It's often the little things that end up making the biggest difference. They separate those who "look like they work out" from those who "look like animals." The little things also separate those who lift weights from those who can lift a house!
While I'll be the first one to tell you to avoid overanalyzing this stuff, you still need to make sure you're doing as many things right as possible if you want to reach your goals.
Here's a list of what you might be missing out on.
1 – Include an unloading week.
After 3-4 weeks of stressful training, take a week off. This is the basis of my block training scheme. I like to divide training into short phases of 3-5 weeks that I call "blocks." A block of training simply refers to a certain period of time where you focus on one type of training.
There are three main types of blocks:
1 – Accumulation Block
Characterized by a relatively high volume of work and a lower average intensity (referring to the amount of weight lifted). Exercise selection is broader (more exercises per muscle group) and the number of reps per set is higher. The rest intervals between sets are reduced to increase training density and training techniques such as pre-fatigue, post-fatigue, drop sets, antagonist supersets, and 30-45 second yielding isometrics can be used.
2 – Intensification Block
Characterized by a higher training intensity (load) and a lower training volume. During such a block we want to stick mostly to the 1-3 and 4-6 rep ranges. Exercise selection is much narrower: fewer lifts (only the big basics) are used. Since we're performing fewer exercises, we increase the number of sets per exercise slightly while reducing the number of reps.
Rest intervals are increased to allow for maximum neural recovery and thus facilitate heavy lifting. Training techniques such as cluster sets, extended 5's, accentuated eccentrics, and max-intensity overcoming isometrics can be used.
3 – Explosion Block
Characterized by a focus on explosive lifting: variations of the Olympic lifts, dynamic effort lifts (45-55% of your max lifted explosively), ballistic lifts (jump squats, ballistic bench in Smith machine), and plyo drills are good examples. Like in the intensification block, it's best to perform more sets of a few exercises than fewer sets of a broader range of drills. Rest intervals are also relatively long to allow for optimal neural recovery.
The ballistic bench press in the Smith machine
Note that an accumulation block doesn't exclude limit strength work or explosive lifting, just like heavy lifting can still be performed during an explosion block. However, the majority of the volume should be devoted to the style of training selected.
The most frequent block durations are 4 weeks for beginners and intermediate lifters and 3 weeks for advanced lifters. The block structure calls for progressively increasing the difficulty of the sessions from week to week and then drastically reducing training stress during the last week of the block.
To increase the difficulty of a session within a block, you can either increase the number of sets or the amount of weight lifted. Normally it's best to use the volume/set progression method. For example:
- Week 1: 9 total sets per body part; 8-12 reps per set
- Week 2: 12 total sets per body part; 8-12 reps per set
- Week 3: 15 total sets per body part; 8-12 reps per set
- Week 4: 7 total sets per body part; 6-8 reps per set
- Week 1: 6 total sets per body part; 4-6 reps per set
- Week 2: 9 total sets per body part; 4-6 reps per set
- Week 3: 12 total sets per body part; 4-6 reps per set
- Week 4: 6 total sets per body part; 1-3 reps per set
As you can see, the number of sets is reduced by 50% during that last week while intensity is either maintained or increased. Basically we're unloading the volume to allow for metabolic supercompensation and muscular adaptive reconstruction to take place. It's possible to continue lifting the same amount of weight because of the lower fatigue accumulation during the session. The end of that week is even a good time to increase the loads used.
The unloading week is a very good way to prevent overtraining without having you stop training altogether. You can also unload by reducing the amount of weight lifted if you feel that your CNS is drained. If that's the case, keep the same number of reps per set but reduce the amount of weight used by around 10-20%.
For example, let's say that you progressed to 225 pounds for your work sets on the bench press:
- Week 1: 5 x 5 reps @ 205
- Week 2: 6 x 4 reps @ 215
- Week 3: 7 x 3 reps @ 225
- Week 4: 7 x 3 reps @ 205
If you feel physically drained as well, you can also reduce the number of sets, which would give you a last week of 4 x 3 @ 205.
This method of unloading is better kept for extreme cases where your CNS is really fatigued and on the verge of overtraining (this generally occurs if two successive intensification blocks were used).
An unloading week is never fun for athletes; we all want to progress and we often associate the amount of work performed with progress. We think that more work = more results. This isn't always the case. Sometimes it's best to take one step back to be able to take three steps forward.
2 – Seek constant progress in training difficulty and training stress.
One principle guiding training adaptations is the law of progressive overload. Simply put, to stimulate an adaptation (gains), a training session must provide a certain overload.
If the stress induced by a training session is too low, it won't lead to a positive adaptation because it isn't seen as "perturbing enough" for the body to force itself to change in response to the training. In other words, if you want to grow, you must challenge your body beyond what it's used to.
But what constitutes a challenge today might not be as stressful a few months from now. As your body adapts and grows stronger, it becomes better equipped to tolerate training-induced stress. As a result, a session that proves to be hard at one time might actually become easy in the future (when your body is fully adapted to that kind and amount of stress). So basically this means that you'll have to progressively increase the difficulty or stress level of a training session if you want to obtain continuous gains.
Most people believe that there are only two ways to increase training stress: increasing volume and increasing intensity. As a result, most end up trying to progress simply by trying to do a lot more work, so they quickly stagnate, injure themselves, or overtrain.
Here are some other ways of progressing:
1 – Progression With Reps
This is one of the simplest progression methods of all. It consist of trying to perform more reps with the same weight over a certain period of time. For example:
- Week 1: 8 reps with 200
- Week 2: 9 reps with 200
- Week 3: 10 reps with 200
This is fairly simple; however, it can also quickly fizzle out. Adding one rep per set usually constitutes a 10-15% increase in performance. Such a rate of progression obviously can't be sustained for a long period of time.
The second caveat is that you should stay within the same training zone if you're to expect the same type of results. For example, if you're training for size you want to either train in the 6-8 or 8-12 rep ranges. So if you progress from 200 x 8 reps to 200 x 12 reps, you're still in the right training zone. However, if you eventually work up to 200 for 15 reps, you're now in the strength-endurance zone, a zone which won't yield as much muscle size gain.
So even though you're progressing, you might not get the kind of gains you're looking for. You'll gain strength-endurance and increase your work capacity, but you might not stimulate as much muscle growth as you want. So as you reach the top end of your target training zone, you might want to switch to another method of progression such as progression with weight. For example:
- Week 1: 8 reps with 200
- Week 2: 10 reps with 200
- Week 3: 12 reps with 200
- Week 4: 8 reps with 210
- Week 5: 10 reps with 210
- Week 6: 12 reps with 210
2 – Progression With Weight
This is the second simplest method of progression. It consists of adding weight while keeping the same number of reps per set. For example:
- Week 1: 8 reps with 200
- Week 2: 8 reps with 205
- Week 3: 8 reps with 210
As with the preceding method, you can only use this method for so long before you stagnate. If it were possible to constantly progress using this method, then we'd all gain 260 pounds on our bench in one year simply by adding five pounds to the bar each week. Within three years we'd all be benching close to a thousand pounds! Not bloody likely!
As with the preceding method, progress will stop after 2-3 weeks, so it now becomes necessary to pick a new progression method. You could reduce the reps and continue with the weight progression:
- Week 1: 8 reps with 200
- Week 2: 8 reps with 205
- Week 3: 8 reps with 210
- Week 4: 6 reps with 215
- Week 5: 6 reps with 220
- Week 6: 6 reps with 225
Switch to a rep progression:
- Week 1: 8 reps with 200
- Week 2: 8 reps with 205
- Week 3: 8 reps with 210
- Week 4: 9 reps with 210
- Week 5: 10 reps with 210
- Week 6: 11 reps with 210
Or you could go to a completely different method of progression.
3 – Progression With Sets
This is another way of increasing the difficulty of a workout via an augmentation in training volume. It consists of increasing the number of sets performed per muscle group (or lift). For example:
- Week 1: 9 total sets/muscle group
- Week 2: 12 total sets/muscle group
- Week 3: 15 total sets/muscle group
The obvious limitation is that you can't add sets forever. If the simple act of doing more total sets led to more muscle gain, then we'd only have to perform a ton of sets to look like Arnold. Obviously this isn't the case; in fact, performing too many sets can lead to stagnation or even regression due to overtraining.
Set progression is a good method; however, you must keep the total number of sets at a reasonable level. Most people should avoid doing more than 16 total sets for large muscle groups, and avoid doing more than 12 total sets for smaller muscle groups.
Occasionally it's possible to perform one session with more volume, but only if it's followed by a week of drastically lowered training volume. So you can progress by adding more sets until you reach that top amount (or until you feel overtrained). When you reach either one of those conditions, it's best to switch to another method of progression.
4 – Progression With Density
Density refers to the amount of work performed per unit of time. In strength training, the shorter the rest intervals are, the higher the density. More density equals more stress.
So another way of increasing the difficulty of a session is to gradually reduce the amount of rest between sets while keeping (or increasing) the amount of work performed. For example:
- Week 1: 2 minute rest intervals
- Week 2: 90 second rest intervals
- Week 3: 60 second rest intervals
But this method too has limitations. First, you can't keep reducing the rest intervals forever. Second, cutting the rest intervals too much can decrease lifting performance and thus reduce training stress. So only cut the rest intervals enough so that it doesn't interfere with lifting capacities.
5 – Progression With Eccentric Tempo
It's a well-known training fact that most of the muscle damage occurs during the eccentric or negative phase of a lift. And it's this damage that's responsible for stimulating most of the muscle growth. So by placing more focus on the eccentric (lowering) portion of a lift, we're increasing the amount of training stress placed on the body.
A simple way of increasing eccentric emphasis is to increase the duration of the eccentric phase. This basically means lowering the weight more slowly. For example:
- Week 1: Lowering the weight in 3 seconds
- Week 2: Lowering the weight in 5 seconds
- Week 3: Lowering the weight in 7 seconds
The limitation of this method is that if we increase the duration of the eccentric phase too much, we have to reduce the amount of weight used, and this isn't good. So only slow down the eccentric phase if you can keep on using the same amount of weight.
6 – Progression With Concentric Tempo
Force equals mass times acceleration (F = ma). This means that force output can be increased either by lifting more weight or by lifting the same amount of weight with more speed. If you're doing the same number of reps with the same amount of weight but lifting it with more acceleration, you're producing more force – and this means a larger CNS activity. This represents an increase in training difficulty/stress.
7 – Progression With Movements
Another way of turning up the difficulty a notch is to switch to more complex exercises. A bench press places more stress on the body than a flye. Free weights place more stress on the body than machines. Movements involving more muscle groups and joints at the same time are more stressful than simpler exercises.
8 – Progression With Methods
There are several advanced methods available: drop sets, supersets, pre-fatigue, post-fatigue, rest/pause, clusters, tempo contrast, isodynamic contrast, etc. (For more info, read my Violent Variations article). Using these methods drastically increases the difficulty of a session. However, since these methods are very stressful, it's quite easy to overdo them. Use them, don't abuse them!
3 – Measure up!
You've been training really hard, eating well, and using the best supplements, yet you're not progressing at a satisfactory rate. Sound familiar?
Well, you might very well be dipping into an overtraining state, be it neural, muscular, or both. But how can you know if you're doing too much? The following simple measurements, if taken every day, can give you a good idea if something is wrong and what needs fixing.
Heart Rate Measures
- Morning (resting) heart rate: This is one of the simplest yet most straightforward ways of knowing if you're performing an excessive amount of high intensity training. Here's how to use this tool:
- You must take this measure first thing in the morning upon waking to avoid fluctuations due to daily activities.
- You must always take your measurement in the same position. If you start by taking your pulse lying down, then all of your measures must also be taken in this position because body position influences resting heart rate. Your RHR is 6-8 beats per minute higher sitting compared to lying down, and 2-4 BPM higher standing compared to sitting. So there can be up to a 12 BPM difference between taking your HR standing up or lying down.
- Measure your heart rate by placing your fingers on the carotid artery. Avoid applying too much pressure as this artificially reduces heart rate by activating the baroreceptors.
- Measure for a full 60 seconds, not 15 seconds multiplied by 4 (this quadruples the margin of error).
- If your RHR is elevated by 3-5 BPM above baseline, you have a slight overexcitation of the sympathetic nervous system, which might indicate incomplete recovery from high intensity work.
- If your RHR is elevated by more than 6 BPM above baseline, there's a significant neural overstrain due to excessive high intensity work.
- If there's a drastic reduction in RHR compared to your baseline, this indicates CNS inhibition which is a sign of type II (addisonic) overtraining. This rarely occurs with strength athletes though; it's typically due to an excessive volume of endurance work.
A sympathetic nervous system with normal function should lead to an increase in 4-8 BPM under cold conditions. If the increase is above 10 BPM, it indicates sympathetic overactivity which might mean a potential basedowic overtraining state (too much high intensity work). If the increase is lower than 4 BPM this can indicate sympathetic inhibition, which could mean a potential addisonic overtraining state (too much volume).
If the heart rate is more than 20% above the RHR, it indicates that the workload was excessively stressful on the body and nervous system. If the heart rate is elevated by less than 10% above the RHR, it means that the workload for the session was below the capacity of the body to tolerate training and that future workloads can be higher if maximum results are desired.
- Morning grip strength: Grip strength tested with a hand dynamometer in the morning upon waking has been found by Soviet scientists to be strongly correlated with the working state of the CNS.
If morning grip strength goes down by more than four pounds per hand, it indicates insufficient neural recovery and might necessitate a decrease in the amount of high-intensity training until strength returns to the baseline level.
If morning grip strength goes up by more than four pounds per hand, it means that the CNS is primed to a maximal effort. This might be a good day to either go for a maximum lift or to increase the amount of high-intensity training you'll be performing.
- Body temperature: Oral temperature taken in the morning can clue us in on the metabolic state of the body. Each decrease in temperature of one degree indicates a reduction of 5-10% of the metabolic rate. If that occurs, it's time for a few days of increased caloric consumption until the value returns to normal (established baseline).
4 – Don't skip proper post-workout recovery drinks.
A ton of articles have already been written about the importance of post (and pre) workout recovery shakes. This tells me two things:
- Most gym rats are already aware of the importance of proper post-workout nutrition.
- Most gym rats must be idiots because not everybody is using an adequate post-workout strategy!
I personally recommend Mag-10® as your post-workout drink. This will work fantastically for most people.
5 – If training for strength and power, include a neural recovery drink.
While most serious training enthusiasts are well aware of the importance of physiological/metabolic recovery after a training session (glycogen replenishment, protein synthesis, etc.) few understand that proper neural recovery is just as important, if not more, especially when training for strength.
When lifting heavy weights or performing explosive drills, the nervous system is just as heavily challenged as the muscles themselves. And just like the muscles, the nervous system can be overloaded and eventually depleted or drained. Since the CNS is the commander-in-chief, progression is simply impossible if it's not fully operational.
It thus becomes important to use everything available to facilitate the restoration of the CNS. One very effective way of facilitating neural recovery is to use Brain Candy® after a training session. It enhances blood flow to the brain and will drastically increase the rate of CNS recovery.
6 – When it comes to limit strength training, remember: variety for development, similarity for performance.
In my Different Destinations, Different Journeys article, I describe the difference between training for function and training for size (structure). Basically, when you're training for function you want to:
- Practice each chosen exercise more frequently (frequency of practice).
- Perform exercises involving more CNS activation: multijoint movements.
- Perform fewer total lifts but more sets per lift.
- Use training methods emphasising the CNS over the metabolic pathways: lifting heavy (80%+) or explosively.
So when you're training to perform on certain movements (for example, the powerlifts or the Olympic lifts) you should have two types of training:
- Developmental Training: This is the first stage of training and it's aimed at building size and strength in all the muscles involved in the lifts you're aiming to perform.
- Performance Training: This is the second stage of training aimed at maximizing performance on the competition lifts by becoming super-efficient at them. At this point you already have the muscles and the strength to perform well, so you're now focusing on perfecting movement performance.
Understand that the developmental stage doesn't mean general or bodybuilding training. Rather, it means training for strength and/or power but using more assistance exercises to fully strengthen all links in the chain. The competition lifts can still be performed, but relying on movements closely resembling these lifts might be a better option.
During the performance stage, assistance work is reduced but not dropped altogether as this is the training that made you strong in the first place. And more emphasis is placed on the competition lifts themselves. It's best to train them often 2-4 times per week with varying degrees of intensity and volume.
In simple words: More variety = more thorough strength and size development. More frequency = better performance of the chosen lifts.
7 – When training for size, alternate between accumulation and intensification phases.
Undulating periodization has been shown to be more effective than linear periodization to promote strength and size gains. Undulating periodization consists of waving volume and intensity in an up and down manner every 3-4 weeks. The graphic below illustrates that concept.
As you can see, we alternate between an accumulation (more volume, less intensity) phase with an intensification (less volume, more intensity) phase. Each phase couple (Phase I and II; Phase III and IV) progresses toward a higher average intensity level.
As you can see, during an accumulation phase, the CNS is under less strain and as a result it isn't drained. So while we trash our muscles, the CNS actually gets a rest.
During an intensification phase it's quite the opposite: the muscles suffer less micro-trauma due to the reduction in volume; however, the CNS is under heavy assault. So during an intensification phase we fully stimulate the nervous system while allowing the muscles to surcompensate.
When training for size it's important to have an efficient CNS. This is something that's often overlooked by bodybuilders. The reason that they only want big muscles and don't care that much about being strong. Well, heavy lifting can make you bigger! It does so via three mechanisms:
- Direct Action: Heavy lifting places an important growth stimulus on the fast twitch fibers. While the total volume might not be high enough to stimulate maximum muscle growth, it can certainly increase FT fiber size.
- Indirect Action: Gaining strength will allow you to use more weight during a subsequent accumulation phase and this will translate into much improved gains.
- Potentiating Action: Heavy lifting improves the CNS's capacity to recruit the high threshold fast twitch muscles fibers. These have the highest growth potential but are very difficult to stimulate. Increasing neural efficiency is a very effective way to develop the capacity to stimulate them and thus drastically enhance growth potential.
Plus, heavy lifting increases myogenic tone (tonus) which makes your muscles appear and feel "harder." For example, take two guys who have around the same amount of muscle mass and body fat; one is often using heavy weights while the other is always using "pumping" techniques.
Well, despite similar body composition, the heavy weight lifter will always look harder and denser while at rest. On the other hand, the pumper will look great when fully pumped up, but will quickly deflate once he exits the gym. So if you want a permanent muscular look, not a transient one, please include some heavy lifting in your program!
8 – Utilize benchmark lifts to establish objectives and evaluate your progress.
We now understand that variation, either in terms of exercise selection and/or training methods, is a very important factor in building a strong and muscular body. However, we still need some "test lifts" to establish if our progression occurs at a satisfactory rate.
For example, in one cycle you might be able to bench press 250 for 3 sets of 12. In the following cycle you complete 3 sets of 8 reps with 185 on the incline press. Did you progress? Kinda hard to tell, right?
So it might be a good idea to select baseline exercises which you test at the conclusion of every training cycle to see if you're on the right track. I suggest testing these lifts for a 6RM (most weight you can lift for 6 reps). Why 6 reps? Because it's an intermediate zone. Six reps involve the nervous system and muscular system to the same extent. This is important because gains tend to be specific to the type of training used.
For example, if you train for limit strength using sets of 1-3 reps, you'll increase your maximum strength a lot. However, if you were to test your strength-endurance, chances are that you wouldn't show much progress.
The opposite is also true: if you train for strength-endurance using sets of 15-20 reps, you'll become more effective at lifting more weight for 15-20 reps. However, your limit strength won't progress much it at all. Six reps being in an intermediate zone, training for strength, size, or strength-endurance should all influence this zone positively.
So we want to test our 6RM, and to get a complete picture it's important to test all of the major muscle groups. Good benchmark lifts include:
- Full squat
- Bench press
- Bentover barbell row
- Military press
- Barbell curl
Here are some suggested target weights for each of those lifts. You might be very close on some of them and light years away on some others. If you can reach all of these targets you'll have a very decent built and ample muscle strength (there's no reason to stop there though!)
Lift – Target
- Full Squat – 200% of body weight x 6
- Bench Press – 150% of body weight x 6
- Deadlift – 250% of body weight x 6
- Bentover Barbell Row – 150% of body weight x 6
- Military Press – 100% of body weight x 6
- Barbell Curl – 75% of body weight x 6
So for a 200 pound lifter, that would come up to:
- Squat: 400lbs x 6 reps (496lbs) The estimated 1RM from the 6RM is in parenthesis.
- Bench Press: 300lbs x 6 reps (372lbs)
- Deadlift: 500 x 6 reps (620lbs)
- Bentover Barbell Row: 300lbs x 6 reps (372lbs)
- Military Press: 200lbs x 6 reps (248lbs)
- Barbell Curl:> 150lbs x 6 reps (186lbs)
As you can see, reaching those targets won't be easy. But if you get there you'll be able to claim the title of "Friendly Neighborhood Big Guy!"
9 – For limit strength development, train for strength in all types of contraction.
Muscles can contract many different ways. The three broad categories of muscle actions are:
- Eccentric: Also called yielding or negative, it refers to an action where the muscle is contracting while lengthening. This is the type of contraction where we're the strongest. The following illustrates an eccentric action and its characteristics:
- Concentric: Also called overcoming or positive, it refers to an action where the muscle is contracting while shortening. The following illustrates an eccentric action and its characteristics:
- Isometric: Also called static, it refers to an action where a muscle is contracting without producing any external movement. Examples include holding a weight or trying to lift an immovable object.
To maximize strength and size gains, it's important to train all those type of actions. In the modern strength training field, concentric action is given prime importance. Eccentric training is also trained while performing regular training protocols, but it's not emphasized. As for isometric action, it's more often than not forgotten altogether. But understand that all three types of action are important to ultimate sports performance.
Eccentric strength is necessary to absorb external force (an opponent, a source of resistance, or our own bodyweight as we run, jump, or change direction). Concentric strength is important in overcoming an external force (pushing away an opponent, tackling, applying force to the ground while running or jumping, etc.)
Isometric strength is also important because it allows you to hold an opponent during a stalemate (e.g. offensive lineman) or our own body (e.g. iron cross in gymnastics). Furthermore, isometric strength is a key in reactive strength: the rapid switching from an eccentric action to a concentric action. The stronger you're in static actions, the faster you can switch from one type of action to the other. In real life this translates into more speed and quicker changes of direction.
Finally, isometric strength plays a role in strength sports such as powerlifting: the more isometric strength you have, the more effective you'll be at grinding out maximum attempts past your sticking point.
So if you want maximum strength and optimum performance, you must train all types of contraction. A ratio of around 60% concentric, 30% eccentric, and 10% isometric is adequate for most individuals.
10 – Go Train!
We live in a world where information overload is a reality. This is also true of the strength training field. Never has so much info, scientific studies, advanced training methods, and complex protocols been available to every dedicated gym rat.
With all the info floating around it's very easy to fall in a "paralysis by analysis" state of mind. Simply put, many gym aficionados are trying so hard to design the perfect program from all the info they read, that they often forget the most important part: training hard!
I can guarantee you that someone who trains like a demon on a very simple program will progress at a much faster rate than the guy who spends dozens of hour designing a single super complex program but trains with as much intensity as an anorexic grandmother suffering from severe depression!
I knew a guy who'd design programs for himself working every single muscle in his body (or so it seemed). His leg workout included about a dozen exercises, all aimed at specific muscles. The guy had a very profound knowledge of biomechanics and knew by heart the functions of every single muscle in the human body.
So his program must've led to some great results, right? Wrong! See, while his program addressed every little muscle group in his lower body with multiple cable, machine, and light dumbbell exercises, he forgot that two simple exercises could've taken care of his whole lower body: squats and deadlifts – two movements he never used! The result was a program which looked great on paper but led to zero results in the real world.
Remember, knowledge is good, but effort reigns supreme. Now, shouldn't you be lifting something heavy right now?