Lifting for Strength | 30 Minute Marathon

Lifting for Strength, not to Failure, will get you much Farther in Life and Lifting

Over the years I’ve tried every different workout imaginable: from 1 rep max effort to failure drag sets to 50+ rep body-weight burnouts, kettle bell craziness to human sized rubber bands, drop-sets, up-sets and everything in between… and it all works, for someone. But that someone wasn’t me.

If you’re looking for those huge marshmallow muscles, this lifting routine isn’t for you. If you walk into the gym, pick up a barbell, set it down and walk out ripped, this lifting routine isn’t for you. If you’re just getting started and progressively loading every workout, basking in the glow of beginners gains, this lifting routine probably isn’t for you. This is the workout that’s worked out best for me. If you’re like me, it might just work out well for you too.

My Lifting Journey

Ever since I can remember I’ve been a string bean. Now, part of this was my fault for not lifting earlier in life. I tried, but back then I still thought you could get strong doing pushups and body-weight squats, a lot of them... and to add to that, I started off trying to build muscle on soy protein. Needless to say, that wasn’t optimal for my muscles or my estrogen levels. If you’re interested in dialing in your pre/post workout (PWO) nutrition check out my previous post, Post Workout Nutrition: Self Experimentation Redux.

So there I was, it’s 2009 and I’ve just graduated with my Masters in Mechanical Engineering and I’m planning on moving to FL… lifting 3x per week at the gym on an alternating push-pull setup and going nowhere. Not only was I not gaining muscle, but you couldn’t even see my abs anymore, I knew something had to change. If you’ve been following my journey you’ll know how this ends, but long story short I stumbled across these guys named Robb Wolf and Mark Sission trying to use science to promote a philosophy of going back to the types of foods our ancestors ate, REAL FOOD. From there it morphed into something like a cult following, probably fostered by the cult that is Crossfit (no offense Crossfitters, you’re still cool). In any case, cleaning up my diet was half the battle and the added variety of protein sources (previously pescetarian; eggs/fish/seafood only go so far) helped quite a bit along with the clean carbs PWO, and the creatine boost.

After you’ve got the nutrition straightened out, it’s time to learn how to lift for strength. REAL MUSCLE. The book I got started on, and that I recommend to everyone, is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. Hands down, the most comprehensive and detailed manual on lifting heavy and more importantly lifting correctly. Correctly is key, because when lifting heavy one misstep could be the end and repetitive bad form is not practice makes perfect, we want perfect practice. Read this book before you start, look over the figures showing correct movement/alignment/position and practice these skills before you jump into this workout. This is an intermediate/advanced lifting routine. Let’s begin!

Lifting for Strength

This is a progressive drop-set exercise, based on sets of 3 reps with 30 seconds rest for a total of 30 minutes. I always combine a large muscle group leg workout with an upper body push-pull set (same plane) to facilitate the highest levels of natural human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone PWO. The bigger the muscles that are recruited, bigger the boost. This also helps keep you balanced, since you’ll never be skipping Leg Day!

Before you begin, make sure to warm up a bit to prepare; I do a few dynamic stretches, jumping jacks to get my circulatory system primed and 10 reps at about 50% 1RM (One-Repetition Maximum) for whatever movement I'm training. Do what works best for you, the important part is to get ready for the work to come! Also a note about first starting out with this type of training - it's generally better to err on the conservative side for your beginning weight. Nothing's worse than starting off a new training program and having to drop weight three times in a row because you could only complete partial sets (plus you spend your breaks changing weights). It's much better to start out rocking 6 solid sets before dropping weight, and knowing that next cycle you'll be upping the starting weight! So, for your first starting weight aim for the 70-80% 1RM and then go from there.

Your first set of 3 will be your heaviest, 80-90% 1RM effort and close to your 3 rep max. If at any point you feel like you can’t complete the next rep, or you’re going over 90% effort, STOP. Even if you’re only on 1 rep of 3, STOP! It is critical that you never go until failure; this was the single biggest mistake I’ve made in the past. When you take a repetition to failure, you’re throwing away the rest of your workout. This is about getting volume, moving large weights correctly for large distances in affect. What you don’t want to do is burn-out on the first set, which is exactly what happens when you repeatedly go until failure. You’re not working harder, you’re just sabotaging your gains.

Once you reach the point where you can no longer complete a set, drop weight by a set amount and continue. Start with 10% as a baseline, and tweak it from there for your situation. As you get to lifting heavier weights, you may want to back off a bit from the 10% rule. I currently drop-sets in 20 lb increments (10 lbs for upper body), and that seems to be the perfect balance of just enough relief while still keeping the intensity up. Once you can complete 5 sets at the highest weight, increase the starting weight by your drop-set for the next training session.

Sounds simple right, but let’s walk through a few examples. Combine workout A/B with workouts 1-3, whichever combination you prefer.

30 Minute Marathon Workout

Summary A/B: Sets of 3x Reps, 80-90% 1RM, 30 sec rest continuous circuit
STOP before failure, lower weight for next Set and continue
Repeat for 30 mins straight

  • Workout ADeadlift (Back straight, chest up lift with your legs)
  • Workout BSquat (Deep, thighs at least parallel to floor)

Summary 1-3: Sets of 3x Reps, 80-90% 1RM, alternating exercises, no rest continuous circuit supersets
STOP before failure, lower weight for next Set and continue
Repeat for 30 mins straight
  • Workout 1Pull-ups/Chin-ups and Dips (Weighted if necessary)
  • Workout 2Over Head Press and Drag Curls
  • Workout 3Bench Press and Bent Over Rows

Complete workout A or B, with workout 1, 2 or 3. For example, Tuesday you might do A/2, and Thursday might be B/3. You can switch up 1-3 and rotate them every week, but always do an A and a B workout each week. Total workout time should be a little over an hour (30 mins for A or B, and 30 mins for 1, 2 or 3), but trust me you’ll feel like you’ve been to hell and back in that short amount of time. It's more like a marathon than a sprint, and just when you feel like giving up you drop weight. I like the combined volume with intensity, and the 3 rep range seems to be perfect for me to get both while still getting the growth benefits of lifting heavy. After all, what good is having the ability to lift a couch if you can't carry it down the stairs and out to the truck? I’ve also found that the high intensity carries over well to trail running and obstacle course work (Spartan Beast, SC). I’m not saying it will replace endurance training, but it’s definitely a good foundational exercise, increasing circulation and efficiency for improved recovery time and overall health.

Try this out for a month, and let me know what you think/your results in the comments. This is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re a hard gainer like me this might just work!

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Original text by Joshua Titus, with images by Orlando lifestyle photographer Shaina DeCiryan 
© 2015


  1. Your results are plainly evident. Keep up the excellent work.

  2. I wanted to add that this workout has had great results for me personally as well as a gal. I've grown up around sports (soccer & track), but am new to this style of lifting. It's definitely a work in progress, but so far my arms seem to be getting stronger for the first time in my life, and I'm making progress towards having better back stability, good posture and movement like Esther Gokhale teaches.

    Osteoporosis is probably the last thing you dudes think about when you lift, but after watching elderly relatives suffer through it I also lift for this reason. I suspect that combining this workout with a paleo diet- eating more nutrient dense whole foods, meat on the bone, and bone broth- will also help increase my bone strength/ density (bone mass), which apparently peaks around age 30 in women (later this year for me) before starting to dwindle at the onset of menopause. I'm not going to wait 'til I'm 50 to prepare for this. [Source: Osteoporosis: Peak Bone Mass in Women(

    Also, while this is a great base workout for ST, I just wanted to throw out there that we all have slightly different genetics/ epigenetics, health and injury histories, mitochondrial balances, diet histories and levels of flexibility and education that allow you to have the correct form for these workouts.


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