Workout Tips That Work
Figuring out this training thing can be confusing. It shouldn't be. It's the "experts" who make it confusing. They're not trying to overcomplicate things on purpose. (Well, some of them are, but most aren't.) They just get bogged down in the details when a few simple workout tips would be more helpful.
But it's not just the fault of the experts. YOU are the problem, too, always seeking out what's shiny and new when you haven't even applied the basics yet. The truth is, most people will get great results by following a few simple guidelines.
Below, I'm going to poke a few bears and pick on the experts. Then I'll outline four simple training guidelines that never fail.
Some don't mean to do it. They're just neck-deep in the exercise and performance sciences. They're bored with the basics, and now they're swimming in the details. The others? Well, they're just trying to get into your wallet. Both problems involve how they deliver their information. Here's what you need to know:
1 Even experts can be biased.
If a training style excites them, they'll find ways to justify doing it. The smarter they are and the more they know, the easier it is to find "proof" that they're right.
For example, if someone loves doing more training volume (if it makes him feel good and satisfied), he'll have a positive bias toward studies showing that volume is correlated with gains and a negative bias toward studies finding otherwise.
2 Some experts just want to appear smarter than they are.
By making things extra complex, these folks are subconsciously telling everyone how smart they are. This is the main objective of many "training theorists," especially those who didn't succeed in the trenches.
3 Some want to confuse you so you'll buy something.
If you're a training expert, selling people programs is your livelihood. (Heck, that's my livelihood!) To pull in more clients and customers, some coaches make training a lot more complicated and confusing than it needs to be. They count on potential clients being overwhelmed and portray themselves as the only person who understands all the intricacies of training. For a price, they'll relieve your confusion and do the thinking for you. This is a powerful sales strategy.
4 Experts love to argue.
Sadly, most experts who argue actually agree on most things but will fight over the smallest details. It's a game. It's a challenge, and it excites them. But it's often confusing and overwhelming to regular people.
5 You have to consider their audience.
When writing an article, posting on Instagram, or making a YouTube video, you must consider the audience. Many experts only put out material aimed at advanced lifters who love to learn about every little detail that might give them a slight edge. But this is a disserve to people who just need a few simple guidelines that always work.
With that in mind, let's look at some simple training guidelines that you can take to the bank.
This applies to any training goal. You should always strive to do a little bit better than last time. This doesn't necessarily mean lifting more weight, though. There are many ways to progress:
- Add more weight while using the same reps as before.
- Add more weight while lowering the reps per set, but keep the same total number of reps per exercise. For example, if you do 3 x 8 (three sets of eight reps), you did 24 reps. Now do 4 x 6 or 6 x 4. That's still 24 reps, just heavier.
- Do more reps per set while using the same weight as before.
- Do more total reps for an exercise while using the same weight as before. This could mean adding reps on the first set or two only or doing more sets of the exercise.
- Keep sets, reps, and weight the same while reducing rest intervals.
- Add an intensification method to a few sets, like drop sets or rest/pause.
- Improve your focus during your sets and feel the muscles better.
- Improve your lifting technique.
- Switch to a more demanding exercise, like going from a leg press to a squat.
- Slow down the eccentric (negative or lowering part of the rep) while using the same weight and reps as before.
- Do the concentric (lifting part of the rep) with more speed/acceleration while using the same technique and weight.
You probably won't be able to progress at every workout. And you probably won't be able to progress on all of your exercises simultaneously. The key is that you do whatever you can to become a bit better.
That can mean resting too. It can mean deloading for a week or adding some extra days of rest. It can mean taking some exercises OUT of your program. Do whatever your need to do better (not more).
If you train hard, really hard, a 1-day on, 1-day off split might be the best way to structure your training. (See EOD: The Most Efficient Way to Train and Gain.) But it can be complicated for some people because it follows an 8-day cycle instead of 7. That means you don't train on the same days of the week, every week.
The second best option is the schedule that I follow and use with most of my clients:
Monday: Hard training
Wednesday: Hard training
Friday: Hard training
Saturday: Easier training. This is where I put my secondary or assistance work.
I typically have my hardest of the hard workouts on Monday and the "least hard" of the hard workouts on Friday. This structure allows me to maximize recovery and have the best chance of being in top form on each of the hard workouts.
The hardest workout is on Monday because weekends are less stressful. Most people are more rested because the stress of their workweek hasn't yet accumulated.
Friday is the least demanding of the hard workouts for the same reason: you're carrying the weight of your whole work week with you.
I'm not telling you to use that exact scheme. However, if you're someone who trains hard and doesn't use anabolic assistance, stick to four workouts per week, or even three. Recovery is where growth occurs. Don't neglect it.
I know, you're passionate about training. Off days suck! Well, you can either be addicted to progress or addicted to training. Being addicted to progress means taking your rest days. Think of these days as a way to recharge for your next workout, not simply as a day without training.
When you're building a house, each tool has its purpose and is used in its own way. You don't use a hammer the same way you use a saw. It's the same with lifting exercises.
For size gains, the "big basic lifts" and the more targeted work don't serve the same purpose and shouldn't be programmed and trained the same way.
The purpose of the big lifts is to get a decent training effect on several muscles at the same time while also improving neurological factors. They also have a greater impact on neurological activation (amping you up). For more isolated or targeted work, the goal is to get a maximal training effect on a single muscle while reducing the impact on the nervous system.
My simple guidelines for these two exercise groups:
- Do slightly lower reps (5-8).
- Perform more work sets (4-6).
- Stop further away from failure (with around 2 reps left in the tank).
Targeted or Machine Exercises
- Do slightly higher reps (8-15).
- Perform fewer work sets (2-3).
- Go to muscle failure or stop when you know you'd fail on the next rep.
You can't go wrong with those.
If you want to be faster, more powerful, stronger, or a better athlete, never chase fatigue, chase performance.
The key for those whose main training goal is improving their physical capacities (not just getting jacked) is avoiding central and peripheral fatigue at all costs. Here's why:
- Central nervous system (CNS) fatigue decreases the strength of the excitatory drive, making it harder to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers. This leads to a decrease in strength, power, speed, and agility.
- Peripheral muscle fatigue and excessive local inflammation (from too much training) make the muscles less responsive to the excitatory drive, also leading to a decrease in strength, power, speed, and agility.
- CNS fatigue negatively affects coordination. This can decrease the quality of your execution/movement technique. Done too often, it can change your motor pattern to the less efficient form, decreasing performance potential and increasing injury risk.
- Overwork can lead to excessive adrenaline and cortisol production. Too much adrenaline can downregulate your beta-adrenergic receptor – making you less sensitive to your own adrenaline. When this happens, muscle tone decreases along with pretty much every type of performance, from physical performance to mental performance. It can even decrease motivation, resiliency, and competitive drive.
- Excessive muscular fatigue can derail the performance of complex motor skills or heavy lifting. If one muscle involved in a movement is significantly more fatigued than others, it can negatively alter the recruitment pattern.
When training for performance, I'm from the Charlie Francis school of thought: you shouldn't train if performance is going to be suboptimal.
Some extreme examples:
- Naomi Sheppard, a world-class powerlifter I train, now only trains every five days. Granted, these are hard workouts where the squat, bench, and deadlift are all trained, but there are four days of rest between sessions. She does some EMS work on some of the off days and maybe some core work, but that's it. Her strength level versus her size is too high to train more often than that. We might even switch to training every six days.
- Chris Duffin, when training to achieve a multi-rep 1000-pound squat, training once every seven days. All he did was his squat workout. Now, it was a monster workout, but he told me he just couldn't recover from his session if he did anything else during the week.
- Pretty much all of the old-school US Olympic lifters, back when the US was dominating international weightlifting, were training three days a week. That was before the steroid era.
I'm not telling you to train that infrequently, but you should find a frequency and volume of work that allows you to be in top shape to perform at most workouts. If you feel like you don't "have it" on one day, have the discipline to go home.
When training for performance, a bad workout is not better than no workout at all. If your body isn't able to perform, give it another day and come back stronger.
This also means avoiding low-yield exercises. An athlete doesn't need three triceps, three biceps, three pec, or insert-any-muscle-here exercises in their training. Often, they don't need isolation work at all.
Stick to a "training economy" approach, and don't forget that 20% of what you do gives you 80% of the results. Focus on that 20%.
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