Friends, I have a confession. I recently followed a program that broke a ton of modern training practices and violated more than a few rules concerning what we “should” and “shouldn’t” be doing in the gym.
I trained barbell curls with the same frequency and volume as squats, but as least I curled outside the rack. I jumped from zero direct neck training right into high frequency weighted neck work.
I did full range, classic sit-ups just like we used to do in gym class. And each week, I did 90 (yes, ninety) sets of pressing for shoulders and chest, including 45 sets of behind-the-neck militaries, without doing a single pull-up.
Now, before you ask if I took a kettlebell to the skull and was wandering around the gym suffering from blunt head trauma, I didn’t and I wasn’t. I was actually following a well-respected trainer’s advice and by the end, I felt pretty good.
Okay yeah, the trainer’s been dead for almost 25 years and the program he “gave” me was something he first wrote about when The Beatles were making their first US tour, but still, the plan was considered legit at the time and, as we’ll find out in this article, it could actually be worth considering for you, too.
It was simply called the “High Protein, High Set Program” and that no-frills name is a reflection of the no-frills, hard training found in the workouts. Let’s see what it entails, why it works when it shouldn’t, and how it can be tweaked to be even better.
So just who was the guy that suggested such a crazy-sounding routine? John McCallum was his name and in the 1960s and ’70s, he was one of the most well-known and well-respected bodybuilding writers as his “Keys to Progress” column ran in Strength and Health magazine every month for nearly 10 years.
McCallum approached bodybuilding from all angles, no pun intended. He was constantly preaching the importance of building impressive strength, and frequently reminded his readers that the best developed bodybuilders of the day like John Grimek, Reg Park, and Bill Pearl were almost always some of the strongest.
But he also understood what it took to end up looking like a bodybuilder. Arm specialization programs? He wrote ’em. Plans to get ripped, before “ripped” was even used to describe physiques? Check. Constantly explaining the crucial role nutrition plays in seeing results? Most definitely.
Going through his writing, it’s apparent that many of the concepts he discussed are not only still valid, but are still being actively used by lifters today without always realizing just how long they’ve been around.
In the early 1960s, Big John was writing about the importance of “softening up” for maximum size gains (or in today’s terms, not worrying about seeing 6-pack abs while bulking). He also believed a bodybuilder should be able to run, not sprint, but run two miles without keeling over – not too terrible an expectation.
He even wrote about developing a “power look” using what he called progressive pulls – power cleans working up to a heavy set of three, followed immediately by high pulls working to a heavy set of three, followed immediately by deadlifts up to a heavy triple, followed finally by deadlift singles.
To put McCallum into perspective with today’s top coaches, he had Mark Rippetoe’s appreciation of a solid strength foundation combined with Jim Wendler’s brutally basic, common sense approach to training, and he presented his information with Dan John’s flair for telling a story.
Reading McCallum’s column, you’d often hear about his daughter’s knucklehead boyfriend Marvin, his Uncle Harry the well-built ladies’ man, and the helpful local gym owner always ready with advice for a skinny newcomer.
Lastly, as you can see from his picture above, he wasn’t exactly his generation’s version of an all-talk keyboard warrior. He’d look right at home joining Dave Tate and John Meadows for a hard day of training, and I’d bet the original JM just might pick up the tab for steak and eggs afterwards.
McCallum was, for a lot of aspiring lifters, a regular voice of guidance and motivation. His monthly advice, either in straight article form or as Q and A, was as effective as it was entertaining. But the big question remains, is it really still effective?
High Volume and High Frequency: Recipe for Disaster or Growth?
Much of McCallum’s advice was based on simple heavy lifting. Paying attention to the basic lifts, often combining heavy work around 5 reps with more moderate work in the 10-15 rep range, very often incorporating the infamous heavy 20-rep breathing squat, and generally lifting three or four days a week to emphasize the importance of rest and recovery.
However, one particular routine – the High Protein, High Set Program – ratchets up both the training frequency and the overall training volume for 6-8 weeks of serious growth stimulus.
Frequency and volume are usually inversely related. You can either do more in each session or you can train more often each week, but by increasing both variables under well-specified conditions, you get a chance to basically tell your body, “You might wanna adapt and grow, or else we’re gonna die here.”
The original program might’ve seemed daunting at first. Two workouts alternated and repeated three times per week for a total of six training days. It’s not a clear-cut bodypart split, it’s not quite an upper/lower split. It’s… something else.
|B||Behind the Neck Press||5,10||6,8 *|
|C||Flat Barbell Bench Press||5,10||6,8 *|
|D||Barbell Curl||5,10||6,8 *|
|D||French Press||5,10||6,8 *|
|D||Standing Calf Raise||15||10 *|
|E1||Neck Flexion||10||8 *|
|E2||Neck Extension||10||8 *|
|F||Barbell Row||5,10||6,8 *|
* These sets are the real difference-makers. You can stop stringing up your “WTF?!? Overtraining!” banners right now because these sets are done with a much lighter weight, no more than 20 or 30 seconds rest between them, and they focus on the muscular contraction/tension and getting a good pump.
There are two main principles at work here. First is the heavy 5×6 work, going up in weight for the first two sets and sticking with a very challenging (but not to failure) weight for the final three sets.
So you’re doing several hard and heavy sets first, then dropping the weight and pumping out even more. Sounds like a basic bodybuilding session, huh? That’s because it pretty much is.
I’m sure the behind the neck (BTN) press caught your eye. If there’s one exercise people love to argue about, it’s the behind the neck press, and for good reason.
It’s gotten the thumbs down from several coaches and has been torn apart by just about everyone, and for more than a few good reasons. It can absolutely be a shoulder-killer if you have even the slightest mobility restriction or structural shoulder problem.
However, the majority of lifters in the ’50s and ’60s had no such issues – the result of generally more well-designed routines (less flat bench press focus, more consistent pull-ups and overhead pressing) and less time spent at desks in front of computers or, to be more chronologically accurate, typewriters.
If you’re healthy enough to perform BTN presses, consider including them conditionally – bringing the bar no lower than ear or eye-level, keeping your elbows behind your hands as you press, and being certain to avoid muscular failure – but if they’re a no-go, you can easily sub-in traditional (standing barbell) military presses without summoning McCallum’s disapproving spirit from the great gym in the sky. We’ll actually discuss more ways to update this routine later on.
The measure of any training program is in the results. If it doesn’t produce, it’s simply not worth trying, and from what McCallum writes, the High Protein, High Set program certainly does bring the results when hard work is put into the training and nutrition.
He wrote of one particular underweight fellow who, by following the training and diet for 8 weeks, gained 39 pounds on the scale, almost two inches on his arms, nearly three inches on his thighs, and barely over an inch at the waist.
Exactly how much of this report was creative license is certainly up for question, as it was run in his monthly column and there were no photos to be found. However, the fundamentals of the program are sound, reliable bodybuilding theories, and when combined with the recommended calorie intake, it would be no surprise to see comparable gains in dedicated individuals.
Four or five pounds of solid bodyweight per week (not all of it muscle) isn’t entirely unbelievable for a skinny lifter on a bulking plan that has you hitting the biggest exercises six days a week while putting away big calories every single day. Oh, and about those calories…
High Protein, High Calories, High Gains
We know that it takes calories to add weight and it specifically takes protein to add muscle, but it still seems like a hard idea for many lifters to grasp. When the goal is to add size, the effort in the kitchen must equal the effort in the gym or you’ll end up frustrated, under-recovered, and still small.
McCallum, like most writers and trainers of his day, was an advocate of basic whole foods emphasizing animal proteins and fats, with moderate fruit and vegetable intake and relatively lower carbs. He was also a fan of the most basic supplements like vitamins, minerals, and protein powders.
In addition to the hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner needed to support the heavy training of the program, McCallum recommended a concoction of copious calories he called “The Get Big Drink.” Yes, again with the innovative naming. For a guy with such a knack for writing, I guess he saved his creativity for when it counted.
“The Get Big Drink” was a serious blender bomb to be made once a day and drunk in addition to, and between, regular meals. His specific recipe was a wild combination of a half-gallon of whole milk, two cups of powdered skim milk, six scoops of protein powder, two whole eggs, four tablespoons of peanut butter, a pint of chocolate ice cream, one banana, four tablespoons of malted milk powder, and six tablespoons of corn syrup.
That was McCallum’s exact recipe, which he repeated time and time again as his go-to secret weapon when lifters needed a boost to gain size. If my calculations are correct, it works out to nearly 3,900 total calories, around 195 grams of protein, 475 grams of carbs, and about 135 grams of fat.
Number-wise, that’s basically the same as having two triple Whopper combos complete with fries and a pair of large Cokes, plus a milkshake for dessert. Well, that’s one way to bulk up.
To be fair, McCallum did usually clarify that the drink was meant to be used when the lifter was training his hardest and attacking weight gain full-out. It wasn’t supposed to be Regular Joe’s afternoon snack.
For a different approach that’s less likely to encourage panic attacks in skinny newbs who still see foot-long roast beef sandwiches as a challenge, here’s a more moderate “weight gain” shake suggestion to consider.
Get Still-Kinda-Big Drink
- Half gallon of 1% milk
- 6 scoops Metabolic Drive®
- 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter
- 2 tablespoons of honey
Four ingredients compared to McCallum’s nine, and “only” around 1,800 calories, 155 grams protein, 190 grams carbs, and 45 grams fat. Again, nursing the half-gallon throughout the day is a relatively-easy way to pile some quality nutrition on top of your daily meals.
Regardless of which, if any, calorie-loaded shake you incorporate, the more important idea is to remember the high protein part of the High Protein, High Set Program. Shooting for a minimum of 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight will get you into a good ballpark.
You can move towards this target by making some form of dead animal the focal point of every meal (which you should be doing anyway), since they generally have some “built-in” healthy fats.
Now’s the time to enjoy fattier cuts of meat (think chicken thighs with skin, 80/20 ground beef, and whatever well-marbled steak you find on sale). And if you ain’t hitting double-digit egg intake everyday, you’re missing out.
Even more importantly, remember to eat consistently every day of the week. Too many bulking plans sputter and fail because little Leonard trained hard and ate well Thursday and Friday, but wasn’t training Saturday so he woke up late, ate half a bowl of oatmeal and a bag of Doritos, watched every episode of Doctor Who on Netflix, and then went to sleep. Inconsistency is a progress killer.
Three belly-filling meals a day is mandatory. Because of the crazy training load, workout nutrition will be essential, and because a good chunk of the training focuses on pump work after your heavy lifting, Plazma™ is the best choice to supply the right nutrients during training.
Also, be sure to weigh-in no more than once or twice a week under standardized conditions (first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything, after using the bathroom, and naked as a jay bird) and adjust your calories according to how you’re progressing.
HPHS 2.0 – High Protein, High Set Training in the 21st Century
Finally, we’re at the meat and potatoes of the plan, after just discussing the importance of meat and potatoes. While McCallum’s program was fine for the time, and is still none too shabby, it can certainly benefit from a few modern training-based tweaks.
The general format of the training remains the same – high frequency sessions and heavy lifting followed by pump work – but we’re including a few add-ins to bring it up a notch.
The first step: if you’re not used to training body parts three times a week, take two or three weeks to gradually transition and get used to that level of stress. You could arbitrarily chop your current workouts into thirds and combine them for new hybrid sessions (probably not ideal), or you could add a few moderately-intense sets of one basic lift for each body part at the start of subsequent sessions.
For example, if you currently train using a back, chest, shoulders, arms, and legs-split, try “overlapping” a bit and add one exercise of 3-4×8-10 for each body part on each of the two sessions after that muscle is directly trained. Some back work on chest day and shoulder day, a little chest work on shoulder day and arm day, etc. That should slightly lessen the shock of eventually hitting a muscle hard three times in six days.
The next step to improve the original plan is that we’re going to incorporate fillers or mobility drills in between the heavy sets. This will not only improve performance on the heavy lifting, but should actually facilitate an easier pump by allowing more complete contractions.
Fillers have been discussed several times in the last few years, including in this great recent article from Todd Bumgardner. They’re a very effective way to maximize rest time between sets. Rather than sitting around texting your lifting partner who was a no-show at the gym, you use the same time to “sneak in” some quality work that improves your lifts in the short and long-term.
Let’s take a look at today’s version of the program, and then we’ll get back into reviewing the details.
|B||LYTP (video below)||2||10-15|
|C1||Behind the Neck Press||5||4-6|
|D||Behind the Neck Press||10||8 *|
|E1||Flat Bench Barbell Press||5||4-6|
|F||Flat Bench Barbell Press||10||8 *|
|I1||Barbell Curl||10||8 *|
|I2||French Press||10||8 *|
|A||Hanging Knee Raise||1||20-25|
|D||Standing Calf Machine||15||8 *|
|E1||Neck Extension||10||8 *|
|E2||Neck Flexion||10||8 *|
|G||Barbell Row||10||8 *|
* Remember all of these sets are with a lighter weight with only 30 seconds rest between them, tops. You’re knocking out those 10 sets (15 for calves, because you know you need it) in just a few minutes each. They’re supposed to focus on building a pump, maintaining tension, and getting the volume in. If you fail to get the target reps, reduce the weight immediately. You should actually expect this and load bars with multiple smaller plates to make for quicker “drop sets.”
Seeing it laid out like that, you’re probably thinking, “Holy crap, that’s a ridiculous amount of work. Colucci, you did get hit in the head with a kettlebell if you think I’m going to train for three hours.” Settle down, Beavis. It’s not nearly as bad as it seems.
Also, the filler exercises are very low volume and fairly “easy” to get through. Not that you should rush their performance. Focus on making each rep high-quality work. Also note that the fillers are done for three sets even though the heavy work is done for five. Two reasons for this.
One, remember that you’re doing each group of drills three days per week. Considering most people do precisely zero mobility work right now, by week’s end you’ve racked up a lot of good work, so the volume can afford to be low in each workout.
Secondly, you are lifting heavy and I’ve found that, as beneficial as filler work can be, sometimes it helps just to focus on the big lift. So consider alternating the fillers with sets 1-3 or 2-4, leaving you free to attack the big final set.
We’re still starting each workout with some very simple ab work because, even though McCallum mistakenly thought ab training would keep your waist “tight” when bulking, it just works well as a sort of general warm-up.
You should certainly tailor the particular filler exercises to your own needs. For example, if hip mobility is an issue, consider leg swings or something that addresses the adductors instead of the glutes.
If there’s nothing else you learn from this article, though I’d be a little hurt, let it be the LYTP drill. Created by T Nation contributor Nick Tumminello, it’s one of the best upper back/shoulder health exercises out there. By starting every “upper body” day with the LYTP, you’re making sure all the smaller support structures in the shoulder and upper back are ready to operate at 100%.
As far as exercise substitutions, as I mentioned earlier about the behind the neck press, if there’s an exercise you can’t do or if there’s another comparable exercise you’d prefer to swap in, it should be fine as long as you’re making a smart decision that keeps to the spirit of the plan.
Front squats for back squats? Sure thing. Incline bench for flat? I guess, but use a low incline to minimize shoulder activation since you’re already overhead pressing. What about deadlifts? I don’t think they’re appropriate in a program that focuses on the pump, but if you must, consider a sumo stance for low back safety and leg-emphasis.
McCallum wasn’t the first to recommend alternating squats with pullovers and while I’m not convinced the combination adds anything extra-special to growth, it just plain feels good. If you can’t properly do pullovers, consider hanging from a pull-up bar for a 10-count between the lighter squat sets.
A quick note about neck training, if you don’t have access to a neck machine, try old-fashioned manual resistance – using your hands to apply pressure to your forehead for neck flexion and against the back of your head for extension – in order to quickly regulate how much resistance you work against.
So, the plan turns out to be “lift often and lift much, eat a ton, and grow.” If only it was that easy. It takes mental fortitude to train six days a week, let alone repeating workouts every other day.
It’s hard to push your limits with heavy lifting, and then grind through muscle-burning pumps. It’s challenging to eat gut-stuffing meals day after day after day, watching your abs disappear and shirts get tighter.
Maybe that was part of McCallum’s plan after all. He did often talk about the importance of a strong work ethic, and how those who could dig deep and train through the quitter’s instinct would benefit, muscularly and otherwise. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he wanted bodybuilders to challenge themselves with an even-harder-than-usual program just to see if they find a way to make it through.
For more of John McCallum’s work, pick up a copy of “The Complete Keys to Progress” from SuperStrengthBooks.com.