Charles Poliquin Explains How To Keep Getting Stronger

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Each month strength training expert Charles Poliquin gives advice on how to get the most from your training, tackling topical issues from the world of health and fitness head on. Unafraid to say things that go against the grain, Poliquin is a no-nonsense trainer with a fondness for evidence-based research and good old fashioned hard work. This month Poliquin addresses training plateaus and what you should be doing to to overcome them.

When you’re building muscle there are a lot of effective rep schemes, but the problem with all of them is that they’re only as good as the time it takes for your body to adapt to them.
For total beginners, almost any set and rep range will guarantee progress for four to six weeks. But after that they would be doing the exercise equivalent of getting stuck in a revolving door. At the other end of the scale, advanced athletes might have to change their programmes every week, if not every session. If any so-called expert promises you a lifetime of continual improvement from doing the same routine day after day, they’re lying. Not only would your body adapt and your gains plateau, but you would probably quit because you’d be bored senseless by it.

Set strategy

I like set/rep schemes that are mentally stimulating and physically challenging but more than that, I like schemes that are effective. One of my favourite progressive set/rep protocols is the Five Per Cent Solution. Whether you are a wet-behind-the-ears novice or He-Man, it gets your heart rate going and your muscles growing.

Incremental gains

So how does it work? In a nutshell, you’ll increase the amount of resistance by five percent while reducing the number of reps by one each time. After you recover from the sixth workout, you’ll have increased your strength in each lift by approximately ten percent. The reason it works is that the training variable to which you adapt the fastest is the number of reps you perform per set. The Five Per Cent Solution takes advantage of this fact by changing the number of reps you do each session. This means your muscles never know what to expect, so they have no choice but to keep growing. Here are the key things to bear in mind.


Don’t do more than one or two exercises per body part. You’ll be doing five sets per exercise, so any more than that in a session is too taxing. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: choose compound exercises that recruit a lot of muscle mass. Rows, squatsdeadlifts and presses are the best choices.


Make sure you work every body part once every four or five days. Here is one possible example. Day 1: chest and back. Day 2: legs and abs. Day 3: day off. Day 4: shoulders and arms. Day 5: day off. This protocol is designed to be used for seven workouts per body part. After that your body will have adapted and it’s time for a new protocol.


For simplicity, let’s assume you want to increase muscle mass and you can squat 50kg for ten reps. Start the first workout doing ten reps. See the box below for how the progression would work over this seven-workout cycle.


Because your focus is on muscle building, or hypertrophy, you need each set to last at least 40 seconds. So, if you are doing ten reps, stick to a tempo of 4-0-1-0, which is four seconds on the lowering phase, no pause at the bottom, one second to lift, then no pause at the top. This means five seconds per rep, so a total of 50 seconds per set.


To allow your muscles to recover, and give your central nervous system time to activate your high-threshold muscle fibres (those responsible for muscle gains), rest for three to four minutes between sets. You may find it difficult to take that much rest but your discipline will pay big dividends in the long run.

Final thoughts

In order to perform this programme properly, keep a detailed journal of the exact number of sets and reps performed, loads used and rest intervals taken.  How it works

You increase the load by five percent for two workouts in a row, while reducing the target reps by one for each weight increase. Then, after the third workout, you’ll reduce the weight by five percent but go back to the starting number of reps. And so on.

Workout 1 - 5 sets, 10 reps, 50kg
Workout 2 - 5 sets, 9 reps, 52.5kg
Workout 3 - 5 sets, 8 reps, 55kg
Workout 4 - 5 sets, 10 reps, 52.5kg
Workout 5 - 5 sets, 9 reps, 55kg
Workout 6 - 5 sets, 8 reps, 57.5kg
Workout 7 - 5 sets, 10 reps, 55kg

Charles Poliquin

One of the world's premier strength coaches, Charles Poliquin has successfully trained professional athletes and Olympians worldwide. Poliquin writes a monthly column for Men's Fitness about how to train as effectively as possible.