Many of today's trainees suffer from the notion that you have to put in hours of training, several times a week, to pack on real size. This might be true ... if you desperately want to be the next Mr. Olympia, and if you have access to the same "recovery methods."
However, for people who want to get stronger, bigger, and most important of all, healthier, there are more effective alternatives. While you don't have to train for hours on end with massive volume, you do have to work very hard and do a few things very well.
You have to focus like a laser and dig deep to make it through brief, intense programs.
The Master of Bodybuilding and Weight Gaining
As the founder of Ironman Magazine and the author of The Rader Master Bodybuilding and Weight Gaining System, Peary Rader knew the value of hard work that focused on bang-for-the-buck exercises.
His squat program worked so well that Rader put on close to 100 pounds of solid body weight in a year. A hardgainer, he weighed just 130 pounds before starting the program.
Even if you only achieve one-third of his results, imagine what it would do for your physique. Let's examine three of his most effective programs for adding size.
Program One: Squat-Focused Brutality
Rader learned about the benefits of squat-focused workouts from fellow old-schoolers Mark Berry and J.C. Hise. Berry had trouble packing on size, but managed to add 29 pounds of solid muscle in one month on the squat program.
Hise was another frustrated lifter. After hearing about Berry's results, Hise gave the same squat program a chance and put on 10 pounds in one month, and a total of 75 pounds over the next two years.
While these results sound too good to be true, once you see how brutal the workout is, you'll see why it's so effective.
Rader felt that the squat should be the primary focus of this weight-gaining program, and all other exercises should be secondary. If trainees were pressed for time, he told them it was okay to through periods in which the squat is the only exercise they do.
Beginners, Rader said, should start with either two sets of 10 reps, or one set of 20. More advanced athletes can go up to three set of 10 to 15.
Each set needed to be an all-out effort, and Rader told lifters to add weight whenever possible. He cautioned trainees to start out fairly light, and gradually work up to more intense, heavier sessions. You need to get good at doing high-rep sets before piling on the weights.
Why High Reps Don't Mean Easy Reps
Rader recommended a specific breathing method to maximize the squat's effectiveness. He called it the "puff and pant" method: Hold your breath during each rep, and then pause between reps, with the barbell still on your back, and take a deep breath.
Make sure you breathe through the mouth, as deeply as possible, so you use the entire chest cavity. Don't breathe into the lower chest or diaphragm. That's not where you want expansion. Focus on the upper chest.
On the first five reps, take one deep breath between each rep. After that, go up to three breaths or more, as needed. By the time you get to rep 15, you'll probably be taking eight to 10 breaths.
If you're not, you probably picked a weight that's too light to be effective. That's not a big deal early in the program. Just increase the weight at the next session, and remember that the best gains will come when you're working brutally hard.
Some trainees who jump into this program get hung up on how many breaths they should be taking between each reps. Rader believed that the breathing come naturally; take as many breaths as you need for the next rep, and no more.
Until you get used to the technique, you'll probably find that the deep breathing between reps actually makes the set seem harder. But with enough practice, the breathing will enable you to use heavier weights than you could lift without it.
Can You Handle It?
When you're doing a 20-rep set, and doing it properly, you'll try to talk yourself into stopping at rep 15. This is where mental toughness comes in. If you aren't mentally tough before you start, you will be once you get deep into it. (If you aren't, you won't stick with it long enough to get results.) Every part of you will be begging to rack the weight, to rest, to quit. Resist that urge and finish the set, and you'll have a real sense of accomplishment.
The key to finishing one of those sets is to take it one rep at a time. The last thing you want to tell yourself is that you "only" have five more reps to go. Instead, focus on the next rep. That's the only one that matters. When you're on rep 16, your only focus is finishing rep 17. Don't rush through the deep breathing between each rep; take your time, focus, and get the job done.
Rader suggested going just below parallel on each rep. When you're about to reach that point, tense your glutes and hamstrings in preparation for rebounding out of the bottom position.
Rader called this a "bouncing squat," and believed that it protects the lower back from shock at a weak point. In other words, you don't want to pause in the bottom position. Minimize time there, and drive back up as fast as you can.
Rader recommended a stance in which your feet are 12 inches apart, with your toes turned out slightly. But he wasn't dogmatic about it; he believed that a lifter's stance is an individual thing, and that you should do what works best for you.
Your eyes should look straight ahead – never up or down – throughout the lift, with your back as flat as possible. Rader believed that leaning forward constricts breathing and, as we learned before, that's the last thing you want with high-rep squats.
Weekly program design
You have several options. You could simply do one all-out set of 20 two or three times each week. Or you could do one set of 20 in one session, 2 x 10 in another, and 2 x 15 in the third workout of the week.
The first option – one murderous set of 20 each workout – will work for some, but will wear down most, mentally as well as physically. Having more variety gives you a better chance to stick with the program long enough to get what you want out of it.
Make sure you do at least 10 reps per set, do at least 20 reps each workout, and don't do more than three sets. If you're an overachiever, you might think it makes sense to go for the maximums across the board and do three sets of 20. Trust me: You don't even want to try. Once you've done a seriously hard set of 20 squats, you'll laugh at the idea of doing three of those sets in the same workout.
Novices will probably do best with three workouts a week. More advanced trainees will make better gains with two sessions, with two full days off in between. If you don't know which category best describes you, start with two sessions per week, and take advantage of the extra recovery time.
Rader's recommended routine
While you could go through a brief period of doing squats and only squats, you'll get better results by adding assistance exercises to give you a well-balanced program.
Two-arm dumbbell pullover 1 x 20
Standing barbell military press 1 x 10-12
Barbell curl 1 x 10-12
Barbell bench press 1 x 10-12
Barbell bent-over row 1 x 10-12
Sit-up 1 x 10-12
With the pullover, use a very light weight (probably 20 to 30 pounds), and do your set immediately following the squats, with no rest in between. After you finish the pullovers, you can take as long a break as you need before tackling the rest of the exercises in the workout.
When your strength and body weight stall, increase the volume, going up to two sets of 10 to 12 reps of each exercise. If you hit another plateau, increase to three sets of 10 to 12.
If it were up to me, I'd do weighted pull-ups instead of barbell curls. I'd also skip the sit-ups and do hanging leg raises, Turkish get-ups, or power-wheel roll-outs instead.
Add as much variety as you like within Rader's template.
Program Two: Deadlifting for Rapid Weight Gain
As effective as the squat program is, it's certainly not the best fit for everyone. Taller lifters, for example, don't typically do well with the barbell squat. Others have injuries that make the squat a bad choice. And some just don't like doing squats two or three times a week.
Fortunately, you can do a similarly effective program with deadlifts.
If anything, Rader saw the deadlift program as the more strenuous option, and believed you should minimize or even avoid other exercises for the first few weeks. The goal is to focus all your energy on the most important exercise. However, few lifters will find a one-exercise program appealing, so at minimum you should include the military press, weighted pull-up, and perhaps some ab work.
Just make sure you do the secondary exercises after the deadlifts. That applies especially to ab work, since a fatigued midsection is the last thing you want before brutal deadlift training.
If you've never done high-rep deadlift sets, you're in for a humbling experience. Rader strongly recommended a gradual buildup. Start your first workout with one set of 18 to 20 reps, using a moderate weight. Take a few weeks to work up to one all-out set of 20.
Similar to the squat program, you don't have to do the same reps and sets every workout. You can try one set of 20 in one workout, 2 x 10 in the next, and 2 x 15 in the third.
Again, more advanced trainees will probably find that two sessions a week are more productive than three.
Breathing with the dead
There are different ways to do breathing deadlifts. You can take three deep breaths at the midpoint of the lift, when you're standing with the weight locked out. Or you could leave the bar on the floor at the end of a rep, stand, take three deep breaths, and do the next rep. But instead of pausing again with the bar on the floor, do your next rep, lock it out, and then take your breaths while holding the bar.
With either option, breathe as deeply as possible into the chest, rather than the diaphragm.
Rader cautioned against using the Romanian deadlift or stiff-legged deadlift with this program. Stick to the standard deadlift, keeping your back as flat as possible with your hips low.
Low hips mean bent knees, which Rader encouraged. He wanted lifters to use their legs as much as possible, minimizing the strain on the lower back and maximizing the work for your largest and strongest muscle groups.
I recommend using a trap bar for high-rep deadlifts. With a trap bar, the weight is evenly distributed, away from your lower back. It's halfway between a squat and barbell deadlift, and fits perfectly with this program. It's also much more comfortable, and won't scrape your shins the way you would with high-rep barbell deadlifts.
You could also consider performing the barbell hack squat instead of the deadlift. The hack squat is basically a deadlift performed with the weight behind you, instead of in front.
Program Three: Jerk Your Way to Size and Strength
A lot of veteran lifters have heard of the 20-rep squat program. Some have heard of the high-rep deadlift program. But very few know about the clean and jerk program. If anything, it may be the most brutal of the three.
You'll focus on a full-body exercise that works just about every muscle you've got with each grueling rep. Because it's so demanding, Rader recommended only one additional exercise: the pullover.
But don't kid yourself: Just because it's a simple program doesn't mean it's easy. Even people with good low-rep lifting numbers will be shocked at how light they have to go to crank out high reps.
Should We Actually Jerk in the Gym?
If you have to ask what a clean and jerk is, it's definitely not the program for you. The program won't be effective if you don't already have good Oly-lifting technique. If you want to learn that technique, do yourself a favor and find a qualified strength coach. This is not an exercise you want to learn by watching some jackass on YouTube.
My highest recommendation goes to my friend, Mike Burgener, who's an incredible Olympic-lifting coach based in San Diego. If possible, make an appointment with him, or attend one of his courses.
If you're still reading, I trust that you know what a clean and jerk is, and you're pretty confident that your form is solid.
Start each workout with a few warm-up sets, using light weights, to get mentally and physically prepared.
For the first work set, do 12 reps. The last rep should be very hard, but don't compromise your form at any point. After that first set, do 15 pullovers with a light weight.
Rest two to three minutes.
Now do another clean and jerk sets, 10 to 12 reps, with a lighter weight than you used in the first set. Follow that immediately with another set of 15 pullovers.
Rest for a few minutes, and then do a final clean and jerk set, 15 to 18 reps, with an even lighter weight. Wrap up the workout with one more set of 15 pullovers.
Take three to six deep breaths after each complete rep of the clean and jerk. So clean the barbell to your shoulders, jerk it overhead, take it back to the floor, stand up without the weight, take your breaths, then start the next rep.
While I think that you could use dumbbells, kettlebells, or even sandbags for this program, I'd spend at least one month focusing on the basic barbell version. After a month, if you're really craving variety, and you can switch to kettlebells or dumbbells.
That said, the barbell clean and jerk is the best choice because it allows you to increase the load incrementally – going from 200 to 205, or even from 200 to 202.5 if you need that small an increase. With dumbbells the smallest increase you can manage is usually five pounds in each hand, and with kettlebells you have even fewer incremental options.
This mass-building clean and jerk program is great if you're crunched for time, or looking for a way to shake up your training. It takes just 10 minutes to complete a workout, and unlike most quickie workouts, this one actually accomplishes something.
Had Enough Yet?
These three highly effective programs are all winners and, according to Rader, they work well for both men and women. You just need to determine which program best suits your skills and interests, and stick with it. As Rader put it, "If you don't gain weight after three months, you need to have your doctor check you out for a glandular disorder!"
No matter which of the three programs you choose, it's important note that you eat your pre-workout meal at least two hours before training. Any sooner, and there's a good chance that meal will end up on your shoes, embarrassing you in front of the local cardio bunnies.
Other than that, there aren't really any reasons not to do one of the programs and enjoy the gains in size, strength, mental toughness, and confidence that follow.