I truly believe that soldiers and civilians alike need to train for maximal strength and make that his/her main foundation and focus (low, heavy reps) for he/she will able to contract his already shrunken muscles harder when he confronted with stress, fatigue, hunger/malnutrition, lack of sleep on the battlefield. Simplified, there are 3 types of strength based on the muscle fibres used. The push-up is used as an example,
- Explosive, e.g. Clapping Push-Up
- Maximal, e.g. One-Arm Push-Up or Handstand Push-Up
- Endurance, e.g. Two-Arm Push-Ups
Conventional fitness programs consists of using light weights for endurance, higher reps, “feeling the burn” and going to muscle failure. Whenever I think of this, I see in my mind: bright neon ‘80s spandex clothing and sissies doing aerobics. Soldiers cannot afford to be sore and hobbled in the field. In the past, whenever I trained for high repetitions and endurance, I had very little strength carry-over to everyday activities. Maximal strength gets very little attention in exercise literature — high reps, endurance have been said more than enough times.
Whenever I trained for max strength, the carry-over to everyday activities was very noticeable, e.g. groceries are easier to carry. Max strength improves explosive and endurance strength in my experience, e.g. one-arm push-ups increases your reps of two-arm push-ups. Conversely, endurance strength doesn’t increase your strength to do a one-arm push-up. As well, low reps are safer because you focus on tensing your muscles to protect your joints, as well, you can better focus on good form and technique.
If you need to work all 3 types of strength, start off with explosive exercises, followed by max strength and then endurance exercises either in one workout or over a week’s time. Maximal strength exercises are heavy enough in weight that they are done to a ‘slow grind’ and the reps are low. Indeed, maximal strength is built by contracting the muscles harder and characteristically consists of:
- Heavy resistance
- Slow to moderate speed without bouncing
- The body must stay tight because tension is power. Longer periods of rest are prescribed. Avoid training to muscle failure to maintain this tension.
- Strength is treated as a skill and a practice rather than a ‘workout’. Reps are performed while recovered.
- Limited focus on a select number of exercises and low reps
Think of a car engine when it comes to strength. We are trying to squeeze more horsepower out of it (contracting muscles harder, strength and power as per below) rather than building a bigger engine (hypertrophy). Translated into numbers, here’s a generally accepted summation:
- Strength and Power, 3-5 reps <— Our focus is here
- Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth), 8-12 reps
- Endurance & Mental Toughness, Higher reps
To get you started off, here’s a glimpse into Pavel Tsatsouline’s 3-to-5 Method for Special Weapons and Tactics Teams Program. (I was ecstatic to learn of a tactical program that was readily available and unclassified to the public).
- 3 – 5 exercises (compound exercises/big lifts for the whole body, no isolation exercises or machines here)
- 3 – 5 sets
- 3 – 5 reps
- 3 – 5 minutes of rest
- 3 – 5 days of rest for each exercise (e.g. Monday – Bench Press, Wednesday – Deadlift, Friday – Squat Bench Press, etc.)
Perform the program for 3 weeks and reduce the set or rep volume in half in the 4th week, e.g. 4 sets x 4 reps becomes 2 sets x 4 reps for sustainability (cycling/periodization) purposes.
Here are some recommended powerful exercise combinations with barbells:
- Bench Press
With kettlebells and bodyweight:
- Tactical Pull-Up (thumbless grip, no kipping, pull up to throat level, full lockout of elbow in bottom position)
- Pistol or One-Legged Squat
- Double Kettlebell Snatch
With dumbbells and bodyweight:
- One-Arm Dumbbell Clean & Press
- Towel Pull-Up
- Split Squat
You can use your imagination to come up with your own trio combination. Just have one big pull, one big press and one squat variation. Begin your sessions with a general joint mobility program or a tactical joint mobility one and stretch after your strength practice. For military personnel, Pavel recommends 2 additional exercises that emphasizes the neck, forearms or abs. Again, use your imagination, here are some possible combinations:
- One-legged deadlift
- Fingertip Pull-Ups
- Bent Press
- Pinch gripping two barbell plates
- Wrist extension with EZ curl bar
- Wrist flexions with EZ curl bar
As of this writing, I’m on the road now and I only have access to heavy kettlebells on the weekends. During the rest of the week, I focus on bodyweight exercises done for max strength, e.g. handstand push-up as per the above format. I realize that you may train for hypertrophy or physique and that low reps seem counter-intuitive, which goes against everything that you may know about fitness. Remember, our narrow focus and foundation is strength and not to beast yourself until you’re sore or injured. In Russia, workouts are treated as a ‘recharge’ session. Only occasionally, go all out. In my next article, I’ll include cardio conditioning, endurance and higher reps (not the sissy kind) to create “all-terrain strength” for a soldier. But, first you need to build strength via low reps before you can endure it for higher counts.
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