I'm about the reveal a secret so profound that it'll change your perception of weight training forever: All high level bodybuilders take performance enhancing drugs.
Oh, you already knew that? Then why are so many natural individuals copying the training approaches of "enhanced" lifters? Are you one of them? What works great for someone who's enhanced won't be optimal for the natural lifter. If you don't use these drugs, that means you.
One of the biggest mistakes holding back a natural lifter is doing too much work, or not doing the right type of work, or not doing it intensely enough. That's why I wrote The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters. It gave people shocking results. And because of it, I constantly hear two things:
- "I made my best gains ever on that program."
- "What can I do next?"
It's a program that you can repeat for a long time because it's not excessive in volume, so it won't make you crash. But the body is an adaptive machine, and boredom (from doing the same thing over and over) is a gains-killer. So repeating it for too long will eventually lead to stagnation.
That's where this program was born. This is not an "upgrade" because it's not better than the original. It's simply a different plan using the same principles.
First, here's a recap of the basic guidelines.
Train each muscle with a high frequency.
When you're a natural lifter the training session itself is the trigger that initiates protein synthesis (muscle building). That rate of protein synthesis stays elevated for 18-36 hours post workout depending on the nature of the workout.
For optimal gains, train each muscle more often to promote a higher rate of protein synthesis. The minimum frequency of hitting a muscle for significant gains is twice per week, but three days per week would be better. That's the recommended frequency with this approach.
Use a low volume of work per session.
The amount of work you can do per workout is inversely proportional to the frequency at which you train each muscle. And since each muscle will be trained three times week it means that the daily volume for each muscle cannot be high. Furthermore, excessive volume is the number one enemy for the natural lifter: more volume equals a higher cortisol release. And more cortisol can decrease muscle growth.
Maximize the intensiveness of the work sets.
Since you'll be doing few work sets you must make sure that all of them are as challenging as humanly possible. With only one work set per exercise (and 1-3 preparation sets) you'll be going to failure and beyond on two out of three of the exercises. (The big compound lifts are done heavy but not to failure.)
This is key to make low volume workouts effective. Remember, we can't use volume accumulation to maximize muscle fiber fatigue so we must create as much fatigue as possible in that one work set.
Include three types of muscle stimulation.
Not all muscle contractions are created equal. Some methods work by having a greater impact on mTor activation (accentuating the eccentric or negative, loaded stretching), others by creating a greater amount of muscle fiber fatigue, and others by increasing the release of local growth factors. To maximize growth you'll target all the growth pathways with several different methods.
Use a modified push/pull split.
The push/pull split makes it easier to develop everything in balance. An antagonist split is often suboptimal because many find it hard to alternate antagonist exercises; one of the two always suffers. The modified split is also ideal for those who hate leg days because you'll do a small amount of leg work every workout instead of devoting two entire workouts to legs.
You'll train each muscle using three different methods, a different one each day. One will be focused more on heavy lifting, the other one on maximum mTor activation, and the third one on fiber fatigue/growth factor accumulation.
1. Heavy Lifting
You'll use two different options for the heavy method. Stick with each for 2 or 3 weeks then switch to the other one. Those two methods are rest/pause and clusters:
1. For the rest/pause
Your work set will require a weight that you can lift for 4 to 6 reps. You'll complete as many technically correct reps as you can with that weight. Your goal will then be to double that number of reps. To do that you take short rest periods.
For example, let's say that you get 5 reps in the initial bout. This means you want to do 10 total reps for your set. After your 5 reps you'll rest for 15 seconds. Then you might get an extra 3 reps. This means you'll need to get 2 more reps. Rest another 15 seconds and then you'll be capable of getting the last 2 reps.
2. For the clusters
Use a weight that you could lift for 2-4 reps. Then do as many sets of 1 rep as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest between each. Stop when you know that the next rep will be iffy. It might look like this:
- 1 rep, rest 15 seconds
- 1 rep, rest 15 seconds
- 1 rep, rest 20 seconds
- 1 rep, rest 20 seconds
- 1 rep
2. mTOR Activation
The two types of actions that have the greater impact on mTor activation are accentuated eccentrics and loaded stretching (holding a muscle contraction while in a stretched position).
So you'll use a nice torture method called post-fatigue loaded stretching. You pick a weight you can do 8-10 reps using a slow negative – lowering under control for 4-5 seconds. Go to muscle failure or very close to it. When you reach that point, go down to the stretched position and hold the weight for as long as tolerable. It's a great way to stimulate growth, but also to improve mobility and stability.
3. Fiber Fatigue (Myo Reps)
For maximum muscle fiber fatigue you'll use the myo rep method developed by Borge Fagerly. It's a form of rest/pause. You reach failure or close to it, then do as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with around 20 seconds of rest.
When you can only get 2 reps on a micro-set, you stop. The initial set can use any number of reps from 6 to 20, but with this program we'll use a weight that you can get 10-12 reps with.
Start by doing as many reps as you can with that weight, then rest 20 seconds and do 3 more reps. Rest 20 seconds and do 3 more reps. Continue doing that until you can only get 2 additional reps. If you can get more than 5 micro-sets you likely faked yourself in that original set and didn't go close enough to failure.
It's a modified push/pull split. Why modified? Because there's a lower body lift each day. Quads go on the push days and hamstrings on pull days.
- Rhomboids and rear delts
These recommendations are personal preferences; you can make changes as long as it maintains the spirit of the plan. Don't replace a back squat with a single-leg extension for example.
- Heavy: Front squat or Zercher squat
- mTor: Goblet squat or lumberjack squat
- Myo reps: Leg extension
- Heavy: Bench press or incline bench press
- mTor: Dumbbell flat press or dumbbell incline press
- Myo reps: Machine pec deck or machine chest press
- Heavy: Military press or Smith machine shoulder press
- mTor: Lateral raise on incline bench
- Myo reps: Lateral raise or machine shoulder press
- Heavy: Close-grip bench press or close-grip floor press
- mTor: Overhead single dumbbell tricep extension
- Myo reps: Rope tricep pressdown
- Heavy: Romanian deadlift (rest/pause) or deadlift clusters from pins at mid shin
- mTor: Dumbbell Romanian deadlift with front of feet elevated one inch
- Myo reps: Leg curl
- Heavy: Neutral grip pull-up or lat pulldown
- mTor: Dumbbell pullover
- Myo reps: Straight-arm pulldown
- Heavy: Seal row or Pendlay row
- mTor: Neutral-grip seated row
- Myo reps: Rear delt machine or dumbbell rear delt raise
- Heavy: Standing barbell curl
- mTor: Incline dumbbell curl (both arms at the same time)
- Myo reps: Cable curl
This plan is for 6 days a week, though we'll go through some other options below.
Monday (Push 1)
- A. Front squat or Zercher squat: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- B. Close-grip bench press or close-grip floor press: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- C. Dumbbell flat press or dumbbell incline press: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), then hold the stretched position as long as tolerable.
- D. Dumbbell lateral raise or machine shoulder press: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, then as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
Tuesday (Pull 1)
- A. Romanian deadlift (rest/pause) or deadlift clusters from pins at mid shin: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster
- B. Dumbbell pullover: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and finally hold the stretched position as long as tolerable.
- C. Rear delts machine or dumbbell rear delt raises: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
- D. Standing barbell curl: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
Wednesday (Push 2)
- A. Military press or Smith machine shoulder press: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- B. Goblet squat or lumberjack squat: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and finally hold the stretched position.
- C. Overhead single dumbbell triceps extension: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and then hold the stretched position.
- D. Machine pec deck or machine chest press: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and then as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
Thursday (Pull 2)
- A. Neutral grip pull-ups or lat pulldown: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- B. Neutral grip seated row: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and finally hold the stretched position as long as tolerable.
- C. Leg curl: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
- D. Incline dumbbell curl (both arms at the same time): 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and finally hold the stretched position.
Friday (Push 3)
- A. Bench press or incline bench press: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps, then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- B. Dumbbell lateral raise on incline bench: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and finally hold the stretched position as long as tolerable.
- C. Leg extension: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
- D. Rope triceps pressdown: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
Saturday (Pull 3)
- A. Seal row or Pendlay row: 2-3 warm-up sets of 4-6 reps then 1 work set of rest/pause or cluster.
- B. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift with front of feet elevated one inch: 1-2 warm-up sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, then 1 work set of 8-10 reps to failure (slow tempo), and then hold the stretched position.
- C. Straight-arm pulldown: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
- D. Cable curl: 1-2 warm-up sets of 10-12 reps, then 1 work set of 10-12 reps to failure, and finally as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with 15-20 seconds of rest in between.
You can do 1 to 3 preparation sets for every exercise. Normally you'd do 3 gradually heavier sets for the heavy exercises and 1-2 for the others. If you're in the very-strong category of lifter, you might need more than 3 warm-up sets for the big lifts (if you squat 600 you might need 4-6 warm-ups).
Don't overdo them. Remember the main principle of the program: minimizing volume to avoid excessive cortisol release. For most exercises, 2 warm-up sets will be sufficient.
Do NOT use the special methods for warm-up sets. For example, if you warm-up for heavy rest/pause sets, and you know that the weight you'll use is something you can lift for 4-6 reps, then warm-up using only 4-6 reps per set. The first warm-up set being easy – maybe a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 6/10 – and the last warm-up would be challenging, but not all-out, 8/10 RPE.
- For the mTOR work: Do sets of 8-10 reps with a slow eccentric, but don't do the isometric hold at the end. Again, the first warm-up is easier and the last one is hard, but not all-out.
- For the myo rep sets: Don't use the rest/pause portion (the mini-sets of 3 reps). You do 2 sets of 10-12 regular reps, again one easy set and one hard but not all-out set.
For maximum results I highly recommend six weekly workouts. It'll give you the optimal frequency to stimulate growth. The workouts last around 30-40 minutes, so it should be possible to fit them into your schedule. But if it's absolutely impossible to do six sessions, try one of these options.
Five Days a Week
- Monday: Push 1
- Tuesday: Pull 1
- Wednesday: Push 2
- Thursday: OFF
- Friday: Pull 2
- Saturday: Push 3
- Sunday: OFF
- Monday: Pull 3
- Tuesday: Push 1
- Wednesday: Pull 1
- Thursday: OFF
- Friday: Push 2
- Saturday: Pull 2
- Sunday: OFF
Four Days a Week
- Monday: Push 1
- Tuesday: Pull 1
- Wednesday: OFF
- Thursday: Push 2
- Friday: OFF
- Saturday: Pull 2
- Sunday: OFF
- Monday: Push 3
- Tuesday: Pull 3
- Wednesday: OFF
- Thursday: Push 1
- Friday: OFF
- Saturday: Pull 1
- Sunday: OFF
This program is not for you if you're training less than 4 days a week.
Looking to add stuff to the program is a slippery slope. By themselves, adding abs, forearm, or calf work isn't a problem because they're smaller muscle groups trained by using low-impact exercises which, by themselves, won't negatively impact recovery too much. The problems arise when you take the liberty of adding more and more stuff in the program.
So I'll make it easy for you: you can add ONE exercise for either abs, calves, or forearms to each workout. That's the limit. You don't have to add work for only one muscle; you can change the "bonus muscle" at every workout. For example:
- Days 1 and 4: Extra calf work
- Days 2 and 5: Extra abs work
- Days 3 and 6: Extra forearm work
I prefer to use either the mTOR or myo reps methods for the bonus work and use the same approach as for all the other exercises (1-3 preparation sets, 1 all-out work set) but you can also use the higher reps methods from the first program.
Loaded carries are a very powerful and versatile tool. They can help you build muscle, lose fat, and fix strength leaks, which will make you stronger. They're also very demanding. I won't prohibit you from using loaded carries because they're just so damn effective. But there is limit of how much you should do in order to maintain good progression.
Remember, you can add one bonus exercise per workout, and carries can be that bonus exercise. But because loaded carries are a lot more traumatic than abs, calves, or forearm work you can only add loaded carries once or twice per week. I'd recommend not doing them on the "Push 1" or "Pull 1" workout since those are more demanding because of the heavy squats and deads.
My recommended loaded carries are the farmer's walk and Zercher carry. But I also include Prowler pushing in that category. How much and what type of carry should you do? It depends on your main goal.
- For size and strength: Go heavy on the carries and put them first in your workout. It will be a good activation for the rest of the session. Sets lasting around 10-15 seconds would be your preferred parameter. I'd recommend at the most 4 sets, including only 1 or 2 very demanding efforts and 2-3 gradually heavier preparation sets.
- For fat loss: Go lighter for more duration and do the carries last in the workout. This way they won't have a negative impact on the other exercises due to fatigue. Sets lasting 45-60 seconds with a moderate weight would be your best option. Do 3-4 of these sets, all with pretty much the same moderate weight. If you're in good condition, a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio is optimal.
Can you use cardio with this program? Of course! What type you add is up to you.
Some people will do better on alactic (no lactic acid produced) sprints with a maximum effort lasting around 9-12 seconds followed by 60-90 seconds of rest or active rest. Others do better with lactic work (production of lactic acid) which uses intense efforts lasting 30-60 seconds with 60-90 seconds of rest or active rest. And others will do better on steady-state lower intensity cardio.
Do the type of cardio that's the most appealing to you. If doing the cardio causes a stress and puts you in a negative mindset, chances are it'll increase cortisol even more.
The amount you do depends on the type you're performing. Do enough work to help with fat loss, but not so much that you'll jack up cortisol too high.
- For alactic sprints: Don't exceed 12 minutes, so around 6-8 sprints with recovery/active recovery periods.
- For lactic work: Don't exceed 16 minutes. Use 6-8 bouts of 30-60 seconds along with recovery/active recovery periods.
- For steady-state lower intensity cardio: Don't go more than 30 minutes at a heart rate of around 120 beats per minute.
When adding cardio to a fat loss regimen, increase the amount of work (duration and frequency) gradually. If you start off right away with 6 days a week of the highest recommended duration, you'll have nowhere to go when fat loss slows down.
Start with two weekly sessions to see how it affects recovery and progress from the lifting sessions. Only add sessions if needed, and if your recovery and progress aren't suffering.
This program is actually a good approach, even without cardio, when you're trying to lean down. A big mistake people make when dieting is to do a lot of volume. And I get it. You want to drop fat, so you do more volume to use more fuel. In theory it's very logical.
The problem is it'll lead to a very high cortisol release, which adds up in an already high cortisol environment from dieting. Two of cortisol's main functions are to increase blood sugar levels when it's too low, and to mobilize stored energy for fuel.
When you're dieting, you're obviously consuming less food. This gives you less energy and in most cases puts you in a negative calorie balance. This means you'll need to mobilize more stored energy to function. This also means that cortisol output will be higher. This excess cortisol can make it a lot harder to preserve muscle mass while dieting, and certainly makes it almost impossible to add more muscle tissue.
With this approach you prevent that excess cortisol release, which will make it easier to maintain your muscle when dieting, and will even make it possible to add muscle if your protein intake is high enough.
That said, those who want to get really lean, or lose fat fast, might want to add cardio to their lifting program. While cardio isn't the great fat-torching tool that many believe, it does help with fat loss. Yes, it helps create a deficit more easily, but more importantly it might upregulate the enzymes responsible for mobilizing stored fat and use it for fuel. In that regard, cardio can program your body to more efficiently use fat for fuel.
This system has proven time and time again how effective it is for natural trainees who have average (or below average) genetics. But it only works if you're capable of the level of effort required to make the system work.
The limited number of work sets mean that you must take each of those work sets to the limit. If you don't you won't reap the benefits. But those who do will always report gains way above their expectations.