Recently, I said that I hated writing articles giving out specific programs. I feel that as a coach it's a much better approach to explain concepts and techniques, rather than just giving out the application.
Well, I'm about to contradict myself. Because this article is the first installment of a three-part series that'll turn you into a thick, dense, and rugged beast in three short months. Get ready to need bigger shirts and more plates.
However, as a bonus, this first edition will also dish out plenty of information so that if you decide not to follow the program right now, you'll still walk away feeling like you learned something.
So, without further adieu, let's get it on!
Phase 1 – Jacking You Up
The goal of this first phase is to prime your body for the subsequent training phases. Basically, we want to jack up your nervous system efficiency so that you'll be much better at recruiting the all-important high-threshold motor units (HTMU's), sometimes known as the fast-twitch fibers.
This phase also has the objective of strengthening of your tendons. Tendon strength and integrity can be a limiting factor in your training. Since the tendons are the structures that attach the muscles to the bones, weak tendons will normally prevent muscle growth past a certain degree and also limit the amount of strength you can produce. We should view this as a protective mechanism your body uses to avoid tearing itself up.
Finally, we want to increase the activation threshold of the protective reflexes of the body, especially the Golgi tendon organs (GTO). These inhibit force production by a muscle when it senses that the amount of force produced exceeds what you can safely handle. This mechanism just so happens to be as overprotective as your typical soccer mom. Because of this, the average individual can only use around 30% of his strength potential.
Yes, it's important to protect yourself against muscle tears due to excessive force production. But when the protective mechanism comes into play way inside of the safety zone, you end up missing out on a lot of strength potential.
So, from this first phase you should expect rapid strength gains due to an improvement in the neural factors involved in force production. When it comes to muscle mass, understand that building muscle takes much longer than improving the nervous system because you actually have to build new structures. However, this phase will lead to an increase in density and thickness, as well as in myogenic tone.
In simpler words, you'll look more like a walking brick wall and less like a flabby tub of goo!
Training Phase Characteristics
When I give seminars, one thing that I often say is that the more emphasis you place on the development of the central nervous system (CNS), the more frequently you should train a muscle group. And the more you want to put the emphasis on the development of the muscles, the less often you train each muscle.
The reason for that is simple: Developing the CNS is akin to motor learning, not structural reconstruction. In weight training, developing the CNS could be simplified into "learning to use the muscles you have optimally."
If you want to become a better golfer, you must practice your swing often. If you're allowed to hit 700 golf balls per week, it's much more effective to hit 100 balls everyday than 700 once a week. This is the first rule of motor learning: The frequency of practice is the key to assimilating a skill.
And understand this, activating your muscles, ensuring optimal recruitment patterns, and maximizing inter and intramuscular coordination is a skill, not a physical capacity. To improve it optimally, you thus must treat it like the process of skill acquisition. And that demands a high frequency of practice.
On the other hand, muscular development requires you to cause a significant amount of damage to the muscles, as well as stimulate an increase in anabolic hormones and growth factors. The damage made to the muscle needs time to be repaired and even more time to be improved upon (making the muscle fibers stronger and bigger). For that reason, you can't train each muscle group as often.
Getting back to training the CNS, one of the tenets of motor learning is to perform as many specific and technically correct repetitions of the target movement, without causing a significant fatigue accumulation.
Former Soviet Olympic lifting coaches determined that lifts below 80% of one's maximum have a different recruitment pattern than maximal lifts. This means that to maximize motor learning in the context of strength improvements, lifts must be at or above 80% of one's best effort in the practiced lift.
And to maximize motor learning, each repetition must be performed with as little accumulated fatigue as possible. This means that each set performed should be concluded beforeyou reach a point of muscular failure. Understand that selecting training methods that put the emphasis on the nervous system already places a lot of stress on the structure. Going to failure, which is unnecessary for optimal neural development, merely represents another CNS stress factor. In this specific case, it'll make it much harder to progress during this phase.
Don't get me wrong, muscle failure isn't to be avoided at all times, only when CNS development is the focus.
The Three Types of Torture
This phase will employ three different workouts, with one of them being performed twice per week. The first one is called "motor skill acquisition" and revolves around performing a high number of reps at or above 80% of your max on a few chosen lifts.
The second type is an "isometric/explosive contrast" workout. Both isometrics and explosive lifts increase motor unit activation via different mechanisms.
The last type of session is an "overload and tendon strengthening" day in which the goal is to slowly downgrade the inhibitory responses that prevent a high level of force production.
Sessions 1 and 3 – Motor Skill Acquisition
This first type of training is performed twice per week. Ideally, they'd be scheduled for Monday and Thursday. The goal of this session is to perform as many repetitions as possible with a load that's at or above 80% of your maximum. But, this is done without causing a significant accumulation of fatigue so that each repetition will be specific to a maximal lift.
We'll use what I call a "giant cluster." With this, you'll have a certain time frame (20 minutes, in our case) during which your goal will be to perform as many reps as possible. The number of repetitions per set will vary depending on the load.
- Week 1: You'll use 80% of your maximum and perform as many sets of three reps as possible in 20 minutes. I've found that sets of three are ideal with 80%. Any more than that and fatigue accumulates much faster, which requires you to take longer rest periods between sets and thus lead to less reps being performed. Less than three reps won't lead to a significant reduction in fatigue, and generally doesn't lead to an increase in the total number of lifts (maybe in the total number of sets, but not in the total number of lifts).
- Week 2: You'll increase the weight to 85% of your maximum and perform as many sets of two reps as possible in 20 minutes. Because of the increase in loading, reducing the reps to two per set is necessary to maintain a high quality of work at a high output.
- Week 3: You'll increase the weights to 90% of your maximum and perform as many sets of one rep as possible in 20 minutes. Since this is a near maximal effort, doing more than one repetition per set will lead to a decrease in the quality of work, which is unacceptable when focusing on motor learning.
- Week 4: This is a deloading week. You keep the intensity high (90%), but instead of going for the max number of sets as you can in 20 minutes, you simply perform half the number of sets that you reached in week three. For example, if in week three you were able to perform 12 sets, during week four you perform 6 sets of one rep at 90%. You can also take longer rest intervals.
Exactly how many sets should you do? It depends on your level of conditioning, work capacity, and fiber make-up. But, anywhere from 8 to 12 sets per 20-minute period is the norm. Really efficient athletes will be able to reach 12 to 15 sets. But the important thing is that each repetition is perfect.
As I mentioned, you have two of these sessions per week. In each of these sessions, you'll have three primary exercises, leading to a total training time of 60 minutes. You have two possible choices: Either you pick the same three exercises for both sessions or you use different ones.
The first option (same exercises) is optimal if you're trying to maximize strength in those three lifts. It's a bit like Bulgarian lifting – they only train the snatch, clean and jerk, and squat. The fewer exercises you have and the more practice you have on them, the more efficient you become. It's like somebody who wants to become a tennis player. They'll improve their game more if they focus only on tennis than if they play tennis, racquetball, and squash.
The second option (different exercises) is more effective if you're after a more general increase in strength. Most people will do better on this second option, while powerlifters and Olympic lifters generally do better with the first option.
Regardless of the option you choose, the exercises you select will be the same for all four weeks of training.
When selecting the three exercises you must pick:
- One upper body pushing exercise
- One overall lower body exercise
- One upper body pulling exercise
A good example would be:
- Incline Bench Press
- Sumo Deadlift
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
Yes, I'm aware that the bent-over barbell row has gotten a bad rep as an upper back builder. This is because the neural drive to the lats and rhomboids is reduced because you also have to recruit the lower back and lower body to maintain a proper lifting posture. This is a con for a muscle-building phase, but it's actually a pro for a CNS-development phase since it'll lead to a great total neural output.
Here's a list of more excellent movements to pick from:
- Upper Body Pushing: bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, standing military press, push press, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline press, dumbbell decline press. Declines are a slightly inferior choice in this specific case because there isn't as much total muscle mass being involved due to the relative inactivity (compared to other presses) of the deltoid.
- Overall Lower Body: sumo deadlift, snatch-grip deadlift, deadlift standing on a podium, conventional deadlift, back squat, front squat, overhead squat. I generally prefer a deadlift to a squat because more muscle groups are involved, especially in the upper body. In that case, the better choices are the sumo, snatch-grip, and podium deadlifts because they involve the lower body more than other types of deadlifts. That's not to say that squats aren't a good choice. Far from it! You could perform a deadlift on Monday and a squat on Thursday, for example.
- Upper Body Pulling: bent-over barbell rowing, one-arm dumbbell rowing, T-bar rowing, bent-over dumbbell rowing, chest-supported dumbbell rowing, chest-supported T-bar rowing, weighted chin-ups or pull-ups. Normally, you select a pulling exercise that directly antagonizes the selected pushing exercise. If you select a horizontal pressing movement (bench press) then you're better off with a horizontal pulling exercise (bent-over row). Likewise, it's best to pair a vertical pressing movement (military press) with a vertical pulling movement (chin-up or pull-up). If you go with an incline pressing movement, both choices in pulling movements are acceptable.
A Special Note on Frequency
Motor skill acquisition training isn't overly taxing because none of the sets are that challenging. That's actually the goal! Because this isn't a draining session, you can actually perform it twice in one day if you take four to six hours between sessions.
Don't add days, however, because it'll screw up the design of the week.
Benefits of Isometric Exercises
Since our second type of workout involves the use of isometrics, we'll first run through the nitty gritty science behind their effectiveness. Here's an excerpt from my latest book, High Threshold Muscle Building:
- Isometric strength, or the capacity to produce force during a static muscle action, is higher than concentric (lifting) strength. In most individuals, isometric strength is 10 to 15% higher than concentric strength (Schmidtbleicher, 1995). This high force production can be used to spark positive neural adaptations that can lead to a significant increase in strength. Remember, the more force you produce, the more high-threshold motor units you recruit.
- In most individuals, more HTMU's are recruited during a maximal isometric action than during a regular lifting movement. This is especially true in beginners. In that regard, isometric exercises can be used to develop the nervous system's capacity to recruit these HTMU's. As your CNS becomes more efficient at recruiting HTMU's during isometric actions, its overall capacity to tap into these powerful fibers will also increase. As a result, you'll eventually become more efficient at recruiting HTMU's in regular lifting movements. More HTMU's recruited equals more muscle growth and greater strength gains.
- Isometrics can be used as a potentiating method. Potentiation is the act of making a movement more efficient by pairing it with a previous activity. Potentiation can either be stimulated by explosive movements or by maximal voluntary contractions. The later being called "post-tetanic potentiation." The tetanus refers to a state of muscular activation that occurs either during a long muscular contraction or a very intense contraction. The tetanus can be explained as the summation of all the available motor units.
It's been found that the force of the twitch of a muscle fiber is more important after, rather than before, the brief tetanus. This effect is present even five minutes after the tetanus (O'Leary et al. 1997, Gullich and Schmidtbleicher 1995). In fact, during a seven-second tetanus, the capacity to apply force decreases by 15%. While this capacity is increased by 28% after one minute, 33% after two minutes, and 25% after five minutes (O'Leary et al. 1997). So, it appears that the capacity to produce force is greater two to three minutes after the cessation of the tetanic effort.
This increase in the capacity to produce force after a certain stimulation is called post-tetanic potentiation (PTP). The most effective way to promote a large PTP is to place an intense stimulation on a muscle via a maximal effort/maximal tension contraction for a length of 5 to 10 seconds (Brown and von Euler, 1938, Vandervoort et al. 1983).
PTP can increase contraction strength, especially in fast-twitch fibers (Bowman et al. 1969, Standeart, 1964). PTP also improves the rate of force development (Abbate et al, 2000). So, it can be used to potentiate both heavy lifting and explosive movements (Gullich and Schmidtbleicher 1997).
PTP works by increasing the phosphorylation of the myosin light chains, which makes the actin-myosin more sensitive to calcium in the subsequent twitch (Grange et al. 1993, Palmer and Moore 1989, O'Leary et al. 1997). This isn't chiefly important, but, if you wish, you can grab a physiology textbook and review the sliding filament theory of muscular contraction to see how this would increase the capacity to produce force.
To make a long story short, maximal isometrics would seem to be the best way to take advantage of the PTP phenomenon for a couple of reasons:
- The force production is higher during an isometric action. More force produced equals greater potentiation.
- Isometric movements are less tiring than concentric/regular exercises. As a result, potentiation (which improves performance) is increased while fatigue (which decreases performance) isn't significantly elevated. The end result being a greater improvement in force production potential.
To take advantage of this method, you should perform a five to ten second maximal isometric action (of an overcoming nature) two to three minutes prior to a heavy (or explosive) set of a regular exercise. This potentiating effect can be used to further increase strength, power, and size gains.
- Isometric exercises can be used to strengthen a weak point in a lift. The strength gained from isometric exercise is "angle specific," meaning that you increase strength mostly at the angle being trained (there is a 15 degrees carryover). This can be seen as both a limitation and benefit. A limitation in that to strengthen the whole range of motion, you must train at least three joint angles per movement. But, the benefit is that isometrics can be used to strengthen a specific point in a movement's range of motion (sticking point).
For example, if your bench press sticking point is at the mid-range of the concentric portion, you can utilize isometric work at that specific position to strengthen that weak point without significantly increasing fatigue or increasing the required post-workout recovery time.
- Isometric strength is important for several athletic actions. For example, every movement that requires the athlete to hold a pre-determined body position (e.g. alpine skiing's bent knees position) requires great isometric strength. Actions where there is a rapid switch from eccentric to concentric (running, changes of direction, etc.) also need isometric strength since before the switch can occur, the resistance must be stopped and that requires both eccentric and isometric strength.
- Maximum intramuscular tension is attained for only a brief period in dynamic exercises. This is mostly due to the fact that the resistance has velocity and acceleration components. On the other hand, with isometric exercises you can sustain that maximal tension for a longer period of time.
For example, instead of maintaining maximum intramuscular tension for 0.25 to 0.5 seconds in the concentric portion of a dynamic movement, you may sustain it for around three to six seconds during an isometric exercise. Strength is greatly influenced by the total time under maximal tension. If you can add ten to twenty seconds of maximal intramuscular tension per session, then you increase your potential for strength and especially size gains.
Session 2 – Isometric/Explosive Contrast
So, to get back to our training program, using isometric exercises can boost your motor unit recruitment and your strength in subsequent exercises.
This isometric/explosive contrast session is performed either the day after the first workout day (Tuesday) or two days after (Wednesday). In the later case, you have one rest day between both sessions. I recommend training the day after if you only performed one workout the day before, but waiting until Wednesday if you did two workouts on the first day.
The weekly schedule can thus look like this:
- Monday: Motor skill acquisition (one workout)
- Tuesday: Isometric/explosive contrast
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Motor skill acquisition
- Friday: Off
- Saturday: Overload
- Sunday: Off
Or like this:
- Monday: Motor skill acquisition (two workouts)
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Isometric/explosive contrast
- Thursday: Motor skill acquisition
- Friday: Off
- Saturday: Overload
- Sunday: Off
Note that the isometric/explosive contrast sessions don't cause muscle damage so it can be performed the day before or the day after another workout.
Here we'll use a combination of two exercises – one isometric and one explosive for each movement pattern. The first one (isometric) will be used to increase motor unit recruitment and improve the performance in the following explosive movement. The explosive drill will be used to develop power and neural efficiency.
Ideally, you'd include the following patterns in your workout:
- Upper Body Pushing
- Overall Lower Body
- Upper Body Pulling
However, in the latter, it's pretty hard to perform a correct explosive movement and an isometric one can be awkward. So, in reality I recommend:
- Whole Body
- Overall Lower Body
- Upper Body Push
The whole body selection requires you to be able to perform the Olympic lift variations at least somewhat efficiently. If you can't, you might want to use dumbbell swings.
Some of my favorite exercises pairings are:
- Conventional Deadlift Isometric Hold and Power Clean from the Hang.
- Back Squat Isometric Hold and Jump Squat with 20 to 30% of your max squat.
- Bench Press Isometric Hold and Speed Bench Press with 45 to 55% of your max bench.
Or, if you prefer to go with a vertical pressing movement, you can do:
- Military Press Isometric Hold and Push Press with 65 to 75% of your max military press.
The isometric exercise is performed for sets of six to nine seconds, obviously pushing as hard as humanly possible. Don't go above ten seconds because ATP-CP stores are pretty much depleted after ten to twelve seconds, which leads to a drop in maximal force production. This is bad for a neural development phase. However, longer isometric holds can be used during hypertrophy phases.
For the explosive exercise, the objective is to produce a very high level of acceleration on each repetition. This is why you should limit your reps to no more than:
- 3 to 5 for the Olympic lifting variations and speed version of the traditional strength exercises (bench, squat, etc.)
- 6 to 8 for weighted jumping exercises (jump squats, jump lunges)
- 8 to 10 for regular jumping exercises, medicine ball throws, and plyo push-ups
Each exercise pairing is called a "complex" and is performed with 90 to 120 seconds of rest between the first and second exercise. For example:
A1. Isometric Bench Press Hold
Max force for 6 to 9 seconds, 90 to 120 seconds of rest
A2. Speed Bench Press
3 to 5 max acceleration reps, 90 to 120 seconds rest
Each complex is performed 6 to 8 times.
Session 4 – Overload and Tendon Strengthening
The third type of workout in the week is also the most demanding. This is why it's to be performed after a day of complete rest and also why you take a day of rest afterwards. This way the workout is nestled nicely between two off days.
The objective of this session is to use a heavier weight than you can normally use in the basic movement patterns being trained. This is accomplished by doing partial movements and accentuated eccentrics.
Another method that'll be used on this day is super high-rep sets. Tendons can be strengthened via supramaximal loading, but they require very high reps to optimally adapt to training. This is because there's very little blood supply to the tendons. Eastern European athletes have been using super rep sets (100 to 200 reps) to improve tendon structural integrity and recovery for decades.
All and all, this session will desensitize your inhibitory reflexes, allowing you to use a greater percentage of your strength. It'll also improve the structural integrity of your tendons, as well as the efficiency of your nervous system.
The first part of the workout includes the overload training itself. Just like with the practice training/motor skill acquisition, you'll train these basic movement patterns:
- Upper Body Pushing
- Overall Lower Body
- Upper Body Pulling
But this time you'll use two exercises per movement pattern. The two exercises are to be of the same movement pattern (e.g. horizontal pressing: bench press), but the first one is a partial movement while the second one is an accentuated eccentric movement. Both exercises are performed alternatively (e.g. one set of A1, two minutes of rest, one set of A2, two minutes of rest, one set of A1, etc.).
Good pairings include:
Upper Body Pushing:
Partial bench press in the power rack (bar starts above the sticking point) plus manual eccentric bench press.
In the manual eccentric technique, you use a bar weight of 70 to 80%. Your partner applies pressure on the bar during the eccentric/lowering portion of the movement. The goal is to lower the bar in five seconds. As long as you can lower it in five seconds, he can apply more pressure. If the bar drops down faster, he should reduce the amount of pressure applied. At the end of the eccentric phase, the partner releases the bar and lets you lift it back up to the starting position. When doing manual eccentrics, sets of three to five reps are performed. The partner adjusts the resistance depending on your fatigue level.
Overall Lower Body:
Partial sumo deadlift in the power rack (the bar can start anywhere from mid-shins to just above the knees) plus eccentric-only deadlift.
The eccentric-only deadlift used to be a favorite of Olympic lifting coach Pierre Roy. Use anywhere from 90 to 110% of your max deadlift. Going heavier than that's dangerous and isn't more productive. You pick up the bar from a pair of blocks (so that you barely have to lift it up to get to the starting position), then take two steps back to clear the blocks. You then proceed to lower the bar to the floor as slowly as humanly possible. Shoot for at least a five-second lowering phase, but seven to ten seconds is better. One thing that's very important is that you should lower the bar using a perfect body position and technique – arched lower back, chest out, hips back and down. You can use either a sumo or conventional stance. During this type of exercise, only one repetition is performed.
Upper Body Pulling:
Partial pull-ups and negative pull-ups.
In the partial pull-ups, you start from the bottom position and pull yourself up as high as you can. Select a load (if you add weight) that'll only allow you to pull yourself halfway up to the finish position.. In the negative pull-ups, use around 10% more weight than for the partials. Use a bench to get into the proper position (the finished position of a pull-up) and lower yourself down as slowly as humanly possible. Since this exercise is technically easier than the eccentric deadlift, you should aim to lower yourself in at least ten seconds, with fifteen seconds being better. If you can lower yourself down under control in fifteen seconds, add more weight. Again, only one repetition is performed. For the partial movements, you shoot for sets of three to five reps with as much weight as you can handle. You then take 90 to 120 seconds of rest before moving on to the eccentric exercise.
Each pairing (or complex) is performed for four to five sets.
The second portion of the workout is much simpler. You simply pick one exercise for the movement patterns above and perform 100 to 200 total reps. That's it.
Note that these reps don't have to be performed straight through. You can take short pauses of five to ten seconds during the set. Also, pick a very light load. The goal here isn't to hit muscle failure; this isn't a muscle-building movement. The objective is simply to increase blood flow and tendon integrity.
So, you could select:
- Upper Body Pushing: bench press, decline press, dumbbell press, dumbbell incline press, machine chest press (only pick one)
- Lower Body: bodyweight squats, leg press, hack squats, wide-stance bodyweight squats (only pick one)
- Upper Body Pulling: Cable seated row, machine seated row, chest-supported T-bar row, chest-supported dumbbell row, lat pull-down (only pick one)
What About Isolation Work?
It's pretty easy to see how this first phase of training will build a lot of strength. It's also fairly obvious to most that this increase in strength will also lead to gains in overall muscle thickness and density. But what about the guns, man? Sure, there's no isolation work for the biceps (or any other muscle group, for that matter), but don't worry. Isolation exercises will make a comeback in Phase II, and especially Phase III.
In the mean time, you won't lose any arm size on this program. Heck, you'll be pulling and pushing heavy weights four times a week! Is that enough to make your arms grow? In some people, yes. In others, no. But one thing's for certain, it's enough to maintain arm size for the duration of this phase.
But, if you're the kind of person who goes crazy if he doesn't have his curls, then feel free to add ten to fifteen minutes of "beach work" at the end of the second skill acquisition session.
So, the plan becomes:
During that time, you're free to perform any exercise or training technique that fits the bill. But, under no circumstances are you to exceed that time frame (yes, use a timer). Overdoing isolation work during this first phase will compromise the efficacy of it.
Supplements to Enhance This Phase of Training
This phase relies heavily on the nervous system, and the heavy lifting puts a lot of strain on your joints. For those reasons, the four best supplements to use for this training phase are:
- Plazma™ before and during the workout to preload and pump key nutrients into muscle
- Spike® pre-workout to get you in the zone and rev-up your nervous system
- Brain Candy® post-workout to enhance neural recovery
- Flameout® to help reduce inflammation
Personally, I wouldn't do this program without these three. Can it be done without them? Sure. But for optimal results, you must use an optimal strategy, and that includes the right supplements.
Obviously, this goes on top of the basics of proper post-workout nutrition (Mag-10®) and creatine . The creatine will be especially effective on the motor skill acquisition days to increase the rate of ATP-CP regeneration, which will allow you to perform more quality sets.
It Has to Be Said
I know that someone, somewhere will eventually ask if this is a good program to follow while "cutting." My answer to that is, "Do you think you can outrun the shotgun that I'm about to shoot at your arse?"
This would probably be one of the dumbest things you could do. This whole three-month program is designed with the purpose of turning you into a walking brick wall. To do so, you'll need to lift mountains of iron and give your body enough nutrients to grow. Simply put, this can't be done while trying to cut.
Until Next Time
As you'll see in Part II of this series, each phase is in fact a stepping stone to the next. And this first phase is actually the foundation of the whole program; your end results will be proportional to how well this first phase went.