Simple Strength for Difficult Times Part Two: Get Even Stronger in Quarantine

When I wrote the article “Simple Strength for Difficult Times” I outlined an 8-week plan, confident that within two months we would be all back to our gyms and our regular life. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened yet. Most of us are still under lockdown and many gyms all across the world are still closed.

As I’m writing this many of those who started the plan are approaching the final weeks and have already been asking me what the next steps are once completed. I actually started the plan three weeks before the article was published, and I had already been thinking for a while about potential options for a sequel.

The right idea came to my mind while I was in the process of designing a plan for Kateřina Lisová, a friend from Czech Republic who is also a StrongFirst Instructor and a very accomplished fighter. To make a long story short, Kateřina discovered she suffers from a rare mitochondrial disease that no longer allows her to push her glycolytic system hard. If she does, it might accelerate mitochondrial death leading to myofibrillar disruption further compromising her skeletal muscle function.

Given her current situation Kateřina has been advised to train only in an anaerobic alactic or aerobic fashion. This means short duration, high power output, or long duration, low power output respectively and is commonly referred to as A+A training. This led her to give up competitive fighting along with some training modalities she used to enjoy, but she is an athlete with a very competitive mindset, who needs to challenge herself with a goal to be motivated to carry on her training. She’s definitely not the type of person who would ever give up.

After a team discussion with her sports medicine doctor, Jiri Dostal, Pavel, Brett Jones and, me, Kateřina decided to commit to a pure strength achievement, and choose to train for the Iron Maiden Challenge. The rest of the team are providing Kateřina with aerobic training advice aimed to preserve her mitochondrial health, I was in charge of designing her strength plan.

As you might be aware, the Iron Maiden Challenge consists in three events, the pistol, the military press, and the weighted pullup, all performed for one rep with a 24kg kettlebell. So, a squat, a press, and a pull…hmmm… As I finalized the plan for Kateřina I realized that its foundations, as far as for template and algorithm, would be a perfect fit for the sequel of the “Simple Strength for Difficult Times” plan. I had to apply several edits dictated by the sake of consistency and continuity with the previous plan, but at the end I was able to finalize the 8-week plan that I’m about to share.

I am, of course, looking forward to everyone being out of lockdown and back to their gyms and regular life—healthier and stronger than ever—long before the next 8 weeks. And as a matter of fact, this plan is also perfectly suited to regular training with a full choice of equipment.

The Plan

Like the previous plan, this one is also based upon three movement patterns: one squat, one press, and one pull. The table below presents the template of the plan, which you will have to customize according to the equipment you have at hand and your skill and strength levels.

In the initial plan, you stuck to the same weights and exercises at all times and varied only the volume (number of repetitions). This phase of the plan will use not one, but three different weights, thereby varying both intensity and volume for more dramatic results. If your gear selection is limited, you could choose one or two variations in the exercise group. For example, a pullup, a chin-up, and a kettlebell row would be “heavy”, “medium”, and “light” pulling motions respectively.

How to Customize the Plan

For each one of the movement patterns, according to your strength and skill level and the available equipment, you may pick one or more kettlebell, barbell, dumbbell or bodyweight exercises. The table below presents a list of options. You might have more choices than those presented in the table, depending of the equipment you have at hand.

You will make your choices so that for each one of the movement patterns you will be able to train under three different intensity zones:

  1. 2-6TRM—Heavy
  2. 7-11TRM—Medium
  3. 12-16TRM—Light

If you are unsure about what TRM means, check this article before moving forward.

According to the list above, you will select one weight, exercise or exercise variation that allows you to complete 2-6 perfect repetitions to “technical” exhaustion, one weight, exercise or exercise variation that allows you to complete 7-11 perfect repetitions and one weight, exercise or exercise variation that allows you to complete 12-16 perfect repetitions. Just to be clear, “technical exhaustion” means your form is perfect. PERFECT. You do not dig deep and grind an ugly rep or two out and risk injury.

Here are some examples:

Mr. White has a full set of kettlebells. In the one arm kettlebell military press he can complete 5 perfect reps to exhaustion with a 40kg, 9 perfect reps to exhaustion with a 36kg, and 12 perfect reps to exhaustion with a 32kg. He chooses to always use this exercise as his press, as the weights in his possession cover all of the three intensity zones.

Mrs. Brown has a pullup bar and can complete 3 perfect bodyweight pullups and 7 perfect bodyweight chin-ups. She also has some kettlebells and can complete 12 rows with 16kg. She chooses the bodyweight pullup for her heavy intensity zone, the bodyweight chin-up for her medium intensity zone, and the kettlebell row for her light intensity zone.

Mr. Black has double kettlebells up to 32kg, plus one 36kg and one 40kg, and can complete 5 perfect pistols with 40kg, 9 perfect pistols with 28kg and 12 double kettlebell front squats with 32kg. He can also complete 3 perfect handstand pushups, 8 perfect reps with 36kg in the one arm kettlebell military press, and 14 perfect reps with 32kg in the double kettlebell military press. Finally, he can complete 4 perfect weighted pullups with 24kg and 7 with 16kg and 12 bodyweight pullups. Mr. Black chooses the pistol for the heavy and medium intensity zones of his squat pattern and the double kettlebell front squat for the light intensity zone. He also chooses the handstand pushup for the heavy intensity zone of his press pattern, the one arm kettlebell military press for the medium, and the double kettlebell military press for the light. Finally, he picks the pullup as his pull pattern, for all of the three intensity zones.

Mr. Pink…no, there is no Mr. Pink around here.

Once you have picked your exercises and weights that fit into the three intensity zones, it’s time that you select the appropriate repetition ladders. You will do that according to your TRMs and the table below.

Here’s an example with Mr. Black’s exercise choices and numbers.

Please take the time to test your TRM with each weight and exercise and/or exercise variation accurately. It will be crucial to selecting the proper ladder rep counts for the program. If you simply guesstimate them you might end up choosing inappropriate rep counts. This will lead to either your sessions to be too light to be effective, or even worse, too tough to allow you to complete them as the volume kicks in throughout the weeks.

If you have undertaken the “Simple Strength for Difficult Times” plan and you haven’t completed it yet, you may take advantage of week 8 that prescribes testing. If instead you decide to start directly with this plan, I advise that you spend the week prior to starting it to run all the required testing. Just like the setup for a lift is your first rep, setting an accurate TRM is your ground zero for this plan.

Once you have picked the appropriate ladders according to your TRMs your next step will be entering all the data in the plan template in order to turn it into your customized plan. All you have to do is put your exercise selections in place of the words SQUAT, PRESS, and PULL and your ladder rep counts in place of the letters a, b, c, a1, b1, c1, j, k, l, x, y, and z.

Here’s an example of the first two weeks of the plan for our friend Mr. Black, with his exercise selections and ladder rep counts:

(Please refer back to the table at the top outlining the overall program and note that in week 7 and 8 listed in some exercises you will have to enter the deload rep counts a1, b1, and c1.)

How to Execute the Plan

The three exercises are to be executed in a slow-circuit fashion. This means that you will do a set of the squat of your choice, shake off the tension, take some rest, do a set of your chosen press, shake off the tension and rest, and do a set of your chosen pull. Once you’ve done all that above the round is over, and you will take a longer rest before you start the next one.

You should make sure that you rest no less than 1-2 minutes after the sets with the lower and medium rep counts, and 2-3 minutes after the sets with the higher rep counts. Once you have gone through the three exercises you may rest more than 3 minutes, before you start the next round.

For instance, let’s say that Mr. Black is about to start Session B of week two of his plan, with the exercises of his choice which I have listed above.

His session would call for two ladders of 2, 4, 6 plus one ladder of 2, 4 for the pistol; two ladders of 0, 1, 2 plus one of 0, 1 for the handstand pushup; and two ladders of 3, 5, 8 plus one of 3, 5 for the pullups.

Here’s how he would do it:

Ladder one, Round one

  • Pistol—2 reps per side
  • 1-2 minutes rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Handstand pushup—0 reps, so he will skip it for this round
  • Pullups—3 reps
  • 3 or more minutes rest, including fast and loose drills

Ladder one, Round two

  • Pistol—4 reps per side
  • 1-2 minutes rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Handstand pushup—1 rep
  • 1-2 minutes rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Pullups—5 reps
  • 3 or more minutes rest, including fast and loose drills

Ladder one, Round three

  • Pistol—6 reps per side
  • 2-3 minutes rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Handstand pushup—2 reps
  • 2-3 minutes rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Pullups—8 reps
  • 3 or more minutes rest, including fast and loose drills

After adequate rest, he would repeat for his second ladder. Once these two ladders are complete, the job isn’t done yet. There are still two rounds left, the first one consisting of two pistols per side and three pullups, and the second of four pistols per side, one handstand pushup, and five pullups.

Weekly Schedule, What to Do on Alternate Days and Testing

The same suggestions and guidelines I provided for the plan in the previous article also apply to this one, and you may check them here.

With regards to testing, in addition to retesting the exercises you performed throughout the plan, you might want to test some others, and note any carryover to other skills, which is what we call the “What the Heck?” Effect.

Conclusion

Both this program and its predecessor may be followed as stand-alone plan or can be combined into a 16-week plan.

Whether you decide for the former or the latter option, once you have completed you may repeat the cycle a second time. And you may do it either with the same exercise selections, simply plugging in new TRMs according to the results of your testing week, or with new exercises and their related TRMs that you will have to test. After all, getting stronger has less to do with the exercises, and more to do with the principles. And the principles that rule Strength are universal, no matter the exercise variation or the tool that you are using.

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Fabio Zonin
Fabio Zonin is a Master StrongFirst Certified Instructor. He is a former powerlifter, natural bodybuilder, and owner of fitness centers. He was the first Italian to accomplish the Beast Tamer Challenge and has been a Master Teacher for FIF (Italian Federation of Fitness) for almost two decades (1994-2012).

He is the Former vice president of the AINBB (Italian Association of Natural Bodybuilding), and has trained many athletes at national and international level in natural bodybuilding, powerlifting and other sports.

He has authored numerous articles for Italian popular magazines and websites dedicated to fitness, bodybuilding, and strength training, and has worked with to leading Italian companies in the field of sports equipment, body composition evaluation software, and nutritional supplements.

23 thoughts on “Simple Strength for Difficult Times Part Two: Get Even Stronger in Quarantine

  • Fabio, thank you!
    This is outstanding!
    Run a 16-week cycle with A+A on alternate days, then 6 weeks of Q&D, 2 weeks of some glycolytic peaking to shed off cellular debris, a week of resting, celebrating, and testing for the next cycle. Repeat two times and you’ve got the whole year covered with couple of weeks spared for vacation. One can live on it for the rest of his/her life. Awesome!

  • Very pleased to see this follow-up article Fabio, thank you. I appreciate the work and thought that has gone into it.

    I’m in the testing week of the first programme now – my 24kg KB press has gone from 3 reps to 10 good reps, so I’m pleased.

    I like the variety of exercise but also the waving of intensity in this new programme and am looking forward to getting into it.

    I think I’ll have to start training outside so I can get to the pull-up bar and back easily instead of up two flights of stairs!

    • Hi Benjamin!

      “Very pleased to see this follow-up article Fabio, thank you. I appreciate the work and thought that has gone into it.”

      Thank you, Sir!

      “I’m in the testing week of the first programme now – my 24kg KB press has gone from 3 reps to 10 good reps, so I’m pleased.”

      Wow, this is an impressive result!

      “I like the variety of exercise but also the waving of intensity in this new programme and am looking forward to getting into it.”

      I’m so glad to hear you like it!

      “I think I’ll have to start training outside so I can get to the pull-up bar and back easily instead of up two flights of stairs!”

      If the weather is stable and good, that’s a good option. On my side I’m still going up and down the stairs in order to reach my pullup bar…

  • Thanks again…if I have a KB selection or movement that would allow me to be at either at the low end of reps or high end reps for each of the H, M, L, is there a preferred approach? Ex: I could do a 16kg weighted pull-up for 6 TRM or a 20kg for 2 TRM for the Heavy lift.

    Oh, and nice IG post of your PR on the pistols!

  • Thank you!

    I’m on week 8 of part 1 and I’m loving it! I was planning on repeating the part 1 programming, but this looks very interesting so I’m going to use this week to test for exercises for part 2.

    Question: Is it better to mix up the exercises or stick to the same exercise, e.g. should I BB bench press H, M, L or is it better to bench press H- and L-days and KB overhead press M-days?

    • Hi Jesper,

      I’m happy to hear that you are going to give a shot to this new plan.

      As far as for the exercise selection, the answer is “yes!”

      First of all it depends on the options you have available. For instance, the heaviest bell I have available at home (gyms are still closed here) is 40Kg. This forces me to stick with the pistol for H and M days, while I can do double kettlebell front squats for my L days.

      But if you have full equipment available you have the choice. And this is a personal one that depends also on your goals. You may choose different exercises because you love variety, or because one can improve a weakness in the other. Or you may choose to stick to the same exercise for the sake of more practice that will allow you to refine your technique.

      I hope I was able to answer your question.

  • Hi Fabio,

    This is fantastic, thank you.

    I’m half-way through part one and loving it. Doing goblet squats, feet elevated push ups and pull ups. Running it as suggested on alternate days with S&S (using a mix of 32 and 40 kg) and it seems like a great balance of volume and recovery.

    Question: I’d like to move on to this part two program next, but was hoping to run it concurrently with three days of Q&D 033. Was thinking ring dips and KB press but skipping a third push because pushups is a major component of Q&D. Is that sensible or can I do a third push with this program plus the Q&D power push-ups?

    Thanks again Fabio and stay safe!

    • Thank you so much for appreciating the plan(s), Sir!

      A few options for you (I’m thinking out loud here):
      1. Do the Q&D snatch protocol instead of the swing & power-pushups one.
      2. Do the Q&D snatch protocol instead of the swing & power-pushups one, but apply it to the one-arm swing instead of the snatch.
      3. Use only KB military press in the strength plan with three different KB sizes (so skip the ring dips) and match it with the Q&D swing & power-pushups plan.

      What do you think?

      • Great suggestions. I did the Q&D snatch protocol a couple of months ago so was hoping to try the PU/swing version next. So I’ll probably try the 3rd option.

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply Fabio!

      • Can you explain option 3 a little more? Q+D on one day then the simple strength program (with 3 different KB sizes for press) the next day? So alternating days for Q+D and Simple Strength? Thanks!

        • Hi Jack,

          Of course!

          I will explain it with an example:

          SSDT = Simple Strength for Difficult Times

          Monday: SSD (Heavy Squat, Light Press, Medium Pull)
          Tuesday: Q&D
          Wednesday: SSD (Medium Squat, Heavy Press, Light Pull)
          Thursday: Q&D
          Friday: SSD (Light Squat, Medium Press, Heavy Pull)
          Saturday: Q&D

          So yes, three different kettlebell sizes for the press, but not on the same day. Light on Monday, Heavy on Wednesday, Medium of Friday.

          I hope I was able to clarify.

  • Well this is exciting! really greate article and excited to try it! Well done.

    I have one question about the mentioned “deloads” sets and reps, are these done with the working weight or should the weight be lowered? Apologies if you have already written about this in the article but i couldnt find the answer

    Stay Safe, stay Strong!
    Thanks
    Ben

    • Thank you, Ben!

      You are right, probably I should have been more clear on this in my explanation in the article. I apologize.

      You should use the same weight (the one in the 3-6TRM range). The deload ladder has lower rep counts than the regular one, and that ensures that you will get enough recovery prior to testing.

  • This looks brilliant! Very interesting programming, in particular the different ladders according to different intensities and TRMs. Thanks a lot for sharing and take care!

  • Thanks Fabio, super excited! I just finished Part I on Sunday and saw fantastic results in my press, which was a weighted push-up with my 9 yr old as the weight on my back – fun for the whole family :). My pull and squat increased but not as much (potentially my fault for not dialing in my pre-testing to optimize results). I actually have spent the last 2 days calibrating for Reload (but with kettlebells) and finding that it was difficult based on my KB selection and strength. Thanks again and stay healthy.

    • Hi Josh!

      I’m so glad to hear about your results. And yes, since Reload is more of a barbell plan, it’s hard to adjust the weekly jumps to the different kettlebell sizes.

      I look forward to hearing about your results with this plan!

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