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The Poliquin Principles

By Charles Poliquin of Poliquin Performance Center
Reprinted from Muscle Media 2000 Magazine

Q: Is there any merit to doing really high-rep sets? I'm talking above 50 reps per set. By the same token, what are your thoughts on the 100-rep method?

A:The 100-rep method originated in California in the late '70's. It was designed for bodybuilders who had reached a plateau in their development. The rationale behind it was to "shock" the muscles into new growth. The idea was to complete a set of 100 repetitions for every single exercise. Two to four exercises were done, and the body was trained under a split routine, divided over three or four workouts depending on the recommendations of the training guru prescribing the program. If you were able to complete less than 75 reps on your first effort, you were supposed to lighten the load and then complete the 100 reps. The proponents wanted you to be able to do at least 75 reps on your first effort and be able to complete the remaining 25 reps on your second set.

I know some bodybuilders who have made tremendous gains with high reps, but they're the exception more than the rule. Take, for example, IFBB pro Nimrod King. Nimrod has been known to train his monstrous arms with plenty of sets of 25 to 35 reps. Nonetheless, most trainees would actually lose muscle mass on such a rep/set scheme.

Heavyweight Mr. America, Gary Leonard, told me the story of when he saw Tom Platz full squat 225 lbs for 10 minutes straight! Obviously, he had leg development. But Tom was also known to use a variety of rep brackets to stimulate his thigh growth.

In most instances, the only people I've seen make significant gains from this type of training were people born with high levels of slow-twitch fibers and who were using plenty of androgens (you know, the Androgen Andy type who lives on testosterone suspension, Anadrol 50, and Sustanon 250).

For most individuals and in most muscle groups, the weight has to be between 70% to 85% of maximum to cause gains in muscle size. When working with a load for 100 reps, you're most likely working with about 30% of your 1-rep max. Thus, the weight is too low to cause muscle growth through additional protein synthesis.

However, high-rep training (above the 20-rep mark) may stimulate low-threshold motor units, a.k.a. slow-twitch fibers, to grow. That growth may not come so much from increased protein synthesis as from increased nutrient storage (i.e., glycogen) and increased amounts of enzymes (i.e., glycogen synthetase). Unfortunately, these fibers have much less potential for growth than the fast-twitch fibers. I think that once in a while, as a change of pace, the 100-rep method can help the mind. But I would not prescribe it as a surefire way to increase muscle size. Most trainees will get their best gains using the 6- to 12-rep range for most muscle groups.

However, a good way to do a high number of reps for a single exercise is to do extended descending sets. In this method, you need a stopwatch or, preferably, someone to time you. Take a weight you can do for 20 reps maximum. Have your partner time you as soon as you start your set. Do the max amount of reps you can do, and have your partner tell you how long it took to complete the set. For example, if you did 20 reps in 70 seconds, you would rest only 70 seconds and then attempt as many reps as possible with the same load. Now, let's say on your second effort you did 16 reps in 56 seconds. You'd rest 56 seconds and again do as many reps as possible. Go on in this fashion until a total of 100 reps on that exercise have been performed. The first time, it may take you 10 sets of equal work/equal rest to complete the 100 reps. The goal is to be able to complete all 100 reps in 4 sets. When you're able to do so, increase the weight by about five percent. Try this for an occasional change of pace and to keep your workouts mentally as well as physically interesting!

Q: Why do you recommend cocking the wrist back and down during curls?

A:This trick was shown to me by Bill MacDonald of Fresno 13 years ago. Bill had trained a host of Mr. America contestants, including Gary Leonard. He showed this technique to me as we were discussing the effect of tempo on muscle growth. Most people unconsciously initiate the curling action by curling the wrists in for the entire set or when approaching fatigue. This has the effect of reducing the resistance on the arm and improving leverage. However, since some of the load is being taken by the forearm flexors, the burden on the elbow flexors (i.e., the muscles that bend your arm at the elbow—primarily the biceps muscles) diminishes.

The rationale is that you prevent the use of the forearms during curls by extending the wrists down and back, and the positive consequence is that you increase the overload on the elbow flexors, which is what you really want when you do curling exercises.

Your next question may be—doesn't that increase the stress on the wrists? No. In the last 13 years, none of the trainees or seminar attendees whom I've shared this tip with have ever reported wrist pain or forearm strain from it. However, you should extend the wrists down and back only in supinated (palms-up) curls. When doing reverse curls or hammer-style curls, the wrists should stay in a neutral position. Another advantage of this style of curling is that you can extend the duration of the set simply by cocking in the wrist during the concentric action, and then lower the weight with the wrist extended down. Since you're about 15%-20% stronger with the wrist in than with it down, it'll be like having a partner apply enough pressure for a forced rep.

Don't worry if your curling poundages go down. The levels of growth in your elbow flexors will overcompensate largely for the decrease in weight. Also, it's been my experience that you should be able to handle your previous weights in the new style of curling in no time.

Q: I've been taught to work one body part at a time, but it seems to make sense to me to work body parts in tandem, working, say, biceps for one exercise, then moving to triceps, and then back to biceps. What do you think?

A:You're right. Yet, most people prefer to do standard sets in the old "I go, you go" approach. Alternating opposing muscle groups in the way you suggest is probably the most efficient way to train for the following reasons:

1. You don't fatigue as fast. If you use the "agonist-antagonist" (e.g., bi's and tri's) alternating system, you'll drop only one rep per set (or two percent in weight) at most with each successive set. In contrast, if you use the standard set approach, you'll lose about two reps per set (or four percent of the weight). The exact physiological mechanism is yet to be determined, but one thing we know for sure is that it has a neural basis. Studies have shown that when you activate the agonists during a set, the antagonists later contract more strongly than if you had not done the agonist set first. That is why a lot of world records in the bench press are broken following a heavy set of bent-over rows performed in the warm-up room.

2. You can double your workload within a given time frame. Let's say you want to do heavy chins for five reps per set. You know from my previous articles that if you want complete recovery between sets, you'll need to rest four to five minutes between sets. You also know that once your warm-up is over, working out longer than an hour can be very counterproductive. If it takes you 30 seconds to perform each set, you rest 5 minutes between, and you do 5 sets, almost half an hour will have gone by just doing your chins, right? But if, instead of resting 5 minutes between sets, you did 5 weighted dips after a 2.5-minute rest, then rested 2.5 minutes and went back to chins until all sets were done, you would have done twice the number of work sets within the same time period. And because of the rationale discussed in point 1, you wouldn't fatigue as quickly on your chins, thus the workload would be greater.

The other benefit of the agonist-antagonist alternating principle is that it prevents injuries by ensuring that both sides of the joint receive an equal workload. In other words, you'll escape the "train-only-what-you-can-see-in-the-mirror" syndrome.

Q: How valuable are pull-ups and chin-ups in working your back? Aren't pulldowns just as good?

A:Chin-ups along with variations of the rowing movement make up the cornerstone of upper-back training. If you look outside of bodybuilding, the athletes with the best back development are kayakers and gymnasts. Why? Because their conditioning programs are centered around the chin-up and its variations. By the way, to make sure we're all speaking the same language, the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is the grip. The chin-ups are done with a supinated grip; in other words, the palms are facing you. Pull-ups are done with the pronated grip; that is, the knuckles are facing you. Both are far superior to pulldowns for upper-back development for the following reasons:

1. Chin-ups or pull-ups involve more motor units than pulldowns. For any given number of reps, a chin-up will always create more demand on the motor-unit pool. Why? Because in a chin-up, you have to move around a fixed object; in pulldowns, you move a free-moving object around you. In chin-ups, you cannot use the lower back to move the load; thus, the overload on the back and upper-arm muscles is ensured.

2. The strength gains in chin-ups and pull-ups are functional. When you improve your chin-ups, you improve your ability to do certain real-life tasks, such as climbing over a fence (which is what you may have to do after you get caught using your new-found pull-up strength to pull yourself up to peek in a window). This is one of the reasons pull-ups are preferred over pulldowns to test the functional strength of police recruits, SWAT, and Special Forces types of candidates.

3. The strength gains in chin-ups and pull-ups are transferable. If you're good at chins, you'll be good at pulldowns, too. But not vice versa. I've seen a lot of lat pulldown artists who couldn't chin to save their lives.

Q: What do you think of "cheat reps"?

A:I'm adamant about proper form. Here are certain things I'd rather not see in the gym:

1. Using weights to impress other people, instead of weights to accomplish an effective overload of the muscle groups.

2. Rolling the shoulders back when doing shrugs.

3. Driving the weights with the legs when doing upright rows.

4. Spotting on the first rep of a set.

5. Spotting the eccentric portion of the lift.

6. Spotting 46% of the load during the concentric rep and hearing the geek say, "Hey man, I barely touched the bar!"

7. A guy doing the eccentric portion of the bench in 4 nanoseconds and then using the recoil force in his sunken chest to contribute 17% of the concentric force. The same guy complains that his bench hasn't gone up in three years.

8. Guys reading the sports page while doing concentration curls.

9. People carrying on a conversation during a set.

10. Guys doing alternate dumbbell curls in a form that resembles a penguin having an epileptic seizure.

11. Guys who complain they can't gain weight when they're vegetarians who do only cable curls and kickbacks.

12. Overtrained aeroba-heads who strut around like they have great bodies but actually have the limbs of Auschwitz victims and love handles reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh's.

All right, so not all of them had to do with form. But I have to release my tensions somehow, don't I?

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