Another Way to Build Maximal Strength

Maximal strength can be defined as your ability to produce the highest level of muscle force. To achieve your highest possible force, you must recruit your largest motor units, the fast-fatigable (FF) motor units that can only sustain their force output for 10 continuous seconds or less.

So any set that lasts longer than 10 seconds of continuous muscle action isn’t directly training maximal strength because FF motor units have dropped out of the task.

Developing maximal strength is essential. This is especially true for athletes who compete in power sports such as MMA or football where lightning fast, explosive movements are crucial. In order to be powerful, you must be strong.

When it comes to maximal strength training, most people just think of training heavy with compound lifts. So they’ll do 3 sets of 3 reps for the deadlift with the heaviest load they can handle. This approach works well to increase full body strength and bone density. However, lifting heavy all the time can be very draining on the central nervous system (CNS) and tough on your joints. High load exercises and frequent training don’t mix because they result in massive compressive forces through the spine that can take many days to recover from.

That’s the snag for those who want to build muscle fast. In order to get the fastest gains you must train with the highest frequency possible.

Importantly, there’s another way to build maximal strength that often isn’t discussed: with high-tension exercises. A high-tension exercise is one that recruits the FF motor units, but doesn’t necessarily require heavy weights to get the job done.

Think of the iron cross as an example. Most strong guys can’t compete one full range of motion rep. But they can struggle and strain to produce a few high-tension partial reps as they work to get to the full range over time. The same is true with the body weight glute-ham raise. You can hold the top position, and maybe shift a few inches back and forth, and keep this tension going for 10 seconds before you must stop.

So even though there’s no external load, certain body weight exercises can train and develop maximal strength. By using body weight maximal strength exercises (ie, high-tension exercises) instead of high load exercises for most of your workouts, you can get stronger and bigger faster.

Why? Because high-tension body weight exercises don’t induce huge compressive forces through your spine. Indeed, if you keep your spine as decompressed as possible, you’ll hasten recovery. Don’t get me wrong, some spinal compression is necessary and inevitable from exercises such as a heavy deadlift or squat. Those exercises must be part of your program to build full body strength. However, if you’ve spent any amount of time doing heavy training with those exercise you know how fatiguing they can be.

And the squat and deadlift aren’t the only culprits. Some strong guys can do a seated military press with a load that’s heavier than their body weight. The combined spinal compression from sitting paired with the heavy load can really cram your spine. Surprisingly, these same guys usually can’t perform more than one or two handstand push-ups – an exercise that requires high tension in the same muscle groups without the spinal compression.

The bottom line of this post is to convince you that strength exercises which unload the spine can be performed with a higher frequency for faster strength and muscle gains. You can’t squat super heavy three times per week, but you can squat heavy once per week and perform a hip belt squat for the other two workouts since it doesn’t squash the spine.

Another example is with the deadlift to increase posterior chain size and strength. Pulling a heavy deadlift three times per week is extremely draining, especially if you use enough volume to induce muscle growth. But you can pull heavy once each week and do the glute-ham raise for the other two workouts.

In a perfect world you could build full body strength by lifting super heavy three or four times per week with the standing military press, deadlift, and squat. But you can’t. That’s why you need high tension exercises that stress the muscles more than the spine.

So up your training frequency each week for the shoulder press, deadlift, and squat by incorporating these high-tension substitutes: the handstand push-up, glute-ham raise, and hip belt squat.

Stay Focused,
CW

32 thoughts on “Another Way to Build Maximal Strength

  1. This is very helpful. Thank you! Would single-leg exercises, such as the Bulgarian squat and pistol squat, be good alternatives to the hip belt squat?

    CW: Yes, those will work, too.

  2. great post.this really fits me right now, my posterior chain is lagging behind and there are a few brakes holding me back in terms of stabilty/firing pattern glute/hamstring on my right side , so building muscle this way could help me progress quicker/eliminate imbalances. if one doesn’t have a glute ham machine, what is the next best thing? slide-board type hamstring /glute curls + high step ups(quads)?

    CW: You don’t need a GHR machine. Just place a foam roller under your upper shins (not your knees), then hook your heels under a stable, padded surface such as the pads on a leg extension. The other two exercises you mentioned are good, too.

  3. Hey Chad, cool post definitely some really good thoughts… when I first started lifting I went heavy 4 days per week and it didn’t take long for my joints to let me know I needed to cut back. Since adding more high tension exercises like you mentioned above I have felt amazing and my strength in the main lifts has gone up.

    Also, the belt squat looks really cool, I’ve never seen that before, will definitely give it a try!

  4. Chad,
    What are your thoughts on using unilateral overhead movements to assist pressing while reducing the load on the spine?

    CW: I like that approach too. Handstand push-ups is my choice, though, for vertical pressing.

  5. Hey Chad, I’ve really been getting into BW exercises as of late since you spoke about PLP earlier this year. About two weeks ago, I started cranking out pull ups everyday (none to failure) but working upwards of 75 or more a day. So far, I feel great, am recovering fine, and have already noticed increased thickness in my back. You recommended 50/day for some but 100/day for others, so I’m going to gradually work up to 100 since it isn’t very draining on my system.

    I do have a few questions for you though.

    You don’t recommend squatting 3x per week in this article, but a few years ago while performing a 5×5 program, I was squatting 3x a week with heavy loads and made great gains. I haven’t trained the back squat in some time, but still use the front squat, RFESS, and weighted pistol for the most part. Bret Contreras and John Broz also advocate back squatting 3x or more a week. What are your thoughts on that? Many of Broz athletes are phenomenally strong and are pushing big numbers.

    Also, in a recent article on advocating ring chins, Jason Ferruggia stated “the amount of chins you do should be evened out with an equal amount of rowing motion exercises for the upper back. If you don’t do that you will end up with internally rotated shoulders and a host of other problems you’d probably want to avoid.”

    I don’t have any inverted rows in my current session, but have towel grip unilateral t bar rows once a week. Thoughts?

    Looking forward to your response, Thanks!

    CW: If you can squat heavy 3x/week, it will build strength and muscle fast. But you really have to control the volume, constantly change the load, and work in different rep ranges. This info applies to people who can’t pull that off.
    I recently met with Barry Ross and he has his athletes pull a heavy dead 3x/week. But he eliminates the eccentric phase and uses a very low volume with each workout (less than 10 reps), and he doesn’t have them do much else. That approach will work, but not if you’re doing plenty of other heavy lifting.
    I agree with Jason that it’s a good idea to balance high volume pull-ups with the inverted row. It’ll only help. However, neither I nor any of my clients incurred any shoulder problems with daily pull-ups. As long as you stretch your pecs and internal rotators, they won’t shorten.

  6. Thanks for the article. I especially liked your example of the GHR to replace deadlifts. Keep them coming, Chad!

  7. Hey Chad! I’ve been a follower for a long time and feel the need to switch to 90% or more body weight exercises and was wondering how often I could do Handstand push ups, pull ups, horizontal rows etc…. my brain says DO THEM EVERYDAY but I don”t think my body can handle that so I was hoping you could give me some frequency pointers. I would appreciate it A LOT I just don’t want to burn out. Thanks so much, your my #1 go to guy for anything fitness!

    CW: Start with every other day for two weeks, then increase the frequency from there. For example, week 3 you’ll do them M-W, Friday and Saturday.

  8. Chad, I am intrigued by your “spinal compression fatigue” theories. Some movements are ambiguous when it comes to spinal loading. Do you believe that bench press also loads the spine to the extent that it inhibits recovery, as opposed to loaded dips?

    Also, I hypothesize that a trainer who can overhead press his body weight may fail on the handstand push up because the HSPU begins at the sticking point. If you look at where someone generally fails on an overhead press, it is just above scalp level, essentially where the handstand push up begins. If someone could do the movement on raised bars where their head could descend below parallel, then I believe that they could press roughly the same weight as with a barbell. This is assuming that they could stabilize themselves with a foot on the wall.

    Interesting thoughts that I am still trying to wrap my mind around!

    CW: You’re right, some movements are ambiguous. Does the bench press load compress the spine? Probably not much but I don’t like that exercise, at all. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter there’s no need to do it, and there are better ways to get the job done with dips, weight vest push-ups, cable chest press, etc.

    Yes, the HSPU on raised bars is the way to go but it’s very difficult. Most guys can’t do a single rep, that’s why you have to start with the floor version.

  9. Hi Chad, great article! One question that I have is this: when trying to reduce spinal compression, is it best to put all of the heavy load exercises in one worko or spread them out? For example, is it better to put a heavy squat and a heavy shoulder press in one workout and then use high tension exercises the rest of the week? Or pair a squat with a handstand pushup? Or does it not really matter, as long as your performance increases? Thanks

    CW: Good question. I think it’s better to spread them out. Do heavy squats on Monday, heavy shoulder presses on Thursday.

  10. This is great to hear since I’m really trying to build up on all body weight exercises myself. I found beastskills.com has great tutorials for novices on progressing into all of them, including more acrobatic ones.

    I was wondering though, I’m usually beaten up after a workout with pullups or heavy chest presses, are body weight exercises not as intrusive on recovery?

    CW: Correct, you can recover much faster from BW exercises. That’s why for HFT they’re essential. And they stimulate the targeted muscles just as much as heavy loading. The right BW exercises are awesome.

  11. Great article Chad!!

    I broke my finger playing rugby, and as soon as i have my plastertaken off, i’m going to start Convict Conditionning program. I have a few questions if you don’t mind:

    1/ I’d like to pull once a week a heavy deadlift, since i read on your spill on T-nation, that a big DL is the only thing that is missing in a bodyweight program. Can I do 3 sets of 3 reps every single week or should I change from time to time?

    2/ May I use a DL with pins, to start with the bar higher than wit the plates on the floor, for strenght? I’m 6,3 feets tall and i don’t feel confortable doing the regular deadlift, but it’s true i just worked with it for some months, and maybe it’s just my technique.

    3/ Do you think that working with slow reps of BW exercises to get the tendons used to the tension and the correct form, while using fast or explosive reps when used to the exercice once in a while, is a good way to progress on the BW skills? i mean strenght not stamina or endurance, to do harder variants of the exercice. I ask this because 5 secs per rep in a set of ten reps makes 50 secs, much more than ten seconds…

    Thank you for everything you write, I appreciate all the work you do!!

    CW: 1) You don’t need to do 3×3, I think 2 reps per set is even better. So go for 3×2, 4×2 or 5×2 in that cycle for three weeks, then repeat.
    2) Yes, if you don’t feel comfortable pulling from the floor, pull from the pins. That’s very smart and will keep your back healthy.
    3) For many BW exercises, explosive reps aren’t ideal because they require so much balance. For BW exercises, focus on tension not speed. That’s key.

  12. Thanks for the info Chad. I’ve been using the NMD leg workout from your previous blog, alternating between glute ham raises and assisted pistols as the last exercise so I can increase frequency, and it’s working great for me. If I want to center a workout around handstand pushups as the main/final lift for a session, what would you suggest for the start of the workout as preparation?

    Thanks

    CW: You need very little prep for the HSPU. I don’t do anything before a set, but my shoulders are very mobile and healthy. If you need prep, do a few fast push-ups, a few pull-ups, and activate the core with a few reps of the stir the pot exercise. That should do it.

  13. Hi Chad great info as always. Could you shed some light on rep/set scheme you prefere to use with those high tension exercises. Cheers!

    CW: It depends how long you can maintain the exercise. For exercises where you can sustain muscle tension for 10 seconds, 5 sets works well.

  14. Hi Chad,Could you do a video on cheat meals and the aftermath of your body’s reaction(such as bloating) to the cheat meal?

    CW: A video? You mean of me eating two pizzas and a gallon of ice cream? Cheat meals are good if they’re timed correctly. I’ll cover that in the future.

  15. A program says to deadlift, and side press 5 times a week for 2 sets of 5 reps each day. The first set is with 80% of your five rep maximum, and the second set is with 90% of the weight used on the first set. Then slowly increase the weight by five pounds each workout until you have done that for 8 to 10 workouts. Then you would start again with a weight 10 pounds more heavy then the first workout you did. My question for you is would a program like this fry my cns? Thank you for your time.

    CW: Yes.

  16. Chad, you always say the reason you can’t perform a heavy deadlift/squat/… for example daily is because of the loads that compress the spine. Now, my question is. Would it be possible to do squats/deadlifts/…. daily if you decompress your spine with e.g. hanging for 5+ minutes daily possibly with weights?

    CW: No benefit in doing those every day. It’s a huge risk. Three times per week is the limit. Yes, spinal decompression will help, but hanging upside down can cause a reflex contraction in the first few weeks, thus negating the benefit. Over time, though, it can help once your body adapts to the stress.

  17. Great post looking forward to the product on this subject you hinted at on T-nation!! Just wandering how you would apply this to female training, I’ve heard you use HFT to perfect the glutes, what exercise selection do you prefer in these situations?

    Thanks

    CW: The single leg hip raise (glute bridge) for 100 total reps, each leg, each day. In addition, single leg deads and reverse lunges should be part of the program 2-3x/week.

  18. Also, would you say the hand walkout is a good high tension exercise to add some muscle to the abdominals? if yes, how would you incorporate it?

    Thanks!

    CW: Yes, keep the set duration to 10 seconds. Do it with your knees off the ground for more resistance or wear a weighted vest.

  19. Hey Chad,

    Since the hip-belt squat does not compress the spine, why should we use traditional squats at all? Shouldn’t we just avoid traditional squats altogether?

    Or is a front squat necessary?

    CW: If you completely avoid spinal compression, you won’t build full body strength and bone density to its highest level. Don’t stop doing the deadlift or front squat, once per week is good.

  20. Thanks Chad,
    I have one more question. Do you think band pull aparts would be an appropriate subsitution for a horizontal row. I’m doing a lot of vertical pulling everyday (pull ups) and dont have access to my trx all the time, but can carry a band with me on the go. I feel that with the right tension it can mimic a lot of the shoulder movement in an inverted row for example. Would you suggest it? Thanks brotha!

    CW: Yes, that’s a good option when nothing else is available.

  21. Good article, Chad – Thanks!

    1) Is it necessary to keep the lower back arched on the hip belt squat?

    2) You mentioned dips. Do you also use bench dips or are those dangerous to the shoulder joint?
    How deep do you go on dips?

    Thanks again.

    CW: 1) Yes, always keep an arch in low back. 2) Avoid bench dips at all costs – there are much better/safer options such as regular dip or handstand push-up.

  22. Hey Chad, I am a big fan of your work, “Huge in a Hurry” inspired me to become a personal trainer, and the info from your articles have really set me apart from all of my coworkers who train senior citizens on bodybuilder body part splits! Thank you so much.

    I was just wondering if High-Tension Body-weight exercises are hard on connective tissues and joints in the same way that heavy free weight training can be?

    Is it okay to practice an exercise like the Glute-Ham Raise with a high frequency (everyday), or would you need to switch to other body-weight exercises that induce less tension (like the swiss-ball hamstring curl) throughout the training week?

    CW: Good question, and thanks for the kind words. Any resistance training can be hard on the joints if you use poor form, too much volume, etc. However, for BW exercises I haven’t seen any negative impact when you rest 48 hours between each workout. Don’t do the GHR every day, do it every other day and keep perfect form.

  23. a few questions popped into mind while i read this
    1) what makes these body weight exercises ‘high-tension’ over the standard strength building exercises. (squat, deadlift, military press) Those exercises require full body tension to execute properly and with good form. this leads to my second question…
    2)what is your definition of ‘high-tension’, in relation to this article and the exercises you prescribe.
    3)when you mentioned that some spinal compression is required, what is the reasoning behind this? spinal compression doesnt sound too pleasing, ha!
    4)how could the HSPU be used in an HFT program? I currently do mon/tues, thurs/fri splits. alternating lower, upper body days( eric cresseys show and go)
    -my goal basically is to build strength/power relative to my body weight, and this goal will remain the same for a long time. except my arm development is puny, and my chest is not nearly as big as i want it to be. (center of chest slops in, while the bottoms and outter regions are built up fairly well) sorry if that strayed away from the topic, but i feel like these ideas here could really give my muscles a much needed boost

    hopefully you can answer these questions for me
    keep up the great work, CW

    CW:
    1) Maximum motor unit recruitment of the targeted muscle groups instead of full body tension.
    2) Any non-machine exercise that can’t be sustained for more than 10 seconds of continuous tension.
    3) It’s unavoidable. Without some compression exercises you won’t strengthen your spine and bones and build full body strength.
    4) Do the HSPU every other day, at any time. Do 5 sets of as many reps as possible.

  24. CW, this is a truly fascinating discussion. I have been following your work since the early days at T-Nation, and you always make me think. If you’re still keen to answer questions, I had a few more:

    1. Would you consider heavy shrugs and farmer’s walk to also be fatigue-inducing spine loaders? I don’t know of a high-tension way one could simulate the positive multi-faceted benefits of a heavy farmer’s walk, which compresses the spine, big time.

    2. Could you elaborate on the mechanism for the enhanced fatigue? Is it because the nerves get compressed, and must be decompressed for the signals to fire rapidly and efficiently again? Or is it just the tremendous stability/bracing component needed to protect the spine, while simultaneously activating an enormous amount of the body’s musculature?

    3. How do Olympic lifters manage to train day after day, loading the spine repeatedly in every lift? Is this something that can be gradually increased, and adapted to?

    To be honest, Chad, I could probably write 10-20 more questions, so hurry up and publish the book already! Keep up the good work.

    CW: 1) Yes, big time.
    2) Good question, however, fatigue is about the most complex physiological process you can think of. The best scientists in the world can’t figure it out. So it’s hard to say. However, it makes sense that compressing the spine (the area where every motor nerve exits your body) is not going to respond well to major compression. Think of your nerves like a garden hose. Compress the garden hose and less water runs out the end, just like compressed nerves don’t work as well. Keep in mind, there are nerves in your spinal cord that provide sensory info and digestive control, too, so cramming them constantly must induce some type of fatigue.
    3) Decades of training, and constantly mixing the loads so they’re not always training with max weights.

  25. Good quality article as always, Chad. It’s great that you shifting a bit towards bodyweight strength training. We live in renaissance of old school bodyweight training. More and more people are getting interested in lost art of moving and holding your body. And it’s good to have such an expert with us.

    On the theme: just recently I’ve mixed up calisthenics and high-frequency training and got some amazing results about which you can read here: http://roughstrength.com/2011/09/how-to-gain-10-lbs-of-muscle-in-one-week-with-calisthenics/.

    Apart from that my experience shows that in some exercises working less than every day may be even counterproductive if you compare speed of strength gains in both approaches.

    Thanks for great read
    – Alex Zinchenko

    CW: Cool Alex. Thanks for stopping by.

  26. I read your article in Men’s Health Mag. this month where you lay out a 9 exercise full body workout that combines 3, 15 sec hold exercises for balance, 3 explosive exercises for 3-4 reps and 3 exercises using weights for 3-4 reps. You recommend that someone only do this 2 days per week with at least 2 days between workouts and you imply this is all anyone needs to build strength and size.
    I just found your web site today and have read some of your articles where you recommend many other exercise options that can be done multiple times per week.
    What would you recommend an in-shape 47 yr old (ectomorph) who has a lot of experience working out with the more traditional routines, but has always had trouble adding muscle?
    Thanks for your time and I look forward to spending more time on your site.

    CW: You can do that workout three times per week. For other options, check out my book Huge in a Hurry on Amazon.

  27. Hey chad how bout a article on a good gymnast ring routine?

    CW: I’m working on it. The videos take a lot of time.

  28. Chad, thanks for the article. I’m a big fan of the bw exercise routines you’ve given us over the past year and I’m eagerly awaiting your next book. In the mean time I had a few questions to run by you.

    Right now I’m on a new plp 60 day cycle(currently on day 22) and I’m doing blast-strap pushups, inverted rows(narrow, neutral grip), band pull-aparts and 1arm,1leg rdl’s. I’m not doing any pullups because I do heavy chinups 2x/week right now. I’m also doing the scapular depression exercise you posted on t-nation for two max sets 3x/week.

    I wanted to add something for my shoulders so last night after I finished all my other exercises last night I tried to do some handstand pushups. The hardest part about them was the blood rushing to my head. After I did a set of 5(my head didn’t quite reach the floor on any rep though) it felt like my ears were about to have blood shoot out of them. So here’s my questions:

    1) Is there a good way to get used to the blood filling my head? Or should I just start doing them?
    2) Should I try to do HSPU with the rest of my plp exercises or is 3x/week sufficient?
    3) Would it be too much volume to add in ghr’s 3x/week? I’m not nearly strong enough to do them(which is kind of why I want to start) so the best I can do is a few sets of lowering myself until that point in the rom that I just fall to the ground.
    4) This is completely off-topic but I figure I should just post here instead of posting in another article. For the “Adventures in Juicing” articles you published last year, is it important to juice the vegetables or can we just blend them and not bother separating the pulp?

    Thanks again for all the cool stuff you’ve published.

    CW: 1) Your body will get used to it.
    2) Either will work. Do what fits your time and recovery.
    3) Add in the GHR, it’ll only help.
    4) You can use a Vitamix but a regular blender won’t work. Try it in a regular blender and you’ll see what I mean.

  29. Chad, I tried some HSPU again tonight and the blood rushing to my head effect was much less of a problem. Actually, “crawling” off the wall was the hardest part. I think I’m gonna be ok with 5 sets 3x/week. One other thing I feel the need to ask(last one I promise). Is there any reason whatsoever that HSPU are a bad idea for people with lower back problems? I had surgery last Fall and it still bothers me to varying degrees on most days(but is improving).

    Thanks again.

    CW: No reason I can say to avoid HSPU with back problems. As long as it doesn’t aggravate your back it should be fine.

  30. Hey Chad,

    I’d like to incorporate some high-tension exercises on a daily basis as an “extra” workout (I’m thinking of PLP), in addition to my regular high-intensity full-body workouts.

    How many “reps” a day would be okay?
    I’m guessing around 4 times? 10 seconds of the exercise, rest 30-60. Then do it again another 3 times.

    I’m guessing this will give my CNS good practice without fatiguing it too much for my regular workout. I’m having a bit of trouble incorporating all the high-tension exercises that I think are important while keeping to a consistent and focused plan, all the while training for an upcoming kettlebell competition.

    Thanks, your articles and books are always enlightening.

    CW: Yes, don’t worry about reps as much as the time of the set. Do as many reps as you can in that 10s window. In other words, the number of reps will vary with different exercises.

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