Chapter 17 of BUILD MUSCLE LOSE FAT LOOK GREAT is called “How to design your own training programs.” The chapter has 50 pages. Here are the first 10 of those pages:
When I was a student, at high-school and college, I was so obsessed with bodybuilding that I may have had a psychological malady. Other than bodybuilding drugs—which I never got into—I was up for anything that supposedly would help muscle growth. I even trained six days a week on the recommendation of a champion bodybuilder from that era, including twice-a day blitzes for my calves. I didn’t realize then that the champion was a genetic freak stuffed with steroids, and what worked for him would never work for me or any other genetically normal, drug-free trainee. My extraordinary enthusiasm for training was misapplied, and largely wasted.
I wish I’d had an expert, father-like mentor to have laid down the law for me in the gym, to have spared me from wasting some of my prime years on terrible training methods.
This chapter provides you with that training law—how to organize and implement your workouts—so that you can achieve terrific results and not waste any workouts.
The programs you should consider don’t include those that professional bodybuilders use. Without drug assistance, the volume and frequency of training that the pros apply wouldn’t work. But even the pros would benefit from adopting shorter, less-frequent workouts.
The overall volume of training that’s required to produce terrific bodybuilding results is much less than what most trainees think it is. But the training must be properly organized and implemented.
The next section of this chapter provides an overview of what must be considered when you design a bodybuilding or strength-training program. That’s followed by a section on the specifics of program design. Then there’s a section on modifications to the basic format of program design, followed by a section on when to change a program, and how to sequence exercises properly.
The final section lists some programs for special situations, and provides an optional program for hand grippers.
A number of training programs can work well provided that they satisfy a number of requirements, you apply them properly, and you fully attend to the components of recuperation. Few trainees can effectively use the same program year-round, year after year. Most progress best when they sequence several good programs—a full stint of one program at a time.
This doesn’t mean a few weeks on one program, then a few weeks on another one, then a few weeks on yet another one . . . for an endless sequence of starts without any finishes. That yields little or no bodybuilding progress. Instead, pick a program that satisfies what this chapter teaches, and apply it correctly for a full stint—which is usually a lot longer than just a few weeks. A proper program can be effective for many months at a time.
Proper training isn’t exciting in itself, and doesn’t produce immediate results, but the results over the medium- and long-term are exciting. Don’t change a program of proper training just because you don’t see muscle growth during the first few weeks.
A given program may have a single list of exercises that’s repeated each workout, or it may have two lists that are alternated from workout to workout, or it may even have three lists that are rotated from workout to workout.
When you design a training program, here are six key considerations:
1. Exercise selection
The exercises you select should be primarily (if not exclusively) major compound movements. And they must be ones you can perform safely, with correct exercise form.
2. Set-rep format
Common formats include one to three sets of five reps, one to three sets of six to eight reps, one to three sets of eight to ten reps, and, specifically for squatting movements, one set of twenty reps. (These refer to work sets. Warm-up sets are additional.) Some bodyparts and exercises may be more responsive to some rep ranges than others, and this can vary among trainees.
3. Volume of training
The total number of sets per workout should be low for two primary reasons. First, to give you the best chance of training intensively enough to stimulate muscle growth—the more sets you do, the less likely you are to train hard enough. Second, to help facilitate speedy recovery between workouts.
4. Frequency of training
There’s frequency of overall training, and frequency of training a given bodypart. Consider two workouts a week. A full-body routine performed twice a week would mean two full-body workouts per week, but an upper-body routine at one workout and a lower-body routine at the other workout each week would mean that each bodypart would be trained just once a week. A full-body routine three times every two weeks would produce a per-body-part frequency mid-way between once a week and twice a week. Each of these options can be effective, but one of them may be more effective for you than the others, depending on a number of variables including training volume and intensity, your training experience and current level of muscular development, and your lifestyle.
Some exercises take a heavier toll on the body than others, and thus require more recovery time. The most striking example is the conventional bent-legged deadlift. When you’re working hard on the deadlift, train it no more than once a week.
A lesser volume of training may be applied effectively more frequently than a greater volume of training, and the greater frequency of workouts for a given bodypart could mean more bouts of growth stimulation. For example, you may be able to progress steadily on a full-body routine of three or four major exercises performed twice a week. (It could be the same routine each time, or two different routines that are alternated from workout to workout). But if you add a few exercises to each workout, or a couple of extra sets to some of the exercises, you may need an extra day or two or three of recovery between sessions. And that’s why some bodybuilders shift to a split routine where they alternate, say, between an upper-body workout and a lower-body workout; but that results in just one bout of muscle stimulation per bodypart each week on a twice-weekly training format. To compensate, trainees are commonly advised to increase their training to four or more times per week, which is counterproductive for most drug-free trainees, and impractical for most people who already have busy lives.
Even on very brief training routines, if you overdo training intensity you would increase your need for recovery days between workouts. Most trainees don’t train hard enough, but of those who have the drive to train hard, a few overdo it and need overly long periods between workouts in order to recover, which reduces the number of potential growth-stimulating workouts per bodypart.
5. Your training experience and current development
A beginner may be able to perform a full-body routine three times a week, and make progress provided that he or she doesn’t overdo training volume each workout. But as the individual progresses in strength, and learns to train harder, three full-body workouts each week would be excessive. An advanced trainee may progress well while training each bodypart just once a week, but that approach isn’t ideal for a beginner.
6. Your lifestyle
Your lifestyle can greatly affect the blend of volume, frequency and intensity that’s effective for you. As an illustration, imagine yourself in two contrasting scenarios at your current level of development. First, you’re on a long summer vacation from college, not working, single, and spoiled by your parents so that you can eat well, live leisurely, and have about nine hours of sleep each night. (Many pro bodybuilders have near-optimal recovery conditions akin to these, together with lots of drug support. No wonder they can prosper on high-volume training and very frequent workouts.) Second scenario now: you’re married, have two young kids, work 60+ hours each week at a stressful job, and have only six to seven hours of sleep each night (that’s often interrupted). With the latter scenario you may need to cut back to two major exercises for your upper body and just a barbell squat or the parallel-grip deadlift for your lower body, for a single workout each week of just six to nine work sets (plus warm-ups). Bodybuilding progress can still be made even under severe circumstances provided that you adjust your training accordingly and ensure that you consume enough nourishment.
Find the balance of training intensity and volume that yields the most frequent bouts of growth stimulation you can recover from in order to yield muscle growth and strength increase. My recommendation for all trainees, regardless of experience, is a twice-a-week, full-body routine of three to six exercises per workout (not necessarily the same ones each time), with the deadlift done just once a week.
The beauty of training just twice a week is two-fold. First, when done properly, it works—at least as well as three or more times per week, but in many cases it works much better. Second, it’s a tremendously practical way to train, especially for people who have busy lives and don’t have their own home gyms. Unless you train effectively over the long term, you won’t achieve your training and physique goals. So the combination of effectiveness and practicality is key.
Two workout days and five recovery days each week is terrific for all levels of drug-free trainees other than those who are already well developed but need additional work to address some aesthetic imbalances. But five full days of recovery doesn’t mean lounging around all the time. It means doing your normal daily activities including some low- to moderate-level activities including walking and perhaps some sporting activities, but no hard exercise.
Two brief full-body routines each week, with just one of them involving the deadlift, works well even for advanced strength trainees, but they can also benefit from sensible split routines whereby they train each bodypart just once a week spread over two or three workouts, depending on what they do at each session in terms of training volume and intensity.
I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that they gave in to the siren calls to train three or more times per week, only to see reduced progress or no progress as their “reward.” They returned to just two workouts per week, and saw much improved results.
Program design is one thing, but how the program is implemented is something else. A terrific program on paper could be implemented so poorly that it yields no progress. But an inferior program on paper could be implemented well and yield progress.
Matters of implementation include exercise form (bar pathways, or technique, and the control or otherwise of the resistance), intensity of effort, and the degree of striving to make progress in strength.
But even if your training program and its implementation are good, if you cut corners with your recuperation, you won’t make much if any bodybuilding progress. Common inadequacies are insufficient food in general, or enough calories but from poor sources, insufficient sleep, and insufficient rest in general between workouts.
As already noted in Chapter 5, body composition can affect muscle-building progress. If you already have sufficient muscle mass to look good (provided you’re sufficiently defined), but are currently overly fat and want to get to 10% bodyfat, you’re unlikely to be able to build much if any new muscle mass. But training like this chapter teaches will likely be your best bet for holding onto your existing muscle while you lose fat. If, however, you’re new to training as this chapter teaches, and especially if you’re a novice, you’ll experience progress in strength even while you lose fat (and bodyweight), because of neurological adaptation and the manageable demands on your recovery system that this program design supplies.
But to benefit the most from the muscle-building potential of proper training, you’ll have to wait until you’re in anabolic mode (when you’re in nutritional surplus).
If you have little muscle mass at present but are overly fat, you don’t have the right body composition to permit substantial muscle growth. It’s best that, for men, you’re no more than 15% bodyfat when starting on a growth routine, so that you have the “room” for a gain of a small amount of fat while you build a much larger amount of muscle. But, at least early on in your quest to get under 15% bodyfat, you may still be able to make good progress in strength gains (and perhaps some muscle growth) provided that you train properly. And then the proper training will give you the best chance of holding onto your existing muscle and strength as you pare off the final few pounds of surplus fat.
To estimate your bodyfat percentage, obtain your own skinfold calipers—they are inexpensive, and readily available through online suppliers. I recommend the method that requires skinfold measurements at multiple specific locations. You’ll need an assistant to help you take the measurements. Once you have the total of the measurements, estimate your bodyfat percentage by referring to the charts that should be provided with the calipers. The charts are different for males and females, and are subdivided into age groups.
You must do well with program design, program implementation, and recuperation—the triumvirate of essential requirements. Cut corners in one of the components and you’ll undermine if not prevent bodybuilding progress. Cut corners in two or three of the components and you’ll definitely prevent progress.
Some trainees are encyclopedias of information on training and recuperation, but they don’t deliver relentless dedication to proper training and adequate recuperation, so they don’t make good progress, if any progress.
Effective training programs yield these results:
Injuries limit if not prohibit progress. You must avoid injuries.
2. Strength progression
You must train hard enough to stimulate muscle growth and be able to make incremental improvements in your poundages while always using correct exercise form. This is the principle of progressive overload. If you’re not progressing in strength, it may be because you’re not recuperating properly. But even if your recuperation is good, if you’re not training hard enough on just a few of the best exercises (without overdoing total volume), you won’t stimulate any growth to begin with.
You should relish the challenge of working out properly—getting each rep right and each set right, and pushing yourself to make incremental progress in strength. Your workouts should be among the highlights of your week—each being a one-off opportunity to make another small notch on your ladder of progress. Although proper training is rigorous, you’ll most readily stick with it when you’re making progress. Success helps to breed success.
In a nutshell, if most trainees would shorten their workouts, focus on just a few of the major exercises each workout, use better exercise technique, train harder, work out less often, eat better, sleep more, and build strength, they will make much better muscle-building progress.
Here are the three categories of exercises:
For each workout, choose one exercise from each of these groups:
a. Squatting movements: barbell squat (back squat, or front squat), parallel-grip deadlift, hip-belt squat, leg press.
b. Chest pressing movements: bench press, parallel bar dip.
c. Pulling movements: chin-up or pull-up, pulldown, row (chest-supported, prone, or one-arm dumbbell version).
And usually at just one workout each week, do the seated press with back support—with dumbbells, a barbell (freestyle), or a barbell but off the pins of a rack. (The seated press with back support is the simplest and safest overhead press.)
Strongly recommended exercises
Conventional deadlift, or partial deadlift (both with a straight bar).
Generally, these exercises aren’t essential other than in special cases. Someone who plays football, or wrestles, must do neck work, for example. Proper training on the first two categories of exercises—especially when free-weights are used—works almost the whole physique. Most bodyparts are trained directly, while most of the remaining bodyparts are trained indirectly.
But if a certain bodypart doesn’t develop in line with the rest of the physique—the calves, for example—specific work may be included for that area. The L-fly, however, is a sensible addition for all trainees other than beginners, at least in some programs, because it helps to balance strength around the shoulder structure, to reduce the chance of shoulder injury. (The need is greater for trainees who rely on machines, because the external rotators are more involved with essential upper-body exercises that are done with free weights.)
Generally, though, the supplementary exercises should be used only sparingly (and sometimes ignored), so that at each workout your attention can be focused on just three or four of the major exercises already listed. This will give you the best chance of maximizing the quality of your workouts, minimizing the possibility of overtraining, but yet still producing near-complete physique development.
Here are the recommended supplementaries: calf raise, leg curl, side bend or rotary torso, crunch, back extension, L-fly, lateral raise, shrug, neck work, curl, and special grip work (perhaps involving hand grippers). There are too many to include in a single program, so vary your selection every three months or so (according to your needs at the time), and perform each chosen supplementary just once a week.
For general bodybuilding, each workout has one exercise from each of the (a) to (c) groups of Category 1 exercises. But just one workout each week also has one of the Category 2 exercises (to make a total of four major exercises), while the other workout has a seated overhead press as its fourth major exercise. (For a 20-rep squat or parallel-grip deadlift program, best results may be obtained when a straight-bar deadlift isn’t included.) Two supplementaries can be included in each workout, to produce a maximum of six exercises per session. (This basic format is modified slightly for beginners.)
On a 20-rep-squat or parallel-grip-deadlift program, the breathing pullover or the Rader chest pull should be included in each workout. And the finger extension can help to prevent elbow problems on any program. But those almost-no-demand supplementary exercises would be additional to the two “proper” supplementaries that are already included in a six-exercise workout.
Select exercises that suit you. Don’t barbell squat if you truly have poor leverages for barbell squatting; try the parallel-grip deadlift instead. Don’t do the conventional deadlift if you have poor leverages for the full-range version, or have had major back problems; try the partial deadlift instead. Don’t barbell squat if you’ve had major back problems; do the hip-belt squat instead. Don’t bench press if you have poor leverages for that exercise; try the parallel bar dip instead. If you’re heavy, you may not be able to do the chin-up well; do the pulldown instead. If you’re heavy, you may also not be able to do the freestyle parallel bar dip well; do the machine dip instead, or the bench press. Some of these decisions are affected by the equipment that’s available to you. If where you currently train doesn’t have the required equipment, it will severely limit your overall potential for progress, and you should look for a better gym.
But detecting whether you have poor leverages for a certain exercise isn’t easy in most cases. What many people may think is a shortcoming that precludes a certain exercise is nothing more than insufficient flexibility and incorrect technique, both of which can be corrected. You don’t have to have ideal leverages for barbell squatting to prosper from it; and you don’t have to have ideal leverages for the conventional deadlift to prosper from it. Apply the guidance given earlier in this book on flexibility and exercise technique, and you may be surprised with how well you can perform some exercises once you set about the task properly, and with sufficient determination and perseverance. But even then, you may still find that you’re much better suited to the parallel-grip deadlift than the squat, or to the parallel bar dip than the bench press, as examples. Only time will tell, following sufficient proper practice and accurate evaluation.
Generally, don’t choose the easier exercises for exclusive use if you can do the harder ones properly. For example, don’t exclusively use the leg press or the hip-belt squat if you can perform a barbell squat or the parallel-grip deadlift correctly. Properly done, barbell squats and the parallel-grip deadlift are among the very best bodybuilding exercises.
The exercise selections you make influence whether or not you can progress on twice-weekly full-body workouts even when comparing the same number of work sets for each. For example, to do a barbell squat or the parallel-grip deadlift twice a week may exceed your recovery ability. But if you substitute the hip-belt squat or the leg press at one of the workouts each week, you’ll reduce the overall demand on your recovery system (provided that you don’t perform additional work sets). The hip-belt squat and the leg press aren’t as systemically demanding as barbell squats and the parallel-grip deadlift, because the hip-belt squat and the leg press don’t heavily load the upper body, particularly the lumbar spine.
The hip-belt squat or the leg press together with the conventional bent-legged deadlift may provide most of the benefits that the conventional barbell back squat can deliver, if not all of them, so that’s an alternative to consider.
Although hard work on barbell squats, the parallel-grip deadlift and the conventional deadlift is especially gruelling, pay your dues on at least one of them in each of your programs (but not necessarily at each workout).
For the “barbell squat,” most trainees will choose the conventional back squat, but some will prefer the front squat. See the previous chapter.
Please go here for the rest of this chapter, and a further 550 pages of information that will help you no end to build muscle and improve your physique.