Rule Number One: Do What Works
These Are the Facts:
- There is no "best training program" for everyone.
- What works great for others in the gym may work terribly for you. Likewise, what has worked very well for you may not do jack for someone else.
- You must develop the confidence to abandon the training programs that don't pan out. Give different programs a fair shot, yes, but ditch the methods that don't produce results.
- The only way to find your optimal program and achieve astonishing results is to stop copying routines and start acting like a scientist in order to discover your own "best" program.
- Tinker with the variables (split, exercise selection, frequency, volume, intensity, periodization, etc.), and gain insight into how your body responds.
Look to Science! (Or Just Look Around Your Gym)
A new study by Timmons published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that genetics might play a large role when it comes to training response. This is an exciting new area of research that warrants more attention, especially as it pertains to hypertrophy.
But if you're not the science-type, just stand in the middle of the gym and do a panoramic 360 degrees. You'll see jacked freaks training right next to guys who look like they've never touched a dumbbell in their lives... yet both types are lifting hard. Steroid use aside, some guys respond like crazy just looking at a barbell while others barely grow even though they're doing "all the right things."
The fact is, there are numerous differences that exist genetically, biomechanically, and physiologically between individuals. But don't get discouraged if you don't find yourself in the freak crowd. Every lifter can get stronger, get bigger, and get leaner with sound training methods, but he must learn to think for himself and figure out what works for his body.
To illustrate, here are five methods I had to abandon because they just didn't work for me, even though they've worked great for others.
Abandoned Method #1: High-Volume Body Part Splits (hitting each muscle group once per week)
Yes, I know. Some people thrive with this method, including most professional bodybuilders. But the majority of lifters do not progress optimally from this methodology!
For me, training a lift or muscle group once per week results in a quick spike in strength that lasts a couple of days (stimulation), followed by a plateau that lasts a couple of days (retainment), followed by linear degradation in strength (detraining). By the time the next week rolls around, I'm weaker than the previous session.
I can't progress on any lift by only training it once per week. I need to program more frequency into my routines.
My old workout partner? He was the opposite. After years of experimenting with all types of routines, we realized that he grows best using a typical high-volume, body part split where he hammers a muscle group once per week.
After following high-volume, body part split training for far too long, I tried HIT or High Intensity Training. I was blown away by how well it worked for me. It was the "best" program for me... at that time.
Here's a quick HIT-style plan that worked very well for me in the past. If you find yourself not responding anymore to the high-volume splits, give this one a shot:
Back squat 1 x 20
Romanian deadlift 3 x 10
Bench press 3 x 5
Bent over row 3 x 6
Military press 3 x 5
Barbell curl 2 x 10
Back squat 3 x 5
Rack pull 3 x 10
Walking lunge 1 x 20
Bench press 3 x 3
Chin up 3 x 3
Dip 3 x 5
Every lifter should experiment with low-volume, infrequent training to see just how low they can go in volume and frequency and still keep their strength and size. Most people would be very surprised by the results of a well-planned, two day per week, full-body workout.
Abandoned Method #2: Westside
Don't get your squat suit in a bunch. When I first learned of the Westside Method I was pumped! This was the answer to all my struggles.
I was slow off the floor and out of the hole, so I needed speed. If I utilized the box squat and good morning I could train these lifts more frequently because they weren't quite as taxing on the CNS as regular squats and deadlifts.
And if I really focused on arching my back with the lighter loads used in the Dynamic Effort method and the box squat and good morning, it would resolve my tendency to lean forward in the squat and round my back in the deadlift.
Oh, and my bench lockout was lousy, too. Board presses were going to fix that! Right?
Wrong! After twelve weeks of box squatting I went from a 275-pound max to a 405 max on the box squat. I went from 225 to 405 in the sumo stance, arched-back good morning. I was jacked! My speed was up from the dynamic effort method and my board presses were up too.
Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
When I tested my free squat, deadlift, and bench press, I found that my strength on all three lifts had not improved. I could box squat more than I could free squat and my deadlift actually decreased in strength. This is when I realized that my programs require specificity.
I know of many individuals whose deadlift goes up from all sorts of things -- shrugs, bent over rows, good mornings, Zercher squats, barbell hack squats, etc. My deadlift responds best to actual deadlifts.
Abandoned Method #3: Off-Weeks and Deloading
I used to think taking a week off was good for the joints, plus it allowed my body to supercompensate in strength. But every time I returned to lifting after taking a week off, I was weaker and I'd get absolutely crippled after coming back. Weak and sore is no way to go through life!
When I learned about the concepts of deloading and fluctuating training stress, I thought this was the answer: a happy medium, just enough to stimulate the muscles while allowing the body to heal, ramp up in anabolic hormones, and rejuvenate itself.
Much to my surprise, that never worked for me either! Deloading made me weaker and didn't allow me to hold onto my strength.
Plenty of lifters thrive off of a rest week or a week of deloading. Most powerlifters peak this way. However, this just doesn't work for me. If I entered a powerlifting meet I'd probably deadlift heavy three days prior to the meet. That's just how my body works.
Now, let's remember the premise here: Some things will work for you while other things will not. This isn't an anti-deloading manifesto. Try it. Evaluate it. Make your own decision. Don't cling to the methodology just because your favorite strength coach likes it. You decide.
Abandoned Method #4: Assistance Lifts
Glute-ham raises work the hell out of my hamstrings and they might help me run faster, but they don't increase my squat or deadlift. Ab wheel rollouts cripple my abs, but they don't make me stronger at the big lifts. Single-leg work doesn't transfer well to my powerlifting total, nor does core stability work.
Clearly these lifts aren't my "weak links." There are tons of great exercises that don't seem to help build my big lifts; however, many probably contribute to hypertrophy and athleticism.
Abandoned Method #5: Pre-Determined Periodization
Periodization may be the greatest trick the devil ever pulled.
Show me a lifter who did well with strict pre-planned periodization and I'll show you a fool who could've seen even better results had he known had to autoregulate.
Don't get me wrong, periodization in general is much better than just going to the gym without a plan, purpose, or system. However, a lifter with a superior knowledge of tweaking the workout based on biofeedback will trump the average lifter in terms of gains.
A lifter who knows how to autoregulate will modify the workout based on his or her intuition and interpretation of "clues" that the body gives off. Since it's impossible to predict a lifter's particular physiology on any given day, as physiologic levels are affected by factors such as sleep, stress, diet, and environment, it's very practical to adjust the workout intuitively. "Cybernetic periodization" was the term Mel Siff used in Supertraining,
All great lifters have mastered the ability to listen to their body and adjust the workout accordingly.
Do What Works... Until It Doesn't Work
What works best one year might not work best the following year. Needs morph over time.
By experimenting with different exercises and program variables such as frequency, volume, and intensity, you can ride the wave and experience much greater results than the guy who sticks to their favorite guru's cookie-cutter recipe of the month.
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Bret Contreras has a master's degree from ASU and a CSCS certification from the NSCA. He is currently studying to receive his PhD in Sports Science at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. Visit his blog at www.BretContreras.com and his research review service at www.StrengthandConditioningResearch.com.