Powerbuilding Programs: How Much Assistance Work Do You Need?

In my previous Unf*ck series video, I talked about the 80/20 rule for supplementary work: roughly eighty percent of your recovery resources should be spent on the competition lifts, and the other twenty percent to supplemental work. Remember, this is recovery resources, not volume or intensity: you can do 100 reps to failure on barbell curls, and that is still probably less difficult to recover than from one heavy set of 5 on deadlift.

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That 80/20 rule really only holds true when our goals are entirely strength-focused. In that case, the sole purpose of supplementary work is to develop sufficiently balanced musculature to prevent injury or imbalances when performing the competition lifts. When our goals are more diverse, though – when they include size as well as strength – then the balance of supplementary work needs to change. (That’s because training for size generally requires a bit more volume, and because we probably have more muscles to train. Your medial delts might not make all that much difference when you’re only trying to build your bench press, but they’re pretty important when you want to build your X-frame, too.)

So, how much supplemental work should we do when training for both size and strength? To answer that, let’s step back for a minute and try to answer a more general question.

In my graduate work, I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time chatting with Dr. Terry Todd about his experience as a strength athlete and coach. If you don’t know Terry, here’s a quick rundown of his accomplishments:

  • He won a national championship in Olympic weightlifting in 1963 (back when the U.S. was a still an international power in the weightlifting world)
  • He won back-to-back national championships in powerlifting in 1964 and 1965
  • He coached several world-caliber lifters, including Jan Todd, Lamar Gant and Mark Henry
  • He wrote for Sports Illustrated and did color commentary for powerlifting competitions on major broadcast networks
  • He directs the Arnold Strongman Classic show

In short, Terry knows his stuff.

Terry has frequently explained to me that one of the biggest secrets to becoming a good lifter and a good coach involves knowing the right amount of work to do on any given day, and in my experience, that’s absolutely true. Even though the very core of programming involves planning your sets, reps, and weights to use each workout, I’ve found that I’m more successful when I treat my programming as a guide rather than a Bible. Most other elite lifters I’ve talked to do the same. At some point during a training session, you realize that you’ve done enough, and you stop there, even if you’re scheduled to do more work.

(Keep in mind, this often only works in one direction. If you’ve completed all your scheduled work and feel like you should do more, you usually should not do more. Good programming includes “undertraining days” for a reason. While there are times when you need to push through a tough workout even when you feel the need to stop, those are more rare. This also has a lot to do with your temperament. If you’re the kind of person who loves to go balls to the wall all the time, then you’re going to need to pull back more often. If you’re the kind of person to slack off a bit, you’re going to need to push through more often.)

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Like I said, by the time you get to the advanced or elite level, you’ve developed a pretty good intuition for how much work to do in a given session. Until you get there, you’re probably best off just sticking with the program as written regardless of how you feel (and maybe, if you’re feeling off, allowing yourself a little bit of wiggle room when it comes to the weights, like we discussed in the relative intensity episode).

If you really want to get your feet wet, I think a good rule of thumb is that it’s time to stop when your performance starts to decrease. In other words, if you’re doing sets of 5 on squat with 500 lbs, and your first set is pretty easy, and your second set is a lot harder, then 2 sets is probably enough, and you should move on to your next exercise. If your second set is about the same difficulty as the first, or even easier, then you should do a third set. It’s actually more complicated than that, and even though I don’t like relying only on RPEs for tracking your training, I think Mike Tuchscherer’s concept of fatigue stops is really helpful here.

For supplementary work, it’s a bit different – which you’re probably noticing is a trend by now. Instead of judging by the difficulty of any particular set, I think it’s really useful to judge based on the pump that you’re getting. If you do a set and your pump is getting more and more intense, then you should keep going and milk that for all it’s worth. If you think you’ve basically maxed out your pump, or you start to get a bit flatter, then go ahead and call it and move on to the next exercise.

In fact, I don’t even think the number of sets and reps matters all that much for supplementary muscle-building work in a strength routine: I think it’s more useful to judge based on the pump alone. That will help you to do the right amount of work without doing too much.

If you’re doing a pure bodybuilding program, it’s different still. In that case, I still think it’s useful to think about the pump when evaluating how much work to do on a given day, but you can’t use that in isolation.

Let’s say your lats are really lagging: in that case, you probably shouldn’t stop doing pulldowns just because you’re not getting a better pump – in fact, doing that is probably exactly why your lats are lagging in the first place. Instead, you’ve got to find a creative way to keep the pump growing. Maybe you change grips, or add bands, or something else.

Note that I’m not saying the pump is the be-all and end-all of bodybuilding programming. In fact, if there’s one be-all, end-all, and it’s progressive overload, but when you’re concerned about muscular growth, I think that you’re better off considering more than just the weight on the bar. The pump is a good indicator based off those other, more intangible factors, that influence muscle growth, and that’s why I suggest using it here.

So, does that mean the sets and reps don’t matter? Actually, yes: in the context of a strength-focused program where muscular growth is a secondary goal, I think it is more useful to go by feel than to plan a specific number of sets and reps to use on any given day. This only applies to supplemental work, not your competition work. That’s very, very important. It also only implies to a “powerbuilding” program. When muscular size becomes the primary goal, things change yet again – but we’ll get to that in another episode.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.