Christian Thibaudeau is an Olympic Lifter, Bodybuilder, and highly sought after Strength Coach. He currently writes for Testosterone Magazine, and has been pumping out high quality articles for as long as I can remember. As a fan of the iconic contributors to the field such as Mel Siff, Vladimir Zatsiorski, Charlie Francis, Fret Hatfield, Charles Poliquin, Pierre Roy, etc., I rarely find current fitness writers that bring something new to the table. Christian is this guy. Recently, he published a few articles covering a concept he calls “The Perfect Rep”, which is what I wanted to talk to him about today. He really unloaded some good info here, so enjoy.
MM: You recently said that in this past year you’ve learned more than the previous 10 years combined. You’ve summarized much of this in what you call “The Perfect Rep”. I know there’s a lot too it, but give an overview of this concept for us for those that haven’t read your articles on the topic.
CT: Well to be fair, these past two years it’s not so much that I learned more than during the previous 10, but rather that I understood why a lot of stuff I was already doing was effective.
I also realized that a lot of stuff that I believed was very important; wasn’t. And that a lot of things that I didn’t pay much attention to were the real keys to progress.
MM: Interesting…like what?
CT: Well, for example all my training life I ramped up the weights gradually until I reached the maximum weight I could use in good form for the prescribed number of reps. As an Olympic lifter that’s always how we trained; just look at videos of the training of elite Olympic lifters (www.ironmind.com) and you’ll see that they might do something like 50kg for a few sets of 3, 70kg for a few sets of 3, 90kg for a few sets of 2, 110kg x 2, 120kg x 1, 130kg x 1, 140kg x 1 and 150kg x 1. Some called it “warming-up” be we used the term “practice sets”.
MM: Yeah, that’s how I’ve typically structured my warm up prescriptions, many sets of low reps, gradually increasing load.
CT: Even when I was a football player that’s how I trained. Our high school football coach was a former Olympic lifter so even when I started out structured lifting at 14 years old I learned to ramp up the weight gradually.
Since I always did this, even when I switched more to a bodybuilding approach that’s how I did things. So when I wrote programs for the internet a lot of people screwed up because I never bothered to tell them that 5 x 5 meant doing 5 sets of 5 reps with gradually heavier weights, the last set being the heaviest one. People who read the program did 5 all out sets while in my mind it meant one all out set and 4 progressively heavier sets.
Those first 4 sets would still have a training effect because I always learned to lift with as much acceleration as the weight and fatigue level would allow. This is what I call “the perfect rep”.
MM: That makes sense. Let’s dig deeper and look at the key points of The Perfect Rep; can you offer a brief explanation of each?
- Max Force Lifting/Lowering, and the Max Force Point
- SRP Twitch Turnaround
- Force Spectrum Ramping
CT: While there are a lot of cool terms now associated with the perfect rep understand that the real key concept behind the perfect rep is milking each single repetition for all it’s worth.
Basically you should approach every single repetition as if it were the only thing you were allowed to do on that day. So you have to focus on making that one rep as productive as possible.
Each repetition has several phases: an eccentric pre-load, a turnaround point from the eccentric to the concentric as well as a concentric/lifting portion. You can also add a phase between the end of the lifting phase and the beginning of the next repetition’s eccentric phase.
In order to make every repetition as productive as possible it stands to reason that every one of those phases should be performed in an optimal manner.
The concentric/lifting portion is the easiest to understand. It’s simple physics: Force = Mass x Acceleration. You can increase the force required to lift a weight either by increasing the weight or the acceleration you are trying to impart to the source of resistance.
MM: So it’s really just increased force we’re after, and most people are only focusing on the Mass part of the formula.
CT: Right. To illustrate the acceleration concept I always use throwing a baseball as an example: to throw a baseball 200 feet requires that you throw the ball with more speed/acceleration than if you had to throw it 20 feet. Thus throwing that ball from centerfield to home plate requires that you produce a lot of force while tossing the ball from home plate back to the pitcher is a breeze.
Same thing goes with lifting a weight; you can drastically increase the amount of force you have to produce if you attempt to lift the load with acceleration.
Basically you can compensate a relative lack of load by an increase in acceleration. Back in the 80s Fred Hatfield (Dr.Squat) named this concept “Compensatory Acceleration Training”.
If you produce more force, you increase intramuscular tension; which means more growth stimulation and strength gains.
So the first concept to grasp in doing a perfect rep is to try to lift the weight as fast as the load and your fatigue level will allow you to.
Funny thing is that I always did this too when I was an Olympic lifter and football player and understood that it meant improving power. But I just recently found out how important it was for stimulating growth too.
MM: Ok, so what about the lowering phase? This part of your recent writings has stirred plenty of discussion.
CT: The eccentric phase is a bit trickier. It used to be that everybody believed that a slow eccentric was the best way to stimulate growth. However recent studies have shown that a fast eccentric was better.
So which one is it? Both!
It actually depends on your level of development. During a slow eccentric intramuscular friction can help and ease up that phase. And the bigger a muscle is and the more scar tissue (from a lot of lifting experience) you have, the more friction there is.
So someone with a lot of muscle mass and who has accumulated a lot of scar tissue will not benefit as much from slow eccentrics as someone with smaller muscles.
From experience, advanced lifters do best with a relatively rapid (but still controlled) eccentric while beginners benefit from a slower eccentric phase.
So the second part of the perfect rep is to find out which type of of eccentric is best for you.
MM: That’s a really interesting breakdown, I’m glad you shed some light on that as I’ve always had a hard time breaking away from slow eccentrics. And the next phase of the rep?
CT: Well then there is the turnaround point between the eccentric and concentric phases. This is arguably the most important portion in the rep.
The more force you produce at the turnaround, the more growth you’ll stimulate.
There are two ways of doing this, and they are drastically opposed, oddly.
The first one is to have a rapid turnaround between both phases. The whiplash effect jolts the muscle with a high tension peak which is conductive to creating a lot of micro-trauma and stimulating growth. Not to mention that over the long run, this type of repetition improves the capacity to recruit high threshold motor units.
The second method is the opposite: lifting from a deadstop from the stretched position of a muscle. To do this you start the bar off of pins in a position where the muscle is semi-stretched (must be stretched without activating the stretch reflex). The muscles are devoid of tension before the lift and you fire them as explosively as you can to overcome the inertia of the barbell. Lifts using this technique also lead to a sudden increase in intramuscular tension because you can’t use the stretch reflex to lift the weight.
Which of these methods is best? Both are effective and can be used concurrently. Individuals who are very good at explosive movements and are efficient at utilizing the stretch reflex might gain more from lifts for a deadstop while those who are ‘’stronger then they are powerful’’ will benefit greatly for a fast turnaround. It basically comes down to training your weakness.
MM: Great info. And it explains all the work from pins in your new programs. And the last part of the rep?
CT: The final phase of a lift is the transition between reps. While slightly less important that the three preceding phases, it still has its importance. I find that performing non-stop reps keep you in rhythm which tends to give a piston-like performance, enhancing the training effect. On the other hand, a slight rest between reps can help you lift more weight.
My recommendation is to shoot for a very short (if any) transition time if size is your number one goal and with slightly longer pauses (or even cluster training) if strength is your primary focus.
MM: Good differentiation to note. Makes sense. And what exactly is Max Force Lifting in this sense?
CT: This simply refers to performing high acceleration work with heavy weights. I call the “max force set’’ the heaviest weight you can still accelerate. I call this the max force set because the combination of a high load and high accelerating provides for the highest total force output.
Autoregulation is a key concept that means adjusting the training load (weight, sets, reps, rest intervals) to your daily physiological state. The goal is to give the best performance possible on every workout, then leave. Most highly motivated individuals push themselves too hard and hit a wall because of that.
That why athletes need a deloading week every so often: they push themselves too hard and need to take time to recock and reload! But with autoregulation, if you are good at it, you do not need deloading or time off.
MM: Very interesting. In previous articles you mention doing only about 3 exercises per workout in this fashion, shooting for about 6 sets per exercise (with a 4-10 range based on auto-regulation).
Does this mean only 3 exercises per workout, or only 3 in this fashion while still doing some other higher rep assistance exercises? Or are those futile on this type of protocol?
CT: I use several different methods when planning the content of a training program. For example I often use micro-ramping, which is a very slow progression from set to set (by 5 or 10lbs increments instead of 20-40lbs) starting at roughly 60% of your max. With this method I can actually go up to 12-16 sets for my main exercise.
When I use this approach I will only do one ramping exercise. This is a very effective way to stimulate huge gains in strength on the movement being trained.
Yes I do use higher reps in several protocols.
MM: Now that you’ve been experimenting longer and your articles on this topic have been out for a while and a larger group of people have been offering feedback, have you learned anything from observation that has lead to adjustments or “upgrades”?
CT: That’s the thing. The original articles and IBB program are only an introduction of what I callHighThreshold Hypertrophy.
I have used a myriad of different programs based on the same principles. Some of them being quite different that the original one.
However the key factors are always: activating the nervous system, maximizing performance, autoregulation to perform as much work as possible without exceeding your capacity to recover and the perfect rep.
For example one approach that I use is a push-pull-legs system where I pick one main exercise, performed with micro-ramping (described above) and anywhere from 3 to 6 assistance exercises performed for 1 set of max reps. The load for the max rep sets normally allows you to perform 8 to 12 reps, but you shouldn’t actually count the reps… simply perform as many piston-like reps as you can with the selected weight. See that set as a challenge, not as a chore to do.
A typical pushing workout might look like this
A. Bench press x 3 reps
Micro-ramping (5 or 10lbs increments) starting at 60% of your max and working up to the max weight you can dominate for all the reps. Shoot for roughly 12 sets.
B. Close-grip bench press
Perform 1 set of max reps with 70% of the top weight you reached on ‘A’
C. Incline bench press
Perform 1 set of max reps with 60% of the top weight you reached on ‘A’
D. Push press
Perform 1 set of max reps with 60% of the top weight you reached on ‘A’
Perform 1 set of max reps with bodyweight only
MM: I love it.
CT: I have also used other advanced concepts like eccentric-less training and neural charge workouts.
For eccentric-less training I normally use a sled or prowler and do various upper body movements or sprints or regular lifting exercises where a partner helps on the eccentric portion of a lift and not on the concentric portion.
I find that eccentric-less training is minimally invasive on the body and allow you to do a lot more volume and have a higher frequency of training without increasing your recovery needs by a whole bunch. I believe that this is one of the main reasons why Olympic lifters can do their heavy lifts so often (not a lot of eccentric since they drop the bar on every rep).
MM: Now there’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. And Neural Charge workouts?
CT: Neural charge workouts are sessions that prime (activate) the nervous system but do not cause much, if any fatigue (physical or neural). These workouts actually improve performance for up to 2 days afterwards so I like to use one such workout mid-week to improve performance in the later portion of the training week.
I will normally recommend 4 exercises that activate the nervous system, explosive lifts, jumps or throws and performing sets of 3 (lifts) or 5 (jumps) reps with a load that can be lifted roughly 6-7 reps (lifts) or with only bodyweight (jumps). These exercises are performed as a circuit with 15-45 seconds of rest between sets and you do as many circuits as you can in 20-30 minutes. However you CANNOT do a non-explosive rep. If a lift shows even a slight decrease in speed, drop it from the rotation.
MM: Can this be applied effectively to a workout later in the day? For example a Neural Charge workout in the morning, and a strength training session in the evening?
CT: Without question! In fact that’s the origin of the idea. Charles Poliquin told me that he had his hockey players perform an am ‘activation’ workout the days they had evening games and that strategy would boost their performance.
I noticed the same thing when I competed in Olympic lifting; I always had my best performances when I competed in the afternoon and would do a light workout in the morning. On the other hand I always had my worst performances when I took more than one day of rest prior to competing. So oftentimes performance is not dictated by your degree of fatigue but rather on the working state of the CNS.
I ‘discovered’ neural charge workouts when I was training one of my hockey players. He came in a Friday evening for a training session, I had planned a hard leg workout, but he forgot to tell me that he had a game the next day in the early afternoon.
Obviously the ‘hard leg session’ was out! Normally I would have sent him home, but he refused to do so, wanting to ‘do something’ since he was there.
I decided that the least draining option was what would become the neural charge workouts. Well, not only wasn’t he drained the next day, he had one of his better performance. That’s when I knew that such sessions could be used to recharge your battery, so to speak, prior to an event or when fatigue and lack of motivation started to set in.
MM: Good info, and further drives home the idea of the functional level of the CNS governing recovery and performance.
So what would you say is the hardest part of this for people attempting this style of training initially? When I first started experimenting with these methods, I know I felt like I wasn’t going heavy enough or doing quite enough work (this changed after a few workouts)…is that a common concern?
CT: Definetely autoregulation . People often have a problem finding up to where they can push themselves. Most people start being too conservative. You do not go to failure or to your limits, but you still have to challenge yourself. The key thing to remember is that during the workout you need to see yourself as a performance machine. The goal is to reach peak performance for that workout, then stop.
MM: With this method, being that you’re generally not going above 85% of your 1RM, have you found it as effective for strength gains as you have for hypertrophy? Or if strength is the main goal would you recommend spending more time in the 90-100% of 1RM range?
CT: If you always perform perfect reps you will gain a lot of strength. The goal is still to lift heavier and heavier weights. It’s just that you do so without going to your limit.
How do you think Olympic lifters train?
A lot of people will argue that in training a lot of Olympic lifters go to their max weight, I agree. But have you ever seen a slow snatch or a slow clean & jerk? Nope, you can’t do it.
The HTH system doesn’t shoot for a certain percentage, the founding principle is to go as heavy as you can without grinding a repetition. Since Olympic lifts are explosive by nature, even a near maximum lift is explosive.
Paul Anderson, one of the strongest man who ever lived, also trained like this. He had to give several demonstrations a week, where he would squat anywhere from 800 to 1000lbs (or more according to some sources). No way he could train to the limit and still be able to perform on a daily (sometimes several shows a day) basis.
One interesting that you will notice is that the more efficient one becomes at performing perfect reps, the closer to his true maximum the heaviest weight you can still accelerate will be.
For example, in the original IBB trailer I bench press 425lbs for 2 reps. Both reps look smooth and there is no grind. The second rep looked like I had 2-3 more in the the tank. Well, let me tell you that this second rep was hell! In fact at that time my bench 1RM was 430lbs!
I have trained so long with high-acceleration lifting that all my reps look the same. Even my limit rep looks like the first rep of a set.
MM: Are there any situations where you would recommend the inclusion of foam rolling, dynamic stretching, or mobility drills before this type of training?
CT: Marc, you know what I hate the most about the strength training field? Guys who pretend that they know everything. And by extension they give their opinion on all subjects and try to make recommendations about every one of them.
To me, the sign of a good coach is to be able to say that he doesn’t know something and refer you to someone else who will know better.
So I’ll confess and tell you that I know squat about foam rolling, stretching and mobility. I always had decent mobility because of my background as an Olympic lifter; the Olympic lifts put your body under load in some pretty extreme positions! So I never bothered to research stretching and mobility work extensively. I have some of my employees who take care of that portion of my client’s training (one is a former Ballet dancer, who was also in the Cirque du Soleil for a while and is a pilates teacher… she can full squat over 315 so she’s no wimp either).
I’ll admit that I should have dome more foam rolling in my career as I suffered from a lot of shoulders, knees and back problems. My mistake… maybe I will begin to read on it!
MM: I love the honesty. We’ll leave that to the 10,000 other guys with mobility books and DVD’s out there. That was a ton of great info that really shed some clarity on your methods; I really appreciate you doing this interview.
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