Chad Waterbury Tells You How
You've read the bodybuilding magazines. You know how to train for size: split routines, three sets of 10 reps of every exercise, take each set to failure, grind out your reps to increase your time under tension. It's a familiar playbook, and you've got it memorized.
So, is it working for you? Are you big and ripped yet? Are you satisfied? No? Well, have you made any significant, noticeable gains in the last couple of years?
If you have, great.
If you haven't, it's time for some straight talk. No matter how closely you adhere to the Weider Principles, or how strongly you believe in The Gospel According to Joe, your eyeballs are the best arbiters of success. Take off your shirt, stand in front of the mirror, and ask yourself this question: "Is my training style working for me?"
If the answer is "no," or "maybe," or anything short of a clear "hell yes," Chad Waterbury wants you to try a new approach, one that aggressively violates most of your current beliefs about how to build a bigger, stronger body.
Chad is no stranger to Testosterone Nation readers. He's been one of our most popular authors for the past seven years. (His first article was this one, published in November 2001.) In those seven years, he's turned the model for hypertrophy training upside down, arguing that most lifters will get better results from total-body workouts and low-rep sets. The bodybuilding playbook tells you to lower weights slowly, but Waterbury wants you to do everything fast.
His newest book, Huge in a Hurry, will bring his revolutionary – and sometimes controversial – ideas about training to a bigger audience.
But is that mainstream audience ready for them?
We recently tracked Chad down in Santa Monica and asked him about the new book, his evolved philosophy of training, and whether or not he thought his ideas were going to scare the piss out of the average "fitness enthusiast."
T Nation: Sum up the philosophy behind Huge in a Hurry in just one sentence.
Chad Waterbury Lift as fast as possible, do total-body workouts, and stop each set once your speed slows down or your form changes.
T Nation: Speed is a big theme in the new book. You have one line in there that goes something like, "It's time to think less about the weight on the bar and more about the speed in which you move it." Explain.
Waterbury: The weight on the bar is important. No question. Any load that's lighter than a 20 to 22 RM [the most weight you can lift for that many reps without slowing down or changing your form] won't help you build muscle. You won't be able to recruit all your muscle fibers, no matter how fast you lift it.
T Nation: So just telling someone to lift fast isn't enough.
Waterbury: Exactly. If it really worked that way, baseball pitchers would have shoulders like Ronnie Coleman. I wouldn't bother writing an entire book about lifting fast.
T Nation: When it comes to training, fast lifting is sort of the final frontier. It's the one thing almost no one talks about.
Waterbury: Yes, absolutely, but I should add here that there's more to my system than just training fast. Speed is a big part of it, but the real key is understanding changes in speed – what that tells us when we're lifting. Charles Staley and I have been carrying that torch for years.
T Nation: So what do changes in speed tell us?
Waterbury: That you're no longer recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibers with each repetition. You only do that when you're lifting heavy and lifting fast.
T Nation: Wait. That sounds like two different concepts. How do you lift fast when you're lifting heavy?
Waterbury: You're right – heavy loads don't move fast, no matter how hard you try. What I'm talking about here are weights that give you a choice – you could lift them slow, or you could lift them fast. My goal is to get people to lift those weights fast.
Say you're holding a 20-pound dumbbell, and you're pretty sure you could curl that thing 20 times without stopping. Just doing some quick math in my head, that means it's between 50 and 60 percent of your 1RM.
T Nation: The most weight you could lift once.
Waterbury: Right. So if you do those curls slowly – a 2-1-1 tempo, something like that – you might recruit half your muscle fibers. But if you curl it up explosively, you'll hit 'em all.
That's why I put so much emphasis on speed. You hit muscle fibers with fast reps that you can't touch with slow reps.
T Nation: What do you do when your speed changes?
Waterbury: You stop the set, rest, and then pick up where you left off.
T Nation: But how do you measure speed? It's not like a guy's going to bring a radar gun to the gym.
Waterbury: Ha! That's a funny image, but no, it doesn't have to be complicated at all. When you do a rep that's a lot slower than your previous reps, you stop the set.
If you stop because you think maybe you slowed down, or because you think you might slow down on the next rep, you won't get much of a workout because you won't fatigue your muscles.
And that's something you just can't get around – no fatigue, no hypertrophy.
T Nation: Makes sense. Let's get back to the heavy weights. I think it's fair to say that you helped bring about a real paradigm shift in the way T Nation readers think about load in relation to hypertrophy. You didn't just say it's possible to build size with three to five reps per set. You said it's the best way to do it.
Waterbury: That's the other way to make sure you hit all the muscle fibers you can possibly hit. When your brain senses that a load is heavy, it's going to put more muscle fibers on the job, even before you start the actual lift. They're all lined up and ready to go.
The speed issue isn't as important here, because you aren't going to lift the weight if you don't push it or pull it as hard as you can. You're already lifting it as fast as it's going to go.
So if everybody lifted heavy all the time, we wouldn't have to mention rep speed at all. There'd be no such thing as a deliberately slow lift – it's just not an option when you're trying to get a 2 or 3RM weight off your chest, or pull it off the floor.
T Nation: But you can't lift heavy all the time.
Waterbury: God, no. It's too hard on your joints and nervous system. That's why my programs always have a mix of heavier and lighter workouts.
The heavier workouts are easy to understand – lift heavy shit two or three times, put it down, rest, repeat.
It's when I talk about medium or light weights that I end up confusing people. But I try to keep it simple: When you have a choice, it's always better to lift fast than slow. I can cite stacks of neuroscience research, but it's probably best for readers to just try it for a while and see what happens.
T Nation: Just to be clear – and avoid getting sued for running this – we aren't talking about flinging weights around, right?
Waterbury: Right. I'm talking about lifting as fast as you can with perfect form.
But just to clarify something I said earlier: Perfect form doesn't mean lifting something fast and lowering it slowly. You have to be under control, but you get more benefit from lowering a weight quickly. You'll recruit more muscle fibers, counterintuitive as that sounds.
T Nation: In Huge in a Hurry, you talk about sets lasting 15 seconds, sometimes less. But a couple of minutes ago, you said that fatigue is essential for hypertrophy. How do you square those two ideas? Doesn't fatigue include some amount of time under tension?
Waterbury: I've heard that argument, but I think you're going to have a hard time finding anything in the research prescribing a certain threshold of time under tension to induce hypertrophy. If that's what mattered, why contract muscles at all? Why not just hold a weight in one position and build muscle with isometrics?
T Nation: Because it doesn't work?
Waterbury: And why doesn't it work? Because muscles need to be challenged through a range of motion. And the more muscle fibers you involve during that lift through that range of motion, the more muscle growth you'll induce. The time it takes doesn't matter. What does matter is the number of times you do it.
T Nation: The number of repetitions.
Waterbury: Reps per exercise, yeah.
Here's my favorite example: Bill Starr's 5 x 5 program, one of the best workout systems I ever used. Most of the guys reading this have probably done some version of it.
T Nation: Sure.
Waterbury: Now you look at other combinations of sets and reps that everyone agrees are effective – 8 x 3, 4 x 6, 6 x 4. The thing they all have in common is 24 reps per exercise. And they all work. Starr has 25 reps per exercise, and that works.
So I asked myself, what is it about 24 or 25 reps per exercise? There must be something special about it. You can gain size and strength but you can still recover from one workout to the next. And that seems to apply to everybody who tries it.
T Nation: In the book you say, "Count the reps and let the sets take care of themselves." But in all the examples you gave, there's a prescribed number of sets. You don't just get to 24 or 25 reps randomly.
Waterbury: No, you don't. But you do get to 24 or 25 reps by choosing weights within a certain range. If you're doing 4 x 6, 5 x 5, or 6 x 4, you're using heavy weights. You wouldn't expect something magical to happen if you went from doing 4 x 6 to 5 x 5.
So the number of sets doesn't really matter. What matters is that you're using heavy weights and doing 24 or 25 reps. Even with the exact same weight on the exact same exercise, you might need five sets to get 25 reps one day, but just four sets a week later. It's still 25 reps.
I don't want to get too hung up on 25 reps because it's just one of the ranges I use. If we're talking about super-heavy weights – 2 or 3RM – you might do just 15 reps. That's probably not enough for hypertrophy, but it's great for strength, and I don't think anybody would argue with me if I said that getting stronger helps you get bigger.
If I have you lifting medium weights, 10 to 12RM, then you'll do more reps – 30, 35, maybe even 40. And you'll still be able to recover enough to do your next workout two days later.
The key to all this is, you only do perfect reps. And you never know in advance how many perfect reps you're going to do on any given set.
T Nation: And it's an imperfect rep when your speed slows down.
Waterbury: Or when your range of motion shortens, or when you have to change your form to finish a rep – when you have to cheat, in other words. Any of those are a sign that some of your muscle fibers are exhausted and they're dropping out.
T Nation: So walk me through my workout. I'm doing dumbbell bench presses, I'm lifting heavy, and I'm going for 25 reps.
Waterbury: Right. Ideally, you've got a weight you can lift four to six times on that first set.
T Nation: What about my other sets?
Waterbury: I'll get to that.
So, okay, first set, your first four reps go up fast and smooth – consistent speed. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Fifth rep, that one isn't like the others. You get stuck at the midpoint, and you really struggle to lock it out.
You don't need a radar gun to tell you that rep was slower than the first four. That's the great thing about doing all your reps as fast as possible – it's completely obvious when you slow down and it's time to end the set.
This might be an even better example:
Let's say you're doing pull-ups, same rep range. This time, rep five is just as fast as reps one through four, but you can't get your chin over the bar. In other words, your range of motion shortened, which is another sign that you're no longer using all your muscle fibers. Rather than grind out another rep, with an even shorter range of motion, you stop there.
The other way to tell it's time to end the set is when your form changes. Maybe you're doing a cable row, and when you get to that fifth rep, you lean forward a little at the beginning, and then bend backwards at the end. Your speed was the same, the range of motion was the same, but your body had to do something different. It had to bring in your hip-extensor muscles to finish the rep.
T Nation: What happens after the first set? I mean, what if you only get three or four reps on the second set?
Waterbury: Then you only get three or four reps, which is fine. You do as many sets as it takes to get to 25. What you don't want to do is stop every set at five reps, even if you could've done more, or force yourself to get five reps even if you should've done less.
T Nation: How does that work with Olympic lifts? I notice you have the snatch in some of your workouts.
Waterbury: It's trickier to notice changes in speed, and you can't really tell when your range of motion shortens. You can't focus on stuff like that and do Olympic lifts with any kind of decent form.
But you can tell when you have to change your technique – when you have to do something different to get the bar off the floor, or when you end up with your feet in a different place than they were on the other reps. That's your sign to end the set.
By the way, it's interesting that you bring that up, because it's one of the few exercises in the book that's technically complex, and it takes a long time before you get to it – I don't start anyone off with Olympic lifts.
It's a great exercise, and I think it's definitely worth learning, but most of the exercises in Huge in a Hurry are ones most readers are going to know how to do before they pick up the book. They still have to get used to doing those exercises fast, but they'll start off on familiar turf.
T Nation: Speaking of familiar turf, let's say you have a guy who trains his muscles the traditional way – split routines, slow tempos, 3 x 12 or 4 x 10 on every exercise, three or four exercises for each muscle group. He beats the shit out of himself, his muscles are shaking and pumped up like parade floats, he's really sore the next day, and the day after that he's really, really sore. According to you, everything he's doing is wrong.
Waterbury: It's wrong if he isn't getting the results he wants. If he is, this book isn't for him. The target reader is someone who tried all that and didn't get what he wants.
T Nation: One thing guys typically do is train for the pump, then use that pump to evaluate whether or not they had a good workout. But you say ...
Waterbury: I say there's no correlation between a pump and muscle growth.
T Nation: Heresy!
Waterbury: No, look, lots of things give you a pump but don't make your muscles bigger. One of the best exercises I know for making your calves bigger is the jump squat, which doesn't cause a pump. But if you do a set of 50 calf raises, you'll get one hell of a pump, but it won't make your calves bigger.
Another argument I hear is, "It's not what Arnold did."
T Nation: Arnold being the guy who famously compared the pump to an orgasm.
Waterbury: If you read his book [The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding], he talks about doing heavy power training early in his career – that's how he built his base of muscle size. And remember, what first got him attention was his size. He didn't have any finesse back then – he was just bigger than everybody else.
So if you know that, you might ask when he stopped doing heavy lifts. The answer is, he never did, at least according to his own book. He says he maxed out on something once a week.
Everybody knows about the crazy volume he did, and everybody knows that's how he built the body that made him famous. But nobody can say with any certainty that the crazy stuff was more important than the heavy stuff. We don't know because he always did some of both.
I have to make one more point about Arnold. Remember that interview with Ellington Darden a while back?
T Nation: Sure.
Waterbury: So you remember that part where Dr. Darden talks about how Arnold couldn't do HIT workouts with Arthur Jones, and how he snuck off in the middle of the night?
T Nation: Yep.
Waterbury: The takeaway from that story was, hey, Arnold couldn't hack it. But I don't know if that's the real story. I thought, maybe Arnold knew better. Maybe he knew this kind of training wasn't right for his body, just like he knew he needed to keep doing max-effort workouts once a week.
T Nation: You brought up Arthur Jones. He's a guy who came along, looked at what bodybuilders were doing, and said, "No, no, that ain't right." Aren't you doing the same thing? I mean, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the most successful bodybuilders do the opposite of what you tell them to do, you're still saying, "Don't do it that way."
Obviously, the split routines, training to failure and beyond, slower lifting speeds, isolation exercises, machine training, moderate reps, getting sore, going for the pump – that's all worked, hasn't it? It's not like pro bodybuilders aren't getting big.
Waterbury: Competitive bodybuilding isn't my market. Those guys are part of a sport that's entirely about what their bodies look like. They don't need athleticism. They don't need to get into a cage and kick someone's ass, or plow through a defensive line, or scale a wall or trudge through a jungle with 40 pounds of gear strapped to their back.
My goal is to help guys get big, strong, lean, and athletic, to have high levels of strength and mobility. A body that can do stuff.
I was at a buddy's house, and he had this badass-looking Japanese sword. When I picked it up, he yelled at me to be careful. It was fragile. So you ask, how could a badass-looking sword be fragile?
T Nation: Life refuses to imitate Kill Bill.
Waterbury: So my buddy told me he swung it around one night after he watched a Bruce Lee movie, and the damn thing fell apart. It looked good, but it wasn't built right. I couldn't help but make a correlation between the sword and the way a pro bodybuilder trains.
T Nation: Do you think the mainstream audience is going to accept the ideas in your book? I mean, the gang here at T Nation has been watching your ideas evolve for seven years. But now, with this book, you're taking the end product of that evolution and saying to the general gym crowd, "Do something completely different."
Waterbury: I think it's like the question you asked me earlier, the one about bodybuilders. If someone's really happy with what he's doing, and it's working for him, then he's not going to pick up a book that tells him to try something new.
But, bottom line, I think readers are going to like it. The workouts are shorter than a lot of guys are used to. You leave the gym feeling good, instead of beaten up.
And lifting fast is fun. The idea that you should lift everything slow took a long time to sink in, and I don't think it was ever that popular outside of the books and magazines that told guys to train that way. Now I'm giving everyone permission to lift the way a lot of us wanted to all along.
You know, back when I wrote "Everything is About to Change," I was caught by surprise by some of the negative reaction. The basic ideas were polarizing, or at least the way I presented them was. Some people thought it was exciting, but I caught a shitstorm from some others.
When I thought about what I could've done, or should've done, to explain myself better, I realized that what I really needed to do was write a book and explain the entire system from start to finish. Then I got a huge break when Rodale gave me a chance to write it.
And not just that – they produced a beautiful, full-color book. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was blown away by the layout and design, and the care that went into the photography and production and everything else.
T Nation: Shameless book-pimping time: Where can we go to pick up a copy?
Waterbury: It should be available everywhere. It's $23.95 in stores, less than $17 on Amazon. I know I'm biased, but I think it's a steal. But please don't steal it!
T Nation: We've previewed the book here at T Nation, and it's definitely a game-changer. Good luck with it, Chad!