10 Dec

Poliquin Principles: A Review


The late Charles Poliquin was a legendary coach and expert in the field of nutrition and strength training. His principles still influence coaches and athletes today. In the third edition of his book Poliquin Principles, he provides guidelines and advice on foundational training elements based upon scientific research, empirical evidence, and his own successes in working with elite athletes.  He calls these guidelines the Poliquin Principles. The context of this book is centered around bodybuilders, but the principles can be applied to any strength training program. In the first section of the book he defines the principles and in the second section, he deep dives into how to apply them. Below I have listed my key takeaways from reading this book. 

Section 1: Defining the Poliquin Principles 

Chapter 1: Reps

  • There is no magic number when it comes to the number of repetitions one should complete for an exercise. Repetitions depend on the condition of the athlete, the exercise in question, and the goal.
  • Rep ranges and training effect: 
    • Lower reps, in the range of 1-4, increase relative strength
    • Reps in the range of 6-8 increase maximal strength and hypertrophy gains
    • Reps in the range of 9-12 are the best hypertrophy gains
    • Higher reps, in the range of 13-20 increase strength endurance gains
  • Muscle fiber composition should be considered when selecting rep ranges for a specific exercise. 
    • Fast-twitch fibers, like those found in the gastrocnemius portion of the calf, respond best to lower reps.
    • Slow-twitch fibers, like those found in the soleus muscle of the ankle, respond best to higher reps in the 15-25 range.

Chapter 2: Sets

  • There should be an inverse relationship between the number of reps and sets per exercise. Thus, if you are performing high repetitions to achieve a certain level of stimulation for strength gains, low sets would be appropriate. However, if you are training low reps, higher sets are needed to achieve optimal volume. 
  • The number of sets that are performed should be individualized for optimal adaptation. Different individuals have different adaptation rates, thus requiring different amounts of volume. Additional factors that play to individualization include: gender, training age, and nutritional status.
  • Muscle composition is a key factor when selecting sets. Muscles that are fast-twitch, such as the hamstrings, respond better to more sets/less reps. Whereas the soleus muscle, which is inherently slow-twitch, responds better to fewer sets/more reps. 

Chapter 3: Tempo

  • Tempo can be described as the amount of time it takes to complete one repetition of an exercise. 
  • One variable that tempo impacts is the time under tension, or the amount of time muscles contract to complete a set. To achieve maximal muscle mass, muscles should contract for 20-70 seconds per set.
  • Utilizing tempo allows you to control the training stimulus, and to ensure consistency between sets you should count the seconds at the same speed as a clock.

Chapter 4: Rest Intervals

  • Rest intervals should be long enough to allow the central nervous system to recover almost completely, but not so long that you lost the post-tetanic potential effect. 
  • Similarly to sets and reps, there is an inverse relationship between rest and reps. The less reps you perform, the more rest is needed, and the more reps you perform, the less rest is needed. Most American exercise physiologists recommend a 1:5 work/rest ratio.  
  • Three important variables to consider when selecting rest time: training experience (beginners need less rest), muscle mass and strength levels, and aerobic fitness. 

Chapter 5: Frequency, Duration and Volume

  • Frequency is recovery, muscle-group, exercise, and repetition dependent. 
  • Longer workouts, exceeding the one hour mark, have been associated with decreased androgen levels. Androgen levels are correlated with strength gains, and training under decreased androgen levels is counterproductive. Thus, it is best to keep workouts, not including warm up and cool down, to one hour or less. 
  • Volume is inversely related to intensity. When working with heavier, intense loads, volume is less and when the loads are lighter and less intense, volume increases. 

    Chapter 6: Exercise Selection and Exercise Order

    • There is no one best exercise, in fact, most exercises are sufficient. The key to reaping the benefits of said exercise is to ensure you are completing sufficient volume and intensity of loading. 
    • Supersets are where you pair two exercises into one full set with rest in between. Supersets are popular for saving time in the gym, and because you can train one muscle group, rest briefly, and train another. However, supersets can also be a great tool to manipulate the training effect of specific exercises. One way to do so is by using pre-exhaustion or post-exhaustion supersets.
    • In a pre-exhaustion superset, you perform an isolation exercise followed by a compound movement. First fatiguing the muscles by isolating them, and then further exhausting them with a multi-joint movement. 
    • Post-exhaustion supersets are the inverse of pre-exhaustion. You first perform a compound movement, followed by an isolation exercise.

    Chapter 7: Recovery

    • It’s important to take adequate rest between training sessions. Too little rest and strength will diminish, too much rest and gains will fade. 
    • Longer workouts have been shown to be immunosuppressive. If you’ve ever overtrained, you’ve probably experienced this by frequently getting colds or viral diseases.
    • Proper nutrition is vital to recovery. Ensuring you have enough food and high-quality food is important to support your training and not hinder strength gains. 

    Chapter 8: Advanced Training Methods

    • Two key methods described in this chapter are drop sets and eccentric training.
    • Research shows that eccentric training produces the most muscle mass. Slow eccentric training should be used in periods leading up to competition, whereas, fast eccentric training should be reserved for competitive periods. One example of a slow eccentric contraction, is lowering your body weight for a count of 30 seconds in the chin-up. One example of a fast eccentric contraction is sprinting. 
    • Drop sets are where you perform an exercise for max reps at a given weight, and then you lower the weight for subsequent sets. This allows you to recruit different muscle fibers, thus leading to muscle growth. 

    Chapter 9: The Kaizen Principle

    • The Kaizen principle is used in all areas of Japanese life, and means “Constant and never-ending improvement”.
    • To apply the Kaizen principle in strength training, Poliquin suggests a few different methods including: drop sets, wave loading cycles, and modifying strength curves. 
    • Wave loading cycles are where repetitions of an exercise are either ascending or descending in order for a number of waves. This method of training actually stimulates the nervous system in a way that allows you to lift heavier weights as the workout progresses.
    • Modifying strength curves allows you to overload a specific portion of an exercise by making specific portions of the range of motion more or less difficult. This is a great way to strengthen a muscle across the full range of range of motion.

    Section 2: Applying the Poliquin Principles

    Chapter 10: Quads

    • Squats are said to be the king of all exercises, but the deadlift is a close second.
    • Front squats are a great way to measure lower body strength. Cheating the movement is much harder than in a back squat and the movement also measures your flexibility. Research shows that front squats work the quads better and put less stress on the knees. 
    • The squat is a great exercise for improving knee stability, but machines that try to duplicate the squat end up placing significant stress on the knee. Smith machines are an example of this because of how they move the barbell in a strict upright position, making it near impossible to squat in a natural manner.
    • The best exercise to complement squats are step-ups. Single leg exercise has been shown to result in greater progress in squats, than squatting alone. 

    Chapter 11: Hamstrings

    • For fully developed hamstring muscles, your workouts should include exercises for both the hip extension function and knee flexion function.
    • Ensuring a hamstring/quadricep ratio of 66% is important for knee joint integrity. One easy way to test this ratio is to measure your front squat against your back squat. Ideally, your front squat should be 85% of your back squat. 
    • The hamstrings are composed of mainly fast-twitch fibers, and thus respond best to lower reps/heavier weights. This is why it is good to perform lower reps and multiple sets when working the hamstring muscles.

    Chapter 12: Calves

    • Genetics play a small role in calf development. Namely, the length of the muscle belly. The lower the muscle belly sits on your bone, the greater your potential for developing larger calves. Nonetheless, using appropriate training protocols, one can expect gains of 1.25 inches in calf circumference in as little as 8 weeks. 
    • Ways to avoid sticking points in calf training are: utilize appropriate rep schemes, pause at the bottom position, reduce lifting speed, vary foot placement, stretch your calves, use unilateral training, perform calf raises on a hack squat machine, and train the muscles used in dorsiflexion.
    • Calf training involves high frequency and high volume training to glean results. Given this, Poliquin suggests training them twice a day with one workout containing high sets and the other containing low sets.

    Chapter 13: Chest

    • Varying the angles on bench press is necessary to achieve maximum chest development. Incline bench press is suggested for developing the upper pecs, whereas a flat bench is suggested for the lower pecs. 
    • When looking to improve your bench press, you should not just look at weaknesses in your chest muscles, but also your upper back muscles. If your upper back is weaker than your pecs and triceps, it will hold you back from progressing on the bench press. 
    • If you’ve identified that your triceps are the weak point in your bench press, you should consider performing dips. Per research by Per A. Tesch, Ph.D. dips develop the triceps better than the close grip bench press. You can get creative with dip training by utilizing a reverse grip or adding elements such as chains or weights attached to a belt.

    Chapter 14: Shoulders

    • Pressing has many benefits including: developing the traps, delts, and triceps. It also boosts results in the bench press and can help prevent shoulder injuries. Other notable pros include being a great conditioner for the low back and core muscles. 
    • One of the major causes of shoulder injuries is due to muscular imbalances between the shoulders and the external rotators. To prevent shoulder injuries, spend a few minutes a week performing exercises that work the external rotators. 
    • Including compound movements that work the shoulder muscles is sufficient training for most people. However, if your shoulders need specific attention, utilizing pre- and post-exhaustion exercise routines can produce great results. 

    Chapter 15: Upper Back

    • Chin-Ups are a superior exercise to developing the upper back musculature. Chin-Ups work the latissimus dorsi, the deltoids, rhomboids, teres major, the pectoralis major, the trapezius, and the elbow flexors. Chin-Ups require you to move your entire bodyweight and the stabilization required to do so involves more muscle mass. 
    • To add variety to your chin-ups, you can vary the grip used or add load to the movement. Different grip variations of the chin-up allow you to overload a specific aspect of the movement. Variations to consider: narrow parallel-grip chin-up, narrow supinated-grip chin-up, medium parallel-grip chin-up, sternum chin-up, narrow pronated pull-up, and the subscapularis pull-up.

    Chapter 16: Arms

    • Planning variety in your arm training is essential. Different exercises emphasize different muscles in the arm. It’s good to utilize exercises that work the low, mid, and upper range of the arms.
    • When training the arms, it’s key to train the muscles that utilize more motor units first. One easy way to determine which exercises these are, is to look at how much weight you will be lifting. Typically, exercises where you are able to lift more weight, recruit more motor units. 
    • It’s important to stress form when performing arm exercises, and not weight. Improper technique does not target the muscles properly, and can lead to injury--both of which stall progress. 

    Chapter 17: Abdominals

    • The lower abs are key in maintaining proper posture. Excessive curvature of the lower lumbar can lead to back pain, and this may be due to weak lower abdominals. 
    • There are a lot of fancy abdominal exercises, and if you search “core workout” on google, there will be an abundance of materials. However, the fact is, one does not need to perform a crunch or a sit-up to have rock solid abs. Full body lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and power cleans develop impressive abs. 
    • The lower abs tend to be the weakest abdominal muscle, followed by the obliques, and then the upper abs. It’s best to train the abdominal muscles in order of weakness to strongest. 

    Chapter 18: Nutrition

    • In this chapter, Poliquin lists his 14 principles of good nutrition. Of these 14, the three I believe to be the most impactful are:
      • Eliminate all processed foods from your diet
        • Processed foods have added sugar, artificial ingredients, trans fat and refined carbohydrates
        • Consuming processed foods is the main cause of obesity
      • Drink at least three liters of water a day
        • It is suggested to drink 0.6-0.7 ounces of water per body weight. 
        • Water is essential to maintaining and gaining strength
      • Consume enough fiber
        • It is recommended that you consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day for optimal health and digestion. Low fiber intake has been linked to poor insulin health. 

    Chapter 19: Supplements

    • Poliquin discusses the 10 reasons why someone would take supplements. Below I have listed what I believe to be the most important three. 
      • Insufficient nutrients in our food. In today's world, our food is genetically modified and prepared in a way that often destroys the nutrients contained in food. In order to get the nutrients we need, supplementation is sometimes necessary.
      • Environmental toxins. There are many pollutants that are released into our water and air. Many of these pollutants can be detoxified by natural supplements.
      • Insomnia and stress. Supplements such as phosphatidylserine, magnesium sulfate, and vitamin E can help people fall asleep and stay asleep.  

    If you’re reading this and would like to learn more about how to apply these principles in your training to reach your goals, schedule a free strategy session with a professional coach below! 

    In Health, 

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