What's worse? Having the knowledge to advance in a given field and incorrectly applying it, or just ridiculing that field and causing confusion? About the last time physique information was popular, scientific, not considered narcissistic, and most importantly, practical, was when Steve Reeves was rocking the cloth as Hercules.
Whatever you call it – bodybuilding, body recomposition, or trying to look good naked – physique training carries a bad reputation in the strength training world today. Like most other things in our fitness/strength community, there only exist two extremes and very little substance in the middle.
In one corner you have people who actually train for a living and these are generally bodybuilders. Some are using performance-enhancing drugs; others have no clue and train like those using performance-enhancing drugs.
Across the ring, you have the strength coaches – some highly educated and some not – who loathe pure "looks" driven training and either proclaim it foolish or dispense unrealistic training concepts. The result is a beatin' to anything physique related.
The end results is we've lost practicality; we make everything too complex. Let's see if we can change that. It's time for a new challenger to step into the ring and drop some knowledge bombs for every natural lifter who wants to "look good." We'll take a look at both the training and nutrition sides of the coin.
Finding the Optimal Training Split
This is probably the hottest running debate in the bodybuilding-based community. Which training split works best?
Traditionally, most bodybuilders, either enhanced or not, will go with the typical body part split. Each muscle is hit once a week to the point of fatigue since it has six days to recover. This method of thinking is what got the physique community into hot water. Most anti-physique people will point to the fact that no muscle works in isolation and we should train whole body movements. I'm sure you've heard it before.
In short, there's more than one way to get the job done. Body part splits aren't necessarily bad. They suck if a 40-year-old woman who has three hours per week to train is performing them, but for certain populations they have great merit.
Trying to increase muscular size and definition isn't mutually exclusive to body part splits. Knowing that the three characteristics to muscle growth are volume, intensity, and frequency, we see that each split has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at them:
Body Part Splits, Once a Week
Highest amount of recovery
Potentially least CNS fatiguing
Highest volume per body part
Lower amount of calorie usage
Infrequent muscle stimulation
Inability to use greatest total load per session
Least amount of total muscle recruitment per session
Body Part Splits, Twice a Week
More frequent muscle
Greatest total volume per body part
Lack of full recovery
of adrenal fatigue
Potential for wasted energy
Inability to use greatest total load
Total Body Training
Frequent muscle stimulation
Ability to use more total muscle
Ability to use greater total loads
Inability to significantly improve a specific
May leave specific body parts under-stimulated
Increased focus on specific
Good mix of frequency and intensity
Ability to significantly increase lifts
Ability to focus on weak areas
Lack of significant volume
Potential impaired recovery
Upper/Lower Split with Body Part Training
Appropriate mix of volume, frequency, and
Mix of recovery and lack of recovery
Ability to increase lifts while focusing on specific weaknesses
Increased risk of fatigue if training isn't monitored
Increased likelihood of wasted exercises on body part days
As you can see, each split has positives and negatives. One isn't better than the other and each split is appropriate at certain times. Breaking each split down according to volume, intensity, and frequency categories produces the following:
Body part splits once a week
Body part splits twice a week
Total body training
Upper/lower split with body part training.
Upper/lower splits with body part training
Body part splits twice a week
Total body training
Upper/lower splits with body part training
Looking at the breakdown, only one method falls into each category: upper/lower splits with body part training. This method not only allows us to focus on increasing specific lifts, but also on direct work for the areas that we need to improve. In short, we have increased volume with proper intensity and frequent muscle stimulation.
Natural Nutrition Strategies
How can we have stoneage nutritional strategies for physique sport? It's hard to believe that there are still high profile coaches recommending "bulking" and "cutting" cycles. (You can learn all of the disadvantages of this by reading Christian Thibaudeau's article, "The Truth About Bulking" in the T-Nation archives.)
If you're a natural, there's no way you're getting the advantages of these methods since you obviously aren't taking the drugs that cause you to lean out substantially without dropping muscle mass. To relate to the non-competing community, who really wants to train hard all winter for five pounds of lean muscle mass just to lose it when they diet for the beach in the summer?
The biggest issue facing most people is that they want to "add muscle and lose fat at the same time." This is wishful thinking. Without a direct focus, our energy is going to be split and we'll end up going toward both goals half-ass.
Unless they work at home and have no social life, most people don't want to get a gut while trying to add size. The best plan for natural lifters is to use a cycling approach consisting of high, medium, and low days of carbohydrate consumption. Varying carbohydrate amounts all year allows us to stay lean, full, strong, energetic, and most importantly, we never have to go crazy when it comes to adding size or dropping fat.
Our main aim here is to have total control over the hormone insulin and its powerful physique altering effects. Insulin is a storage hormone. We have to realize that it can be a storage messenger for both fat and carbohydrates and is very anti-catabolic. To gain size, we need to have insulin elevated throughout the day since it'll allow a higher percentage of the protein we consume to go toward building muscle. In this sense, carbohydrates are very protein sparing.
The mistake most individuals make is they keep their protein levels on par with their carb levels when they diet. We simply have no need for a high carb intake during a high protein diet, as the chances of us fully using our protein is greater.
This is all well and good, but insulin also decreases our SHBG or steroid hormone binding globulin, which is responsible for our Testosterone production and making it inactive. It's not the amount of total Testosterone that matters, but freeTestosterone that results in physique changes. Essentially, we reach a point of too much of a good thing. We're now beginning to store fat, which brings us to the low carb aspect of the diet.
Depleting our body of glycogen and increasing our protein along with healthy fatty acids, like the ones found in Biotest's Flameout, will keep our insulin levels lower throughout the course of the day.
Carb intake is kept lower and is ingested around training time, which also allows a higher carb intake to fill our glycogen stores and give us the appearance of rapid muscle size increases.
Adding a high amount of good fat increases our sex hormone production and "unlocks" our free Testosterone for our higher carb days. Protein intake is obviously raised since our insulin levels are lower and we need more available protein for new muscle tissue and to be used for energy.
This entire process continually keeps our insulin levels relatively sensitive and creates a more favorable environment for our nutrients to be stored where we'd like them to be. Our metabolism will be through the roof and we'll be continually adding size and dropping body fat on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
The better we can store nutrients, the leaner and bigger we'll be. To best achieve this, we need to frequently alternate our carbohydrate intake to maintain a high level of insulin sensitivity. Here's an example:
Day 1: Upper Body, High Carbs
Day 2: Lower Body, Medium Carbs
Day 3: Off, Low Carbs
Day 4: Arms, Medium Carbs
Day 5: Chest/Back/Lateral Shoulder, Medium Carbs
Day 6: Legs, High Carbs
Day 7: Off, Low Carbs
Training is pretty simple when you think about it – continually do more than you did the last time and grow. It really is that easy. Training is systematic and should be viewed in cycles where advancement is planned, not just an accident. These are the three methods I use most frequently to "force" advancement.
1) Sequential Development
This is more of a periodization model than an actual training method, but it nonetheless applies to natural lifters.
According to Soviet scientist Y.V. Verkhoshanskly, an individual's body adapts better if it's presented with a more focused, narrow, and limited training objective rather than numerous conflicting requests. We're taught to achieve an ideal body by alternating our set/rep ranges accordingly – higher sets for lower reps and vice versa.
We're essentially teaching ourselves to focus on one goal, one day. That's not to say we can't use lower or higher reps the next day, but we have to realize that our focus must stay on the current strength quality to bring that specific adaptation. Is it any wonder why the Soviets dropped pyramid training around the 1960's?
2) 5% Progression
I love the 5% progression method. It's like a built-in progression strategy that requires no thinking. This method focuses on improving hypertrophy through a narrow rep range. I prefer a 3-rep bracket, such as 6-8 or 8-10 reps. The premise is that it requires the individual to increase the amount of resistance by 5% each workout, while at the same time performing one fewer rep per workout.
This method can be used for three to six weeks. After the third week, reduce the weight by 5% but bring the reps back to the original starting point. Use the weight of workout #2 for the rep target of workout #1: 4-5 sets of 6 reps at 105 pounds (assuming our hypothetical starting weight was 100 pounds)..
Natural trainees have no choice but to grow using this method since they require their body to continually adapt to a greater stress via the continuous load increase, yet gradually reduce the volume to prime themselves for the fourth week where they make a five pound gain. In the grand scheme of things, a 5-10 pound increase over six weeks is huge for a natural trainee.
3) Progressive Partial Range of Motion
Strength is very joint angle specific. We can produce substantially more force in a half squat than we can in a full squat. The trouble begins when we seem to think that it's the only way to train.
Think about the "Westside" method of training for a second. Bands and chains were instituted to enhance the resistance at the bottom or top of the movement since we're less effective at these points. Now think back to a time in your training career where you used partials in your program, either on purpose or not. I bet you saw some pretty rapid size increases. It didn't do much for strength through the whole movement, but the size was cool.
That's exactly what we're after here. Partial range of motion movements have anywhere from a 5-15% carryover in joint movement. This should be used to our advantage by progressively performing longer and longer partial movements to the point that we're at a full range of motion.
When you take a natural athlete seeking size and expect him to not only increase strength but also do so with a steady volume, something has to give. He's just not going to be able to repeatedly produce force over and over again without incurring more fatigue or joint injury. Increasing the range of motion slightly each set allows the trainee to slowly increase joint stability while concurrently enhancing motor unit recruitment by teaching himself to use a heavier load than normal for that joint angle.
To be honest, I think partials are, at times, better for size.
The absolute greatest challenge facing a natural lifter is recovery. Remember, we are what we recover from, and training is actually damaging to our growth specific hormones.
Most people's kitchen cabinets resemble the local supplement store and all the gym talk is on the latest new plasma expander or whatever. Forget about that stuff for now and concentrate on recovery supplements. Our main focus should be on pre, during, and post-training nutrition. So, think about a properly formulated post-workout drink such as Surge around the workout sessions and BCAAs and creatine taken before, during, and after training.
As natural trainers we need to continually remind ourselves that we have to be practical with our program design and focus on other factors outside of the training session. Get it done and you'll grow, naturally!