Home Blog 5 Ways to Do Less and Get More from Your Strength Training Programs

5 Ways to Do Less and Get More from Your Strength Training Programs

Written on September 7, 2012 at 7:26 am, by Eric Cressey

Whenever someone talks about a plateau they've hit with their strength training programs, the first question they usually ask is "What should I do?" In reality, the answer isn't just what one should do, but what one shouldn't do, as well.  Here are five examples of how you can get more out of your strength training programs by doing less.

1. Leave the gym sooner.

Tony Gentilcore is one of my best friends.  We co-founded Cressey Sports Performance, were roommates for two years, and he were groomsmen in one another's weddings. 

We also have been training partners since 2005. And, in just about every training session we've ever shared, I've finished before Tony.  Tony absolutely loves to train, so he's always adding stuff at the end: things like conditioning, accessory work, curls and lateral raises.  This stuff is all well and good in the battle to improve his physique, but it's always attenuated his strength gains.

As a frame of reference, back in 2005, my best raw bench press and deadlift were 250 and 510, respectively.  They're now up to 365 and 640.  In that same time period, Tony has gone from roughly 250 to 300 on the bench press, and 500 to 580 on the deadlift.

That said, make no mistake about it: Tony is still a pretty strong dude - and he walks around at sub-10% body fat year round and could be a Men's Health cover model body with a week of dieting.  He trades off some of his strength gains for the volume it takes to build the physique he wants.  I, on the other hand, trade off some of the physique stuff to enhance my strength. 

We take these considerations into mind whenever we write programs for clients. It's all about individual preference, and your goals may shift over time. If you're looking to get stronger faster, though, look to eliminate some fluff and focus on putting your eggs in the "quality, not quantity" basket.

2. Quit pairing so many things up.

We use a lot of "fillers" in the strength and programs we write for athletes.  For instance, they may do a set of yoga plex to work on hip and thoracic spine mobility between sets of trap bar deadlifts.  Athletes have so many competing demands that you can't just ignore everything else while you work to build strength, or else you'll run out of training time. 

In some of our general fitness clients who have a lot of mobility restrictions to work through, but also need to drop body fat and build work capacity, we may use trisets, pairing up 1-2 strength/stability exercises with a mobility drill.  They get a little bit of everything, and they keep moving.

You know what, though?  None of the elite caliber powerlifters and Olympic lifters I've met do this.  They lift, and then stand (or sit) around between sets.  They might not move as well in a variety of contexts as some other athletes I encounter, but they're damn strong.

Look at your program and weight the benefits of adding filler work between sets.  For most folks, the benefits definitely outweigh any subtle reduction in strength you'd see on the main strength exercise.  If, however, your goal is to squat 800 pounds, you don't need to be doing a set of chops or lifts between sets; you're better off resting and contemplating the challenge ahead, then hitting your assistance work thereafter.

3. Shorten up your movement training and conditioning.

A lot of people want to get stronger, but don't want it to interfere with their ability to train for sprinting, agility, or conditioning.  The quick and easy response to these folks is to simply pare back on how much you do with these somewhat competing demands.

If you're accustomed to running 200-400m sprints for conditioning, shorten it to 50-100m and take a bit longer for recovery between sets.

If you normally sprint three times a week, cut back to 1-2 sessions just to maintain what you've built as you add strength to the equation.

If you're used to doing 10-12 sets of agility work in a training session, cut it in half and put it during your warm-up before a strength training session.

Personally, a big chunk of my conditioning actually takes place on the rowing machine in my basement.  I'll just hit 3-5 rounds of 200-500m (anywhere from 30s to 120s) at a once or twice a week frequency.

4. Go to a lower rep range with your main strength exercise of the day.

This sounds like a no brainer, but you'd be amazed at how many intermediate to advanced lifters plug away with 4x6 and 5x5 rep schemes, but can't possibly understand why their strength levels aren't improving.  So, here's a good general guideline:

Lifting really heavy weights (>90% of 1RM) for few reps can get you stronger.  Lifting lighter weights (40-70% of 1RM) for few reps with great bar speed can also get you stronger.  Being in the middle (70-90%) and doing more reps at a slower bar speed often winds up being like riding two horses with one saddle.

There are two take-home points here.  First, regardless of the weight on the bar, your intent should always be to be as fast concentrically (lifting) as possible.  Second, doing sets of five or more reps isn't going to have a great neural benefit for strength improvements, although the volume may help you to gain body weight as a means to build strength. Save the higher rep stuff for your assistance work.

5. Deload.

A line I heard from Kelly Baggett back in the early 2000s has always stuck out in my mind:

Fatigue masks fitness.

If it didn't, we'd all be able to match (or exceed) our personal records in every single training session.  That may be the case when you're a complete beginner, but it's certainly not once you get some experience under your belt.  If you find you aren't getting stronger, try taking some time off and increasing the amount of recovery-oriented strategies - naps, massage, compression - you employ.  You might just find that you bounce back with a PR in a matter of days.

These are just five examples of how subtle modifications to your strength training program can yield big results.  They do, however, underscore the importance of having a versatile strength and conditioning program that can be modified to suit almost any goal.  To that end, I'd encourage you to check out The High Performance Handbook

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28 Responses to “5 Ways to Do Less and Get More from Your Strength Training Programs”

  1. Jim Says:

    Great tips here. Sometimes you just have to keep it simple and focus on what really matters. Cheers.

  2. Kris Crepeau Says:

    Great stuff Eric!

    Always learn a lot from your posts. Show and Go is a must have for any trainers library!


  3. R. Smith Says:


    To your first point, I’ve noticed the shorter my training, the more intense (and productive) it is overall. If it exceeds 70 minutes (incl. foam rolling, mob drills and strength training), I spend some time looking at what I did wrong.

    One of the biggest takeaways (and there have been many) from your programming is the more time I spend in the higher rep ranges for main lifts, the weaker I get. For example, 5×5 and 4×6 get my squat and deadlift no where. 2×1, 2×2 and 3×1 have proved invaluable.


  4. Michael Thompson Says:


    I’ve seen many other notable strength coaches out there recommend doing concentric only plyo’s (box jump) between warm up sets of squats or deadlifts. To quote Kelly Baggett, “The only different in jumping and sprinting is one’s vertical and the other is horizontal.”

    Does that mean it is possible to pair your 50-100m sprints between your warm-up sets?



  5. Jordan Syatt Says:

    Awesome post, Eric!

  6. James Says:


    I have a big question about the Yoga Plex; when I do it, I reach back with the arm opposite the trailing leg (the inverse of what you are doing above) because I can feel a much greater stretch in my hip flexors.

    Your thoughts on my version versus yours?

    Thank you

  7. Constantine Says:


    Can you give some more specific ideas for point 4? Or maybe give a link to another article you’ve written about this?

    I’ve been trying to go into lower rep ranges to get stronger, but sometimes I feel a get afraid I’m not getting enough volume in to create strength gains.


  8. Bob Powell Says:

    Interesting Point #4. I’m doing the 5×5 and hit a wall on my squats at 205. I can do the 25 rep total, but having a hard time progressing. So the other day, I loaded 215 on the bar and did 3×3. I wonder if the mental aspect came into play, whereas I’m doing more volume but know I won’t be doing 5×5 of them. I did the same on the deadlift 5×5, where I was up to 240, but increased it to 258 for 3×3. I think what I’m going to do now is 3×3 for those two compounds and when it start getting comfortable, add 5 lbs on and resume 5×5. Thanks for tips. Great info! BTW, I’ll be 65 next month.

  9. Dilan Says:

    Dude you are f*kin STRONG. Batman strong.

  10. K. Cap Says:

    Great article Eric

    Is there an app or software you use to keep track of your clients’ progress that you would recommend?

  11. Ray McCarthy Says:


    You know I am a long time fan of what you write. I like this piece. For athletes seasons change, for High school and college kids where they are in the semester can workload at school can make dramatic changes AND for personal training clients well “LIFE” changes… these tips are helpful for all.
    Thanks for sharing… see you at your seminar.

    Ray McCarthy

  12. Eric Cressey Says:


    Thanks for the note. Give this a read, too:


  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Ha! Thanks, Dilan.

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    K. Cap,

    Have you checked out Fitocracy? Awesome resource!


  15. Eric Cressey Says:


    I don’t know that I’d put it there, simply because there is a bit more of a metabolic component to running 50-100m. I’d just put them right before strength training.

    We do, however, sometimes pair heavy sled pushes with sprint starts.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:


    Have you checked out Show and Go? Some good options in there.

    Stage system (2×2,2×4, etc) is always good.

    Singles over 90% are an option.

    Multiple sets of 2-3 reps are solid as well.

    You’ll make up your volume on the assistance work. The heavy stuff is just about straining for the neural benefit.

  17. Constantine Says:


    Thanks for the response.

    I think I might try Show and Go. I have your old Maximum Strength book and I’ve made good progress just revamping the way I pair exercises, dividing up my workouts and being more consistent.

    However, I definitely feel like I’m starting to hit sticking points on some movements, while I’m still going up in others. I want to keep up the good momentum I have now and keep getting stronger. Maximum Strength took me over 335lbs on my deadlift, 275lbs on my squat, and 205 on my bench in about 6 months, with all that seems to be offered in Show and Go, maybe investing will push me through another growth spurt.


  18. Eric Cressey Says:


    Not uncommon. You’re just driving some hip external rotation on the trailing leg with that reach.

  19. James Says:


    Thank you for the response. I will reach with both arms during the exercise as I feel like I could benefit from both versions.

    Thanks again!


  20. Joe Says:

    Nice blog. I was especially interested in the first point and how long it can take to increase maximal strength, even when you’re working to that goal (which I’m not, I’m more like Tony- want to be strong but also look a certain way).
    It reminds me to be patient and just try and do it the right way.

  21. SNL Says:

    Hello – love your site; first-time ever question (forgive me please if it departs slightly from your main message): “…and could be a Men’s Health cover model body with a week of dieting”. What would that “week of dieting” look like? Thanks and regards

  22. Sara Says:

    Hi Eric,

    It is an excellent post. I enjoyed reading the stuff and got the insights of effective fitness training. The ideas here are fantastic to start with. Hope you will provide with more such great ideas in your subsequent posts. I am waiting to read more on the topic.

  23. Philippe Orlando Says:

    Now what do you think of some official position, such as the one held by the ACSM that says that first you need to build mass before doing less than 5 reps per sets? And according to them you build mass first by doing body building type of work, which is 12-12 reps with less than 1’30” or rest between sets. Do this for 16 weeks, then decrease number of reps for another 16 weeks, around 6-8 then another 16 weeks with sets using less than 5 reps. According to them, doing sets with less than 5 reps is trying to go heavier without having any muscle tissue capable to handle it. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong. I’m asking you what you think. Thanks

  24. Victoria Says:

    I’ve just started following you and am currently in phase 2 of your high performance handbook. I’m loving this e-book because of the library of great exercises and also because it makes me do stuff I don’t necessarily like to do and/or avoid programming for myself. As a physical therapist who has been practicing for 13 years and is pretty well versed in strength and conditioning, I’m very impressed with your level of knowledge and am learning some good stuff from you! You know more about how to move well than most PTs,chiros and trainers. I use manual therapy, Pilates, and resistance training to rehab patients and am pleasantly surprised by how much similarity there is between the movements/exercises you and I both use. Thank you!

  25. Frank DiMeo Says:

    Very solid advice!

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thank you, Victoria!  Glad you’re enjoying it!

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Phillippe,

    I disagree. The problem with working in the 12-15 rep range with beginners is that technique invariably breaks down and they learn bad habits. You can train with lighter weights (as light as 40% of 1RM) and still get strength gains in this crowd.  Just leave a bit in the “hole” so that they can’t get into bad movement patterns.

  28. Zac Glowa Says:

    You brought up some interesting points Eric. Great post!

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