In Part 1 of this series, I showed the entertainment-addicted youth of our nation – Generation Ent – how to do hardcore cardio work that’s fun, challenging, highly effective, and never boring.
This time the subject is size and strength. The workout is based on ideas popularized by Louie Simmons, a true strength-training pioneer. The powerlifters Louie trains at Westside Barbell Club are some of the strongest men and women around.
Most young men reading this don’t care about setting squat or bench press records, and I can’t recall the last time I met anyone who told me his goal is to look like a heavyweight powerlifter.
So why would I base this workout on those used by some of the world’s strongest humans? One word: variety. Westside lifters know how to mix things up. They don’t cater to Gen Ent, but their workouts offer enough novelty to keep even the most distractible lifter engaged. As long as you avoid eating like a powerlifter, you’ll develop a strong and solid physique with powerlifters’ training techniques.
Three Workouts, Three Goals
My program includes three total-body workouts each week, each with its own goals and challenges.
Monday: Maximum Size and Strength
At Westside, the lifters work up to a one-rep max on a chosen exercise on maximum-effort day. The following week they max on a similar but different exercise. For example, if they use the floor press one week, they might use the decline press the next. They call this the “conjugate method.”
But while working up to a one-rep max is great for building pure strength, it’s not ideal for hypertrophy. For that, you need more reps. So instead of a 1RM you’ll work up to a five-rep max on the chosen exercise. You’ll still increase your strength, but also induce muscle growth as well. (I picked up this tip from Andrew Durniat, an outstanding strength coach and strongman competitor.)
Another change: Instead of switching your main max-effort exercise each week, you’ll change every three weeks. This way you have a chance to get good at the exercise before moving on. This is a flexible standard; if you’re new to training, you can spend up to six weeks on each max-effort exercise, as long as you keep improving on your 5RM. More advanced trainees, who adapt quickly to their training programs, may want to change every two weeks.
Most of you, however, will do well with this three-week rotation:
Week one: Work up to a weight that’s one rep shy of failure. The goal is to get your fifth rep on your final set feeling as if you could do one more.
Week two: Add five pounds on your final set and go for five reps, even if the fifth rep pushes you to your limit.
Week three: Go all out – the heaviest weight you can use for five reps, even if you risk failure on the fourth or fifth rep. (Just make sure you use a spotter where appropriate.) This is your final week on the exercise, so you really want to push it.
Start over with another exercise the following week, using the same progression.
You’ll do this with four different categories of exercise:
• presses (vertical and horizontal)
• upper-body pulls (vertical and horizontal)
• lower-body pulls
I’ll provide lists of exercises in each category in a bit.
Wednesday: Repetition Method
One workout a week, you’ll use light weights for timed sets. But don’t mistake “light” for “easy.” An example would be a five-minute set of the dumbbell clean and press, using about 30 percent of your one-rep max.
One goal, says Louie Simmons, is to jack up growth-hormone production, promoting bigger muscles with better body composition. Another goal is to increase strength endurance, helping you train longer and harder. Finally, by putting this workout in the middle of the training week, you’ll get some active recovery from your max-effort workout.
Despite what advocates of Super Slow training say, you have to get fast if you want to get strong. Really strong men and women don’t set out to do slow and controlled lifts of really heavy weights.
Sure, the bar may move slowly when you’re lifting maximum weights. But that’s not because you’re trying to lift it at that speed. You’re trying to finish the job as fast as you possibly can, with as much force behind the effort as you can generate. It just happens to move slowly because it’s a really fucking heavy weight.
As our own Chad Waterbury says, muscles are meant to contract quickly. All of the recent focus on prescribed rep speeds has set strength training back dramatically.
Faster muscles aren’t just for performance. The muscle fibers responsible for fast, high-effort movement are also the ones that have the most potential to get bigger. Fast training also has powerful effects on your body comp – you’ll jack up your metabolism in the short term and, over time, keep it up and running at a chronically higher rate.
Finally, lifting fast is just more fun than lifting slow. You’ll feel ramped up after your workouts, rather than wiped out.
Word of caution: You still have to use good form. Sloppy lifts are a bad idea at any speed, and they’re especially bad when you’re moving the weight as fast as possible.
Different exercises work better in different workouts. Some variations allow for heavy loads and strict form, and are perfect for the Maximum Size and Strength workout on Monday. Others are awkward with max loads, but perfect for the Repetition Method workout on Wednesday. Still others lend themselves to short-duration, maximum-speed sets; they’re good choices for the Speed workout on Friday.
Rather than create two different categories – vertical or military presses for shoulders; bench or horizontal presses for chest – I prefer to put them together into one category. You can only choose one pressing exercise for your max-effort workout on Monday, but you can use others in your Wednesday and Friday workouts. And you get to switch every three weeks, giving you plenty of opportunity to balance things out.
Standing barbell military press
Standing thick-bar military press
Kettlebell or dumbbell military press
One-arm kettlebell or dumbbell military press
Alternating dumbbell or kettlebell military press
Sandbag military press
Lifeline USA TNT power cable military press
Barbell bench press
Barbell bottom-position bench press
Barbell floor press
Barbell incline press
One-arm kettlebell or dumbbell bench press
Incline dumbbell bench press
Pull-up (overhand grip) or chin-up (underhand grip)
Lat pulldown (underhand or overhand grip)
Barbell bent-over row (underhand or overhand grip)
Thick-bar bent-over row
Trap-bar bent-over row
Sandbag bent-over row
One-arm bent-over row (kettlebells or dumbbells)
Alternating bent-over row (kettlebells or dumbbells)
Renegade row (kettlebells or dumbbells)
Let’s be honest: Lots of guys hate doing squats, and avoid them like a psycho ex-girlfriend. Lots of guys complain about not making progress. How much crossover do you think there is between those two groups? Pretty close to 100 percent?
Squats work because they’re hard to do. They’re responsible for more workout-induced puking than any other exercise. (Helpful tip: Don’t eat anything for two hours before squatting.)
Barbell back squat
Barbell front squat
Barbell box squat
Barbell bottom-position squat (set the pins in the squat rack so you can start in the bottom position, with your thighs parallel to the floor)
Barbell hack squat
Barbell overhead squat
Kettlebell front squat
Sandbag shoulder squat
Just as upper-body pulls are necessary for balanced upper-body development, you need lower-body pulls to even things out at the other end and get balanced lower body development. Squats and lower body pulls are the real transformation exercises that will have the most impact on upgrading your physique. Thus, let the other idiots at your gym do barbell curls in the squat rack and focus on the real moneymakers:
Barbell snatch-grip deadlift
Barbell power clean
Barbell power snatch
One-arm kettlebell clean
One-arm kettlebell swing
One-arm kettlebell snatch
At this point you’re probably wondering where the exercises are for your core and calves. If calves are a weak point for you throw in some weight-vest Hindu squats on the repetition-method day, or do some other calf exercises at the end of each workout. Go for three sets of 12 to 15 reps, resting 45 seconds between sets.
As for the core, I like Charles Poliquin’s take: deadlifts and squats offer the best core conditioning you’ll find. Make sure you include some overhead work (military presses, overhead squats) in your programs, and you’ll be set.
As for arms, don’t even get me started. If your arms aren’t as big as you think they should be, is it really because you aren’t doing enough curls and extensions? Or is it because you aren’t as strong as you should be? And if you aren’t as strong as you should be, well, that’s the whole point of this program. Stick with it for a while, get bigger and stronger and faster, and then tell me you still miss those curls and extensions.
Now let’s look at a sample training plan.
Maximum Size and Strength
Do three sets of five reps of each of these exercises:
Barbell military press
Do one or two warm-up sets of each exercise, and then get into your three work sets. Rest two minutes between sets.
Remember that you’re going to stop one rep shy of failure on the final set of each exercise in the first week. In the second week, you’ll go to your limit, and in the third week you want to push to possible failure. I say “possible” failure because your goal is to go all-out but not fail.
After three weeks, most of you will be ready to switch to new exercises. (As I mentioned earlier, some of you will switch after two weeks, while less experienced lifters might still make gains after six weeks with the same exercises.)
Do five-minute sets of each of these exercises:
Double clean and military press with dumbbells or kettlebells (stand and clean the weights from a hang on each rep)
Hindu squat (check out this video if you aren’t familiar with the exercise; you can wear a weight vest to increase the intensity, or focus on doing more reps each week)
One-arm bent-over row (switch sides every minute, so you do two minutes on each side)
One-arm kettlebell swing (switch arms after two minutes), or another lower-body pull from the list above
Now, on paper this may look easy. But if you’ve never done a four-minute set, you’re in for a humbling experience. You’re not allowed to put the weights down and rest at any time while the clock is running. You have to hang on and keep cranking out reps the entire time.
For many of you, jumping right into four-minute sets is out of the question. You can build up to it by doing the exercise for a minute, resting a minute, and continuing until you finish four minutes of the exercise. Then you make progress by reducing the rest periods in subsequent workouts until you can do a four-minute set without stopping.
This is a good day to have some friends over to train. Make it a contest and have a good time with it.
Do six sets of three reps of each of these exercises:
Incline dumbbell press
Barbell bent-over row
Barbell front squat
Barbell power clean
After a tough Maximum Size and Strength day, and for many an even tougher Repetition Method day, many will welcome the Speed workout. After all, you get to do low-rep sets with weights that are just 60 to 70 percent of your one-rep max.
It’s fine to enjoy the Speed workout, but don’t half-ass it. Move the weights as fast as you can, and take short rest periods between sets.
Start with 60 percent of your estimated one-rep max on each exercise. When in doubt, go lighter, not heavier. In week two, go up to 65 percent of your 1RM, then up to 70 percent in week three. Then start over at 60 percent of your 1RM with a new set of exercises.
Next time, I’ll show you how to combine the first two articles in this series – strength and size with cardio – to give you a program that’s effective and never, ever dull.