Fire up those neurons in your brain because I have a double whammy for you!

First, I'll breakdown the five elements all programs share and how they're best used.

Then it's on to an insane diet blitz that'll really put your testicles to the test. Believe me, it's not for the queasy.

All of the programs and systems in the strength training field can basically be tossed into two main groups: the illogical, ineffective, and counterproductive ones and those that, well, make sense and work as advertised.

Illogical programs aren't normally rooted in science and are often designed and marketed by seduction rather than reason or real world success. These programs fail to provide an adequate means of progression and are generally based on the "more is better" or the "no pain, no gain" mentality. There's also a mind-numbing second type that's actually the opposite: It has you doing tons of cute stuff, but nothing that'll give you even the hint of muscle.

The first category of illogical programs is based on the "driving your body into the ground" train of thought. It doesn't really matter what you're doing in the gym as long as you're "burning" or "destroying" your muscles. It'll work with genetic freaks who are on heavy doses of anabolic steroids, but that's about it.

Workouts in this category often include up to 30 sets per muscle group, along with several intensive techniques such as drop sets, supersets, rest/pause, etc. Yes, it's painful. Yes, you'll feel like a Mack truck just ran you over, threw it in reverse, and came back for more. But no, it doesn't mean that you'll grow!

leg muscles

Stimulating growth is about progression, or challenging your body on a systematic basis. Yes, you must force your body to gradually do more arduous work. However, you must not exceed your capacity to recover, otherwise not only won't you progress, you'll actually go backwards.

The second type of illogical program is the exact opposite in that the actual amount of effort you put in is laughable. The focus is on the fancy wrapping instead of what's in the box! This type of training includes every "cool" method under the sun: Swiss balls, wobble boards, BOSU balls and other unstable training, as well as dozens of cute movements that are so isolated that you'll barely be able to use any weight.

Sadly, I had a friend fall into this trap when he started his studies in applied kinesiology. Before that, he was a decent athlete – a sprinter who'd perform squats, power cleans, Romanian deadlifts, presses, etc.

Then he started his degree and began to learn the functions of every stinkin' muscle in the body.

As a result, his new lower body session included around 15 exercises. One to isolate the gracilis, one to target the vastus lateralis, one for the sartorius, and well, you get the point. But there was no heavy lifting, no hard training, no progression, and you guessed it, no real gains!

Don't get me wrong, it's important to know the function of each muscle group so that you're able to correct weaknesses if you find them. But the basis of every effective program will always be hard work and weekly progression, not cute training with an array of rainbow dumbbells.

Now that we have a better idea of what's flawed and pointless, let's try to find out what is effective.

Well, first of all, the basis of all effective programs revolves around three things: progression, effort, and consistency. Without these three linchpins, a program falls back into the land of the unsound and dangerous. On the other end, any program that's based on these three principles will work to some extent. It might not be ideal for your body type and psychological profile, but it'll work.

Within these effective programs, there are five types of program dominance. That is, five elements on which a program can be based. And unless you have a very profound understanding of all the biological and neural intricacies involved in training, stick to focusing on only one of these at a time.

What are these five elements, you ask?

  1. Volume
  2. Frequency
  3. Density
  4. Intensity
  5. Intensiveness

While all five come into play in every program, like I said, when designing a workout you should single out one of them, making it the central element in the program. Depending on your body type, objective, recovery capacity, and dietary approach, any of the five dominances can be optimal.

Here are the main types of basic programs:

Volume-dominant programs utilize a high number of sets per muscle group to stimulate growth. When used with heavy weights, the goal is to "drill" a movement, enhancing neuromuscular coordination. This requires doing many sets of just a few exercises.

But when it comes to building muscle, we're talking about using the cumulative fatigue from all of the sets to stimulate growth. With a volume approach, 16 to 24 sets per muscle group are normally performed.

Because of the high volume of work for a muscle group, only one or two muscle groups can be trained in a session, which also means that you can only train each muscle group once per week.

This type of training is best suited for endomorphs and mesomorphs who have a large base of training experience, and thus, can handle a lot of strength work. It's far from being adequate for an ectomorph or an individual who has problems filling out their little sister's Hannah Montana t-shirt.

Lastly, when you're using a high-volume approach, you shouldn't use intensive techniques such as drop sets, supersets, and the like. This is sure to put even the freakiest genetic phenom in a state of under-recovery and stagnation.

This approach relies on training each muscle group frequently, as in three to six times per week. It works by improving the neural drive to the muscle and forcing the body to add muscle because it needs them to work hard almost every day.

With this type of training, the volume of work needs to be super low, otherwise:

  • You won't allow your muscles to recover between two workouts.
  • Your workouts will be too long. With a frequency-dominant program, you're training at least half of your body every session. If you perform even a moderate amount of work for each muscle group, the workout will end up lasting more than two hours, and this will put you in a catabolic state.

This type of training is effective for beginners who have an inefficient neural drive. It's also a prime choice when strength performance without muscle gain is desired because this approach improves neural efficiency more so than muscle mass. But I find it to be an inferior system when it comes to building muscle in the non-beginner.

Density refers to the amount of work being performed per unit of time. When it comes to strength training, the easiest way to increase density is to gradually reduce the amount of rest between sets.

With density-dominant training, you perform a moderate volume of work for each muscle group (9 to 12 sets) and use very short rest intervals (15 to 45 seconds) or density techniques such as antagonist supersets (e.g. supersetting a back and a chest exercise). You progress in this system either by using more weight without resting more or by using the same weight while resting less.

This approach has the advantage of stimulating the release of hGH more so than other training systems. Contrary to what its name implies, growth hormone's main function in adults is the mobilization of fatty acids. Therefore, by increasing hGH release, you positively affect the amount of fat that you burn during your workout.

Hard work + growth hormone - fat = increased badass density

For this reason, density-dominant workouts are good for a fat loss phase, as well as for endomorphs who aren't normally efficient at mobilizing fat. However, it's not optimal for ectos or those in a mass gaining or strength phase.

In the strength training field, intensity doesn't refer to the feeling of working hard or going to the limit. Rather, it refers to the amount of weight lifted in relation to your maximum. For example, if you're capable of a 300-pound bench, and you're using 240 pounds for your set, your intensity level is 80%.

Expanding on this, intensity-dominant systems revolve around the use of heavy weights in the 85 to 100% range. The number of sets per exercise is fairly high to maximize neural stimulation, but the overall volume of work is fairly low because you focus on one or two exercises per muscle group.

In a good intensity-dominant phase, you use two (sometimes three) exercises per muscle group for a total of no more than 16 sets per muscle group (12 being better in most cases). Reps are in the one to five range.

With this type of training, the means of progressing is the amount of weight used. Each week strive to handle more and more.

The guys best suited for this type of training are endo-mesomorphs, or guys who are muscular but also carry some fat. Super-lean and muscular guys might not do as well due to a lack of "joint cushioning."

Ectomorphs aren't well-equipped either, as their joints are normally too small and their limbs too long to perform this type of lifting safely and effectively.

Now we're talking about taking it to the limit of pain! This type of training takes every set to muscle failure and beyond. The goal is to turn it into a torture session; basically ending the set when it's impossible to contract the muscle.

To do so, you resort to methods such as drop sets, rest/pause, partials, holds, negatives, etc.

Because each set is so brutal, you absolutely can't perform a high volume of work. Sessions should last 30 to 45 minutes and include around four to six work sets per muscle group (up to eight for your back since it's a very complex structure).

This is well-suited for ectomorphs and anybody who has trouble gaining muscle.

However, not every gym-going Joe can train this way:

  • You've got to be tough enough to take each set deep into the loins of hell! If you don't go to the limit on your sets, it's a waste. So, to benefit from this type of training, you have to be mentally tough and have a very high pain threshold.
  • You've got to be disciplined enough to avoid doing too much work. Every person I've seen not get results has failed because they couldn't accept doing so little work. They'd bump the sets up to 14 per muscle group or not take the required two or three days of rest per week which are necessary to grow on this system.

Warning: The method I'm about to explain is extreme and is not how I recommend dieting all of the time.


However, it's a very effective way to shed a ton of fat... fast!

The Regressive Ketogenic diet is a cyclic diet that has three types of days:

  1. Fat dominant: 70% of your calories come from fat, 30% from protein, and you only eat trace carbs (those in your Metabolic Drive® Protein shake for example), shooting for less than 20 grams of them per day.
  2. Equal ratio fat and protein: 50% of your calories come from fat, 50% from protein, and you only eat trace carbs.
  3. Isocaloric: Similar to the Zone diet in that it's a 40% protein, 30% fat, and 30% carb diet, but you never mix fats with carbs (three protein plus fat meals and three protein plus carb meals).

I'm not a huge fan of calorie counting, but it can be useful to easily establish your basic nutrient breakdown. If you're 15% body fat or above, your caloric intake should be set at around 11 calories per pound. If you're between 10 and 14%, it should be set at around 12 calories per pound, and if you're below 10% it should be set at 13 calories per pound.

Let's say that you're a stout 200 pounds at 15% body fat. Thus, your caloric intake is around 2,200 calories per day. Depending on the day, then, your nutritional breakdown looks like this:

  • Type 1: 1,540 calories from fat (171 grams), 660 calories from protein (165 grams), and less than 20 grams of carbs
  • Type 2: 1,100 calories from fat (122 grams), 1,100 calories from protein (275 grams), and less than 20 grams of carbs
  • Type 3: 660 calories from fat (73 grams), 880 calories from protein (220 grams), and 660 calories from carbs (165 grams)

Shooting for four solid meals and two shakes per day, the daily breakdown would look like this:

Type 1

  Calories Fat Protein Carbs
Meal 1 360 42g 28g None
Meal 2 360 42g 28g None
Meal 3 360 42g 28g None
Meal 4 360 42g 28g None
Shake 1 360 None 28g Trace
Shake 2 360 None 28g Trace

Type 2

  Calories Fat Protein Carbs
Meal 1 360 30g 45g None
Meal 2 360 30g 45g None
Meal 3 360 30g 45g None
Meal 4 360 30g 45g None
Shake 1 360 None 45g Trace
Shake 2 360 None 45g Trace

Type 3

  Calories Fat Protein Carbs
Meal 1 360 24g 36g None
Meal 2 360 24g 36g None
Meal 3 360 24g 36g None
Meal 4 360 Trace 36g 55g
Shake 1 360 None 36g 55g
Shake 2 360 None 36g 55g

As the weeks progress and your body becomes fat adapted, the number of Type 1 days will decrease:

Week 1

  • Monday: Type 1
  • Tuesday: Type 1
  • Wednesday: Type 1
  • Thursday: Type 2
  • Friday: Type 2
  • Saturday: Type 2
  • Sunday: Type 3

Week 2

  • Monday: Type 1
  • Tuesday: Type 1
  • Wednesday: Type 2
  • Thursday: Type 2
  • Friday: Type 2
  • Saturday: Type 2
  • Sunday: Type 3

Week 3

  • Monday: Type 1
  • Tuesday: Type 1
  • Wednesday: Type 2
  • Thursday: Type 2
  • Friday: Type 2
  • Saturday: Type 3
  • Sunday: Type 3

Week 4

  • Monday: Type 1
  • Tuesday: Type 1
  • Wednesday: Type 2
  • Thursday: Type 2
  • Friday: Type 3
  • Saturday: Type 3
  • Sunday: Type 3

If you can tough it out, you'll drop between four and five percent body fat in four weeks. After that, eat normally for a week, and if you still want to get leaner, start a new cycle from scratch.

Remember, this isn't an optimal way of dieting over the long run. It's a quick fat loss blitz. It'll allow you to maximize fat loss in four weeks without losing muscle mass. But if you stay on this approach for too long, you risk losing some lean body mass because of the drastic caloric restriction.

Now that you have a deeper understanding of what makes a program effective, try not to lose it all in the mental fog if you go crazy ketogenic on your fat cells.

Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.