There's an old saying in the training biz, which I first heard from the late Charles Poliquin. It goes something like this:
"A training program is only as effective as your ability to recover from it."
When you can recover from more work, you create adaptations that allow you to continually do even more work, which is what you need in order to grow. Here are six strategies for programming and managing workloads that'll make a profound difference.
As important as progression is, and as refined as your recovery techniques might be, you can't significantly improve every muscle group simultaneously.
This is why bodybuilders often use specialization cycles for stubborn muscle groups. Sounds obvious enough, but lifters often lose sight of the fact that specializing in one area necessitates putting other things on "back burner" status.
One simple way to accomplish this is to always assign each muscle to either "development" or "maintenance" status for any given training period. In practice, this mostly means distributing less total work to maintenance muscles and more relative work to those muscles you're aggressively trying to improve.
Although determining your MEV (minimum effective volume) and MAV (maximal adaptive volume) for each muscle group will take a fair bit of trial and error, one simple starting point would be to perform 9 sets a week for maintenance muscles and 15 sets per week for development muscles.
Run those numbers for 6 weeks and then re-assign each muscle to the opposite grouping for the following 6 weeks.
Furthermore, there's a simple and reliable way to determine if the volumes you assign (in number of sets per muscle/week) are optimal:
- For maintenance muscles/exercises, if you can still hit the same number for the entire 6 weeks (meaning, your strength levels haven't receded), you probably haven't lost any muscle. And if you find yourself actually getting stronger over the 6-week maintenance phase, you can slightly reduce your weekly workload.
- For development muscles/exercises, you should be getting gradually stronger over the 6-week development phase. If, for example, you benched 205 for 3x12 on week 1, you should be able to reach perhaps 220-225 for the same sets and reps on week 6. If you can't, you're either working too hard or not hard enough.
Whenever you do a workout, inevitably some reps are "necessary but useless." Warm-up sets fall into this category, as do the early reps on your work sets – you've gotta' do both types of reps, but don't do more than you absolutely need to.
When it comes to warm-ups, some trial and error will be in order to determine the optimal number of warm-up sets per exercise. One under-appreciated way to reduce warm-ups is to use exercises and/or intensity ranges that require less warming up.
In my own case, while I do both hack squats and leg presses, I definitely need fewer warm-up sets on them than I do for barbell squats. That's one inherent advantage of machines of course. In terms of intensity ranges, it should be clear that you'll need fewer warm-up sets for a set of 15 than you'd need for a set of 5.
Turning our attention to work sets, let's consider the number of "useless but necessary" reps – reps that don't directly contribute to the adaptive value of the set, but must be performed nevertheless – in the following two intensity zones, with the assumption that it's really only the final 3 or so painful reps that deliver the benefits of the entire set:
- 85% Intensity: Sets of 6 (three "useless" reps)
- 75% Intensity: Sets of 10 (seven "useless" reps)
The benefits of low-rep sets (fewer junk reps) are offset by the disadvantages (the need for more warm-up sets) and vice versa for higher rep sets. While it's sometimes difficult to identify the perfect number of reps for the purposes of fatigue management, it's usually 8-12 for most lifters.
Specifically, spend more time using difficult ranges of motion and difficult tempos, like I suggested in my article, The 4-Second Negative. Doing so will limit the amount of weight you'll need to use, and, since you'll need less weight, you won't need as many warm-up sets either.
Here's a compelling argument for the fatigue-management value of doing your sets in good form:
Let's say you're capable of hitting 3 sets of 10 using 100-pound dumbbells on the flat dumbbell press, but doing so requires lots of body English. Your butt is 8 inches off the bench, your ROM is incomplete, and maybe your spotter has his hands on your elbows as he shouts, "It's all you bro!"
Here's what your number will probably look like, using my previous definition of junk reps:
- Warm-Up 1: 50-pound dumbbells x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm-Up 2: 70 x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm-Up 3: 90 x10 (10 junk reps)
- Work Set 1: 100 x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work Set 2: 100 x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work Set 3: 100 x10 (7 junk reps)
Or, let's say I've convinced you to clean up your act, which means you'll do 3x10 using the 85-pounders, but in a super-strict style, using full ROM and a 4-second eccentric, followed by a 1-second pause at the bottom. Now your number will look more like this:
- Warm-Up 1: 50-pound dumbbells x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm-Up 2: 70 x10 (10 junk reps)
- Work Set 1: 85 x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work Set 2: 85 x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work Set 3: 85 x10 (7 junk reps)
Using this (better) option, you've eliminated a whole warm-up set consisting of 10 junk reps, which, extrapolated over several exercises and weeks, really adds up. And, as a residual benefit, you'll be less prone to injuries and their resultant layoffs.
For any given lifter at any given time, some exercises are better than others. By "better" I mean a more optimal benefit/drawback ratio. What makes an exercise "better?" Lots of things:
- Exercises you can perform safely and effectively are better. If bench presses hurt your shoulders and you don't really feel them in your pecs, either fix your technique or find a better alternative.
- Exercises that target large muscles tend to be better than those that train smaller muscle groups. Sure, getting bigger biceps will require "small" exercises (curls), but overall, big exercises for big muscles are the most effective way to get big. Guys who squat, bench, and pull big numbers tend to be big all over.
- The best exercises are those that permit a high degree of loading. Ask any accomplished strength coach what the best exercises are, and he's very likely to say squats, pulls, flat and overhead presses, rows, and pull-ups. Four hundred pound squats will ALWAYS do more for you than 80-pound pushdowns, even if big arms are your primary goal.
- Exercises that allow more ROM are better than those performed over a smaller ROM. Generally speaking, standard bench presses and deadlifts are better than board presses and block pulls.
- Static (isometric) exercises such as planks are very poor muscle development tools. Sure, they might be good for "activation" (does anyone know what that means by the way?), or maybe you just like them for unknown reasons. Just don't expect them to directly contribute to a great physique.
- Stable exercises are better than unstable or less-stable movements since they allow for greater loading potential. Smith machine step-ups are better than standard step-ups. Standard military presses are better than overhead pressing on one foot or from a BOSU ball.
Sure, there's always a place for exercises that are exceptions to these rules; just don't major in minors.
The very definition of recovery is your ability to continuously make expected progress. So if you don't have a clearly defined definition of progress, how do you stand any chance of knowing how well you're recovering?
Let's say you chinned a 45-pound plate for 4x5 and a final set of 4 last week, and you have a goal of making that last rep and hitting 5x5 this week. Now you're going to find out whether or not you successfully recovered from that last workout.
Thinking about it in a slightly different way, your training should provide quick, clear feedback on your recovery. If it doesn't, your training isn't optimal, no matter how "hard" it may feel. So if you've been simply adding weight when you think you feel strong enough, it's time to step up your program.
If you've used a specific progression strategy in the past but have strayed for whatever reason, re-implement it right away, because at the end of the day, you'll never know if you're recovering optimally unless you demand the need for optimal recovery in your training.
To do the most amount of work over the course of a week, it pays to think carefully about how to best organize that work. As I wrote in The Single Most Effective Workout Split, there are several different split options available to you.
But if you're still not sure what's best for you, read the following three articles and field test the three most common splits:
The more work you can recover from, the greater the muscle-building stimulus you can apply in your training. Implement these six strategies right away and before long your intensities and volumes will begin to escalate, and your physique will show the results of your efforts.