Build the strength success habit

Brooks Kubik is a strength coach and author of several influential training guides including Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development and The Lost Art of Dumbbell Training. He is a five-time US national bench press champion and has set more than a dozen American, National and World bench press records. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

If you do something – even if it is hard – if you just do it, you get better at it. And as you continue to do it, and work hard at it, you get better and better. If you learn that as a life lesson, your whole approach to life changes forever and, I would say, it changes for the better.

I call that approach the success habit. My basic theory about what you should be doing when you train is doing everything you can to get the success habit. There are certain things that you are going to want to do and there are certain things that you are going to want to not do.

You want to aim to make every workout a success. And you need to create a system where you go from one success to another. So the first thing that you do is give someone a workout that they can do; that they can manage. The worst thing you can do is give someone a workout that they can’t do because you’re teaching them not success, but failure.

Path to progression
Set it up so that they come back and do better the next time. For beginners here is a basic way of doing that, and it’s called single rep progression. You have single progression, double progression and triple progression. Single progression training is this: do a workout then the next time that you train you do one more rep. This was designed classically for single set training. It’s a good system for beginners and it causes muscle growth and gains in strength.

As you become more advanced, single progression training becomes more difficult and the reason it becomes more difficult is because you’re getting stronger but as you get stronger your gains slow down. So at that time you switch from single progression training to double progression. Double progression means that you add a rep every second workout.

But you’re still creating a system that allows someone to always have a successful workout and always move from success to success. Your job as a trainer is to teach people that this stuff works and that success is possible when you go to the gym because you’re trying to get them to the point where they understand that if they work hard at something – anything in their life – they can be successful.

Triple progression is the same thing but you add a rep every third workout. This is a simple system but it’s effective because it never demands more of the trainee than they’re able to give. But it always demands something and gives you a system that you know that if you keep working at it that you’re going to make progress.

Number crunching
It gets more complicated when you’re doing multiple sets. Let’s say that you’re doing five sets of five reps – a classic training system for building strength, muscle and power. Let’s say you’re doing squats. Maybe you do 5x50kg for your warm-up set, then 5x60kg, 5x70kg, 5x80kg then your heaviest set at 5x90kg. Now, how could you put progress into that? You could start at 60kg. Or throw an additional set in at 90kg.

If you can’t add a set because it’s too demanding you start doing multiple working sets. Make three sets of five reps your goal but you don’t do that first time out. Instead, you do one set of five, plus one set of three plus one set of one rep. Now it becomes easy to manipulate the system by adding a rep. You can do 1×5, 1×3 and 1×2. The next time you do 1×5, 1×3, 1×3. Then you do 1×5, 1×4, 1×3 and so on. So you continue until you get to 3×5 but you’re doing it one rep at a time.

The one rep at a time system is a really good way of training because you can usually always add one more rep. Doug Hepburn, the world weightlifting champion of 1953, was a huge proponent of two things: always making each workout progressively better than the previous one; and that you should do that by adding no more than one rep.

The power of five
My focus is strength and I like sets of five as the top rep number because it works well for me. The fitness industry has gone crazy with sets of ten or sets of 12 and now there are many systems that involve high reps. But my feeling is that you want to get the most out of every rep that you do. If you do it that way then you cannot do a lot of reps.

I also do fewer reps. I like fives, I like threes, I like doubles, and I like singles. The singles are not maximum, all-out efforts. They are weights that you can handle but that require concentration, effort, focus. But they’re not your absolute maximum weight because you can’t do your absolute maximum weight every time you train. But you can go heavy and pretty close to it. You can probably go heavier on upper body lifts than you can on squats and deadlifts. Deadlifts are the one where if you go too heavy too often then it’s going to take too much out of your body.