I often get e-mails from enthusiastic trainees looking for the
Holy Grail of training programs. They're on a desperate search to
find the best program imaginable, and then sail off in bliss to
training Nirvana. If only it were that simple.
Having received the Holy Grail of programs, a trainee heads
off to Training Nirvana.
There's no one best program, because no program will keep
producing results forever. Eventually you'll adapt, and your body
will become immune to whichever program you're on. At that point,
you can either become a stimulus junkie, sticking with the program
you're on even though it's not producing results, or you can wise
up and switch to another program.
This is a hard concept to grasp when you're on a training
program that's working really well. Even when progress slows or
stops, many trainees find it hard to "break up" with their beloved
programs. Just like being in a bad relationship, they look back to
the time when the program was fresh and wonderful, ignoring the
reality that it's just not working anymore. Don't be this trainee.
The goal of training is to make progress. Whether it's to lose
fat, get stronger, build muscle, or a combination of all three, you
have to focus on results. Just like clocking more hours at the
office is no guarantee that you'll make more money, putting in more
time at the gym is no guarantee that progress is imminent. You have
to work smart, not just hard.
One option that works very well with training is to switch gears
every three to four weeks. For example, do three weeks of high
volume training, such as 10x10 (ten sets of ten). Next, switch to
some moderate volume training with a higher intensity, such as 5x5.
Finally, go to a low volume higher intensity program, in which
training with maximum weights is the goal. While the concept sounds
simple enough, it requires discipline to move from one program to
You'll often be making great progress in week three as you get
used to a program. Once you switch to a new program the first week
or two are uncomfortable as you adapt both mentally and physically.
Once you get used to the program, it's time to switch again. Rather
than wait for the program to stall in week five or six, we stay one
step ahead of the curve by switching gears before it's too late.
Sounds easy, right? Please. How many times have you stayed on a
program way too long because it's comfortable? Hell, you're
probably on a program right now that you've been on for months if
not years and you wonder why you haven't made progress since 2002.
No more! It's time to take charge of training and get smart.
Without further ado, here's what I propose. Rather than wait
every three to four weeks to change a program, lets add some
variety right off the bat, and then make moderate modifications
each month. We'll start off the week with the 5x5 program as our
high volume day. In the middle of the week we'll use a moderate
training/higher intensity program such as 3x3, and at the end of
the week we ramp up the intensity and apply a low volume program
such as 1x6 per exercise.
The focus of this program is increasing overall strength.
However, you can easily make it a size and strength program by
ramping up the calories and ensuring your hormones are optimal
(testosterone and growth hormone being the two most important
ones). If fat loss is your goal then you're also in luck as the
best way to combat fat is to build as much lean muscle as possible
while keeping calories in check. Watch my Fat Loss DVD for more info.
While I don't think cardio is essential for fat loss, it can
provide a nice boost and of course has many other health benefits.
Thus get in two to three days of cardio on your off days for the
active recovery benefits as well as the health benefits. No need to
go overboard. Twenty minutes is plenty.
Next let's go over each day on the program and then go over some
sample programs to get you into action.
I've written about the 5x5 program many times. No, there's
nothing really magical about the program, and 5x4 or 5x6 would
probably work just as well. It's simply a good solid program for
strength and size. While the volume is not low, it's not super high
either, and most trainees can handle it at least once a week. High
volume training is very effective for building size and strength.
Here's how the 5x5 program works. Pick a weight for an exercise
such as the barbell military press and do five sets of five reps
with the same weight. Once you can do five sets of five with the
same weight, add five pounds. Don't add five pounds if you don't
nail all five sets with the same weight. For example, if you
complete the first three sets and then get four reps on the fourth
and three reps on the fifth set you don't get a pass to move up to
the next weight. Stay where you're at and work on all five sets.
Start with a weight that you could do eight reps with for a one-set
max, and use that for week one. Sure, it'll feel somewhat light,
and that's the point. Have a success in week one to build
confidence and to get used to the program.
The 3x3 is a common rep and set scheme in powerlifting circles,
and is a great way to build strength. Similar to the 5x5 program
you're going to use the same weight on all three sets. When you can
do three sets of three with the same weight, add five pounds.
Start off with a weight that you could do six reps with if you
took it to your limit. Again, it'll feel somewhat light, and that's
fine for week one. There'll be plenty of time to move into the
heavier weights down the road. 3x3 is more of a strength program,
and the moderate volume and lower reps will be a nice change of
pace from the 5x5 program.
High Intensity Training
High intensity training, otherwise known as HIT, is very
controversial. People either think it's the greatest training
program ever, or they think it's the the bubonic plague of the
training world. Here's how it works: pick a weight for an exercise
and knock out the reps until you hit your limit, then stop the set
when you can no longer continue in good form. Here's where it gets
tricky. Many HIT proponents recommend that you go for another rep
no matter what. This often results in a sloppy final rep which is a
great way to get injured or simply induce central nervous system
When you overload your body with too much intensity, you break
it down to a point that you can't recover adequately. The end
result is you feel weaker at each workout and have to apply more
effort and force to get the job done. The brain is a very important
component of training. Once the CNS gets fatigued, the muscles are
no longer recruited in the most efficient manner, and strength goes
down the drain.
Thus, we need to make sure we apply the right dose of HIT. It's
certainly not something to be done more than once a week for most
trainees, and rather than miss the last rep of each exercise, stop
at your limit. In other words, if you've completed five reps and
don't know for sure that you can nail the sixth rep, stop at five.
Never end a set with sloppy form.
You may be wondering why HIT is even in the program if the
probability is high for CNS burnout and overtraining. If you never
push yourself to your limit, you'll never know what you're capable
of, and you'll never learn how to push yourself when things get
hard. The problem with people who train in HIT style all of the
time is they push though no matter what. In other words, even if
they're having an off day and are feeling weaker, they train to
failure when they would've been better off doing a light day, or
not training at all.
Alternatively, trainees who never train to their limits often
give up when the set gets hard. In other words, when they get to a
hard rep with a sticking point, instead of pushing through they
automatically give up, as they have been trained to always be fresh
and to never train to failure. As a result, they miss out on some
tremendous strength opportunities as well as mental toughness
The bottom line is that HIT has a place in an effective training
regimen from time to time and shouldn't be overlooked. Just don't
get attached to the stimulus aspect of HIT which tends to be
addictive for people who are stimulus addicts in other areas of
life. Many trainees feel that they didn't have a good workout if
they're not wiped out after a training session. Again, they focus
on the wrong aspect of training. You want to focus on something
measurable such as strength to track your progress.
The Combination Program Setup
Alright, we know what programs we're going to combine for the
combination program, now let's talk about how to set it up. The
program is going to call for three weight-training workouts per
week. For simplicity, Monday-Wednesday-Friday will be the choice
for this article. Yes, you can do it on Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.
You can even take an extra day off between each workout or some of
the workouts if necessary. However, don't do two workouts in a row.
These are full body workouts, and you need a break between each
Generally, Monday is the day that you'll be most energetic.
Sure, it's back to the grind at your lame job, but you had a chance
to rest up over the weekend and should be ready to start off with a
great workout to get your training week going. The 5x5 program is
the most demanding work capacity wise due to the volume. The last
thing you want to do is leave it until the end of the week when
energy levels are generally lower.
The 3x3 program is going to go on Wednesday, and will be a
welcome change from the 5x5 program. The 3x3 program is moderate
volume and pretty high intensity, but not too high if you avoid
training to failure on each set. Finally, we're going to save the
HIT day for Friday. Yes, the HIT program is intense, but the volume
is low and the workout should go pretty fast given that you're only
doing one set per exercise.
Moreover, people tend to be more upbeat on Friday as they get
ready for the weekend. Thus, use the adrenaline from the
celebration of the end of another workweek, and apply it to the
intense yet brief workout. Finally, you get to take two days off
after the HIT day, so you'll have plenty of time to recover from
the intense work.
Okay, now that you have a clear idea of what the combination
program is all about, lets go over a sample regimen for you to put
into action right away.
A1: Standing Barbell Military Press
A2: Weighted Pull-up or Lat Pulldown
Do a set of A1, rest one minute, then do a set of A2. Rest one
minute, then do another set of A1. Continue in this fashion until
all of the sets have been completed.
B1: Barbell Deadlift
B2: Hanging Leg Raise
Same as A1 and A2 above.
At first glance the program looks pretty easy. Trust me, it's
not. There's a reason why you only do a few exercises. The volume
adds up quickly, and when it does fatigue will become a factor.
Thus, we want to focus on compound exercises that will provide the
greatest benefit. Forget about isolation work: don't major in minor
things. Compound exercises such as deadlifts and standing military
presses will do more for your overall strength and physique
enhancement than curls and pushdowns.
Regarding the exercise selection, standing presses and weighted
pull-ups result in a complete upper body workout. Every muscle in
the upper body is hit including the chest and it's done in a very
efficient manner. Don't add any other exercises. For the lower body
portion, we'll focus on the barbell deadlift. The deadlift works
the quads and hamstrings and is a strenuous exercise, which is why
we're pairing it with hanging leg raises. Hanging leg raises aren't
too strenuous, and will help loosen up the lower back, which often
gets tight from deadlifting.
A1: Incline barbell press
A2: Barbell bent-over row
Do a set of A1, rest 90 seconds, then do a set of A2. Rest
ninety seconds, then do another set of A1. Continue in this fashion
until all of the sets have been completed.
B1: Barbell full squat
B2: Double dumbbell swing or barbell Romanian deadlift
Same as A1 and A2 above
For the 3x3 workout, we're going to focus on using more weight
for building more strength than the 5x5 day. The incline press is a
great exercise that combines the benefits of the bench press and
the military press. Great exercise for sitting back and loading up
the weight as much as possible. The barbell bent over row is a
powerhouse exercise for the back, and balances out the pressing
from the incline press. Many trainees make the mistake of doing way
too much pressing and not enough pulling.
To build serious strength for the lower body, of course we'll do
the barbell squat. Don't stop at parallel, go rock bottom or as far
as you can. Leg master Tom Platz, well known for his ridiculously
huge legs, spent a lot of time in the squat rack. He focused on
full squats, knocking off over twenty reps with 500 pounds!
All you have to do are a few sets of three, so go heavy with solid
form and get the job done.
We'll balance the squats with double dumbbells swings for the
hamstrings. This is an explosive move that really works the
hamstrings and all of the other areas that you can't see in the
mirror known as the posterior chain. If you're not familiar with
the swing, do dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts instead. If you're not
familiar with that, look it up, or get a trainer to show you how to
Dumbell swings work the anti-mirror
Thank God it's Friday! The good news is, you're only doing one
set per exercise. The bad news is, you're doing one very
hard set per exercise. Oh well, the workout will be over in
less than a half hour and you can celebrate a great week of
training at happy hour. Do a few warm-up sets for each exercise
before going for the "money set." Warming up is an individual thing
and in many ways is more of a confidence builder than anything
else. No need to do an excessive amount of reps. Just get warm and
ready to go. To illustrate, here's a sample warm-up for a barbell
deadlift set of 315 for 10 reps:
135x5, 225x5, 275x3, 315x10
The last thing you want to do is waste energy and build fatigue
on warm up sets. Get it done and move on to the money set. Here's a
sample HIT workout:
Barbell floor press 1x6
Barbell bent-over row 1x6
Standing dumbbell military press 1x5
Lat pulldown or weighted pull-up 1x5
Barbell squat 1x8
Barbell Romanian deadlift 1x6
Keep the rep range between six and twelve. Start with a weight
that will take you to your limit at rep six. Work on taking that
weight to twelve reps over time. When you can complete twelve reps,
add five pounds.
The order of the exercises is up to you. Some trainees like to
do Squats and deadlifts at the beginning of the workout in order to
get the most strenuous exercises out of the way early in the
workout. Others find that the upper body exercises have a tonic
effect and ramp up focus for the harder exercises. Experiment and
find out what works for you.
Also, you may find that you're better off with fewer exercises
Barbell military press 1x6
Barbell bent-over row 1x6
Barbell deadlift 1x6
More than likely you'll have some days in which you can handle
all of the exercises and others in which you want to scale things
back and focus on a few exercises. The more you train the more
instinctive you'll become on what is the best plan of action for
each workout. Often you'll have to make mid course corrections at
the beginning of a workout rather than being stubborn and following
the plan no matter what.
There it is! A training program that has variety built in
through out the week. You'll start off with some reasonably high
volume and moderate intensity at the beginning of the week to get
things moving. In the middle of the week up are going to ramp up
the intensity and lower the volume. Finally at the end of the week
when you're ready for the weekend you're going to have an intense,
yet brief workout to round out the program. Lets end with some
frequently asked questions:
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long should I stay on the program?
Stick with the sample program for four weeks. Then take a
back-off week in which you go through the program using 80% of the
weight that you would normally use. On the back off week, don't
train to your limit on the HIT day. Stop several reps short. When
you resume training, make a few modifications.
For example, instead of doing 5x5 on Day 1, do 5x6. Instead of
doing 3x3 on Wednesday, try 2x3 or 3x2 with heavier weights. On
Friday, change some of the exercises. For example, do dumbbell
floor presses instead of barbell floor presses. You don't have to
make dramatic changes ever four weeks, but you should make some
changes to keep things fresh.
Q: Where do I fit cardio in?
Do some moderate cardio on off days two to three times per
week. 20-30 minute sessions are plenty so don't go crazy with
cardio. Some moderate sessions will help with workout recovery but
it's easy to go to far and get counter productive results.
Q: Is this program good for size or strength?
Every size program should have a focus on strength. Why would
you want to get bigger without getting stronger? If you keep your
calories in check, this program can easily be a strength program in
which hypertrophy is minimal or non-existent. To induce
hypertrophy, simply increase the calories with quality food and get
a good amount of sleep every night (no less than eight hours of
deep sleep). Finally, hypertrophy has a great deal to do with ideal
Testosterone and Growth hormone levels. If both are low, forget
about getting bigger. For more info the importance of optimizing
hormones, get my e-book.
Q: How do I maximize workout recovery?
Resist the urge to add more work to the program. Leaving a
workout feeling energized and empowered is a strong sign that you
just completed a productive workout. Next, get in a power nap after
each workout. Thirty minutes will get the job done. I like to
listen to the Holosync meditation program during
this time. Make sure you have a protein shake after each workout
with 25-35 grams of protein and 40-60 grams of carbohydrates.
Reduce workout-induced inflammation with systemic enzymes such as
get a solid sports massage every two weeks minimum. Every week is
better if you can afford it.