The Thib System — Variety and Rules for Progression
Basic Principles Behind My Updated Training Philosophy
by Christian Thibaudeau
We knew we were looking at something special when we opened the huge honkin' file in our inbox. For us training wonks, articles like this one that discuss the science behind training (along with giving us incredibly useful information) are pure heaven.
Trouble was, this article, at over 7,000 words, was a bit too much heaven. So, in order to spare your gray matter (and we're not talking about your underwear) and keep our servers from blowing up, we've split this article into 4 parts.
— The Editors
You've made it through three parts of this article, but hopefully you've got the patience for just a little bit more of my training philosophy!
Principle #7: Vary Your Training Often... But Not too Often!
Rarely do you see someone changing their workout at an optimal frequency. They either change their workouts too often (the "I want to try that program I read about today" phenomenon) or not often enough (the "I can stay on the same routine longer than the same woman" phenomenon).
Both of these knuckleheads have it wrong.
If you don't change your program often enough, your body will fully adapt to it and as a result the workout won't represent a challenge anymore. When it stops being a challenge, there's no need for the body to adapt, change, and grow.
If you change it too often, then you never actually give your body a chance to progress from a program. The one universal rule of gaining size or strength is progression. Every week you must become a bit better and work a little harder. But it's kind of hard to show progress when you never stick to a program for more than one week.
As a rule of thumb, you should stick to a program for four to six weeks. After that, switch to a new one. There's no need to change every single training variable, though. Generally, the less progress you're making at the end of your current program, the more changes you should make on your next one.
Principle #8: Progression is the Real Key to Success
The real secret to building muscle and strength is to progress. You must challenge your body on a consistent basis and find ways to progressively ask more of it. If you do the same thing over and over, you'll still look the same ten years from now.
Now, there's more than one way to progress. What we're looking for are ways to make our bodies work harder. This is progress, and it's what'll lead to growth. Here are a few ways to make your body work harder.
1. Increase the load: You can challenge your body by adding weight to the bar and performing the same number of reps per set. For example, if you did 225 pounds for ten reps on the bench press last week and put up 230 for ten this week, you've forced your body to work harder.
Obviously, this method of progression has its limitations. You can't just keep adding weight to the bar every week and expect your body to adapt. You'd increase your bench press by 260 pounds a year simply by adding five pounds to the bar per week if this were possible. Unfortunately, it's not.
This first method of progression, while it can be used with any exercise, is better suited for compound movements.
2. Increase the reps: Another way to make your body work harder is to do more reps per set with the same weight. For example, if last week you did 225 for ten reps and this week you do 225 for 12 reps, you've progressed. Just like with the previous method, you can't add reps like this every week.
3. Increase the average weight lifted for an exercise: This is very similar to the first method, except whereas increasing the load refers to lifting more weight on your max set, this refers to lifting more weight on average for an exercise.
Let's say you perform four sets of ten reps on the bench press:
Set 1: 200 pounds x 10 (2,000 pounds)
Set 2: 210 pounds x 10 (2,100 pounds)
Set 3: 220 pounds x 10 (2,200 pounds)
Set 4: 225 pounds x 10 (2,250 pounds)
Total weight lifted = 8,550 pounds
Average weight per set = 2,137 pounds
Average weight per rep = 213.7 pounds (214 pounds)
Set 1: 210 pounds x 10 (2,100 pounds)
Set 2: 215 pounds x 10 (2,150 pounds)
Set 3: 225 pounds x 10 (2,250 pounds)
Set 4: 225 pounds x 10 (2,250 pounds)
Total weight lifted = 8,750 pounds
Average weight per set = 2,187 pounds
Average weight per rep = 218.7 pounds (219 pounds)
As you can see, even though the same top weight was reached during both workouts, on week two you lifted five pounds more on average. This is progression!
4. Increase training density: You can also progress by increasing the amount of work you perform per unit of time. This refers to decreasing the rest between sets while using the same weight. By reducing rest intervals, your body is forced to work harder and recruit more muscle fibers due to the cumulative fatigue phenomenon.
This method of progression is better suited for either a fat loss program (in which case it can be used with any exercise) or isolation movements during a mass-gaining phase.
5. Increase training volume: This is probably the simplest progression method. If you want to make your body do more work, then do more work! This means adding sets for each muscle group. For example, on week one you might perform nine work sets for a muscle group and bump it to 12 on week two and 14 on week three.
While this can work, it shouldn't be abused, as it can lead to overtraining. Most trainees should stick to no more than 12 total sets per muscle group 90% of the time.
6. Use intensive training methods: The occasional inclusion of methods such as drop sets, rest/pause sets, tempo contrast, iso-dynamic contrast, supersets, and compound sets is another way of making your body work harder. It also shouldn't be abused, as it constitutes tremendous stress on the muscular and nervous systems.
Furthermore, intensive methods, as we saw earlier, should be used to accomplish a specific purpose, not to trash the muscle for the sake of trashing it!
7. Use more challenging exercises: If you're used to doing all your training on machines, then move up to free weights. You'll force your body to work harder because you have to stabilize the load. If you use only isolation exercises and start including multi-joint movements, you'll also make your body work harder because of the intermuscular coordination factor.
8. Produce more tension in the targeted muscle group: It's one thing to lift the weight; it's another to lift it correctly in order to build size! As I often say, when training to build muscle, you're not lifting weights; you're contracting your muscles against a resistance. You can improve the quality of your sets, thus making your body work harder, by always trying to flex the target muscle as hard as possible throughout the duration of each rep.
This method should only be used with isolation exercises.
9. Increase the time under tension by lowering the weight under control: I'm not a huge fan of precise tempo recommendations, as I find that they can interfere with training concentration. However, when a muscle is under constant tension for a relatively longer period of time (45 to 70 seconds), more hypertrophy can be stimulated.
The best way to do this without having to use less weight is to lower the weight even slower, while still focusing on tensing the muscles as hard as possible the whole time.
10. Increase the lifting speed: The concentric part of a strength training movement is where you're "lifting" the weight. In that phase of the contraction, the force formula applies:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
If you lift a certain weight with greater acceleration, you increase the amount of force you produce, thus making the set harder.
It takes a lot more force to throw a baseball 50 yards than to throw it five feet. The weight is the same, but you must accelerate the ball more. More acceleration equals more force.
This method of progression is best used for Olympic lifts, ballistic exercises, speed lifts, and the like.
As you can see, there are several ways that you can use to improve the quality and demand of your workouts on a weekly basis. The more often you can progress, the more you'll grow, period!
There You Have It
With proper application of my general principles, you'll be able to crank up your growth. However, the individualization factor still remains the basis of my system. This is why in the future I'll talk about how to assess your own needs and select the proper exercises and methods that'll lead to the greatest rate of progress possible.
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