Training Variations for Mass Gain
I probably have ADD. I can't sit through a half-hour sit-com without wanting to read or get off my butt and do something active. Exercise-wise, the very thought of steady-state cardio without intervals numbs my ass and I'd rather do my taxes than do anything like an isometric contraction.
Most conventional "mass gaining" workout plans suffer from similar monotony issues. There has to be a better way to get jacked without splitting up the body into permutations of the popular "chest & tris, back & bis, shoulders & leg extensions" abomination.
Many lifters are realizing that Olympic lifting, sprinting, and even throwing events for track and field are way more entertaining and enjoyable than countless reps trying to isolate the inner triceps. But enjoyment is one thing; can they be used to produce muscular hypertrophy?
Considering that Olympic weight lifters have some serious muscle mass, as do strongman competitors and even most throwers, you could say there's obviously more than one way to pack beef on your frame.
A few years ago I decided to try Scottish Highland games heavy events to give my training a kick start. For those who don't know, this involves throwing a lot of very heavy things, such as a caber (13-foot long pole that weighs around 115-145 pounds, going end over end), stone put, weight for height, and other fun-filled events from the fine people who brought you golf and curling.
Within the first two months of training I'd managed to gain 9 pounds, and through a subsequent DEXA scan to check my body composition, found that 7.8 pounds of that was lean mass.
This was eye-opening because most of my gym time consisted of low rep sets of either extremely heavy weights or extremely fast movements – nothing that would be considered even close to the typical hypertrophy range by most exercise physiology textbooks or bodybuilding gurus.
Stronger is Better
Strongman training is moving from the circus and late-night broadcasts on ESPN 8 to the mainstream, which means we're seeing more than retired football players or farmers entering the competitions and crushing it.
This has led to a keen interest amongst gym rats, as these athletes tend to use cool equipment like tires, sandbags, kegs, yokes, and other things not typically found at Planet Treadmill.
Coupled with the fact that the beasts training with these tools often have necks thicker than Joey Pec Deck's thighs and you have an entire legion of frustrated lifters looking to follow whatever program these guys are doing.
So how do these training programs often produce hypertrophy to a greater extent than a standard "bodybuilding" program?
Working at a higher velocity and lower percentage of 1-rep max, such as with throwing events or Olympic lifting, results in a higher peak and average power, workload, and peak force compared to working at a higher percentage of 1-rep max with half the bar speed.
This can make a big difference in the intramuscular damage, and subsequent hormonal alteration and remodeling of the muscle following the workout.
Programs that focus on the fast twitch fibers and their ability to generate either high force/low speed or high force/high-speed contractions cause these fibers to undergo the greatest adaptation to hypertrophy possible.
This leads to unprecedented gains in lean mass not found in other programs that emphasize slow contractions with less than maximal loads.
For the strongman events, a high force application over a prolonged period causes a much greater time under tension than a typical concentric-eccentric lift scheme, which also increases hypertrophy – which is why most strongmen have traps that resemble octagons versus triangles.
The "imperfect" manner of strongman training can also help reduce the risk of injuries. It accomplishes this by forcing the body to stabilize in different positions, through different force requirements, and adjust faster for alterations in center of gravity and loading parameters than if the weight was moved in a typical controlled "bodybuilding" fashion.
Olympic lifters have even been noted to adjust their hips, knee, and ankle position multiple times within a single rep to create stability under the shifting load of the bar during the catch phase.
Furthermore, McGill found that the level of shear force imparted on the lumbar spine – a main predictor of injury potential of an activity – during loaded carries was significantly less than with conventional exercises like a deadlift or a back squat, but demanded more from the entire core, pelvic, and thoracic muscular system to maintain spinal stiffness and stability.
What To Do
So let's say you're interested in including some of these principles in your training, but you work out in a commercial facility that doesn't have specialized equipment, and tends to frown at things like the use of chalk or (gasp!) making progress.
There are still things you can do to make the most of it, and get a training response like no other.
This program will have three main components: lifts, throws, and carries. While you'd be hard-pressed to get away with throwing equipment around in your average fitness factory without being serenaded by a chorus of Lunk Alarms, the key component is the velocity of the movement without releasing the weight. So don't blame me if you get a $600 bill from Globo-Gym for whipping a dumbbell through the front window.
These are movements where a significant weight changes position from high to low. The keys to the lift include:
- Get your spine as stiff and solid as possible before moving the weight, and ensure it stays this way throughout the movement.
- Your prime movers for any lift will be your glutes. This should never change.
- Base of support is crucial. Wider is better, narrow is more challenging. When moving significant weight, go wider.
- If you're able to use momentum with any of these movements, you aren't using enough weight. Each step should be a process.
Lift One – Dumbbell kneeling lift to press
Lift Two – Zercher squat to front raise – squat rack variation. Much like an Atlas stone lift, but with a barbell instead
Lift Three – BB kneeling to standing
Lifts are performed for a maximum of three reps per set. One rep would be the ideal, only to ensure the level of force required is as high as possible and that fatigue doesn't become a factor with technique breakdown.
Throws are movements where the weight is travelling fast, using momentum in an explosive manner. Explosive means a powder keg of TNT, not a sparkler on a birthday cake.
The movement has to make the earth shake from the shear velocity, anger, and desperation to go fast. The main areas generating the velocity include the hips and thoracic spine, and shouldn't include the lumbar or cervical spine.
Throw One – Hang cleans
Throw Two–Kettlebell 3-swing snatch
Throw Three – Prone to standing box jumps
Throw Four – Smith bar throws
These movements should be performed for 3-6 reps per set, focusing on generating max speed. The weight should be challenging but not unbearable, and not so much that it slows down the movement by any significant amount.
These are movements where an object is transported from one location to another while being held in varied positions or locations on the body. All carries have some common features to them:
- Spinal position should never deviate from neutral. If you can't maintain a stable spine without uncontrolled flexion and extension, decrease the weight.
- Limit rocking, swaying, or anything else that resembles Lindsay Lohan at a roadside sobriety test.
- Keep the spine tensed along with the abdomen, but ensure you can still perform forced powerful breathing and move your legs.
Carry One – Shoulder carries. Work with carrying greater than 70% body weight or more.
Carry Two – 2-barbell farmer's walks. 50% of deadlift max weight or more.
Carry Three – Heavy sled push. Two times body weight (dependent on friction of surface being used).
Carry Four – Barbell suitcase carry. Work with a weight of 25-40% of max deadlift weight.
The Big Picture
A typical training program would look like this:
Monday: Lifts. Six sets per exercise, pyramid up to max weight possible, 120-180 seconds rest between sets.
Wednesday: Throws. Five sets per exercise, keeping weight at roughly 50-60% of max achievable for singles to work on fast contractions.
Thursday: Energy System Training: aerobic recovery plus anaerobic tolerance
Friday: Carries. 2-3 sets per exercise, working on maximal distance with the given weights.
Sundays: Active recovery, or work on more conventional lifts as desired.
Using a program like this for a few weeks or months of a training phase can help kick-start stalled progress in a workout, and get you motivated to train hard and heavy again if you've lost that spark.
On top of that, these workouts are freakin' fun because you're always working on achieving something with every set – either moving more weight, moving that weight farther, or getting faster with serious pounds added to your build.
Oh, and you'll also get bigger – something Captain Concentration Curl over there in front of the mirror hasn't experienced in a very long time.
Mohamad et al (2012). Differences in Kinematics and Kinetics Between High- and Low-Velocity Resistance Loading Equated by Volume: Implications for Hypertrophy Training. JSCR January 2012, Vol 26 (1); 269-275
Zemke & Wright (2011). The Use of Strongman Type Implements and Training to Increase Sport Performance in Collegiate Athletes. SCJ. August 2011, vol 33 (4); pp1-7
McGill, et al (2009). Comparison of Different Strongman Events: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load and Stiffness. JSCR July 2009. Vol 23 (4); pp 1148-1161
Cholewicki, McGill & Norman (1991). Lumbar Spine Loads During the Lifting of Extremely Heavy Weights. Med Sci Sports Ex. Vol 23 (10) pp. 1179-1186