Here's what you need to know...
- The double progression system works. It's the easiest and most adaptable form of planned progression.
- Stop listening to the skinny "functional training" gurus who can't squat 225, especially when it comes to their advice on belt usage.
- The big lifts work for most people. But if a big movement isn't helping you build muscle mass, look for alternatives.
- You must hit a muscle at least twice per week for it to grow at an optimal rate.
- If you can't feel a muscle working during an exercise, you won't stimulate it enough to grow.
1 – The double progression system works... every time.
Lifters who want to get bigger and stronger without the need to peak at a specific time (like a competition) will do best using a double progression method.
First, pick a rep range of about 2 or 3 reps for your work sets – for example, 1 to 3 reps, 3 to 5 reps, 6 to 8 reps, 9 to 12 reps. The goal is to do all of your work sets using the same weight. When you can do that, you add some weight the next time.
Let's say you select 3 to 5 reps as your training zone. You decide to do 5 sets of bench press and you slap 250 pounds on the bar. The first week you get the following rep count for your 5 sets: 5, 5, 4, 4, and 3.
That's fine. All of your sets fall in the proper rep range. However, since you did not reach the high end of the zone (5 reps) on all your sets, it means that you have to use 250 pounds again during your next session.
If, at your next session, you're able to get 5 reps for all of your sets, you can move up to 255-260 pounds.
Remember: The key to becoming more muscular and stronger is to keep on progressing. The double progression system is the easiest and most adaptable form of planned progression you can use. You really can't go wrong.
2 – Forget what the "functional training" Nazis say, using a belt for your heavy sets isn't a crutch.
The body should be as functional as possible. That means the body itself should be able to do the required work without the help of any supportive gear.
However, when it comes to belts, there's no doubt that they can add a few pounds to some big lifts – squats, deadlifts, and cleans, for example – by increasing intra-abdominal pressure more than you can by using only muscle contraction (transversus abdominis and obliques).
The trouble is, you have "functional training Nazis" that label all belt use as a crutch. That is a bit extreme. I do most of my lifting without a belt. I never wear a belt when doing snatches, military presses, or push presses and very rarely when deadlifting.
I do use a belt, though, on cleans, back squats, and front squats when going above 85%. My execution of these lifts with large weights is actually better technically when using a belt and this allows me to lift more weight, with better overall form and more safely.
I'm willing to bet that my "core" is just as strong – if not stronger – than most of the functional Nazis who do everything without a belt and do tons of specific core work.
So yes, most of your work should be done without a belt. But using it on some lifts when going heavy is perfectly fine and will not make your core weak and non-functional. That's even truer if you do core-specific work on top of that.
Someone who squats 800 pounds with a belt has a much, much stronger core than someone who can squat 225 without one. Period.
3 – There's no such thing as a king of the exercises.
The big basic lifts will give you more gains than other lifts. However, not everybody will get great results from all of them.
For example, I've had a lot of clients fail to gain much leg size from doing back squats. The back squat is a great movement, but it will build the glutes and lower back more than the legs in some people. That's not bad if you're an athlete, but it's not so good if your goal is to build big legs.
I've also had people get almost zero pectoral growth from the bench press. Others didn't get much in the way of "aesthetic" muscle growth from doing deadlifts.
In these cases, is it best to stick to the squat, bench and deadlift because they're the "kings of lifts" even if these individuals don't get the results they want? Or should we use movements that give them what they're training for?
This isn't an excuse to avoid hard work on the big basics! These big lifts will work very well for most people. At the most there will be one of them that doesn't do much for you.
However, if, after training really hard on a big movement, it's not giving you what you want, it's perfectly fine to look for alternatives to develop the body you want.
4 – If you don't feel the muscle, you're wasting your time.
If someone doesn't feel a muscle working during an exercise, he won't stimulate that muscle enough to grow at a maximal rate.
Even when training for strength – using heavy weights and low reps – you should feel the proper muscles doing the work. You will not get a big pump in these muscles from strength work, but the target muscles should feel harder after a set.
If you lack the motor skill to optimally activate a specific muscle during a big lift, you should consider using isolation work for that muscle to learn to recruit it and flex it maximally.
When you're good at recruiting that muscle, it'll become more involved in the big lifts. So in that regard, doing isolation work for a muscle you don't otherwise feel properly is an investment in future gains.
This is the progression I prescribe for someone who doesn't feel a specific muscle working during a big lift. I call it the "isolate to integrate" approach:
- Step 1: Learn to isolate the stubborn muscle using isolation work and constant tension, focusing on the quality of contraction.
- Step 2: Pre-fatigue the stubborn muscle with an isolation movement and then do the big lift. The pump created in the stubborn muscle will allow you to feel it more during the big lift. This will improve the mind-muscle connection with the muscle, which will help you learn to integrate it during the lift.
- Step 3: Do the big lift first by focusing on feeling the once-stubborn muscle. This requires the use of a lighter weight while focusing on proper muscle contraction – not just on moving the weight.
- Step 4: Move on to heavier lifting on the basic lift.
Each step should last 2-4 workouts. Using this approach allowed me to start using my pecs more in the bench press. I used to be all-shoulders in the bench. Despite bench-pressing in the 400-plus range, I had zero pectoral development. Nowadays I'd say that, if anything, I'm a pec-dominant bench presser!
5 – Forget that once a week crap. You must hit a muscle at least twice per week, directly or indirectly, to grow at an optimal rate.
Even though it seems like the norm nowadays, training each muscle only once a week is a fairly recent thing. Up to the late 90's, each muscle was normally hit 2-3 times per week by bodybuilders seeking maximum muscular development.
People often fall victim to the instinct that tells them to do more in order to grow more. As such, when they train a muscle they feel the need to do a zillion sets during their workout. They're not satisfied until that muscle is thoroughly thrashed. They will do 5 exercises for biceps, 6 for chest etc.
If you do 20-30 sets for a muscle group, going close to failure on each of them, using drop sets, supersets, rest/pause, etc. to kill the muscles, of course you won't be able to hit each muscle group 2-3 times a week!
And since bodybuilding tends to attract excessive personalities, it's understandable that they'll fall into the trap of doing way too much volume on any given workout. The only way they can "get by" and get some gains is to then train each muscle only once a week.
This is not optimal. It might work if you're taking anabolic drugs that increase protein synthesis (making each workout stimulate more growth, for longer), but others need more frequent stimulation with less volume per session to get maximal growth.
Related: More on using a weightlifting belt
Related: How Hard Do You Need to Work Out?