider multiple factors and go with what works best for you for that day and that lift.  And as always, if you are unsure of what to do, ask your coach to help you come up with the best plan for you for the day.