We live in a funny society. On the one hand, never before has the idea of being in lean muscular shape been so desirable. Not long ago, a muscular man or woman was looked at as some sort of freak. Now, however, it's become the ideal: we admire our idols, from actors to athletes, for their hard, rippling, muscular bodies.
On the other hand, never has the general population been so pathetically out of shape. Obesity and all the health problems related to it are rampant, and you don't have to look very hard to see it.
So it probably shouldn't surprise us that more and more people are turning to weight training, dieting, and nutritional supplements to improve the way they look and feel. Physical training can be a very rewarding thing when done properly, especially when the correct diet and optimal supplement protocols are used along with it. It's rewarding because it can drastically change the way you look, the way people perceive you, and how you feel about yourself. Believe me, I speak from experience.
Six years ago I was a rather tubby fellow. I was strong and powerful, sure, but let's just say that I made the Michelin Man look svelte. I'm not ashamed (okay, maybe a little ashamed) to admit that between 1994 and 2001, I went out on a grand total of three dates, all of which ended without me getting anywhere near "first base." Pretty pathetic, huh?
That was then.
In 2001 something happened that changed my life. I underwent a complete metamorphosis, using the tough-love triad of hard training, proper diet, and precise supplementation, transforming my strong-but-cuddly 230-pounds into a lean, hard, and muscular 205 pounds at under 8% body fat.
Thibs' transformation, a tribute to hard work, discipline, and Hot-Rox®.
It was then that I began noticing a weird phenomenon: women actually started hitting on me.
And not just one or two, either. We're talking oodles. At the grocery store, at the waterpark (one stunning young woman actually changed lines just to stand next to me: very subtle), at bars, everywhere. Without really intending to (well, maybe just a little), I now found that I had turned into a girl magnet. I say this is a weird phenomenon because, except for the new physique, I was the exact same person who had been, shall we say, frustrated in his pursuit of the fairer sex for so long.
My professional life as a trainer changed as well: I went from having trouble getting two or three clients a week, to having to turn people away every week because my schedule got so booked! In every aspect, changing the way I looked completely transformed my life.
Vin Diesel (right) is miffed that people now mistake him for Christian Thibaudeau.
Yes, the proper combination of training, nutrition, and supplementation can be a extremely powerful. Sadly, however, the vast majority of people who want to enter the wonderful world of weight training have no clue as to where to begin. They don't even know the terminology, let alone the methods. In their confusion, they might hire a personal trainer, but I have to tell you: most of the "trainers" out there aren't worth a bucket of stale spit.
What, then, is the newbie to do?
Read this series of articles, for starters! It will be in three sections, presenting the basic information that all newcomers to the iron game need to know. Section I covers the training aspect, and Sections II and III will talk about nutrition and supplementation. If you're just starting out in this wonderful world of body transformation, this series will help you avoid months, if not years, of wasted time and frustration.
So without wasting another minute, let's get right to it.
Talk the Talk!
Nothing screams "Newb!" quite as loudly as not knowing the jargon of strength training. To be fair, I've met plenty of supposedly "advanced" individuals who also seemed confused about correct terminology. Here I've provided a glossary of the most important terms you'll need in your quest for muscle, so you'll have no excuse for not knowing what the heck you're talking about.
A repetition or "rep" is the action of performing the complete motion of an exercise once. Using the bench press as an example, one complete motion means bringing the bar all the way down to your chest from an extended arms position, then lifting it back up to the starting position.
Back to the starting position: that's one repetition.
Each repetition normally has two distinct phases: the phase where you're actively lifting the weight, in which the muscles involved are contracting or shortening. This is variously called the concentric, positive, or overcoming phase.
Concentric phase: muscles are contracting
The second phase is when you're resisting the weight, bringing it to the starting position of the concentric phase. This is when the muscles involved are lengthening, and it's called the eccentric, negative, or yielding phase.
Eccentric phase: muscles are lengthening
Note that for most lifts, you're stronger in the eccentric phase than you are in the concentric.
Some people think of the concentric as "raising the bar," and the eccentric phase as "lowering the bar," but this is not always the case, as a look at the lat pulldown will show. In this exercise, you lower the bar during the concentric phase (contracting or shortening the muscles).
The bar comes down, but it's still the concentric phase.
Just remember: concentric phase = muscles contract; eccentric phase = muscles lengthen.
A set is when you perform a series of repetitions without any significant rest between them. For example, when you perform a set of ten reps on the bench press, it means that you lower and lift the bar ten times in a row. Once all the reps in a set have been completed, you rack the bar.
When writing a program, you write the number of sets and reps together, first sets and then reps. For example, "3 x 10" means that you perform 3 sets of 10 reps. You rest between sets.
You won't always see a precise number of reps in a prescribed program. In fact, more often than not you'll see a rep range. This is a bracket of reps, usually between two to four, in which the training effect is almost the same.
A rep range allows for more leeway: let's say that a program calls for 10 reps, but you're only able to get 7. Do you trash the set, or do you count it? What if after 10 you feel that you can still squeeze out another one or two reps? Do you stop at 10, or do you continue? Rather than agonize over this, I prefer to prescribe a rep range rather than a specific rep number. Which rep range to use depends on what kind of gains you're after (note that singles, i.e. sets of 1 rep, are a special case):
- 2-3: strength with little size gain
- 4-5: strength and size gains, but more strength than size
- 6-8: strength and size gains, almost equally
- 9-12: strength and size gains, but more size than strength
- 13-15: size gains, and some muscle endurance gains
- 16-20: muscle endurance gains, and some size gains
This one is fairly straightforward: it refers to the amount of time you rest between sets of an exercise, or between exercises.
Also called "rep speed," this refers to the manner in which the repetitions of an exercise are performed. Some coaches go into great detail in prescribing the exact tempo of a movement, while others don't talk about it at all. Here are some examples of how tempo is prescribed:
In this method each repetition is divided into four phases; there are the two that we already explained earlier (eccentric and concentric), but also two more phases constituting the transition time between those two main phases. These four phases each are assigned a number which represents the length of that phase in seconds.
- The first number in the series is always the length (in seconds) of the eccentric phase of the exercise (which isn't necessarily the first part of the movement).
- The second number is the transition time between the eccentric and concentric phases.
- The third number is the length of concentric phase.
- The fourth number is the transition time between the end of the concentric phase and the beginning of the eccentric phase of the next rep.
Let's look at a 3-0-2-1 tempo for the preacher curl. You would perform the eccentric phase in three seconds (3). When you reach the bottom position, you don't pause (0) but go directly into the concentric phase, lifting the bar in two seconds (2). At the top of the concentric phase, you wait, squeezing the muscle for one second before lowering the weight again (1).
3-0-2-1 tempo: three-second eccentric phase (3), no pause at the bottom (0)...
...two-second concentric phase (2), with a one-second squeeze at the top (1)
Remember that the number order doesn't necessarily represent the order in which the phases are performed.
This is only a bit less precise than "ultra" precise, using three numbers instead of four. We only prescribe the eccentric phase (first number), the concentric phase (third number) and the transition between the eccentric and concentric phases (second number). The time between reps is not included.
In this third method we don't even include the transition phases, only the eccentric (first number) and concentric (second number) phases are prescribed. For example 3-1 means that you perform the eccentric in 3 seconds and the concentric in one second.
Note: with the first three methods of tempo quantification you'll sometimes see an 'x' instead of a number. This means "eXplosive" or "as fast as you can."
This approach, used by many coaches, doesn't include a specific number of seconds for each phase. Rather, a qualitative description of each phase is used. For example:
- "Lower the weight slowly and lift it under control, really squeezing the muscle."
- "Control the weight on the way down and lift it explosively."
- "Go slow during both phases of the movement, concentrating on keeping the muscle tensed."
And then there's this approach, used by some coaches who don't say a damn thing about tempo at all.
Which one is best? It depends on the situation: each of these methods have their pros and cons.
The first two (ultra and very precise) methods are useful for someone who cheats or has bad form. If you're in the habit of bouncing the bar off your chest in an attempt to add a few more pounds to your bench press, sticking to a strict tempo may help you kick the habit. For everyone else, however, these precise methods often take away from the quality of the set. If you're completely focused on counting seconds, you won't be able to fully concentrate on the movement, and on generating maximum force.
As a rule of thumb, the more experienced you become, the more you should move towards the qualitative tempo prescription.
This is one of the first "high stress" methods that newbies learn about when starting to lift weights seriously. This doesn't necessarily mean that it's the best one, just the most popular. Unfortunately, most people use supersets the wrong way, pairing movements without any thought about the logic behind the pairing. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, let's talk about just what the heck supersets are.
A superset is when you perform a set of two exercises back to back, without resting between them (you do rest after the second one, however). There are several types of supersets:
This refers to pairing two exercises for the same muscle group. The first one is an isolation movement (exercise where the target muscle is doing most of the work alone) and the second one is a compound movement. An example for the chest would be to perform a set of dumbbell flies, then immediately one set of bench press. The logic here is that in a compound movement, the target muscle isn't working alone, and thus might not be fully stimulated at the end of the set.
By pre-fatiguing this target muscle, we increase the chance of fully stimulating it. For beginners, pre-fatigue is also good for learning how to feel a target muscle in a compound movement. For example, many people have a hard time feeling their pectoral muscles ("pecs") working when they bench press. Pre-fatigue the chest with an isolation movement and you'll feel the pecs much more in the press, which will help teach you how to focus on that muscle. The downside is that you won't be able to use as much weight in the compound exercise, which is also the best mass builder of the two movements.
This is pretty much the same thing as the pre-fatigue approach, except that the exercise order is reversed: you start with the compound movement and then perform the isolation one. This also allows you to fully stimulate the target muscle, but it doesn't interfere with the amount of weight you can use on the big exercise.
This is the type of superset I like the least, and I rarely use it. It consists of pairing two compound movements for the same muscle group (e.g. bench press and dips). The problem is that it doesn't help you to focus on the target muscle group.
In the case of bench press and dips, if your triceps are stronger than your pectorals, you'll still rely mostly on them during both movements, and the chest might still be left relatively under-stimulated. The only advantage to a compound superset is that you can work more than one part of the muscle in the same set. However, this is better accomplished with isolation movements.
This refers to pairing two isolation exercises for the same muscle group. The purpose of this approach is to focus on several parts of a muscle at the same time. This is where it gets tricky: for this technique to work, you have to select exercises that actually work different parts of the muscle. If you choose two movements targeting the same area, you're not getting full value from this technique.
In this method you pair two exercises for opposing (antagonist) muscles. As with other supersets, there is no rest between the first and second movements. With this approach, you can pair these muscles together:
- chest and back
- biceps and triceps
- quadriceps and hamstrings
- lateral/front deltoid and rear deltoid
- abdominals and lower back
This technique is similar to the superset except that instead of doing two exercises back to back, you perform three movements in a row. This is obviously a very demanding method that should not be abused, especially by beginners and/or individuals with low work capacity.
Just like supersets, there are several alternatives when it comes to triple sets. Here are a few:
Pre- and Post-Fatigue
This one starts with one isolation exercise, follows with a compound movement, then closes the circle with another isolation exercise. An example for the chest might look like this:
- A1. Dumbbell Fly 8-10 reps
- A2. Decline Bench Press 6-8 reps
- A3. Cable Crossover 10-12 reps
This one was first popularized in the late 80s by Dr. Fred Hatfield, and more recently by coach Poliquin. It consists of performing one compound movement with heavy weights and low reps, then moving on to an assistance exercise performed for an intermediate number of reps (8-12) and then finally performing an isolation drill for high reps (anywhere from 20 to 40 reps). An example could look like this:
- A1. Bench Press 4-6 reps
- A2. Incline Dumbbell Press 8-10 reps
- A3. Cable Crossover 30 reps
Other examples would include triple sets of three isolation movements working three different parts of a muscle or using different movement patterns/angles.
Drop sets are part of a category of training method called "extended sets." Extended sets means that after you reach a point where you can't lift a weight one more time with proper technique you find a way to continue on doing more work. This is normally done either by reducing the weight (drop sets) or by taking a short rest before continuing on with the set (rest/pause or cluster sets).
So when performing a drop set you basically perform a certain number of reps with a given weight. At the end of that "first" set you reduce the weight slightly and you immediately continue performing reps with the reduced weight. For example:
- Dumbbell Bench Press with 50 pound dumbbells able to perform 6 reps...
- After 6 reps you go down to 40 pound dumbbells to perform 3-4 more reps.
You can also perform double drops, or even triple drops (reducing the weight two or three times). But I reiterate that this is a stressful method that should not be abused.
These are somewhat similar to drop sets in that you continue to perform reps even after you reach the point of failure. But this time you don't reduce the weight, instead you rest for 7-12 seconds before resuming the set with the same weight. So you might do 8 reps with 200 pounds on the bench press, re-rack the weight, rest for 10 seconds and then perform 2-3 more reps.
Clusters are similar to rest/pause sets, however with clusters you take your 7-17 seconds of rest between each repetition. A cluster set of 5 reps would be: 1 rep, rest 10 sec., 1 rep, rest 10 sec., 1 rep, rest 10 sec., 1 rep, rest 10 sec., 1 rep, end of set.
Obviously, since you rest between every rep, you can use a lot more weight than during regular sets of the same number of reps.
Burns are partial (half) reps performed at the end of a regular set. For example, you perform 10 full repetitions on the dumbbell curl, and at the end of the set you add 5-6 partial reps at the second half of the range of motion.
Failure is the point at which you can't complete one more proper repetition at a given weight. In other words, you reach a point of muscle failure when you're unable to complete a repetition without having the help of a spotter, or resorting to cheating or bad form. Failure can occur due to several factors, including complete fatigue of the muscle fibers (rare), accumulation of metabolites (lactate, hydrogen) in the muscle which makes contraction harder or impossible, and fatigue of the nervous system (which makes recruiting the muscle fibers more difficult).
Intense vs. Intensive
There is a lot of misconception regarding the term intensity as it relates to training. In the strength training field, "intense" refers not to a subjective value ("dude, this workout is, like totally intense!") but to an objective variable: the amount of weight used compared to your capacity.
Simply put, the heavier the weight compared to what you're able to do, the greater the intensity of the exercise. For example, if you're able to lift a maximum of 200 pounds on the bench press for one repetition (your one-rep max, or 1RM) doing one set of 5 reps with 170 pounds (85%) is more intense than doing one set of 10 reps with 140 pounds (70%), even if the later might actually feel more painful or harder.
Intensive, on the other hand, refers to the subjective feeling of hard work: when you feel like you're really working out hard and giving it all you've got, the workout can be said to be intensive, but it might not necessarily be intense.
This refers to the total amount of work done during a workout. Technically, volume is equal to the number of reps, times the weight used, times the number of sets. For example, if you perform 5 sets of 10 reps with 200 pounds on an exercise, your volume was 10,000 pounds.
In bodybuilding circles, however, volume is most often referred as the number of sets per muscle group; less than 6 sets per muscle being considered low volume, 6-9 moderate, 10-16 average, 17-20 high, and over 20 very high volume.
This is obviously not a comprehensive glossary of strength training words or techniques, but it will allow you to understand the basics, and should help you on your way.
Walk the Walk!
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and if you follow these nine steps, your own journey will go a lot smoother.
1 – Set Realistic Goals
Newbies must understand the importance of setting realistic goals. Some people actually think that they will look like Arnold after only a few months of training. When their gains fall far below their inflated expectations, they often quit.
Listen: muscle growth is a slow process. while a beginner can gain muscle faster than a more advanced individual, rarely will you be able to gain more than 2-3 pounds of solid muscle tissue per month. When you begin training it's realistic to expect a gain of around 15-20 pounds (which is a huge amount) in your first year of training, but only if everything is done right. So don't panic and quit training (or turn to steroids) simply because you didn't gain 20 pounds of muscle in 8 weeks.
Two months of training won't turn the guy on the left into the guy on the right.
2 – There is No Magic Program
The key to progress is (and always will be) the amount of effort you put into your program and your progression. Hard work and the drive to progress in some way in every single workout is the real secret to muscle growth and strength, not some cutting edge program.
3 – Progression
This goes back to the principle of effort. The real secret to building muscle and strength is to progress. You must challenge your body on a consistent basis and find ways to progressively ask more of it. If you do the same thing over and over again, you'll end up looking the same as you do now in a month, a year, or ten years. Progress is the name of the game, not program design, not tempo, or other small details. Find a way to progress and you'll gain size and strength.
Now, there's more than one way to progress. What we're looking for are ways to make our bodies work harder. This is progress, and it's what will lead to growth. Here are a few ways to make your body work harder:
Increase the load.
You can challenge your body by adding weight to the bar and performing the same number of reps per set. For example, if you did 225 pounds for 10 reps on the bench press last week and put up 230 for 10 this week, you've forced your body to work harder. Obviously, this method of progression has its limitations: you can't just keep adding weight to the bar every week, and expect your body to adapt. You'd increase your bench press by 260 pounds a year simply by adding five pounds to the bar per week, if this were possible. Unfortunately, it's not.
Increase the reps.
Another way to make your body work harder is to do more reps per set with the same weight. For example, if last week you did 225 for 10 reps and this week you do 225 for 12 reps, you've progressed. Just like with the previous method, you can't add reps like this every week.
Increase training density.
You can also progress by increasing the amount of work you perform per unit of time. This refers to decreasing the rest between sets, while using the same weight (or not decreasing it by too much). By reducing rest intervals, your body is forced to work harder and recruit more muscle fibers due to the cumulative fatigue phenomenon.
Increase training volume.
This is probably the simplest progression method. If you want to make your body do more work, then do more work! This means adding sets for each muscle group. For example, on week one you might perform 9 work sets for a muscle group and bump it to 12 on week two and 14 on week three. While this can work, it shouldn't be abused as it can lead to overtraining. Most trainees should stick to no more than 12 total sets per muscle groups 90% of the time.
Use intensive training methods.
The occasional inclusion of methods such as drop sets, rest/pause sets, tempo contrast, iso-dynamic contrast, supersets, and compound sets is another way of making your body work harder. It also shouldn't be abused, as it constitutes tremendous stress on the muscular and nervous systems.
Use more challenging exercises.
If you're used to doing all your training on machines, then move up to free weights. You'll force your body to work harder because you have to stabilize the load. If you use only isolation exercises and start including compound/multi-joint movements, you'll also make your body work harder because of the intermuscular coordination factor.
Produce more tension in the targeted muscle group.
It's one thing to lift the weight; it's another thing to lift it correctly in order to build size! As I often say, when training to build muscle, you're not lifting weights; you're contracting your muscles against a resistance. You can improve the quality of your sets, thus making your body work harder, by always trying to flex the target muscle as hard as possible throughout the duration of each rep.
Increase the time under tension by lowering the weight under control.
I'm not a huge fan of precise tempo recommendations as I find that they can interfere with training concentration. However, I do acknowledge that when a muscle is under constant tension for a relatively longer period of time (up to 45-70 seconds), more hypertrophy can be stimulated. The best way to do this without having to use less weight is to lower the weight more slowly, still focusing on tensing the muscles as hard as possible the whole time.
Increase the average weight lifted for an exercise.
This is very similar to the first method, except whereas increasing the load refers to lifting more weight on your max set, this one refers to lifting more weight on average for an exercise. For example, let's say you perform 4 sets of 10 reps on the bench press:
- Set 1: 200 pounds x 10 (2000 pounds)
- Set 2: 210 pounds x 10 (2100 pounds)
- Set 3: 220 pounds x 10 (2200 pounds)
- Set 4: 225 pounds x 10 (2250 pounds)
- Total weight lifted = 8550 pounds
- Average weight per set = 2137 pounds
- Average weight per rep = 213.7 pounds (214 pounds)
- Set 1: 210 pounds x 10 (2100 pounds)
- Set 2: 215 pounds x 10 (2150 pounds)
- Set 3: 225 pounds x 10 (2250 pounds)
- Set 4: 225 pounds x 10 (2250 pounds)
- Total weight lifted = 8750 pounds
- Average weight per set = 2187 pounds
- Average weight per rep = 218.7 pounds (219 pounds)
As you can see, even though the same top weight was reached during both workouts, on week two you lifted five pounds more on average. This is progression!
These are just a few ways of progressing. You don't have to use them all at the same time, but knowing that each of these represents a progression will allow you to constantly challenge your body. You can't lift more weight today? No problem, try one of the other eight methods.
The key is progression. Find a way to progress every week and you're sure to grow.