PART FIVE: Abbreviated Training
By Stuart McRobert
Reading time: ~ twelve minutes.
To get the full benefit from this article, please read all nine parts in sequential order. The first is HERE.
When you take the six most important (fundamental) training tools—(1) exercise technique, (2) rep speed, (3) training volume, (4) training frequency, (5) training intensity, and (6) strength building—and set the right parameters for each, you eliminate the greatest training threats to your bodybuilding success. Here are those threats: injury caused by poor exercise technique and/or uncontrolled rep speed, excessive training volume, training too often, insufficient effort, and no striving to build strength.
Application of the six fundamental training tools is what I call abbreviated training. It’s the essential starting point for effective training for drug-free and genetically average (and disadvantaged) trainees. And it’s also the starting point for super-effective, time-efficient training for all other types of trainees.
But a lot can still go wrong with how those fundamental training tools are applied. For example, a volume and frequency of training that works for drug-free young trainees with leisurely lives won’t work as well for youngsters who have super-stressful lives due to great pressure at work and great strain at home. And exercise selection and training frequency that work for most drug-free young trainees won’t work for most middle-aged and older trainees.
Even when you soundly apply the six fundamental training tools to your situation, you must also make good choices from the other training tools—especially categories 9 through 20 (from Part Four of this article). Many permutations of those other tools can be effective, but if you overdo any of them that could wreck the training routine even when the six fundamentals are applied soundly. For example, most trainees don’t train hard enough, but a few overdo intensity heightening techniques, which hampers or even prevents progress.
Three of the practicalities of a routine of abbreviated training
(1) Abbreviated training usually means just two or, at most, three resistance-training workouts per week, and a different mix of exercises at each of those sessions. Just one excellent workout of resistance training per week has proven very effective for some trainees. Although three workouts per week is usually too much for most drug-free, genetically typical trainees, that frequency can work in some cases—especially younger trainees—provided the sessions are very short and well structured, excessive overlap between workouts is avoided, and the components of recuperation are super satisfied. (But twice-weekly training may work better.) A few other training frequencies can also work in some cases provided they are properly applied.
(2) For twice- and once-weekly workouts, abbreviated training typically means routines that each have a mix of three or four major compound exercises and two or three isolation movements. But sometimes it means using only major compound exercises—and just two to four of them in a single workout. It depends on the individual trainee’s circumstances and goals. For thrice-weekly workouts, abbreviated training typically means routines that each have a mix of two major compound exercises and two isolation movements.
(3) Abbreviated training usually means one, two or three work sets per exercise (following adequate warm-up work).
Another way of looking at training volume is total work sets per workout. If you’re training twice weekly, here’s your upper limit for abbreviated training per workout: eight work sets total for compound exercises and six total for isolation exercises. For example, for the compound exercises, that could be three work sets of the squat (or parallel-grip deadlift), two each of the bench press (or parallel-bar dip) and the pulldown (or chin-up), and one of the deadlift. Or, it could be two work sets each of the leg press, overhead press, chest-supported row, and lower-back machine. Or, perhaps it could be one work set each of eight compound exercises. In all cases, warm-up sets would be additional.
If you’re training thrice weekly—but not three full-body workouts—here’s your upper limit for an abbreviated routine: five work sets total for the compound exercises and four total for the isolation exercises.
CAVEAT: During some single-body-part specialization routines within the framework of abbreviated training, but for brief periods only, an increased frequency of training for the area of specialization, and perhaps more volume than usual, may be helpful.
“But, Stuart, isn’t it okay to do just a few more sets?”
As already noted, my “standard” twice-weekly routine has two different workouts and a maximum of eight work sets per workout of compound exercises and six of isolation exercises. That’s plenty of sets. And plenty of exercises if you spread the sets out over sufficient movements. Done with serious effort, that’s a lot of training—too much for many drug-free trainees. For them, less volume would be better.
I must stress the “serious effort” part. Without sufficient intensity, the low-volume training won’t be effective.
When someone asks me about adding more training to their routines, I wonder about the effort they put into their workouts. Once the intensity really is high, you shouldn’t want to do over eight work sets of compound exercises and six of isolation exercises, on a twice-weekly schedule. If, however, you still want to do more sets, I challenge you to do those 14 work sets with better form, focus, effort and striving to make progress. Then the 14 sets should be enough, or perhaps more than enough.
Especially if you’re young, not stressed much, and your recovery is excellent, you may be able to add a few more sets, particularly of isolation exercises, without harming your progress. But for most other trainees, adding extra sets—”unabbreviating” the routines—hinders progress, and is the slippery slope to scaled-down conventional training, and stagnation.
A contrast with mainstream routines
For most drug-free trainees, four or more workouts per week have little or no potential for yielding progress, no matter how dedicated those individuals are. Few genetically typical, drug-free trainees can keep turning up for four or more workouts each week without just going through the motions and producing little or no growth stimulation.
Even when some drug-free trainees provide a stimulus sufficient for growth from a schedule of four or more workouts a week, that they have three or fewer recovery days per week usually means that their bodies can’t grow in response to the stimulus.
Mainstream training methods are entire-physique specialization routines that, for most drug-free trainees, produce gross overtraining.
Abbreviated routines are enough when done properly
The abbreviated routines I promote have a high potential for yielding lots of progress. But the “magic” isn’t in the routines per se. The “magic” is in the application. You must, however, start with a routine that has a high potential for success so there’s something for the “magic” to ignite.
Although abbreviated training has a grand tradition, and was promoted by some writers before I was born, I expanded the guidance, placed great importance on exercise form (and explained it in detail), and put everything together in a thorough, organized way. I produced a magazine and a set of books that detailed the whole method. The magazine, HARDGAINER, has many interpretations of effective routines of abbreviated training from an assembly of highly experienced and knowledgeable contributors.
Don’t think that “abbreviated” routines aren’t enough. Done properly, they are enough. In fact, they are tremendously effective.
How you apply the six fundamentals of training will determine whether abbreviated training has the potential to be effective for you.
When you apply those training fundamentals properly, you give yourself a chance of bodybuilding success. And that’s why I’ve long championed such training. It’s also a time-efficient way to train, which makes it much more doable/practical than higher-frequency and/or higher-volume methods.
And unless your training is doable, you won’t sustain it.
But what you do, and don’t do, outside the gym—to do with your recuperation, or recovery—plays a critical role in determining whether you’ll realize the potential effectiveness of a good training routine.
There’s a lot to get right if you’re to have bodybuilding success!
Next time: Part Six—Abbreviated Training Properly Applied.