My instructions were simple enough: talk with a few coaches, get their thoughts on how to train, and get a sample four-week template of how a guy could schedule his own training program.
Everything went well until I called T NATION bodybuilding coach Christian Thibaudeau.
I had saved him for last, thinking I could get some great quotes and a few new things to spice up the article.
The great quotes I got. In fact, I got way more than I could handle.
I was bombarded. He told me most guys have no idea how to train. He let me know he didn't believe in traditional periodization. He threw out weird words like "auto-regulate" and "force spectrum." He gave me a step-by-step analysis of the "perfect set" and told me that if I wasn't "in the zone" every workout that I couldn't create the physiological response necessary to gain muscle.
I half-expected him to make fun of my haircut.
Just what in the heck was this guy talking about? I told Thibaudeau that I'd call him back and immediately dialed TC's number.
"He's totally screwing up my article," I told TC. "But in a very good way. I need your permission to get back on the phone with him and drop the other article you gave me for now."
So I called Thibaudeau back and felt like I learned more in an hour than I'd learned in my entire lifting career. No joke. The flow of conversation was scattered, intense, and eye opening.
When I got the transcription back, I immediately knew how I wanted to write this article.
I want you to get the same feeling I had while talking with Thibaudeau, so I've eliminated my questions and left you with pure, undiluted Christian.
And if you're anything like me, you'll get done reading this and have more questions than you know what to do with.
You have been warned.
I'm not saying they don't know how to lift weights – they may have the proper lifting technique when it comes to executing the movement – but they don't know how to train. They know how to follow a program, but have no idea how to actually think for themselves when they're in the gym – and that is the most-important element.
They don't adjust their workout according to their physiological state for that day. They don't understand that true training is much, much more than following a piece of paper. If you're training for maximal gains, you absolutely have to make adjustments throughout the workout. And there is no possible way to plan that in advance.
"I'm going to tell you something, Nate, and it's something other coaches don't want me to say."
Most coaches who write programs and want you to follow their precise guidelines are just trying to look more important than they really are. They want to sound smarter. Very few coaches do the programs they write about. They act like everyone who follows it will get great results, but the truth is that most won't.
Nearly all of the programs found online are written to illustrate a concept, not to teach someone how to train. I can create a program in ten minutes, but if you don't know how to train it'd be a waste of your time to follow it.
Let's say I give you directions on how to get to my house, but on the way there you run into some construction and have to take another route. You still have the general plan and know where you're going, but you now have to find your own way.
It's the same thing with the program. It's a template, but you must find your own way. Ninety-five percent of the results you'll get are going to be from how you train, not the program itself.
We're gonna teach you how to train.
"The whole purpose of training is to create a physiological response."
And it's this physiological response that results in gaining muscle or strength.
If your training program can't get you that response, it's worthless. And since your daily physiology changes depending on how you're feeling, your training must change with it.
That's why a periodization model – in other words, a piece of paper – can never predict how your body will react on a day-by-day basis, let alone, from set to set,
"You must auto-regulate."
Knowing how to train means knowing how to auto-regulate. It's the foundation. You must look at your physiological state and be able to:
- Ramp up your nervous system
- Understand that rep speed and style are crucial
- Know when you need to do more sets
- Know when you need to cut the exercise short
- Know how to progress from set to set
But we'll get to that in a minute.
"Take advantage of the days you feel invincible"
Let's say your program says to do five sets of three on the bench press with 85 percent of your one-rep max. It'd be idiotic to follow it to the letter. Depending on your current physiology, it may be too heavy or too light.
On some days doing five sets would be out of the question because you'd be burned out after three. But on other days five sets wouldn't be enough because you'd be in the zone. You could probably do ten sets!
In either situation you'd be in big trouble if you just stuck to the program. You'd either tap your work capacity, do more sets than you're capable of and fail to progress optimally, or you wouldn't take advantage of the days you feel invincible and do more work. You'd be wasting an opportunity.
You have to stop looking at the wrong variables. Numbers, sets, reps, and rest periods are only tools. The real question is, what is your physiology telling you?
"I don't believe in traditional periodization."
We must define periodization because most guys don't understand what it is. It's not just a cool word. Traditional periodization has you starting with a higher volume of work at a lower intensity level and as the intensity increases during the training year, the volume decreases.
The logic behind it is, if you're doing a higher volume of work at the beginning, you're building a physiological base, and at the end you're learning how to use those muscular gains to do higher intensity work.
It's incredibly flawed.
Traditional periodization is based on the premise that you can predict how the body will react since you're planning it way in advance. To me, it means you think you know how your body will react three months from now. It's stupid. We can't predict the future.
I choose to look at periodization for what it is: a general guideline of splitting your training into specific periods where you work on one goal.
For example, you could decide to work on your chest for a six-week period because it's lagging behind. You'd have a broad idea of what methods you'd like to use and would be able to devote more of your recovery capacities to bring that muscle group up, but you'd have to adapt day-to-day depending on how your body is reacting. That's auto-regulation.
"It's the difference between a punch in the face and a bitch slap."
You must understand that the body has a limited capacity to recover. You can call it reserve energy or whatever the heck you want, but you have to know that serious, hardcore training affects the nervous system, hormonal system, and immune system. And all three of these affect your entire body.
If the total amount of work you're doing that week is higher than what your body can recover from, then you're going to be in trouble. If you're specializing on one body part or one lift you have to decrease the amount of work you do for the rest of the body so it won't be systemically overtrained.
But you don't want to lose the muscle you have, either. It'd be way too much work to rebuild it. So you must do the minimum amount of work necessary to maintain your muscles, but not so much where it damages your progress.
I'll keep repeating this: training is about creating a physiological response. You must reach a threshold during the workout to create a change in the body. The workout has to be disturbing enough to cause that change. If it's not, the training won't stimulate any gains.
But if you are training hard enough to reach that threshold – and you're training every single muscle group equally – then you'll reach an overtrained state because your body won't be able to recover from all the stress.
Look, if I punch you in the face it may knock you down. But if I just bitch-slap you I'll never knock you down. It's the same motion but the intensity of the bitch slap just isn't enough. So "punch" your muscles. Just know when to let off.
The best way to get the physiological response is to specialize and train a muscle more often without taxing the entire body. Once you address that muscle group for that period, you have to move on to something else.
"You have to use the entire force spectrum."
First, I don't believe in doing weights below seventy percent of your one-rep max unless you're doing some kind of ballistic activation work for the nervous system. Regular lifting is best performed at or above seventy percent.
So let me show you the force spectrum. Let's say you're going to do a bench press.
First, you have to activate the nervous system and get it ready to ramp up. You can do this with ballistic exercises, heavy partial reps from a dead-stop, or a few other methods.
Then you start with a few "feel sets." These are not warm-ups. To me, a warm-up is anything you can rep fifty times. It helps lubricate the joints but that's it. A feel set is completely different because it allows you to get a gradual feel of the weight. You're testing the weight while generating as little fatigue as possible.
To do the feel set you would select a heavy weight somewhere around sixty percent of your one-rep max and do one rep, as fast as possible. Then you'd up the weight a little and do one more rep. What you're doing is priming yourself. Keep doing feel sets until you're mentally and physically prepared for your first work set.
Like I said earlier, I don't like doing work sets with anything below seventy percent of my one-rep max, so that's what you'd load onto the bench press.
The program says you're going to do five sets of three.
You do your first set with seventy percent and make sure to accelerate the bar as fast as possible.
Because force equals mass times acceleration. The faster you can push a weight, the more you're going to activate the nervous system and the high threshold motor units. And the more you do that, the more you'll potentiate your body to get that physiological response to build muscle or strength. Every single rep becomes useful.
So your first set should feel relatively easy. I mean, it was only seventy percent of your one-rep max. You probably could have done twelve reps instead of three. You were also pushing the bar as fast as possible with each rep.
Now, on the second set, you increase the weight slightly. Maybe up to seventy-five percent of your one-rep max. You do three more reps and they're still fast and powerful. They feel easy.
On your third set you increase the weight even more – say, to eighty percent of your one-rep max. It's more difficult, but you're still pushing the bar as fast as you can. This set is probably the heaviest you could do and still accelerate explosively. You get your three reps.
It's time for your fourth set. You add more weight. It's tough and you're still pushing it as hard and fast as you can. Even though the bar doesn't look like it's moving too fast, it's the intent to accelerate that's still priming the nervous system. You get your three reps.
Now it's time for your fifth set, the last one your program says you should do.
You add more weight, but know that after this set you probably couldn't add any more pounds to the bar.
Now, a few things can happen here.
If the bar feels too heavy and you can't get all of your reps with clean, good form, then you must stop the exercise and move on to the next one. You don't want any grinding reps where the bar stops.
Or, if you get all three of your reps and still feel like you could still add more weight, you can get ready for your sixth set.
This is auto-regulation.
The paper said to do five sets of three, but you would have been doing yourself a disservice to stop at five sets if you really could have gotten six or seven sets while increasing the weight.
That sixth set would be the physiological ceiling for that intensity zone for that day and for that exercise.
If you look closely, you'll see we're using the entire force spectrum with one exercise in that example.
We're starting with sub-maximal loads and moving them with incredible speed to prime the nervous system. Then we're ramping up the weight each set (which ramps up the nervous system with each set). Finally, we're ending with the most weight we can use for the amount of reps we need.
This is the way to train, with every set bringing the nervous system to a higher activation point until you reach "the zone" where you feel invincible.
You should be able to get in the zone every single time you go into the gym.
"Starting with a heavy weight right off the bat is dumb."
Unless it's activation work like doing heavy partial reps from a dead-stop to activate the nervous system, starting off heavy is stupid.
People will argue and say things like, "Well, you're not fatigued on that first set so you'll be able to lift more weight." It doesn't work like that. The nervous system isn't primed to get the most out of the exercise. Motor coordination, recruitment of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, inhibition of the antagonist muscle and many other things won't be optimal. These are all things that need to be achieved before lifting heavy weight.
If you just start heavy right off the bat your performance will be much lower because you're not primed. Even worse, you'll grind up a lot of CNS potential by trying to push up big weights before your CNS is fully activated. In other words, you'll deplete your capacity for activating/stimulating high-threshold motor units.
"I was shocked when I realized that most people weren't doing it."
The goal of a workout isn't getting through a specific number of exercises. It's not like having a list of chores that you must go through and check off. Training is only about stimulating that physiological response. To get there you need to auto-regulate and know what your body needs and requires to grow and recover.
What we're trying to do is come up with processes built in the training programs to teach them how to auto-regulate. Once they know how to do it then they can apply it to every single program they do and make it work – as long as it's not idiotic, of course.
"You feel like you can't be broken."
To me, getting into the zone – that laser-like focus and feeling of being indestructible – is something you should be able to achieve every workout if you want to have an optimal physiological response to the body.
The way to get into the zone is to do the proper amount of activation work that increases the capacity of the nervous system. Things like explosive lifts, cluster training, and heavy lifts from the stretched-relaxed position, provided that you don't abuse them, you select the proper weight, and you always try to accelerate, will get you in the zone every time.
And if you can get there, you can always get the physiological response you need to get the results you want.
"Look, there are only three things you need to be able to do."
I'm a coach, but first and foremost I'm like any guy on T NATION. I just want to know the best way to progress and reach my goals.
I know I can make every single training program or technique work because I understand three things:
- I know how to execute a rep. Every time you lift a bar, you must lift as fast as possible. Obviously when the weight gets heavier the bar won't move as fast, but it's the intent to accelerate is what's important. Every single rep will contribute to the physiological response. If you were just doing regular sets and doing the required effort to lift the weight like most guys, only the last few reps of a muscle group would be effective at stimulating growth.
- I know how to auto-regulate my training. You must learn when to cut sets, add sets, how to select proper weight, and adjust rest intervals. You have to know how to make every program stressful enough to get that physiological response while making sure it's not too much and will lead to overtraining.
- And most important, I know how to activate and potentiate the nervous system, through an Activation Ramp, and get in the zone – every time I train! You can't drive a car without first putting the key in the ignition and turning it, and you can't build a strong, muscular body without first priming the nervous system and activating the fast-twitch fibers. And you can't expect to get the physiological response you need from training if you can't get in the zone. It's that simple.
If you just learn how to do those three things you can make every training program work as long as it's not idiotic.
"I want to put every single coach out of a job by teaching every lifter how to train."
And that's all I have to say on that particular subject.