A few months back I conducted a seminar in Los Angeles with Pavel Tsatsouline and Alwyn Cosgrove. It was an uproarious and enlightening event replete with exotic accents, curse words, and double entendres. But I'm already getting off track and I've barely even started.
Pavel rode with me that day. On the trip home he asked me how I train. He wasn't asking me how I train other people; he wanted to know how I train myself. I knew he already had a pretty good idea since we sometimes train together in Los Angeles, but it was a valid topic of conversation as we sat on that God-forsaken I-405.
Photo of Chad Waterbury by Chris "Shutterbug" Shugart
So I talked. Then I talked some more about how I train myself. When I was finished, he said, "You should write an article about that."
I didn't give his request much thought because it just didn't seem relevant. I mean, what could anyone really learn from my specific training plan? Then I gave it some more thought and decided that I'd write the article. Here's why:
1. It's always interesting to learn how other people train.
2. It's even more interesting if that person is a fitness professional.
3. You'll surely learn something from my training plan that you didn't know that will help you reach your goals quicker.
I think it safe to say that Pavel's request for me to write this article was directly in line with point #3.
So here goes.
The first factor I consider before I train is how much time I have available. Usually it's 30-60 minutes. More often than not, it's closer to 30 minutes due to my whirlwind collection of business ventures. If it happens to be a day when I can only train for 30 minutes, I know the majority of my workout will be comprised of Olympic lifts.
The reason is simple. When I train, my goal is to recruit as many muscle groups as possible. It doesn't matter if I only have a few minutes or the whole day. But when time is of the essence, I've got to be as efficient as possible with my movement selection. Four of my favorite movements are the deadlift, overhead squat, front squat, and push press. By doing just the snatch and clean and jerk, I've basically trained all of those movements with just two lifts.
Point 1: When you're short on time, Olympic lifts are your best option.
When time isn't an issue I perform more traditional compound movements. I typically start with upper body movements: one pull and one push. I almost always start my sessions with an upper body, compound pulling-movement because it prepares my shoulders for the pushing movement that follows.
I've found that by starting with a pulling movement my shoulders don't need additional warm up sets before my pushing movement. I hesitate to call any movement "safe," but a rowing movement is about as close as it gets. Have you ever heard a guy say he wrecked his shoulders by doing a one-arm dumbbell row? Me neither.
I alternate between pulling and pushing movements with each set. If I'm pulling in the horizontal plane, I'll push in the vertical plane and vice versa. One of my favorite combinations is the one-arm dumbbell row paired with a one-arm dumbbell shoulder press with a neutral hand position. That covers the horizontal pull and vertical push. Another favorite combination is the chin-up/pull-up with the dip. That covers the vertical pull and horizontal push.
If I have enough time I'll perform a horizontal and vertical pull along with a horizontal and vertical push. But more often than not I only have time for one combination. If I only performed a horizontal pull and vertical push on Monday, I'll perform a vertical pull and horizontal push on Wednesday.
I avoid performing the exact same movement throughout the week by alternating between planes of movement and by using variations of different lifts. This ensures complete development and a balance of strength and mobility around my shoulder joints.
Point 2: Start your sessions with an upper-body pulling movement and alternate each set with a pushing movement in the opposite plane.
For lower-body movements I alternate between a squat and deadlift variation. Importantly, I unload the spine every other workout by focusing on single-leg variations of either movement. For example, if I do front squats on Monday, I'll do single-leg deadlifts on Wednesday. If I do single-leg squats on Monday, I'll do deadlifts on Wednesday.
When time isn't an issue I'll perform a squat and deadlift variation in the same workout. For example, on Monday I'll do front squats and Romanian deadlifts and on Wednesday I'll do single-leg squats and single-leg deadlifts. I won't repeat the exact same movement throughout the week, just as with upper body movements. By alternating between double- and single-leg lower body movements, it better manages my fatigue and ensures complete development of the core and lower body muscles.
Point 3: Perform either a squat or deadlift variation in each workout. If time allows, perform both a squat and deadlift variation in each workout. Every other workout, perform a single-leg variation of each movement.
Here's an example of what I've discussed thus far.
Short on Time
1A). One-arm row
1B) Standing one-arm shoulder press with palm neutral
2) Front squat
1A) Chin-up or pull-up
2) Single-leg deadlift
1A) Standing cable row
1B. Push press
2) Back squat
Long on time
1A) One-arm row with palm neutral, elbow tucked
1B) Standing one-arm shoulder press with palm neutral
3A) Front squat
3B) Snatch-grip deadlift
1A) Wide-grip pull-up
1B) Standing cable chest press
2A) Standing one-arm cable row
2B) Push press
3A) Single-leg deadlift
3B) Single-leg squat
1A) One-arm row with palm pronated, elbow flared
1B) Standing dumbbell shoulder press
2A) Pull-up with neutral grip
2B) Clap push-up with feet elevated
3A) Back squat
3B) Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
Total Reps, Not Sets
I have a target number of reps with each lift. I don't go into the gym with the idea that I'm going to perform 5x5 with 85% of my 1RM for the front squat. Instead, I go into the gym with the goal of performing 25 total reps with that load. I don't have a target number of reps for each set because I lift based on speed. When the last rep is noticeably slower than the first, I stop the set. This keeps my force-producing capabilities up as high as possible by controlling fatigue.
So set one might stop at six reps and set three might stop at four reps. If it's a maximal strength day, the target number of reps per lift might be as low as 10. If it's a lighter load the target number might be as high as 50. Each workout uses the same target number of reps for all lifts.
Here are some basic guidelines to get you started. Remember, the following numbers are for one lift only. You shouldn't perform the following volume for two similar movements in the same workout. In other words, don't perform 25 total reps with a heavy load for the bench press 25 reps for the incline bench press in the same workout.
Maximal Strength: 10 total reps
Strength/Hypertrophy:20 total reps
Hypertrophy/Strength: 25 total reps
Hypertrophy/Endurance:35 total reps
Endurance: 50 total reps
Point 4: Have a target number of total reps in mind for each lift and perform as many sets as it takes to keep your speed as high as possible.
The heaviest load I use is a two to three repetition maximum (2-3RM). The lightest load I use is a 20-22RM. So the loads I work with are 60-95% of my 1RM. The closer workout 1 is to a 2-3RM, the closer workout 2 is to a 20-22RM, but this isn't always the case.
If I'm training for maximal strength I'll keep the loads as high as possible, but I'll still vary the load enough that I can perform at least three more, or three less, reps with each set than I did for the last workout.
So if on Monday I used a heavy load and averaged four reps per set, on Wednesday I'll use a load that allows me to average at least seven reps per set. Friday I might average 18 reps per set if I'm in a metabolic phase, or four reps if I'm in a maximal strength phase.
The key point is that I'm constantly adjusting the load with each new workout.
Speaking of loads, I never calculate my percentages of 1RM per lift. I know how much weight I should use if the goal for my first set is 4-6 reps, for example. Not everyone has this ability to hone in on the correct load right away, but you'll eventually develop that skill. The four loads I primarily use are:
Light: a load I can lift 20 to 22 times
Medium: a load I can lift 10 to 12 times
Heavy: a load I can lift 4 to 6 times
Super heavy: a load I can lift 2 or 3 times
Importantly, the load corresponds with the target number of reps for the first set only. So let's say my target number of reps for the front squat is 25 with a "heavy" load. I'll choose a load that allows me 4-6 reps for the first set before my speed slows down to a snail's pace. I'll keep using that same load for all sets until I reach 25 reps.
When the target number of reps is low, the load is high. When the target number of reps is high, the load is low. Simple, logical and effective.
Point 5: Don't worry about calculating your 1RM, just use one of the above loads and vary your load/reps with every other workout.
For most phases I'll perform three total-body training sessions per week. I've found that to be an effective balance between frequency and recovery. This holds true from beginners to elite athletes, with the difference between absolute volume and intensity with each session. I trained the Chicago Blackhawk's Robert Lang last summer and he rarely did more than three total body workouts per week. It works for me, it worked for him, and it'll work for you.
When I'm in a phase that allows me unlimited sleep, nutrition, and recovery modalities (that was about five years ago), I'll increase the frequency of total body sessions per week up to six. I won't, however, train six days in a row. Instead, I'll perform twice-daily sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I've found the twice-daily approach to be more effective at adding mass while controlling fatigue. I'll continue with this plan for three weeks before taking the fourth week off.
There is, however, a time and place for upper- and lower-body splits. If you can train at least four times per week, it's an option. If you happen to be a person who requires eight or 10 sets to elicit an anabolic response, or if you simply need to train a body part with multiple angles and high volume, then an upper/lower split is a good option.
But I've never found an upper- and lower-body split to work better than three total body sessions per week. A total body plan results in a higher anabolic stimulus with each session and it builds your overall work capacity faster. I have no proof that the anabolic stimulus is higher with a total body session since I'm not monitoring my client's anabolic hormones during and after each session, but the results I've witnessed hold a lot of water for making me believe it's true.
Point 6: I've said it before and I'll say it again: you can't go wrong with three total body sessions per week.
If time permits after my total body session, and if I feel the need, I'll add in 10 minutes worth of single joint movements such as barbell curls, incline dumbbell trap raises, or calf raises. What I do depends on what movements I performed in the total body session.
Batman, a.k.a. Arnold, repping out.
If I did 35 reps with a heavy load for the neutral-grip pull-up, I've given my biceps plenty of stimulus so I won't add in curls. If it happens to be a day when I could only perform a horizontal pushing movement, I'll throw in external rotation work at the end. I might do some calf raises, too, if Pavel isn't around to point and laugh at me.
I learned this step from Alwyn Cosgrove. Apparently he got so sick of getting requests for curls in his workout plans that he just decided to allocate 10 minutes of "free time" at the end of the sessions so people could do whatever the bloody hell they wanted. You can't do much damage in 10 minutes, provided you got the important stuff out of the way.
Point 7: Spend 10 minutes at the end of your workouts doing any accessory or corrective movements you choose.
Well, that pretty much covers the basics. The purpose of this article wasn't to tell you that you should train the way I do, but it never hurts to understand what others do and why they do it. I didn't even get into the equally important component: nutrition. After all, whether you gain muscle or lose fat depends more on how you eat than how you train. I'll save that for another time.
I hope you learned something along the way that you can apply to your own program. If not, blame Pavel.