Instead of my usual Q & A column this month, I’m going to get a few things off my chest. Don’t worry though, it won’t simply be the ranting of a dieting bodybuilder; you’ll probably learn a few helpful things along the way, too!
Rant #1: Performance training for aesthetic purposes
Let’s start off by barbequing one big sacred cow. If you’re training for bodybuilding / aesthetic purposes, you should not follow the same principles or methods as you would if you were training for strength or performance.
This goes against the grain because many renowned strength coaches recommend training pretty much the same way regardless if your goal is building a nice physique or improving your performance. Most of the time, this is because these coaches have never actually been involved in bodybuilding or aesthetic training themselves! Most, if not all, of their personal and professional experience has been with athletes.
Well, let me tell you something; while both types of training (aesthetics and performance) utilize the same tools, they aren’t the same thing at all. Different goals require different means.
The funny thing is that these performance coaches are the first to say that athletes playing different sports shouldn’t train the same way. For example, they wouldn’t train a martial artist or boxer the same way they’d train a triathlete, hockey player, or basketball player. All different sports require a different type of program, and these coaches do realize that. Then why is it so hard for them to understand that bodybuilding/aesthetic training also requires a different type of program? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
I think one of the reasons is that performance coaches often downplay or even ridicule the activity of bodybuilding. They see training for looks as an inferior training objective, not worthy of being considered on par with athletic development. Why is that? After all, most people train for looks (even if they won’t admit it).
They also feel that bodybuilding training is “easier,” thus less manly. In both of these cases, they try to make bodybuilding training more acceptable (according to their own views) by using performance training methods. Well, take it from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence: serious bodybuilding/aesthetic training is just as hard, if not harder (certainly more painful) than performance training.
Of course, I’m talking about those who really want to progress and bust their humps in the gym, not those gym socialites who do a few easy sets to “tone up.”
I also think that since many performance coaches were never actually able to build a truly aesthetic physique (there are exceptions of course), they instinctively see the pursuit of a nice physique as vain and unworthy: if you can’t have it, make it sound like it’s not worth having.
There are several differences when training strictly for aesthetic purposes:
Difference #1: When training for performance, you’re trying to make the body more efficient as a whole, as a unit. To do so, you should focus on developing movement patterns and energy systems, not individual muscles.
Furthermore, since most athletes will be involved in other physical activity outside of the gym (sport practices, plyo sessions, speed/agility work, GPP, etc.), they can’t afford to spend as much time in the gym as bodybuilders for whom weight training is almost the only physical activity being performed.
Since athletes can’t spend as much time in the gym, they must focus on money exercises: movements that will give them the most bang for their buck performance-wise. When talking about aesthetic training, this minimalist approach to exercise selection can have some problems, the most important being that compound/multi-joint movements will build muscle mostly in the strongest muscle involved.
For example, some people will get a lot of quad development from squats while others will build mostly glutes and lower back. When training for aesthetic purposes, this isn’t acceptable. To create a good-looking physique, you must create an illusion: it’s not about adding as much mass as possible, but about adding mass in the right places. So in that regard, it often becomes necessary to use more isolation exercises to make sure that everything is developed in proper balance.
Difference #2: When training for performance, you’re training movement patterns and energy systems, but when training for aesthetic purposes you’re training muscles. The objective is to build overall muscle mass (before creating a nice sculpture you first need a big rock) but also to emphasize certain areas to create a better overall shape (X-shape).
So depending on your structure and muscular development, you’ll need to focus more on building certain muscle groups while minimizing the development of others. If you were to use only compound movements, as performance coaches recommend, your development would pretty much be random and determined by your body structure and muscle strength/weaknesses.
With all compound movements, your body will always strive to use the muscle(s) or part(s) of a muscle that are best suited to do the job: your body isn’t after balanced development but rather survival. For example, when attempting to squat a huge weight, all your body knows is that there’s a big ass weight trying to squash you into the ground, and if you don’t lift that weight, you die! So in the interest of survival, your body will use the muscle recruitment pattern that will allow you to lift the load with the greater chance of success/survival.
That’s part of the reason why certain persons get great outer quad sweep from squatting while others get more inner thigh or glute development from that same exercise. The same holds true for all big basic movements. For example, the bench press: some will get a lot of triceps development from it, others more front delts, and some lucky ones more chest.
I want to make it clear that the big, basic, compound free-weight movements performed with heavy weights will always be the best overall mass-builders. Exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, military or push press, and bentover barbell row are the movements which will put more total beef on your frame. So when you’re beginning your training adventure and simply need to add a ton of beef to your skinny body, these drills should constitute the backbone of your program.
However, when it comes to creating an illusion, building an aesthetic and pleasing physique, these heavy compound movements can have serious drawbacks as we just saw: they’ll always tend to make you gain more muscle in your stronger body parts and much less in your weaker ones. As a result, you can suffer from unbalanced development. So it becomes necessary to add isolation exercises selected to emphasize your own weaknesses. This requires more overall training volume in the gym, which brings me to point number three.
Difference #3: Since we’re using a much lower volume of work and focusing on a few basic exercises when we’re training for performance, and considering that our objective is to improve the body’s capacity to work as a unit, it becomes clear that a whole-body or at least an upper/lower body split is ideal. However, using such splits for aesthetic training isn’t really realistic.
As I mentioned earlier, when training for aesthetic purposes you’ll need to use a wider variety of exercises because the big basic movements can leave some muscle groups underdeveloped and leave you farther from your goal of building a balanced physique. So if you need to use three or four exercises for three or four sets per muscle group, including one basic lift and two or three isolation lifts (for example), there’s no way to train the whole body this way. It would mean a total of 24-32 exercises per session and a whopping 70-120 total sets. Four hour workouts, here I come!
Even if we were to cut it down to the bare minimum of one compound and one isolation exercise per muscle group, we’d still be talking about around 16 exercises and a total of 30-45 sets. Still a lot of work for a single session. And with that volume, the muscles being trained last would surely not receive the same growth stimulation because by then the quality of training would be lower.
Now, if it were possible to build a perfectly balanced physique using only basic compound movements (and to be fair, some lucky few with perfect structure/balance can achieve that) using a whole-body split would be a good way to train for aesthetic purposes. But for 90% of us, this just isn’t realistic.
Isolation work and body-part splits? Hmm, who did that work for?
Not to mention that bodybuilding training often relies on intensive methods such as drop sets, compound sets, rest/pauses, supersets, extended sets, tempo contrast, etc., which place a lot of stress on the muscles and nervous system. Since the volume of work is greater, it also means more muscle damage when compared to performance training. More muscle damage requires more recovery time. So as you can see, a body part split becomes necessary when training strictly for aesthetic purposes.
That’s not to say that you can’t train often. In fact, several of my clients, as well as myself, have had a lot of success with training five to six times a week, hitting each muscle group twice a week. But training a muscle more than twice a week with bodybuilding methods/volume is too much for any natural trainer (unless using a specialization routine where the volume for other muscle groups is reduced). In fact, I often recommend alternating between training each muscle group twice per week (for four weeks) with training each muscle group only once per week (for four weeks.)
The bottom line is that training for aesthetic purposes isn’t the same thing as training for performance and thus shouldn’t follow the same training patterns, methods, or split… just like a boxer shouldn’t be training like a basketball player.
Rant #2: Looking for the “perfect program” while ignoring the real keys to muscle growth
Nowadays it seems that every trainee is looking for the “perfect program” that’s sure to give him the body of his dreams (and give it to him within a month or less if possible). The thing is that a large majority of these people (mostly teenagers or young adults) forget that program selection doesn’t matter at all if they don’t respect the three keys to muscle growth:
These people think that doing a certain workout, even if they’re only going through the motions, will give them the gains they want… as if a training plan written on a piece of paper has magic powers that summon the gods of muscle growth. Well, let me tell you something: the worst program in the world performed pedal to the metal will bring on more results than the best possible program done half-assed.
That’s not to say that it isn’t important to select a good program. It just means that if you’re not willing to work as hard as you humanly can, on a consistent basis, it won’t matter what “super program” you’re using: you won’t grow.
Let’s explore those three keys:
Effort: This is the piece of the puzzle that most people think they have, but really don’t. No one will ever tell you that they don’t work hard or that they’re lazy in the gym. In their own minds, they’re gym warriors. Well, in all the gyms I’ve visited, trained, or worked at, I could say that on average only around 10% of the trainees really work at a level that I consider sufficient to elicit maximum gains.
Quite simply, nobody works as hard as they think they do. Even those who actually work hard can improve somewhere. Working hard isn’t about grunting and growling, nor is it about dropping your dumbbells on the floor after your sets so you can look hardcore. Working hard, with maximal effort, is about one thing and one thing only: mental focus.
When you set foot in the gym, you must enter the zone: only think about training and focusing on getting the most out of every single muscle contraction. Don’t waste your time between sets, don’t engage in any conversation (I can’t recall a time in the past three years where I said more than one sentence at a time during a workout), don’t think about anything else other than your workout, don’t allow pain to stop a set if you still have something in the tank… you get the idea.
One thing I always ask myself at the end of every single workout is: “Was this the best workout of your life?” Obviously the answer isn’t always “yes,” but if the answer is “no” I always try to find the reason why and see what I can do to correct the situation next time I’m in there battling the iron.
Remember, the difference between the champ and the chump isn’t what he does, it’s how he does it.
Discipline/Consistency: There are several factors involved in gaining muscle: training, nutrition, recovery, and supplementation being the most noteworthy. These are like the four wheels of a car. If you blow one of the four wheels, regardless of how perfect the other three are, you won’t be able to get to your destination on time!
A lot of people actually train pretty decently and some even train very hard. However, they often make next to zero gains. They’re quick to blame genetics and make other lame excuses. The real reason is that they’re probably eating like crap, not sleeping enough (or worse, partying on a frequent basis), or they aren’t making proper use of a good supplementation program. Granted, this last factor doesn’t have as much impact as the three others, but it can still have a significant impact on your progress.
You see, training is the easy part. It’s fun; that’s why we do it and love it. On the other hand, eating well (avoiding all junk food), getting your 9-10 hours of sleep every night, avoiding frequent partying, and staying away from alcohol is hard. Doing so requires discipline. While some genetic freaks will be able to progress even if they do everything wrong, 90% of us can’t afford to do that. And face it, if you’re reading this you’re not a genetic freak.
Now, while discipline is important, it’s worthless without consistency. You can’t eat perfectly for one week, then eat junk and party for one week and expect to get optimal gains. Building muscle is a very long term process. You must do things correctly all the time if you expect to grow at a maximal rate.
At first it’s no fun. And it’s certainly not something that everybody can do. But in the long run, those who are able to make it a lifestyle will be more than rewarded!
Progression: This goes back to the principle of effort. The real secret to building muscle and strength is to progress. You must challenge your body on a consistent basis and find ways to progressively ask more of it. If you do the same thing over and over again, you’ll end up looking the same as you do now in a month, a year, or ten years. Progress is the name of the game, not program design, not tempo or other small details. Find a way to progress and you’ll gain size and strength.
Now, there’s more than one way to progress. Basically what we’re looking for are ways to make our bodies work harder. This is progress and this is what will lead to growth. Here are a few ways to make your body work harder:
1. Increase the load: You can challenge your body by adding weight to the bar and performing the same number of reps per set. For example, if you did 225 pounds for 10 reps on the bench press last week and put up 230 for 10 this week, you’ve forced your body to work harder.
Obviously, this method of progression has its limits: you can’t add weight to the bar every week. If this were possible, you’d increase your bench press by 260 pounds a year simply by adding five pounds per week to the bar.
2. Increase the reps: Another way to make your body work harder is to do more reps per set with the same weight. For example, if last week you did 225 for 10 reps and this week you do 225 for 12 reps, you’ve progressed. Just like with method one, you can’t add reps like this every week.
3. Increase the average weight lifted for an exercise: This is very similar to the first method; however, the first method refers to lifting more weight on your max set. This one refers to lifting more weight on average for an exercise. For example, let’s say that you perform 4 sets of 10 reps on the bench press:
Set no.1: 200lbs x 10 (2000lbs)
Set no.2: 210lbs x 10 (2100lbs)
Set no.3: 220lbs x 10 (2200lbs)
Set no.4: 225lbs x 10 (2250lbs)
Total weight lifted = 8550lbs
Average weight per set = 2137lbs
Average weight per rep = 213.7lbs (214lbs)
Set no.1: 210lbs x 10 (2100lbs)
Set no.2: 215lbs x 10 (2150lbs)
Set no.3: 225lbs x 10 (2250lbs)
Set no.4: 225lbs x 10 (2250lbs)
Total weight lifted = 8750lbs
Average weight per set = 2187lbs
Average weight per rep = 218.7lbs (219lbs)
As you can see, even though the same top weight was reached during both workouts, on week two you lifted five pounds more on average. This is progression!
4. Increase training density: You can also progress by increasing the amount of work you perform per unit of time. This basically refers to decreasing the rest between sets while keeping the weight used the same (or not decreasing it too much). By reducing rest intervals your body is forced to work harder and recruit more muscle fibers due to the cumulative fatigue phenomenon.
5. Increase training volume: This is probably the simplest progression method. If you want to make your body do more work, well, do more work! This means adding sets for each muscle group.
For example, on week one you might perform 9 work sets for a muscle group and bump it to 12 on week two and 14 on week three. While this can work, it shouldn’t be abused as it can lead to overtraining. Most trainees should stick to no more than 12 total sets per muscle groups 90% of the time.
6. Use intensive training methods: The occasional inclusion of methods such as drop sets, rest/pause sets, tempo contrast, iso-dynamic contrast, supersets, and compound sets is another way of making your body work harder. It also shouldn’t be abused as it represents a tremendous stress on the muscle and nervous system.
7. Use more challenging exercises: If you’re used to doing all your training on machines then move up to free weights. You’ll force your body to work harder because you have to stabilize the load. If you use only isolation exercises and start including compound/multi-joint movements, you’ll also make your body work harder because of the intermuscular coordination factor.
8. Produce more tension in the targeted muscle group: It’s one thing to lift the weight; it’s another thing to lift it correctly in order to build size! As I often say, when training to build muscle you’re not lifting weights; you’re contracting your muscles against a resistance. You can improve the quality of your sets, and thus make your body work harder, by always trying to flex the target muscle as hard as possible during the whole duration of each rep.
9. Increase the time under tension by lowering the weight under control: I’m not a huge fan of precise tempo recommendations; I find that they can interfere with training intensity. However, I do acknowledge that when a muscle is under constant tension for a relatively longer period of time (up to 45-70 seconds) more hypertrophy can be stimulated. The best way to do this without having to use less weight is to lower the weight more slowly, still focusing on tensing the muscles as hard as possible the whole time.
These are just a few ways of progressing. You don’t have to use them all at the same time, but knowing that each of these represents a progression will allow you to constantly challenge your body. You can’t lift more weight today? No problem, try one of the other eight methods.
The key is progression. Find a way to progress every week and you’re sure to grow.
Rant #3: Sweating the details while ignoring the big picture
This is probably the thing I hate the most: guys stuck on minute details but who tend to forget the most important factors (proper exercise selection, maximum effort, consistency, etc.). They focus on the little things that might give them a 10% improvement but disregard the important stuff that will account for 90% of their gains. Want some examples?
“Should I lower the weight in three or four seconds?”
“Is it best to perform sets of eight or ten reps?”
“I stumbled while loading the bar and took 50 seconds of rest instead of 45. Will that hurt my gains?”
The universal answer to these types of questions is and shall ever be, “It doesn’t matter.”
The real factors that’ll make all the difference in the world are:
1. Exercise Selection: Am I choosing the proper exercises to stimulate the desired muscle group according to my own structure and strengths/weaknesses?
2. Exercise Technique #1: Am I using the lifting technique that allows me to focus the effort on the desired muscle group(s)?
3. Exercise Technique #2: Am I lifting the weight in a manner that will reduce the risk of injuries? (Nobody has ever gotten bigger or stronger in the hospital.)
4. Degree of Effort: Am I working hard (and smart) enough to elicit a growth response or am I just going through the motions?
5. Progression: Am I progressing on a consistent basis? Am I at least trying with all I’ve got to progress each time I’m in the gym?
6. Focus/Singleness of Purpose: When I’m in the gym, am I 100% focused on my body, my muscles, and the task at hand? Or is my mind wandering from time to time? Do I really want to achieve my goals? Do I have that burning desire to do whatever it takes or am I just there hoping that something will eventually happen if I keep working at it?
7. W & R Relationship: Work and recovery go hand in hand. Working too little won’t stimulate gains. Working enough but resting too long between sessions won’t lead to positive adaptation (you’ll lose your stimulated gains before the next session). Working too much, even if you include some recovery time out of the gym, won’t lead to optimal gains and could even lead to stagnation. Working too much while not recuperating enough will lead to stagnation and even overtraining.
To gain maximally you must have the right mix of work and recovery. While there’s no formula that’s set in stone (it’s a highly individual matter), some good starting points are:
• Working each muscle group once a week: 3-4 sets of 4 exercises per muscle group (2 compounds, 2 isolation)
• Working each muscle group twice a week: 3-4 sets of 3 exercises per muscle group (2 compounds, 1 isolation)
• Working each muscle group three times a week: 3-4 sets of 2 exercises (1 compound, 1 isolation)
• Working each muscle group four times a week: 3-4 sets of 1 exercise (1 compound)
As I mentioned, this is only a broad guideline. Some people can handle more sets, some less. Some will need more isolation work and less compound work. But as a rule of thumb, this is a good place to start.
Now, if you don’t respect these seven points, any attention to the smallest detail will be completely pointless and worthless!
Thib Steps Off His Soapbox
Hopefully I haven’t offended too many people. I still value my life and intend to live long and prosper, so I can’t afford to have too many enemies! Next time I’ll be more fun and merry, I promise!