The story of Milo is a classic in Greek Mythology. Milo, a famous Greek wrestler, gained immense strength by carrying a calf every day from its birth until it was a fully grown cow. The calf grew into a cow at the same rate Milo grew into a man, or so the story goes.
The story of Milo is that which anyone who has ever gone to the gym and tried to grow their bench press for clout will no doubt have tried to replicate. They attempt to replicate Milo’s journey by utilizing the old method of just adding five pounds every week. The logic is simple; if I add five pounds this week, it’s a very small jump, my body can handle it and next week I will have gotten stronger so another five pounds will be no sweat, and soon I’ll be absolutely massive. Except as any kinesiologist or experienced gym bro will tell you, this theory is nonsense. The human body is not capable of adaptation at such rapid rates as to allow for someone to go from a relatively weak amateur to world class strength athlete in a matter of weeks. The body does have a natural capacity for “newbie gains,” the (relatively) rapid progression of muscle size and strength in the few months after one begins strength training, but it never lasts beyond a few months, if that. The reasoning behind this is actually unknown; all evidence is purely empirical–that is to say, we know it because we see it happen time and time again. Prevailing theories behind the body’s less than ideal rate of adaptation to strength training surround the fatiguing of some bodily endocrine mechanisms of some sort. To return to our example, the hormone production necessary to fuel muscle and nervous system adaptation at the necessary rate to bench five pounds more per week eventually cannot stand up to the rate necessary to allow for the following week’s additional five pounds. So instead, humans have learned a number of techniques to better maximize the body’s ability to adapt and grow, resulting in the modern day feats of strength at which we find ourselves left speechless.
Constant Weight Training
What many old-timers refer to as “solidifying the gains,” constant weight training is perhaps the simplest form of functional weight training we know of today that sees consistent results. This technique involves essentially training a given weight at a set number of reps over and over and over again until it becomes easy, and then moving the weight up at the same number of reps and repeating the process. This is where the phrase “solidifying the gains” comes from: completing a new max lift is oftentimes a one-off, a matter of timing rest, recovery, food and water intake, and stress to be at optimal levels simultaneously, or else the weight doesn’t go up. A lift I make today, I could have missed yesterday. But if I consistently train my five-rep max, for example, achieving it weekly every single week for 10 weeks, then by the end of that period I will be comfortable completing that set on any given day, and my five-rep max weight will have increased. Now, I am stronger. This is constant weight training in a nutshell.
Cycling was the predominant form of training undertaken by the uber-successful US powerlifting team of the 80s. What this technique encompasses is a repetitive cycle (hence the name) of beginning a training block with lighter weights, and progressively working up to heavier weights at lower reps. The block would start off at sets of 8 or 10 reps, and over the course of 10-12 weeks, progress to heavy triples, doubles or even singles at the tail end. Then, this process begins again, this time with the lightest weights being slightly higher than at the beginning of the previous block. Strength was built by gradually fatiguing the muscles and aforementioned endocrine mechanisms, only to relent when they had been pushed to the limit to being again with newly gained size and strength. Russian scientists have made the discovery that the endocrine systems that I’ve already spoken so much about can tolerate two out of four weeks every month of hard training before they become fatigued. So over the course of a 12 week program, the first four weeks could consist of training sets of 8 reps. In week 1, the weight remains light, week two it is moderately heavy, week three sees you repeat your previous best, and week four sees a new 8 rep personal best set. Then the reo count jumps to 5, and the process repeats, and so on and so forth. World-renowned lifters like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski, two of the best to ever do it, trained using cycling. Coan squatted over 900 lbs at a bodyweight of 220 lbs in the single ply division, while Karwoski managed 1033 at 275 lbs bodyweight, also in single ply equipped lifting.
Within certain rep count parameters over the course of a given period of time (for example, a program may call for a total of 250 reps of deadlift cumulatively across one month, at an average of 75% of maximal effort/intensity. These numbers were determined empirically through experimentation by studying the top performing Russian Olympic lifters throughout the course of five consecutive Olympic cycles, or 20 years’ worth of data), training loads from one given period to the subsequent period, i.e. day to day, month to month and so on, are at a minimum 20%. The training was characterized as “constantly whiplashing” by strength training expert Pavel Tsatsouline. Jumps may be up or down, they may be in reps or in weight lifted, etc. The theory here surrounds patterns observed in nature. The creators in Russia believed as a result of their observations that progress seen in nature, changes of all sorts, happen discreetly. That is, there is no constant improvement, but more of sudden jumps in performance. This theory is almost akin to the discreet energy levels attributed to electrons jumping between energy levels and emitting photons, as any of my fellow chem majors will be aware. This comes as a result of the variable stresses nature throws at an organism. Tigers become massive in size, gain intelligence and obtain crazy strength as a result of constantly adapting to the random challenges they experience in nature. To replicate the arbitrary nature of nature itself, variable loading throws crazy training jumps in as the 20% rule, at random times. There is no organization to it, but it has seen dramatic success in Russian Olympic weightlifters, with half of the weight class records in Olympic lifting still standing in about half of all weight classes (in a pound-for-pound sense, since weight classes have been changed numerous times by weightlifting’s governing bodies).
It is evident that weight training is far more of a calculated, scientific endeavor than previously considered. Now, to any reader considering beginning lifting themselves, don’t allow all of this information and some (apparently) conflicting points of the three theories I have presented here; newbie gains are a real thing, and going from never weight training to any regular schedule of lifter will provide serious benefits, both visible and invisible. But when that plateau hits, as I myself have been constantly reminded of over the years, then perhaps consider taking a look into constant weight training, cycling, or, if you dare, variable loading; and may the gains be ever in your favor.