For years, I’ve been watching zombies, training zombies. They wander aimlessly from station to station, doing exercises haphazardly with really no rhyme or reason except that, “this one kinda’ feels like it’s doing something.” Once in awhile, they’ll grasp on to a particular program but they’ll end up beating it into the ground, doing it for months and months until they’ve long since milked any effectiveness from it.
My typical gym experience is like the scene in A Christmas Carol where Marley’s ghost opens up the window in Scrooge’s apartment and you see all those lost souls flying around with chains dragging behind them. The only difference is that while all of the souls outside Scrooge’s window are dead, only a few of the ones walking around the gym fit that description.
I think I know what’s going on, though. It’s recently come to my attention that people have lives. Yes, really! Surprisingly, they don’t sit around all day and night trying to devise effective training programs. Instead, they wait for people like Ian King or Dave Tate or even me to think of one that’ll keep them interested and with luck, keep the gains coming.
Well, as much as we’d like to come up with a new revolutionary training program every single month, it’s probably not going to happen. Oh, we could do it all right, but exercise programs are like prescription drugs; one man’s medicine is either going to have no effect on the other guy, give him a tummy ache, or make him keel over like my neighbor’s daffodils after my bull terrier pees on them.
As such, I’d like to provide a foolproof (a bold statement indeed) list of instructions that will allow you to construct your own, personalized training programs. True, even with the guidelines that make up my little training "codex," you’ll still have to devote some time to thinking of the exact routines, but gosh darn it, I think you’ll get some satisfaction out of being your own strength coach. You’ll still see plenty of training routines coming from Ian, Dave, and the rest, but the info in this article may tide you over during any dry spells.
You have to periodize your training.
Okay, what’s that mean? Well, too many of us have only one speed, and that speed may be balls to the wall, barely moving, or somewhere in between. You must vary training "intensities." Trouble is, a lot of trainers don’t believe in the concept.
The following is actually a quote from a professional sports team’s training manual (I won’t mention the team because I don’t want to embarrass the hell out of them):
"Do you really think you can change the chemical composition of muscle fibers by changing sets, reps, and speed of movement? Muscles are not that smart This has resulted in such things as pyramid up schemes, pyramid down schemes, power pairs, percentage training, five sets of five, and a FAVORITE MISGUIDED APPROACH — PERIODIZATION (emphasis added) Periodization takes the ridiculous to the absurd by making the formula an almost epic-like journey that takes a person through distinct phases of hypertrophy, basic strength, power, and active rest."
Jesus wept. What the bozo author of this manual doesn’t know, or fails to accept, is that you can actually change the composition of some muscle fibers by varying training methodologies — there are scores of studies that prove it. Regardless, that’s not the most egregious assumption made in the above paragraph. Now, it may be true that muscles aren’t necessarily "smart," but the nervous system sure as hell is! The body, through a variety of processes, adapts to any routine; so much so that you become especially adept at doing that particular routine! You become, in effect, "hard wired" for that routine.
Only by changing exercises, reps, and speeds of movement can you keep the nervous system, in effect, off balance. Furthermore, different muscle fibers respond to different loads. For instance, doing bench press for sets of 15 isn’t going to recruit many fast-twitch fibers — the fibers most likely to hypertrophy. Likewise, doing, say, sets of more than eight for hamstrings isn’t likely to do much good, given that the hamstrings have a high ratio of fast-twitch fibers.
Lastly, periodization is a time-honored tradition used by most of the world’s leading strength coaches, including our own Dave Tate and Ian King. The body simply can’t cope with the same load all the time. For maximum effects, training periods must be periodized.
Still, to synopsize, and to make things simple, the take-home message is this: break up your workouts into 3 or 4-week "phases." This first phase involves intensification, where your rep ranges will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-6 for those exercises in the beginning of the workout and 6-8 for exercises near the end of the workout.
After 3 or 4 weeks, you’ll undertake an accumulation phase where you’ll do more total reps, using rep ranges in the neighborhood of 8-10 or 10-12, or things like drop sets.
You should use periodization within periodization.
Okay, this may sound like I’m about to go Zen on you and ask you what the sound of one weight clanking is, but fear not. Let’s say you’re doing a three-week intensification phase as mentioned above. You don’t start the program balls to the wall. You ease into it. The first week is spent getting to know the exercises, introducing the nervous system to the movements: "Hello, nervous system? Meet Mr. Deadlift."
Sets should stop short of failure.
During the second week, you up the effort a bit and go to failure, but just barely. And, finally, on the third week, go nuts. Declare war. Take no prisoners. Screw the Geneva Convention.
Similarly, start the next periodization phase the same way.
Adopt a rational training split and stick with it (for awhile).
Okay, if you’re 17, just started lifting, and regard Muscle and Fitness as your Bible, you’re going to ignore me and work out 7 days a week, twice on Sunday. Fine. I’ll see you in ten years and you can apologize for doubting me then.
For the rest of you, there are basically two training splits that most of us here at Testosterone know and love. The first is the 5-day split. You work Monday and Tuesday; take Wednesday off; work out on Thursday; take Friday off; and start the whole thing over again on Saturday. In effect, you get four days rest in-between body parts.
The other preferred split is the Ian King, Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday split where you get weekends off and work each body part once a week. It may sound like it’s too little, but I guarantee it’ll work, provided you adopt guideline number 4.
Of course, you’ll also want to adjust your training split every once in awhile, just to shake things up.
Split your leg training into two.
Most people start their leg workouts with squats, and then proceed to leg presses, hack squats, Zottman Bunny Hops, Two-legged nut-scrunchers, and so on and so forth. By the time they’re ready to work hamstrings, they’re too tired. The most they can usually muster is a single rep on the leg curl machine that looks more like a muscle spasm than anything else.
I guarantee you, the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself is to devote one training day to quad movements and one whole day to hamstring movements (with an upper body workout in between).
Embrace the big movements.
I don’t mean literally embrace them, like say you walk over to the Power rack and start caressing the uprights and then wrap your legs around it in carnal bliss. If you do that, you’re going to have to start working out somewhere else because frankly, there are laws prohibiting love between a man and a piece of thick-gauge steel.
Instead, I mean to really learn to appreciate the squat, dead lift, bench press, and pull up. These movements should form the cornerstone of your programs. Granted, there are times when you may want to stop doing them for awhile, but they should be part of your program for at least 75% of your training year.
Get the most bang for your buck.
Similar to Guideline #5, in addition to doing the big movements, you should try to minimize your dependence on the little movements. Trying to make a choice between dumbbell triceps kickbacks and close-grip bench presses? Boobalah! Triceps kickbacks are generally a weenie movement. While okay to do once in a blue moon, you’ll get a hell of a lot more out of close-grip bench presses.
Similarly, don’t spend too much time working your anterior delts if your workout gives heavy emphasis to bench presses or military presses. Instead, pay some attention to the lateral delts, or the all-but forgotten rear delts!
Watch your Yin, and don’t forget your Yang.
Okay, so you like to work chest first before back. Sure, if you work your back first, you won’t be able to use as much weight on bench press because you’ll be tired. The big guys and the cute girls will see you using 20 pounds less and wham! There goes your credibility. They’ll no longer hold the door open for you; no longer pick up your tab at the Blubber Butt Buffet; forget about letting you take cuts in front of them at the movie theater what’s that? They didn’t do any of those things anyhow? Oh. Well then, what are you worried about?
You need to balance the workload. You should spend as much time working back as chest, or triceps as biceps, or hamstrings as quads. If you’ve worked chest first for one training phase, work it second during the next training phase. Otherwise, you’ll create such a muscle imbalance that your head and shoulder will gradually start to bend over and before you know it, you’ll be staring at your crotch for eternity.
Enough with the missionary position already!
Muscles, much like the babes, respond to multiple angles. An inch to the left, an inch to the right, shake it all about. That’s what they like. Just don’t smack ’em on the ass and yell, "Yee-haw!" unless you paid for it or you live in Texas. Similarly, muscles should be exposed to as many angles as possible.
You don’t necessarily have to expose the muscle to every single angle in a particular training program, but you should try to provide variety from program to program.
However, don’t duplicate angles in the same workout. How many guys do you see doing standing barbell curls followed by standing dumbbell curls? Or seated tricep barbell extensions followed by seated tricep cable extensions? True, there’s a smidgen of a difference in the movements, but not enough to warrant sticking them in the same workout.
What’s this fascination with the number 3?
For some reason, 99% of workouts that appear in the mags recommend three sets of this, followed by three sets of that, and let’s not forget three sets of those. For the life of me, I don’t know where this dependence on number 3 came from.
Personally, I’d like to see more trainees do fewer sets of a greater variety of exercises. For instance, rather than devise a program that consisted of three sets of bench, three sets of incline, and three sets of flys, why not do a workout like the following?
3 sets of medium-grip bench
1 set of medium-grip bench to the neck
2 sets of dumbbell inclines
1 set of 1 1/4 dumbbell declines
1 set of dips
1 set of flys
Same number of sets, but twice as many movements. More variety, more angles, and consequently, more muscle fibers stressed.
Watch that tempo.
This is potentially the most confusing aspect of most of the programs we’ve presented on this site. For those of you who are still unfamiliar with the spiel, tempo simply refers to the speed of the movement, and when you see a number like 3121 after an exercise, you should quickly dial it for a free pizza. No, no, no, the tempo concept was popularized by Ian King and it means you should lower the weight over a count of 3 seconds; take a 1-second pause; take 2 seconds to raise the weight; and another 1-second pause before lowering the weight.
There’s a rhyme or reason for every one of these tempos, but man-oh-man does it get complicated! That’s why I recommend simplifying things and applying what we call the "4 second rule" to most of your movements. Take one, two, or three seconds to lower the weight, and a one, two, or three-second pause at the bottom, as long as the numbers, when added up, equal 4.
Say you take three seconds to lower the weight. You should pause 1 second before raising the weight. Similarly, if you take two seconds to lower the weight, you should pause two seconds before raising it. See? In both examples, the numbers added up to 4. Simple.
Why do we do this? Well, 99.9% of trainees do their reps at warp speed, and when they do reps that quickly, they’re in effect using elastic energy to lift the weight. They are human rubber bands. If they put on red rubber suits, they could go around fighting crime as an army of elastic men who could pass their bodies through keyholes and punch villains from across the room.
Lowering the weight quickly and then bouncing it back is no good for bodybuilding purposes. Use the 4-second rule most of the time.
Take advantage of the nervous system.
Straight sets of 2 x 8 or 3 x 6 are fine, but if you really want to juice up your training, start taking advantage of the nervous system. Like say you just had a fancy dinner at the best restaurant in town. Run up a really big tab and charge it to your nervous system. That’s really taking advantage of the poor sucker.
Additionally, there are all kinds of training methodologies that involve fooling the nervous system into allowing you to lift more weight. You know how ballplayers stand in the batter’s circle and swing a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate? They’re screwing with the nervous system. By getting used to swinging a heavy bat, and then switching to a lighter one, they’re able to generate more speed.
Similarly, methods like the 1-6 method popularized by Charles Poliquin, and wave loading fool your body into lifting more weight with the intent of recruiting more muscle fibers.
For instance, if you do a single rep with a weight that’s close to what you could do two or three times, and then, after you rested for three minutes, did a set of 6 with a lower amount of weight, you could lift more weight than if you hadn’t done the single rep. Catch that? Do 1 rep with, say, 300 pounds. Rest three minutes or so. Do a set of 6 with 250 pounds. You’ll be able to do the 250 pounds much easier than if you hadn’t done the single with 300. For more info on this training program, check out the article that originally described it.
Wave loading works the same way. If you do a set of 4, followed a few minutes later by a set of 3, followed a few minutes later by a set of 2, and then start the 4,3,2, sequence all over, you’ll be able to lift much more weight the second time through.
Throw these advanced methodologies into your training programs periodically to bolster your progress.
The kid brother rule.
Remember when you were growing up and your mother always made you let your kid brother go first? Remember how it galled you and made you hate the little bastard? So much so, that when the family took that vacation to the Grand Canyon and your parents were fumbling to put film in the camera, you pushed the little bastard over the side? Er, hypothetically speaking, of course.
Anyhow, most of us have one leg or arm that’s weaker than the other. In the case of the legs, one could be as much as 20% weaker than the other. As such, it’s a good idea to throw in some uni-lateral training once in awhile. For instance, do some one-legged leg presses, and do them with the weak leg first, just like you used to do for your kid brother, God rest his soul. Along the same lines, don’t do more for the strong leg than you can with the weak leg. Otherwise, you’ll preserve the imbalance.
A trick that Ian King uses involves doing two reps on the weak limb for every one rep done for the strong limb.
Pull the ol’ switcheroo.
After each 3 or 4-week training phase, don’t just switch rep schemes, change every movement or almost every movement. There are an infinite number of exercises, and don’t ignore many of them because they just don’t feel right, or they don’t cause your muscles to recoil in pain the next morning whenever someone so much as touches you.
You may want to hold on to the big four power movements that form the cornerstone of our workouts, but change everything else. If you led off with incline dumbbell curls in your last workout, lead off with reverse curls or Preacher curls this time.
Time is not on your side.
I used to spend two to two and half-hours in the gym at a time. All because of Joe Weider’s magazines. For that reason, I’d like to stick an ax in the old man’s chest. Anyhow, the vast majority of trainees shouldn’t spend much more than an hour in the gym.
This means that the total number of sets in your workout probably won’t exceed 15-20, and that’s including what I call "ancillaries," like calves and abs.
Now, most experts claim that this is for reasons pertaining to the endocrine system; that working out for longer will cause a decrease in Testosterone and an increase in cortisol. Sure, maybe, but I think it has more to do with reaching the point of diminishing returns. If you work out hard for over an hour, you’re going to reach a point where nervous system fatigue and substrate fatigue becomes an issue.
As a result, you dick around in near comatose state, not doing your muscles or anything else much good. Go home. Rest. Eat your soup. Live to fight another day.
For Heaven’s sake, take some time off once in awhile!
Ian King recommends taking a week off for every 12 weeks you train. I have a confession to make regarding that. I had trouble following that rule. I got the distinct notion that I was shrinking. Hell, it’s bad enough taking 2 days off, but seven? Hell, I’d be so small, I’d end up like the guy in the Incredible Shrinking Man, living down in the basement, fighting spiders with pins and living off bread crumbs.
Luckily, I overcame my compulsive nature (except I still have to change my socks every hour, on the hour or I’ll have a breakdown). I now take time off, if not every 12 weeks, then certainly after every 16 weeks. Deep down, I know that letting all systems rest for awhile will give a jolt to my training.
Captain’s log, Star date 5637.
For the life of me, I can’t fathom how anybody can be serious about training without keeping a journal. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of devising a program, then you’ve got to record your weights, reps, and sets, in addition to making pertinent notes.
For instance, if your program calls for you to do 2 sets of deadlifts for 6 reps, you’ll need to record the weight that you used. Then, you’ll have a basis from which to work the next time. Logically, you’d take the previous workout’s weight and add five or ten pounds. Hell, most of us can’t remember what we were supposed to pick up from the grocery store, let alone the exact exercises, reps, sets, and poundages used in the previous workout.
By no means does this article capture all the training guidelines imaginable. Still, in my humble opinion, it should help you design a pretty decent framework for designing your own programs.
To synopsize, pick a training split; either the five-day split or the seven-day split. Assign one or more body parts to each day, i.e., Monday is squat day, Tuesday is Chest and triceps day, etc.
Use the four power movements mentioned earlier as the basis of the workouts. You’ll pick roughly 5-7 exercises per body part for a total of 15-20 sets (including calf and ab work).
During your first periodization phase, you’ll use heavier weights and lower rep schemes (4-6 or 6-8), using more training intensity from week to week within that phase (periodization within periodization).
You’ll use the 4-second rule on all reps.
After three or four weeks, you’ll switch exercises and rep ranges, this time shooting for sets of 8-10 or even 10-12, but still keeping a lot of the basic four power movements in your workout.
Your workouts will take about an hour, and you’ll record everything.
At the end of 12 or 16 weeks, you’ll take a week off to lick your wounds and thus come back more receptive to training stimuli.
I realize that there are a lot of other guidelines we could throw into the mix, but if you can master the ones I’ve outlined here, you’re 99% of the way home, and never again will you have to be regarded as one of the aimlessly wandering gym zombies. And, if you find yourself dragging any chains around, it’s not because you’ve become a character in a Dickens novel; it’s most likely because you’re just trying out Dave Tate’s chain training program.