Strength Programming: What Actually Works?

What program works?  Man, that’s the question that has been debated for years.  Ed Coan killed it with basic linear periodization. The guys at Westside Barbell killed it pendulum waves, max effort, and a lot of other methods that went into the makeup of the Conjugate System.  One coach preaches research.  One coach preaches experience.  I hear about the Russian System, the Bulgarian System, and the Chinese System.  The Internet is amazing in the fact that it gives us information at the click of a mouse.  However, it’s a curse for the same exact reason especially for anyone new to this world of strength.

I have been training since I was 11-years-old and from that first moment, I have never stopped searching for the Holy Grail of programming.  Does it exist?  That’s the real question.  I am convinced that it does, but not in the way that most of you think.  I am convinced that there is a style of programming that matches every individual out there.  The key is the word “individual”.  I don’t think that there is a system or program that matches every single person on earth.

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Let’s look at the variables that must be considered:

  • Age
  • Training Age
  • Gender
  • Low Volume, Average Volume, High Volume, or a combo
  • Frequency – some people need more than others
  • Intensity – some people need to go heavier and some need to go lighter
  • Types of periodization – undulating, linear, pendulum waves, and more
  • Muscular Imbalances
  • Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Power, Rate of Force Development, Velocity, and Force
  • Work Capacity
  • GPP
  • Efficiency

I mean really the list could go on and on.  Are you overwhelmed yet?  Yeah me too!  So what does one do? 

First, I have always looked for success.  If a weightlifting team is producing great weightlifters, that’s a great place to start.  For example, Coach Sean Waxman has always been one of my go-to coaches because he is successful.  He had two women in the World Championships, which is more than any other coach.  

Sean Waxman

Where does research come into all of this?  That’s an even greater question.  Most of the research that people review is from Russian sports scientists like Prilepin, Mateyev, and  Zatsiorsky mainly from the ‘60s and ‘70s.  This research was done on elite athletes in Russia.  So is this the go-to research?  It’s a start for elite athletes, but does it apply to general strength folks just trying to get better in their garage?  Probably not as much, although that’s inconclusive.  Does it apply to all great athletes in America? Probably some, but we all know that those athletes were doping, so once again it’s inconclusive.  

Personally, I prefer American exercise scientists’ research on our own drug-free athletes.  Most of you know my go-to is Dr. Andy Galpin.  This man is basically self-funding his own research to discover more and more facts that will take the guesswork out of things.  We are blessed to have men like Andy in America.  Companies that stand to gain a profit like big pharmaceutical companies fund most of our research in America.  Our athletes deserve their own research from scientists that have their best interest.

Andy Galpin, Ph.D

And then there are guys like Greg Nuckols that take complicated research and statistics, and break it down into a simple way that the rest of us can understand.  This is a great place to start especially for the beginner or general strength enthusiast.  Does this research pertain to the elite athlete? That’s inconclusive because most of the research is done on a bunch of average Joe’s.  It’s a great place to start and form educated opinions, but it’s the research coming from Dr. Galpin that will be even more useful.

Greg Nuckols 

Dr. Layne Norton does the same thing in the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding.  I don’t know anyone better than him when it comes to research especially in the realm of nutrition.  If you need to get jacked and strong, there is no better place to start than with Layne.  He’s proven that with his own success and that of his clients.  Like I said success is a great place to start when it comes to your own progress.

Layne Norton, Ph.D

What if you are an athlete in a field sport like football?  What if you’re a wrestler?  Coach Joe Kenn exemplifies everything that I have been talking about.  His world-renowned “Tier System” is a living and breathing document of programming.  He’s taken from Westside, the greatest minds in weightlifting, research new and old, and other strength coaches to form the most talked about the program for strength and conditioning athletes.  This is what I am talking about.

A post shared by Joe Kenn (@bighousepower) on

Joe Kenn

I want you guys to start in areas that apply most to you and/or your athletes.  From there, you make decisions based on the information that you consume.  I recommend not posting a claim on any one camp.  For example, I would never go all in for the Conjugate System.  I love several aspects of the Conjugate System, but there are elements outside of it that work very well for my athletes.  Coach Kenn has taken from others, and he formed his own program that is wrapped in the scientific research that he has consumed over the years.

My man Zach Even-Esh sticks to the basics of tried and true strength and conditioning leaving the fancy to his competitors that he’s crushing.  Zach uses weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and good old-fashioned hard work to form some of the best athletes in New Jersey.  That brings me to the best advice that I could ever give to any of you, “Get the most out of the least”.  If linear periodization is working well, why go to undulating?  If three days per week is crushing gains for you, there is no reason to go to five.  Why use bands and chains, if straight weight is working?  Zach lives that rule, and his athletes benefit from it.

Zach Even-Esh

I hope this little article opens all of your eyes.  The Internet can clog the minds of athletes and coaches especially newer ones. This week we are dropping a very special book, Program Sampler Volume III “The Guest Coach Edition”.  We have put together programming from all of the people I’ve mentioned in this article.  We’ve put them together in one nice bundle for you guys to read, try out, and then form your own system.

This book will also go to support our 501(c)(3) non-profit team.  All proceeds will go to supporting our team and improving our “at risk” program.  This book is will help enlighten all of you, and it will go to a good cause as well.  We appreciate all of you.  We do our best to supply all of you with as much information as possible.  Thank you for all that you do to support the dreams of the men and women of Team Mash Elite.

– Coach Travis Mash

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