Barbell Medicine - From Bench to Bedside

Note: We published this protocol in the Barbell Medicine newsletter in March of 2018, but have since added some additional context, explanation, and recommendations for this intervention. Be sure and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on all the latest content!

A novice lifter is someone who can add weight to the exercises being performed each time they train, typically every 48 hours. Ideally, the increased load functions as both a display of the strength previously developed as well as a training stress designed to facilitate further improvement.

As the novice phase comes to a close however, the increased loading tends to serve more as the display rather than the driver of further progress due to an inadequate amount of progressive overload. While it is true that total tonnage or volume-load, defined as the product of repetitions and weight for all sets, increases workout to workout- the failure to display increased performance, i.e. a missed rep or set, proves that this no longer provides enough stress for the lifter.

At this point, the novice lifter has a choice to make between acutely decreasing the current training stress in order to allow adaptations from past training stress (e.g The Deload Protocol) to occur or, more correctly, increase training stress in order to further strength development (The Development Protocol).

In the first option, the novice lifter will take 10% off the bar weight while keeping the rep scheme and total volume the same (e.g. 3 sets of 5 repetitions), which lowers the stress for a few workouts and allows adaptations of days and weeks prior to occur. Alternatively, the lifter could reduce the repetition range from 5 repetitions to 3 repetitions, which reduces training stress by decreasing fatigue that accumulates during the workout. The problem with either of these approaches however, is that the lifter runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. By sacrificing current training stress -which is needed for future adaptations- in favor of short-term performance, the lifter is setting themselves up to experience the same problem a few weeks later because the underlying problem (insufficient stress) has not been addressed.

In most cases this is not our preferred approach, as we favor continued development of the newer lifter over a long period of time with minimal accommodations made to solely display -not train- performance. That said, it may be appropriate to use the deload protocol in a situation where the novice lifter has extenuating circumstances such as an extreme life stress (work, relationship, medical condition), has missed training, or has a fluke form issue. Conversely, we consider perpetual cycle of deloading and re-attempting the same workouts over and over again to be inappropriate for outside of these contexts.

With The Development Protocol described herein we are aiming to increase the amount of stress applied to the lifter in a way that improves both their long-term development and short-term performance:

  • Strength/Hypertrophy: Muscle size and neurological efficiency both contribute to strength performance. Hypertrophy is most dependent upon training volume (reps x sets), whereas neurological improvements are best improved with intensities >70%, in general.*
  • Work Capacity: Regular training improves the lifter’s tolerance to and recovery from training. Increasing the amount of training that is done over time improves work capacity, which is a good thing since more training is needed to drive further progress.
  • Skill: Regular exposure to a given task improves performance and proficiency in completing that task. If a lifter wants to press more weight, for example, he or she needs to press more.

*Neurological improvements are somewhat specific as far as their transfer to different tasks. An improvement in a 5 rep maximum (5RM- about 86% of a 1RM) does not guarantee improvement in a lifter’s 1RM, as these represent somewhat different challenges. Similarly, an improvement in a 1RM does not guarantee improvement in a 5RM. Thus, improving neurological efficiency within the context of strength should be somewhat specific for the goals and application(s) of the lifter. 

Training variables like increasing volume, intensity, density of training (reduced rest periods for given amount of work), using novel stimuli (exercise variations), etc. all tend to increase the stress on the lifter, but all do not produce the same adaptations.

For example, when rest periods are decreased to a point that much lighter weights have to be used due to compromised force production by the fatigued muscles, strength improvement suffers. If intensity (weight on the bar) is increased to the detriment of volume, hypertrophy and work capacity suffer. Therefore, we must choose wisely so we don’t cut off our nose to spite our face.

In the Novice Linear Progression (NLP), the most bench press and the press tend to be the first lifts to require more stress to drive further progress. While it has been said that NLP includes “too little volume” for the upper body lifts to begin with, there is no evidence to support that claim. Rather, existing data suggests 5-9 sets per week for a upper body muscle groups trained in compound movements tend to produce good improvements in strength and hypertrophy, though the volume needs to increase over time.

Therefore, when a lifter’s bench and press numbers plateau prior to their squat and deadlift, we propose the following solution as a direct plug-and-play for workouts A and B*:

* Novice Linear Progression (NLP) is set up on an A/B schedule where workouts “A” and “B” are alternated on non-consecutive days, e.g. M/W/F or T/R/Sat.

Workout A
Squats per NLP
Bench x 1 @ +5% from last 5 x 3 sets on LP, then take 15% off the bar for 5 reps x 5 sets
Deadlift per NLP
Press x 8 reps x 4 sets @ -12% from previous press 5 x 3 sets on LP

Workout B
Squats per NLP
Press 1 @ +5% from last 5 x 3 sets, then take 15% off the bar for 4 reps x 6 sets
Power Cleans or Rows per NLP
Close grip bench x 8 reps x 4 sets @ -15% from previous bench press 5 x 3 sets on NLP

With respect to progression, the lifter should attempt to add 2.5-5lbs per week on all sets without going above RPE (rate or perceived exertion) 8, which means having approximately 2 reps left in reserve, i.e. you could’ve done another 2 reps before failing.

Additionally, bench presses are done touch and go style- not paused, whereas overhead presses are all done from a dead stop. If you have a meet coming up, we would recommend alternative programming. Additionally, you can use a belt if you like on both the bench and/or the press. You may find it [the belt] improves your ability to perform a Valsalva and reduces back fatigue from accruing intra-workout prior to any pulling work that needs to be done (deadlifts).

We also recommend limiting rest periods to 4-5 minutes between work sets and continuing to alternate A and B workouts as you were on NLP. The point at which your squat and deadlift stop increasing on SSLP, start The Bridge ,as there are too many limitations in NLP to consider it a viable programming option for a lifter at this point.

We hope this helps! If you have any questions, post them in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

-Jordan Feigenbaum, MD

About Jordan Feigenbaum

Jordan Feigenbaum, owner of Barbell Medicine, has an academic background including a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, and is a former Starting Strength coach and staff member. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world  for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, 275lb overhead press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter.

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