by Steve Bechtel

One of the most exciting times for me as an athlete was way back in college, training in the weight room. There were always new exercises to learn and it seemed like I got stronger pretty quickly. This is especially true when compared to my training these days, where is is weeks or months of effort to push the needle up a notch. Back then, I watched a lot of weight lifters and asked a lot of questions about their programs. I learned a lot of what not to do, but also learned some really cool stuff.

Although most of my sessions took place at the main school gym called Half Acre, I spent more and more time in the Corbett building, across campus as my time at UW got more focused. At Corbett, they had a swimming pool, basketball court, and a tiny weight training area back in what seemed like a large stairwell. In there, it seemed like they collected the dregs of what Half Acre didn’t want and the football team (who naturally had a state-of-the-art weight room) didn’t need.

It was mostly physioballs, dumbbells, and an old Universal gym; a somewhat compact steel frame with ten or so exercise stations attached to it. It was not the best set-up, but I used it regularly simply because I couldn’t get across campus and back quickly enough to get a full session in at the other gym.

I most often was the only one in there. Occasionally, you’d have one-time visitors. It was usually pairs of students who decided to work out together but didn’t want to do so in front of the crowds in Half Acre. They never stuck around long. There was one man, though, Dr. Thomas, who was in there a lot. He was an exercise Science professor and had an office in the building. It seemed like I ran into him once a week or better, and although I attended some of his classes, we were not close.

We were cordial, polite, and stayed out of each others’ way. And I watched him like a hawk…who could possibly know more about training than someone that had a PhD in the stuff?

He mostly did circuits around the Universal set up. Leg press, Dips, Leg Curl, Shoulder Press, Incline sit-ups, Calf Raises, Pull-Ups, Knee Raises, Rows, and repeat. He did eight reps of each, three times around, and was a sweaty mess by the end. I was more interested in pulling exercises, but saw nothing wrong with full-body training. I just knew it was useless for climbing. As the weeks progressed, I saw that he had eliminated some of the exercises in the circuit, and was only doing five movements.

These, he’d continue to do for eight reps each, but on one he’s really load up the weight and try like hell. He’d sometimes only push to six reps, sometimes up to ten or 12, but then he’d be totally maxed. He’d rest 2-3 minutes after this “crux” exercise, and then continue. At this point in his cycle, he’d do four or five total circuits.

I didn’t really talk to him much, but one day I asked what his workout was.

“Well,” He said, “it’s pretty simple. I find that I can’t push the heavy weights like I used to, so now I just pick one exercise and try hard on it. The next workout, I back off on that one, and I try hard on another.”

Over the course of five workouts, then, he’d have a really hard day on each of the main exercises. It was brilliant, and kept him from dreading the session or from being too conservative with load. It’s a big issue with many strength athletes as they ramp up a program; going from moderate loads in eight exercises to just slightly higher loads can be a gigantic step in total training load that sets them back by days.

With a rolling focus, the athlete can avoid getting crushed, and can be sure to come back to training strong the next day. Let’s say you’re doing five lifts:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Training three days per week, your focus would switch like this:

Day one:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Day two:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Day three:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Day four:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Day five:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar

Training three days per week, you’d end up focusing on a given exercise just over once every two weeks. For those of us that are super hard-core, this might seem a little wimpy, but for real strength gains, it’s not bad. I’ve used Dr. Thomas’ idea dozens of times since college and I have found the simplest format is to do three circuits of my five exercises, with four of them a comfortable eight reps. This zone is at the outside edge of the strength zone, but does a great job of holding strength – do 3×8 pull-ups at your 10RM three days a week and tell me you got weaker!

The focus exercise should be loaded to about your 5RM. On this one, you really push hard and try for six or even seven reps. After the focus, rest 4-6 minutes, and then restart the circuit. Most athletes can do one circuit comfortably in about ten minutes. This makes for a reasonable 40-50 minute session.

As far as planning goes, I think this makes for a simple, low-maintenance general strength plan that can be carried out for 12 or even 16 weeks without modifying anything but load. Move up in weight conservatively on your 3×8 sets, but pursue gains every single session in your 5RMs.

Since the circuit involves so many exercises, you may be looked at as a “gym hog” if you get to having too many stations claimed. You can fix this by selecting exercises that can all be done at one station. For example, you can occupy a squat rack and do our example exercises:

Front Squat | Pull-Up | Bench Press | Deadlift | Ankles to Bar  

At a dip station with a flat bench and a couple of kettlebells, you could do:

Rack Squat | DB Rows | Dips | Heavy Swings | Dip Bar Straight Leg Raise  

With just a pull-up Bar and a TRX, you could do:

Pistol Squat | Pull-Up | TRX Fly | Front Lever | TRX Pike/Tuck Combo  

The main thing with this session is to have a focus, and attack it. It’s about being OK with coasting on a few exercises, but 3×8 is by no means slacking. It’s interesting, entertaining, and best of all produces really good performances across long cycles.

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