PART FOUR: The Training Tools
By Stuart McRobert
Reading time: ~ ten minutes.
To get the full benefit from this article, please read all nine parts in sequential order. The first is HERE.
The “infestation, deception and information overload” I outlined in Part Two distract trainees from applying themselves properly to the fundamentals of training and recuperation. But unless trainees fully satisfy those fundamentals—especially drug-free trainees with typical (or “normal”) genetics for building muscle—they will never make good bodybuilding progress. I’ll explain why shortly.
Below are most of the concepts and techniques of training for building muscle and strength—I call them “training tools.” I’ve grouped them into categories. I’ve included all the essential tools and some of the non-essential ones.
The design of every training routine involves a selection of at least one tool from each of most of the categories. Within some categories there are options that can vary greatly in their potential value.
Some tools are more appropriate for trainees who prioritize building strength. Some other tools are more appropriate for trainees who prioritize building muscle.
Most of the training tools have the potential to be effective when they are properly applied. But some of them have low value, if any value, for most trainees.
A few of the tools are high risk and should be avoided—especially poor exercise technique, high-volume training, high-frequency training, negative-only reps, and excessive forced reps.
And singles and low reps are high risk for trainees other than those such as highly experienced powerlifters who are (a) expert practitioners of form even under severe stress and (b) also conditioned to that type of training.
Excessive concern with the non-essential tools contributes to the information overload that distracts trainees from properly applying the essential tools.
Here are the training tools:
(1) free-weights, machines, mixed equipment
(3) poor exercise technique, good exercise technique
(4) slow reps, medium-paced reps, quick reps
(5) low-volume training, moderate-volume training, high-volume training
(6) overall frequency of training
(7) frequency of training a given body part
(8) low-effort training, moderate-effort training, to-near-momentary-failure training, to-momentary-failure training
(9) short rest intervals between sets, medium rest intervals, long rest intervals
(10) single reps, low reps, medium reps, high reps, very high reps
(11) single progression, double progression
(12) micro-plate progression, standard-plate progression
(13) highly structured training cycles, loosely structured training cycles
(14) full reps, partial reps, one-and-a-portion reps, stage reps
(15) continuous reps, reps with a momentary pause at the top and/or bottom
(16) standard positive-negative reps, negative-accentuated reps, negative-only reps
(17) time under tension
(18) straight sets, extended sets
extended sets include rest-pause reps, forced/assisted reps, pulsed partial reps, multi-poundage/descending/breakdown/drop sets
(19) pyramid training, descending/reverse pyramid training
(20) back-off/back-down sets (a form of descending/reverse pyramid training)
(21) pre-exhaustion, super sets
(22) cumulative-fatigue training
(23) Here’s a fundamental “tool” that doesn’t have options: Always keep a training log or diary. At the minimum, keep a written record of your routines and every work set you do (poundage and reps for each), and equipment set-up details such as the pin setting on an adjustable bench or the setting in a rack for positioning a barbell for a certain exercise. Relying on memory alone will let you down.
(24) Here’s another fundamental “tool” that doesn’t have options: Relentlessly strive to build strength. The striving doesn’t mean you make progress every workout, but that you try your very best to make it happen. Sometimes, despite your best effort, you won’t make any progress. Sometimes you may go backwards—for example, a loss of a rep or two on one or more work sets in a workout—despite your best effort to avoid that loss. And that can occur even among youngsters. But in your fifties, for example, if you’ve already trained for many years and have substantial strength and muscle mass, you probably won’t be able to build more strength in the exercises that are your mainstays. But you should still strive to build strength so that you maintain your current condition. Then later still, when a very slow loss of strength and muscle mass will occur even when you continue to exercise hard, still you strive to build strength. That will maintain youthful posture and gait, and a great deal of strength, muscle mass, bone strength, co-ordination and balance, and many other major benefits from training.
But striving to build strength doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes to keep adding reps and/or poundage to your work sets. It means maintaining good exercise form, usual ranges of motion, and all other components of “clean” training while you give your best effort to register tads of progress.
Some advocates promote certain rep-performance styles and rep-set formats as “the best” ways to build muscle. But that’s hyperbolic and/or doctrinal. There’s a variety of potentially effective rep-perfomance styles and rep-set formats, but some of them are more suited to some trainees than others.
Some of the advocates claim that certain styles or formats are “new” whereas they are just reformatted, re-labeled and/or better-explained tools that have been around for many years—perhaps since before today’s ardent promoters of them were born.
When I refer to “exercise form,” I mean exercise technique and rep speed. By “good form” I mean excellent exercise technique and a controlled rep speed.
I’m a big fan of free-weights, but I’m also a big fan of good machines. More important that the tools themselves, is how they are used and by whom.
Free-weights exercises, especially the major barbell lifts, are much more technically demanding than their machine alternatives. But most trainees never learn the proper form for the major free-weights exercises, so they never get the potential great benefits of those great movements. Some of those trainees get injured and some of them then give up training.
But free-weights exercises aren’t just the classic barbell and dumbbell movements. Here are other examples: parallel-grip deadlift, safety-bar squat, Romanian/partial deadlift, parallel-bar dip, and chin-up/pull-up.
Free-weights exercises are premier tools for building muscle and strength only when they are performed with good form and within the context of a good training program. Of course, the form and programming caveats also apply to all other exercises.
Some trainees, because of damage from accidents, illness, or training-related injuries, can’t use some free-weights exercises effectively even when good form is used. This is when good machines, used properly, can be invaluable, especially for older trainees.
For example, I’m unable to perform the major free-weights exercises safely with meaningful poundages. But I can train hard on the one-legged squat and some machine versions of the major upper-body compound exercises. And that’s why, at age 61, I still love my workouts and the benefits they provide.
Part Eight of this article has further information on exercise selection.
Next time: Part Five—Abbreviated Training.