Maximal Effort Method™ - Circa 2009

There are three methods of strength training.

1. Maximal effort method: lifting a maximal load against a maximal resistance.
2. Repetition method: lifting a nonmaximal load to failure; during the final repetitions, the muscles develop the maximum force possible in a fatigued state.
3. Dynamic effort: lifting a nonmaximal load with maximal speed.

(See: Science and Practice of Strength Training, V. Zatsiorsky.)

The max effort method is superior to the other common methods. It improves intermuscular and intramuscular coordination, because the body will adapt to only the stimulus placed upon it. The max effort method will produce the greatest strength gains. While it is not uncommon to suffer fatigue, high blood pressure at rest, anxiety, and depression from using this method, it is the most popular among top athletes and lifters. It should not be used for small exercises but for the clean, snatch, squat, bench, and deadlift.

The old Soviet Union used it and Westside Barbell uses it for special exercises such as good mornings, box squats, rack pulls, and many forms of squatting. Because the body muscular system and the CNS adapt quickly, we do a new exercise each week to avoid accommodation. The core exercises must be close in biomechanical parameters to the classical lifts, power or Olympic. Doctor Squat said it best, “If light weights make you strong, why not lift just light weights?” Of course we know he was right, and that’s why the max effort method works best.

Hill determined that the speed of movement is dependent on maximum muscular strength. Did you hear that, football strength coaches? Physics states that maximum force is attained when velocity is small. Consequently, maximum velocity is attained when external resistance is near zero (Theory and Practice of Physical Culture). Why do I bring this up? Do you want to be faster and stronger?

A study in Strength and Power in Sport by P. Komi showed the greatest weightlifters in the world lifted the heaviest weights the slowest. This simply shows it is better to have a high level of strength over speed. I have been using this system at Westside since 1983. I started talking about the books I was learning from by Bud Charniga, who had translated them from Russian. Many have read some of the books, but have not considered the number of lifts, or the percentages that are determined with the Olympic lifts. This will not work with the power lifts.

Olympic lifts have a bar speed of 1.2 to 1.4 meters per second (mps) in the first pull. A second pull of 2.2 mps can be attained. Top powerlifts are 0.5 to 0.7 mps. Olympic lifting is primarily a speed strength sport. The time under tension is brief. The powerlifts are quite a different story. It is a strength speed or slow strength sport. This means the training percentages would be somewhat higher. Even Olympic lifts are seldom less than 70% of a one-rep max.

Statistics that showed the breakdown of Olympic lifts by percents of a one-rep max showed the distributions of loads as follows:

49.5% of the lifts are from 75% to 85%

27.1% of the lifts are above 85%

Remember, this is based on Olympic lifts, which are much faster than powerlifts. While max force production occurs at 4 tenths of a second, you must maintain it until the lift is complete. As mentioned, 85% of a one-rep max is used the most, so we try to wave from 75% to 85% in three-week waves. Only 23.4% of the lifts are performed at 70% or below of a one-rep max. These statistics were based on 780 highly qualified weightlifters. The study was done by A. D. Ermakov and N. S. Atanasov in 1975.

The Westside max effort method is a combination of the Bulgarian system, the former Soviet Union system, and my 43 years of powerlifting with over 85 Elite powerlifters. There are all body types in powerlifting, as you well know. The Soviet Union was very vast geographically, leading to different body types and ethnic groups to choose from. This means they used a lot of exercises to develop their lifters’ shortcomings. Sounds just like Westside.

In the book Strength and Power in Sport by P. Komi, A. Vorobyev states that the Soviet team would do 20,000 lifts, classical and special combined, per year. Of those, 600 were maximal lifts (new records). The lifters were chosen after a three-year preparatory phase of base work was performed to ensure they were suited to handle the work loads, physical and psychologically. This is known as the “rule of three”. The Soviet weightlifters were more diversified than their Bulgarian counterparts.

While the Soviet team was tremendous, the Bulgarian team was amazing, under coach Ivan Abadjiev. The Bulgarian team would choose only model weightlifters, meaning they fit the height and weight index. Bulgaria is about the size of Ohio. Both the junior and senior national teams trained together under a few coaches led tightly by Abadjiev. It was his way or no way. If a lifter could not handle the stress of constantly using max or near-max lifts, they were replaced, whereas the Soviet team did two workouts a day, which were composed of pulls, good mornings, and squats.

Westside also trains two times a day; the difference is the second workout, which is directed toward a specific body part or parts, such as low back, lats, and abs or triceps, traps, and hammer curls. The Bulgarian coach, Abadjiev, chose to limit the training to six lifts: power snatch, snatch, power clean, clean and jerk, and front and back squat. After warming up they would do 6 max singles in the power snatch or snatch. This was done in 45 minutes to keep testosterone levels as high as possible. Then, they took a 30-minute rest and then did power clean and jerks, clean and jerks, or front or back squats. This amounts to 18 near-max lifts that are done every day, one in the morning session, again in the afternoon, and the third one in the evening. This added up to 18 near-max lifts in one day. The pulls and squats were trained this way all the time. Remember, they were very select in choosing the lifters who could handle the stress of training like this 6 days a week plus formally structured training on good mornings and back squats. Their system is what I based our max effort days on.

Max effort days are lifting as heavy as possible depending on the lifter’s capabilities at the present time. This means that even though you may not be going to a contest, you are training like the lifters that are. Let’s look at the two systems. The majority of the Soviet training was centered around 75-85% of a one-rep max for about 50% of all lifts, and 20% are done at 90-100%. The Bulgarians trained mostly at 90-100% max. Circa-max weights are 90-97%. The Bulgarian system produced the highest results in weightlifting. Why? They handled the highest average weights most often. It’s that simple. Yes, they had used a very select group of lifters, but that system was the best.

I had the pleasure of spending a day at Westside with a former Bulgarian weightlifting team doctor. He said many could not perform the tasks asked of the lifters. More times than not, it was the psychological stress and not the physical demands that stopped the lifter’s progress. I have seen the same at Westside. Handling weights above 90% for 3 weeks in the classical lifts can cause a lack of progress from accommodation or not varying the routine. At Westside, we change the max effort lift each week. This avoids the staleness syndrome, by doing exercises that are similar to but not actually the regular squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Westside has developed a system of maxing out on nonclassical lifts. This allows us to eliminate the negative responses of training close to a maximum competition weight. The same negative response can occur with the special lifts Westside uses to max out on if we repeated the same lift each week. But remember we switch lifts every week to avoid this. You must remember the muscles and CNS adapt only to the load placed upon them. Zatsiorsky states that the maximal effort method brings forth the greatest strength increments, and CNS inhibition, if it exists, is reduced with this approach.

Now we know that the max effort method is superior to others. One must train at the highest average of a one-rep max as often as possible. I realized for most lifters this is impossible to do every workout. That’s why we use the dynamic effort method. We use sub-maximal weights with maximal speed. Our squat training is mostly around 75-85% for multiple sets with briefs and a belt. Remember what Doctor Squat said? “If light weights work, why not use light weights?” But they don’t.

When Chuck Vogelpohl trained at Westside, he handled the heaviest average weights when he squatted and deadlifted. He was our best squatter, setting world records in the 220 and 275 weight classes and now at 242 in a different gym. Now Greg Panora handles the heaviest weights if you average the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and he has dominated the 242 world record total. Look at Big Iron and I am sure you will see the same.

Zatsiorsky states “It’s impossible to exert a large amount of force against a small mass.” Dr. Hatfield was right. The men and women who can recruit the most muscle units are the strongest. The maximal effort method does just that. The next best method is the circa-max method, which uses 90-97½ % of a one-rep max. The circa-max method differs in that it can include multiple sets of 1 or 2 reps per set up to 10 total lifts per workout. It is worth noting that the Bulgarians had great restoration methods, such as whirlpools, saunas, massage, and others at their disposal.

You seldom calculate weights under 70%. The Soviets’ and Westside training is very similar in that the squats and pulls are mostly in the 75% to 85% range on dynamic day and always working up to a current max on max effort day. Remember, some supportive gear is almost always worn. On dynamic bench day, the percent is very low, 40-50%, but no gear is worn and there are always bands or chains on the bar. When the dynamic method is used, the muscles are contracted very fast and forcefully. I would personally experience more soreness on speed day. The dynamic method was developed to replace a max effort day for those who could not handle two max effort workouts a week. This helped me in the early years (1983) to recover from a bad back injury. I could not handle two max effort lower and upper body workouts per week, so we changed over to the dynamic method to make one day a fast day, not a light day, and keep the heavy day, or max effort day, because we knew the heaviest weight lifted in the gym would materialize into meet records if done correctly.

On dynamic day, stay with the percent program. Use a suit with the straps down or briefs only. Train in a 3-week pendulum wave at 50-60% of a contest max. The following are examples:

400 to 480 pounds training weight = 800 squat

450 to 540 = 900 squat

500 to 600 = 1000 squat

Also use chains or bands.

This is very systematic, but as you can see, with this mathematical formula the stronger squatter uses the heaviest weights; it’s that simple. So use the max effort method to set standards,.

In 1974 Prilepin carried out a series of experiments with high-level weightlifters. One group trained at 70% of a one-rep max. The second group used 80% of a one-rep max, and a third group used weights at 90% of a one-rep max based on his recommendations. His research found training at 90% was the most effective, 80% was the next best, and the least effective was the 70% weight. The conclusion was that training at the greater weights produced the most significant gains. Prilepin also found the best results regarding percents came from using an optimal number of lifts: 18 lifts at 70%, 15 lifts at 80%, and 7 lifts at 90%.

While this article is about max effort, the other day is just as important. Prilepin also found that it was less fatiguing to do a higher number of sets and a lower number of reps. The reverse will lead to a distortion of technique. This was taken from the textbook Physical Culture Institutes by A. M. Vorobiev.

I hope these examples have shown you what is truly important about building absolute strength. It is based on both the dynamic and max effort day. As Lelikov proved, muscle strength increases more in execution at moderate tempo, while the fast lifts gave the lowest increase in strength. If you are wondering about only the classical lifts, Medvedyev found the same to be true in special exercises as well when one becomes more proficient in the classical lifts (Weightlifting and Methods of Teaching).

Hopefully this information can help you reach the very top.

Louie Simmons

Search The Blog
Like What You're Reading?

Sign up for our newsletter and get new articles sent straight to your inbox weekly.

Search The Blog
Like What You're Reading?

Sign up for our newsletter and get new articles sent straight to your inbox weekly.