3 Experts - 5 Optimal Training Programs
As a lifter, it's important to consider the best methodology for various goals.
So to get your wheels turning and see what you're made of, I've created some hypothetical situations for you to ponder.
You're going to need to come up with the best possible routine for 5 different scenarios. However, there are some conditions.
- All subjects are motivated lifters with 2-3 years of proper strength training experience, no prior injuries, and healthy musculoskeletal systems.
- Subjects in each group perform the same routine for 6 straight months with no periodization, except that progressive overload is used to the same extent in each group.
- Rep-ranges can vary according to the exercise, but must stay consistent throughout the entirety of the study.
- Diets are controlled, each subject consumes proper nutrition and adequate protein, and weight is maintained throughout the six months (neither gained nor lost).
- Subjects perform no additional exercise (no cardio or additional strength training) and sleep eight hours/night on average during the 6 months.
- Training sessions are scheduled once every five days, adherence is 100%, and there are no dropouts.
- Intra-set rest time is 2 minutes; a total of 6 submaximal warm-up sets can be used that don't count toward the total sets; all work sets are performed close to failure; and no advanced techniques are used (negatives, drop-sets, supersets, or forced-reps).
- Strength is measured via powerlifting standards and lifts are performed raw (no gear).
- Hypertrophy is measured at several regions in each muscle.
Given the aforementioned assumptions,
- What would you hypothesize would be the ideal 6-set routine for maximizing average leg & glute hypertrophy?
- What would you hypothesize to be the ideal 6-set routine for maximizing average squat strength (only including leg and hip exercises – no abdominal exercises)?
- What would you hypothesize to be the ideal 6-set routine for maximizing average deadlift strength (only including leg and hip exercises – no abdominal or grip exercises)?
- What would you hypothesize to be the ideal 6-set routine for maximizing average pec hypertrophy?
- What would you hypothesize to be the ideal 6-set routine for maximizing average bench press strength (only including pec exercises – no triceps, lat, or delt exercises)?
Now you're going to write 5 different routines. The routines are intended to maximize leg and glute hypertrophy, squat strength, deadlift strength, pec hypertrophy, and bench press strength. Lifters will perform 6 total sets every 5 days.
You choose the exercises, set allotment, and rep ranges.
I know what you're thinking – where do I start? There's still considerable programming freedom within these seemingly strict parameters.
To help you along, I contacted two of my favorite colleagues, Charles Staley and Brad Schoenfeld, and asked them the same questions. Here are their responses, along with mine.
Bench Press Strength
|A||Competition-Sstyle Bench Press||3||3|
|B||Close-Grip "Touch & Go" Bench Press||2||5|
|C||Flat Dumbbell Bench Press||1||10|
When developing maximal strength, we need to think about imposing high levels of tension on the relevant musculature.
All three of my chosen lifts are performed in a "flat" position to respect the principle of specificity. Further, I've chosen sets of 3 for the first exercise, also for specificity's sake, and higher reps for the second two movements, to strike a balance between strength and hypertrophy (which indirectly, supports strength).
|A||Competition-Style Bench Press||3||6|
|B||30° Incline Dumbbell Bench Press||2||8|
When developing hypertrophy, while we still need adequate tension to provoke a hypertrophic response, we also need to introduce great variety, both in exercise menus and repetition brackets. I chose three different pressing angles for the purpose of targeting the three different lobes of the pectoralis muscle.
First, flat barbell bench presses have a documented history of being effective pec builders. Second, incline dumbbell presses provide an excellent hypertrophy stimulus – the 30° angle was chosen because I feel that 45-degree presses are better deltoid developers than pec builders. Finally, dips are an excellent, yet under-appreciated lower-pec exercise.
Leg and Glute Hypertrophy
|B||Barbell Hip Thrust||2||10|
Front squats are my choice for quadriceps development. Personally, I'm so hip dominant that even leg extensions only create soreness in my adductors and hams, but front squats are one of the few movements that can catch my quads off-guard. It should also be noted that front squats, performed deep, also stimulate posterior chain development.
With the quads already addressed with front squats, I'll tackle the posterior chain with hip thrusts and back extensions. Personally, if I couldn't deadlift (for example, if I was a member of Planet Fitness), I'd consider back extensions and hip thrusts indispensible.
Reps are a tricky decision here – while I do believe that a wide range of repetitions has value in a hypertrophy program, for this hypothetical, I'll keep them on the high side to satisfy the need for a sufficient level of mechanical volume to stimulate growth.
As a final thought, I'm sure my exercise menu might seem antiquated and/or unimaginative to some, but to those people I'd remind you that some of the most beastly male physiques ever developed were the product of these movements.
My program for squat strength quickly reveals my bias toward specificity.
First, successful squatting is a finicky thing – it requires practice to master the motor skills needed to overcome heavy weights. Hence, 4 sets of squats in this program.
Note that 2 reps don't necessarily mean the heaviest weight you can lift for 2 reps, but rather a challenging load for a double.
Back extensions round out the program, providing strength and tissue support to the posterior chain.
|B||Barbell Hip Thrust||2||10|
My choice of 5 reps on the deadlift may strike some as odd, but it was carefully considered – sets of 5 promote strength as well as hypertrophy, and they also teach you to cope with the fatigue you'll experience during a long, grinding single.
I pulled my first 500 in 2010 after a training cycle devoted exclusively to sets of 5, which culminated in a top training weight of 405 x 5. Two weeks later I pulled 500.
Hip thrusts offer a very beneficial training stimulus that positively transfers to the deadlift with a minimum investment of time and physical/psychological stress. On my last hip thrust session I bagged 400 x 10 with no warm-up sets – was the 35 seconds it took me to do them worthwhile? Absolutely.
Back extensions train the posterior chain in a manner that has minimal redundancy with the previous two exercises. And hopefully it's already understood that "back extensions" aren't a back exercise.
I'll start by saying that the limitations imposed on the routines hamper my ability to provide an optimal program for any of the goals. A proper routine would manipulate program variables over the course of the program, as well as focusing on individual concerns.
In reality, the program I'd design for all the stated goals would be constantly changing in a systematic fashion.
Moreover, it would take into account the weak areas of the given lifter and thus the exercises and other variables would be customized on an individual basis. That said, here's a basic overview of the programs I'd espouse given the imposed constraints.
Squat Strength and Leg and Glute Hypertrophy
For maximum squat strength the focus should be on the primary exercise, which is the squat. This follows the principle of specificity: transfer is optimized the more a movement approaches the target goal. If the target goal is to maximize the squat, then you need to squat hard and heavy.
That said, there's also a need to enhance strength of the spinal erectors, which is a primary weak area for many individuals and provides the primary anti-flexion resistance during the squat, as well as directly increasing glute strength. To accomplish this, I'd include good mornings as an assistance exercise.
For leg/glute hypertrophy I'd perform a combination of exercises designed to work the muscle in different ways. This would include the squat, leg press, and stiff-legged deadlift. The squat is a terrific muscle builder that works many of the leg stabilizers as well as the primary muscles; the leg press allows better targeting of the primary muscles through reduced stabilizer requirement; and the stiff-legged deadlift targets the glutes/hams directly (the hams are not nearly as involved in the multi-joint squat and leg press due to their biarticular structure).
- To maximize squat strength, 4 sets of squats in a range of 1-5 reps; 2 sets of good mornings in a range of 6-8 reps.
- To maximize leg/glute hypertrophy, 2 sets of squats; 2 sets of leg presses; 2 sets of SLDLs. All sets in the range of 6-15 per set.
Maximizing deadlift strength will again follow the principle of specificity and thus involve focusing on the primary movement. For an assistance exercise, I'd go with the good morning to enhance hip extensor and lumbar erector strength, which is crucial to successful deadlift performance.
I should add that grip strength is often a limiting factor here, too, so on the last rep of the last set of deadlifts, I recommend performing a static isohold for as long as possible.
- To maximize deadlift strength, 4 sets of deadlifts in a range of 1-5 reps; 2 sets of good mornings in a range of 6-8 reps.
Bench Press Strength and Pec Hypertrophy
As with the above squatting recommendations, for maximum bench strength the focus should be on the primary exercise. Thus, the bench press should form the basis of the routine for this goal. I'd also include flyes as an assistance exercise.
For maximizing chest hypertrophy I'd again perform a combination of exercises designed to work the muscle in different ways. This would include the flat barbell bench, incline dumbbell bench, and cable flye. These movements target the muscle from different angles and use different modalities to optimize muscle recruitment.
- To maximize bench strength, 4 sets of barbell bench press in a range of 1-5 reps; 2 sets dumbbell flyes in a range of 6-8 reps.
- To maximize chest hypertrophy, 2 sets of barbell bench press; 2 sets of dumbbell incline bench press; 2 sets of cable flyes. All reps in the range of 6-15 per set.
Leg & Glute Hypertrophy
For maximum leg and glute hypertrophy, I'm going to go with variety. Accommodating resistance has received excellent support in the literature, so we'll use it (only around 10% of 1RM of chain resistance) during full squats to further develop the quadriceps.
The full squat works the glutes well in a stretched position, too. The American deadlift gives you the best aspects of a Romanian deadlift (a big stretch in the hamstrings due to sitting back and anteriorly tilting the pelvis) while adding in more glute emphasis (posteriorly tilting the pelvis up top by squeezing the glutes), making it an excellent choice for hamstring and glute development.
The hip thrust activates the hell out of the quads from a mostly isometric standpoint in addition to activating the hamstrings well, so they'll reinforce leg hypertrophy. But the glute burn and high glute activation they induce will ensure that glute hypertrophy is maximized on this program.
If leg hypertrophy was the sole goal, I'd go with a 20-rep leg press and 12-rep lying leg curl instead of the hip thrust, but glutes matter in this case, so we're sticking with the hip thrust.
|A||High Bar Full Squat with Chains||2||6|
For maximum squat strength, we're going to focus on back squats. A back-off set of narrow stance pause squats (3-sec pause) will be added in to ensure that the trainee achieves maximum strength out of the hole.
Additionally, one set of sumo deadlifts and one set of hip thrusts will be added to the mix to ensure that back strength and bent-legged glute strength are maximized, which are vital for squat strength.
|B||Narrow Stance Pause Squat||1||3|
For maximum deadlift strength, we're going to focus on deadlifts. Additionally, one set of weighted 45-degree back raises, one set of pause front squats (3-sec pause), and one set of pause hip thrusts (3-sec pause) will be added to the mix to ensure that hamstring strength, upper back strength, and glute-lockout strength are maximized, which are vital for deadlift strength.
|B||Weighted 45° Back Raise||1||10|
|C||Pause Front Squat||1||5|
|D||Pause Hip Thrust||1||5|
For maximum pec hypertrophy, I'm going to go with variety again. The medium-grip incline press maximizes upper pec activation. Dumbbell bench press and weighted dips allow for a good stretch while hammering all the pec fibers. Finally, a high-rep set of cable crossovers provides a good pump and ensures that the pecs get fully fatigued.
|A||Medium Grip Incline Press||2||6|
|B||Dumbbell Bench Press||1||8|
Bench Press Strength
For maximum bench press strength, we're going to focus on the competition bench press (with a 1-sec pause). Close-grip bench press (touch-and-go) will be added in to ensure that maximum triceps strength is achieved.
|A||Competition Bench Press||1||5,3,1|
|B||Close-Grip Bench Press||3||5|
I hope that this article provides you with some insight into the minds of some reputable fitness experts. Furthermore, I hope it sparks some thought regarding your own programming.
Now it's your turn. What would your five ideal 6-set programs be, given these same parameters? Post your responses for our experts in the LiveSpill.