Grow or Die!
The old-school bodybuilders and strength athletes often called it the “Grow or Die Mechanism.” The premise was simple: Train your body so hard that it has only two choices: adapt and grow, or give up the ghost.
Modern strength and hypertrophy experts have other fancyfied names for it, like super-accumulation, but it all boils down to this: Train brutally hard, push the body to its limit and maybe even a little past its limit, then let it rest, recover, and grow.
Here are six of our favorite workouts to trigger the grow or die mechanism. We apologize in advance for your soon-to-come lactic acid-induced nausea and DOMS.
The 20-Rep Breathing Squat
From Peary Rader and Randall Strossen to Charles Poliquin and Dan John, we’ve known the “secret” to big gains for a century: a heavy load, on a big compound exercise, moved many, many times. The best exercise for this? The squat.
The 20-rep breathing squat, sometimes called a “death set,” is pretty much the one that started it all. The basic idea is simple:
- Load up the bar with a weight you can squat 10 times.
- Now squat it 20 times.
- You do this by taking purposeful pauses and breaths between each rep. You may start with one good deep breath between reps, then, as you move past 10 reps and start to hear the voice of God calling you heavenward, you can take as many breaths as you need… as long as you don’t rack the bar.
Old-schoolers following Strossen’s Super Squats program would often follow this one-set workout challenge with a set of high-rep pullovers. Many believed this combo lead to overall muscle growth and “ribcage expansion.” Maybe, maybe not, but it sure feels good to lie down and breathe after a set of 20-rep squats!
The breathing squat is a classic test of willpower and mental toughness. If you’re truly using a challenging 10-rep load, then you’ll be in for a physical and mental battle as you strive to hit 20 reps.
Keep the puke bucket handy for this one!
The Strip-Set Leg Press
Many bodybuilding experts believe that the legs, particularly the quads, need high reps and a longer TUT (time under tension) to hypertrophy. Here’s one way to do it… if you’re a masochist and your life insurance is all paid up.
Strip-sets were a favorite of many of the Golden Age bodybuilders. The idea was simple: pick an exercise and a weight. Lift until failure or near-failure. Drop the load down a few pounds (grab a set of lighter dumbbells or strip off plates) and again train until failure. Then, do it again, resting only enough time between drops to change weights. You might strip the weight three times or ten times. It’s up to you and your goals.
While this classic intensity technique is wickedly tough when performed with, say, alternating biceps curls (often called “running the rack”) it’s downright torture when used with an exercise that brings the bigger muscles of the body into play. The strip-set leg press is a good/evil example.
Pile up the leg press machine with a load you can lift – in good, full range-of-motion form – for around 10 reps. Your 10th rep should be almost impossible to complete. If it isn’t you didn’t go heavy enough or you’re a quarter-reppin’ wussy.
Now, without locking the sled, have a partner strip a plate off each side and immediately begin pressing again. Strip it again after coming to near-failure. Bodybuilders have stripped the weight as few as two or three times, and some have stripped it until they’re pressing (just barely!) an empty sled.
This could easily have you straining under load for several minutes. Some lifters have been known to pass out or throw up after strip-set leg presses!
Warning: The double-leg press has been shown is studies to make your blood pressure skyrocket. Probably not a big deal for a healthy adult, but take heed if you’re overweight and already have blood pressure issues.
The Toughest Exercise: The Platform Snatch-Grip Deadlift
The deadlift is already one of the toughest movements in existence. It’s a demanding man-maker of an exercise, a primal movement involving nothing more than bending down and ripping some heavy shit off the ground.
But it can be made tougher, and more effective for unadulterated gains in muscle mass.
Poliquin calls it the platform snatch-grip deadlift. We call it the Deadlift from Hell.
The secret to its brutality is the insanely long range of motion. First, you’re going to be using a snatch-grip: a very wide grip on the bar, out near the plates. That means you’re going to be lifting the bar higher at the top of the movement compared to a normal mixed-grip deadlift or sumo deadlift, which actually shortens the range of motion. The snatch-grip also forces you to bend down further, again increasing the ROM.
Second, you’re going to stand on a four inch (or so) platform, once again lengthening the range of motion and forcing the body to perform more work.
When Poliquin is tasked with adding mass to one of his elite athletes and has to do it in a hurry, the platform snatch-grip deadlift is his go-to exercise!
The Complex for Time
Complex training is hot right now, and it’s no wonder why: it works.
Quick review: A traditional complex is where you choose several exercises and perform them back to back without rest and without putting down the bar. Alwyn Cosgrove describes complex training as a circuit using one piece of equipment, one load, and one space.
So maybe you perform front squats for 8 reps, then push presses for 8 reps, then bentover rows for 8, and finally back squats for 8 reps – all without dropping the bar or resting between movements. Very effective for muscle-sparing “cardio,” athletic conditioning, and fat loss phases.
One of the most torturous complexes we’ve tried comes from strength and conditioning specialist Jason Ferruggia. The goal here is speed. Start a timer and perform the following once through, six reps for every movement. Write down your time and try to beat it on another day. The effect is nothing short of metabolic violence.
- Deadlift: x 6
- Hang Clean: x 6
- Front Squat: x 6
- Hang Snatch: x 6
- Overhead Squat: x 6
- Front Press: x 6
- Bentover Row: x 6
- Romanian Deadlift: x 6
Start with a 45-pound bar. After a few workouts and improved times, add load. But remember, many well-conditioned top athletes never go over 95 pounds with this one. Try it once and you’ll be a believer!
The Farmer’s Walk
Find the heaviest pair of dumbbells in your gym. Hopefully that’s at least 100 pounds. Now pick them up and take a walk. That’s essentially a farmer’s walk.
This killer old-school exercise will set your lungs on fire, annihilate your grip, forearms, and traps, and build a shit-ton of mental and physical toughness.
Here are three ways to do them:
- Mark off a certain distance, say, the length of the group fitness room if you can only do these in your gym. Now perform a designated number of “sets” – such as across the room and back – and time how long it takes you. The next time you do farmer’s walks, try to beat that time. Oh, and try not to drop your weights on the chicks doing Pilates. It’s rude to hospitalize people, Mongo, unless, you know, they really, really deserve it. Like vegans.
- If you have the space, grab your dumbbells and see how far you can go without dropping them. Next time around, try to beat that distance. Remember, only pussies stop after their eyeballs pop from their sockets.
- If you don’t have specialized strongman equipment but do have access to trap bars, use those for what we call “trap bar walks.”
The 1-10 System
A favorite of Arnold, this one can be used with just about any exercise, but Mr. Cali-fornia liked to use them with curls and bench presses.
Here’s how it works: Load up the bar with a weight that you can only handle for one maximal rep in good form. Curl it or press it, rack it, then strip off just enough weight so that you can get two reps.
Again, take off just enough weight so that you can get three reps. Continue until you do a final set of ten reps. That’ll be 55 reps total. Now go find your left testicle. It rolled out of your shorts leg about halfway through the set.
If using a barbell, load it up initially with several smaller plates to allow for easy load changes. A training partner really helps here but you can do it yourself in a pinch. If using dumbbells or fixed EZ-curl bars, get ready to “run the rack.”
What’s Your Favorite?
Although these six workouts are both cruel and effective, there are many more out there that almost made our list. Did we miss one of your faves? Hit “Discuss” below and let us know your favorite man-maker!