Here's what you need to know...
- Do what you need to do in the gym, but don't be afraid to do what you like, too. Fifteen minute "free blocks" at the end of a session can work well for this.
- Muscles should be trained 2-3 times a week, which means full body workout splits may be ideal. However, you don't need to use the same exercises each workout.
- Training for strength first and hypertrophy second creates more potential for both adaptations.
- The more dissimilar neighboring training sessions are, the closer your can pack them. The closer you can pack them, the faster you'll progress.
1 – Choose Needs Over Likes, But Allow Both
What you need to do is far more important than what you like to do, but the former can't survive without the latter.
Doing what you like to do fuels your motivation and it cultivates consistency. But by pure definition, we tend to like what we do best – strong people like to lift heavy, mobile people like to stretch, people who have good endurance like to jog. All of this is fine, as long as doing what you like doesn't replace doing what you need. We all like eating carb/fat meals, but what we need is protein.
T Nation contributors Dan John and Eric Cressey have a nice strategy for this, which is doing targeted, high-payoff mobility drills between sets of lifting as "fillers."
Another strategy is the use of a "free period" at the end of each workout where once you've done your programmed lifts, you can spend 15 minutes on whatever it is that makes lifting fun for you. After all, most "bad" things aren't really intrinsically bad – they're only bad when they replace the good.
2 – Train Muscles Every 2-4 Days
Elevated protein synthesis from a workout lasts only 2-3 days at most, and that's if you really go after it. So if maximum hypertrophy is your goal, you need to find a way to train each muscle (or at least the ones that are most important to you) about every three days; twice a week probably isn't quite enough.
One way to structure your training to accommodate this reality is to use full body workouts about three days a week, give or take. You don't need to use the same exercise every time; you just need to hit the muscle with high frequency. So if you're training lats three days a week, you can (and should) rotate between pull-ups, barbell rows, and dumbbell rows.
3 – Train Strength And Hypertrophy Every Session
If your goals include both strength and hypertrophy adaptations, you'll be better served by training both qualities every training session. There are two reasons for this.
First is the need for frequent hypertrophy stimulation, as I explained previously. Second, by working up to a heavy set or two and then backing down for 1-2 "back-off" sets, you'll be taking advantage of post synaptic activation (PAP), which simply means that you'll be able to complete more reps with something in the 6-12 range after performing a heavy (but not maximal) effort in the 1-3 range.
In other words, training for strength first and hypertrophy second creates more potential for both adaptations.
4 – Maintain A Flexible Structure
We all know the stereotypical dieter who, after staying the course for five weeks, slips up by having one doughnut and then decides that he's blown it, and it quickly escalates into a multi-day gluttonous free for all.
Lifters do the same thing with their training programs. They set up a rigid 12-week training program, but then if they miss a designated set or rep somewhere along the way, it unravels them psychologically and they rapidly lose motivation, undoing weeks of good progress.
Look, structure is important, and most lifters need more of it. But without flexibility, structure becomes a stern taskmaster that few of us can satisfy long term. Stay focused on what matters most – which is long term consistency and progress – and when those occasional slip-ups happen (and they will) just wipe the mental slate clean and keep plowing forward.
One very effective way of maintaining a flexible structure is by employing optional exercises and (sometimes) even optional workouts. Once you've identified what's really important, classify those elements as compulsory, meaning that you will do them, or at least make your very best effort to do so. Everything else is optional.
I typically do three compulsory sessions per week, and then Sunday is an optional "pick up" day. Most weeks I do that Sunday workout but on the occasional times when I miss it, it doesn't freak me out since it's an optional day anyway.
5 – Use More Than One Form Of Progression
Progression is both the most necessary component of training and also the most misunderstood. Most start too heavy and progress too fast (after all, a 5 pound jump every week is a 260-pound jump in a year), but there's another, less obvious mistake that many make – we forget there are numerous ways to increase the difficulty of a workout.
The more experienced we are, the more important it is to employ as many of these methods as possible. Along with adding weight to the bar, try these other result-producing progression tactics:
- Rest less between sets
- Use greater range of motion
- Introduce short pauses at or near sticking points
- Use better technique (knee tracking, neutral spine, etc.)
- Use less "psyche up" on heavy lifts
- Use less supportive gear (belts, wraps, etc.)
- Train alone or with no music
- Use fewer warm-up sets than usual
- Work harder than usual on warm-ups (pre-exhaustion)
6 – Set And Break Rep Records
Lifters who value their one-rep max strength shouldn't neglect the value of what some coaches call rep records. The more experienced you are, the harder it gets to set a new one-rep max. The best hack for this is to aggressively chase new 3RM, 5RM, 8RM, 10RM, (and so on) rep records. Not only do these high-effort sets promote hypertrophy and work capacity, they also bolster confidence.
Some the most successful powerlifting programs available today, including Jim Wendler's 5/3/1, implement this important strategy. Get after those rep records. Before long, they'll bleed into new 1RM records.
7 – Use Contrast To Promote Recovery
Fatigue is specific to the type of work that produced it. Therefore, the fatigue generated by a 1RM squat will have relatively less negative effect on a set of 10 chin-ups than it will on another 1RM squat attempt.
For this reason, when you program your training, make sure that neighboring workouts are as dissimilar as possible. This concept leads to the idea of upper versus lower body days, as well as strength workouts that follow hypertrophy workouts.
Bottom line, the more dissimilar neighboring training sessions are, the closer your can pack them. The closer you can pack them, the faster you'll progress.
8 – Respect Paretto's Principle
An economist conceived one of the most important concepts that you can apply to your training. It's not surprising really, since economics is the science of satisfying unlimited wants with limited resources.
You and your training are an economy of sorts – you've got big goals but limited resources (time, energy, orthopedic health, knowledge, etc.), so it's critically important to apply these resources intelligently.
The best way to do this is to identify the 20% of your efforts that produce 80% of your gains, and then get after them big time. What exercises, supplements, mobility drills, set/rep schemes, and training partners bring out the best in you? Whatever they are, find a way to maximize them in your training.
9 – Half-Ass It Instead of Skipping It
Absolutism is the most subtle form of sabotage. Applying the 80/20 rule, it's clear that in a workout where you squat 3 sets of 10, you're getting the majority of benefit from the first set. While that shouldn't be taken as a license to sit back and take it easy, it's a very useful reminder if you're the type of person who's too hard on himself.
We all have days where we wage an internal battle of wills to drag ourselves to the gym. My advice is to act "as if". Go through the motions, get dressed, get in the car, drive to the gym, and you'll find your internal homing mechanism kicking in. Even if you only do the first exercise in your planned workout, you'll still be much better off than had you not gone at all.
10 – Give Yourself A Running Start
When embarking upon any type of new program, start with weights that feel too light, regardless of the set/rep scheme you employ. This will ultimately result in a longer progression and will lead to a higher peak than if you started heavier.
Let's say your current max bench press is 250 pounds and you start a new program that calls for 5 sets of 2 reps every Monday. If you start with 175 pounds, it'll feel too light. However, in just 6 weeks of 5-pound jumps, you'll already be at 205, and in 10 weeks, 225. If you can manage that type of patience, you'll bang out 5 sets of 2 like child's play with what was 90% of your max, which sets you up for a nice PR in the near future.
If you can't forgo immediate gratification and you start with say, 200 pounds, you'll be much less likely to break through to a new PR. Think of it like trying to shoulder-slam your way through a locked door – if you position yourself right against the door and push, you won't succeed. But if you back away a few steps and take a running start, you'll gather momentum and smash right through.
11 – Realign Actions With Goals
Professional soldiers are familiar with a concept called "the fog of war," which basically means that when the shit hits the fan, you tend to run on instinct and revert to your former training.
Life is like that in many ways. We become so immersed in what we're doing, we sometimes lose track of why we're doing it, and (worse) whether what we're doing is taking us closer to our goals.
I urge you to constantly revisit your goals and whether your current actions are taking you closer to them. We so often start out with a specific goal (to improve body composition, for example), and then identify methods ("clean eating" for example) that will accomplish that goal.
The problem is that gradually, without us even noticing it, our methods tend to become our goals. Ever so gradually, we lose sight of the original goal because we've become so focused on the method we've chosen to get there. We take so much pride in, say, eating a certain way, that we fail to notice that perhaps it isn't the best route to our original goal.
Learn to distinguish the means from the ends. Get laser-focused on your goals, but maintain an emotional detachment from the means by which you achieve them.
12 – Do Your First Competition
The simplest and most obvious thing would be to either bench or deadlift in a powerlifting meet. Yes, that's right, you don't have to do all three lifts, which is a great way for newbies to get into the sport.
Competing fuels your motivation. It gives meaning and purpose to your training. It also opens up social channels to other lifters and coaches who can further enhance your lifting. I can't stress how big a step this is for anyone who hasn't ever competed.
I've competed in martial arts, track and field, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, but my next challenge – which really takes me out of my personal comfort zone – will be to compete in the StrongFirst Tactical Strength Challenge this coming April. This competition involves a 1RM deadlift, one set of tactical pull-ups for maximum reps, and finally, as many kettlebell snatches as possible with a 53-pound bell in 5 minutes. Wish me luck, I'll need it!
13 – Insure Training Drills Are Suited For You
As much as many coaches harp on the necessity of doing certain lifts (like deadlifts, deep squats, get-ups, or whatever), not everyone is built to safely perform every imaginable movement.
Not everyone, for example, has the mobility or hip structure to safely perform deep squats. Not everyone should be attempting muscle-ups, or Olympic lifts, no matter how great they might be for those who can perform them safely.
Find movements and training methods that suit your body's natural anatomy and capacities. If you can't maintain a neutral spine on a deadlift or a deep squat, perhaps you can with block pulls or a higher squat position. Or maybe you're better suited to kettlebell lifting than barbells.
Maybe you'll never be a decent bodybuilder, but you have what it takes to excel in strength sports, or vice versa. The point is, don't beat yourself up trying to excel at something that'll never happen.
14 – Focus On Point A
Most success literature focuses on goals – Point B's if you will – but I urge you to put a little thought into where you're starting from. Specifically, I'd like you to reexamine your beliefs about yourself and your current practices, and determine if these beliefs are accurate or not.
Many of us hold beliefs about ourselves that simply aren't true. If you don't have an accurate picture of where you're starting from, you'll never reach your destination.
It's been my experience that most of us greatly underestimate our own abilities and potential, because our achievements up to this point are likely the result of lackluster efforts, mistaken beliefs, or both. Consider reexamining the quality of your efforts and the accuracy of your long-held beliefs. Perhaps the best way of doing this is to expose yourself to people and ideas that differ from your own.
Jim Rohn is famous for his suggestion that you're the average of the five people with which you spend the most time. I'd also extend this idea to the books you've read as well.
Onward and Upward
Success in the weight room is all about getting out of your comfort zone, right? As it turns out, the gym is a microcosm for life, as making personal and intellectual progress requires getting out of your comfort zone as well.