In my previous post, How to get ripped for the rest of us – Introduction , I explained why anybody should bother to listen to me in a world filled with fitness Guru’s. In this post I want to go over my general theory of training, which has developed over many years into what I now believe is the best training program I have ever developed.
Let me briefly explain where this program has come from. For many years I trained like a classic bodybuilder I guess, I thought rest days were for wimps, I trained around 20 to 30 sets in a single gym session, usually sets of 10. I made some fairly decent gains like this, and on a very strict diet I built a muscular but still fairly slim build.
After many years of floating around the same weight and body fat and strength levels, I turned my attention to strong man training. And so my training program changed from the many sets of 10, to around 10 sets of 5 on a particular training session. Around this time I came across Mike Mentzer and his High Intensity Training system. This was the first time believe it or not I’d ever heard someone talk about the importance of rest days, and not just 1 or 2 here or there, but many rest days. Which seems completely crazy now I think back at it by the way, that I had never heard that before.
So after listening to Mike Mentzer I decided to incorporate many more rest days into my program, and as if by magic my weights started shooting up. Consistently every training session I would get a new PB. It made perfect sense of course, if there was no recovery time, how could I expect my body to recover and grow stronger? As well as my weights increasing, my muscle mass grew, becoming the heaviest I had ever been by around 4kg.
When I decided to stop doing strong man training, and refocus on working on my physique, I took Mike Mentzers advice back into my bodybuilding training. Not only his ideas around more rest days, but also his ideas around short, high intensity training. In particular the idea that growth and development come from the point in training where you fail. That is where the body is forced to adapt. I trained with this style for some time before realizing that despite my strength continuing to increase, there was little change in my size.
So at this point my current training style developed. I wanted to mix some 3 sets of 5 strength training style movements with some higher rep, high intensity movements for the smaller muscle groups in a particular session using slow eccentric movements to help build growth. Let me just mention right now, this is my own opinion and what I’ve found to work, before all the internet gym bro’s fill my comments section with hate. Here’s a breakdown of all the points a workout should contain…
1. A heavy powerful movement to build strength
A heavy, powerful movement. Lets take a pull-up as an example. I want enough weight to be aiming for around 5 reps, for some this might mean using additional weight, for others it may mean they need to use assistance such as a machine or resistance band. I want to move as quickly as possible, using strict form (AKA without flailing around like a fish out of water). The idea here is to recruit as many muscle fibers and activate as many motor neurons (the nerves that fire contracting the muscle fibers) as possible in the shortest amount of time. This is purely a strength building exercise.
2. A slow eccentric movement
This is where the muscle growth is stimulated. Studies have shown most muscle growth is stimulated by the eccentric phase (the lowering phase). Not only this, but you’re actually stronger in this phase and so a weight you may need to lift quickly to get it up, you will be able to lower slowly under control, extending the amount of time you are in this eccentric phase.
Using our pull-up example, after lifting up to the bar as quickly as possible, I lower myself down over a period of 3-5 seconds. This will reduce the overall amount of reps you can accomplish, and so you need to put your ego to the side, but the total amount of time under tension will be greater.
3. A high intensity overload component.
For the 3 sets of 5 I push until absolute failure, even carrying on the attempt for 2-3 seconds after it is obvious the rep cannot be completed. However, on the final set, and for the other sets in the session that are not 3 sets of 5 (which i will go into next) after a rep has failed a high intensity overload component needs to be added. It’s important to continue trying the failed rep for 2-3 seconds before giving up and going onto the overload component. Some of the techniques I’ve been using are…
- Partial reps: Once I have failed a rep I continue to attempt further reps, this works better for movements where you tend to fail at the end of the movement or in the middle of the movement and not at the bottom. In the case of the pull-ups, I may accomplish another 1-2 half reps before not being able to pull up at all.
- Drop sets: A classic choice, once you’ve failed, simply drop the weight slightly as quickly as possible and carry on for another 1-2 reps.
- Assisted with slow negative: If there’s some way to assist in the lifting phase of the movement, you’ll still be able to bring the weight down slowly under control. I use this for example on dips, if I can’t raise up any more, I step up using my legs, and then lower slowly under control for another 2-3 reps.
- Rest-Pause: If none of the other techniques are possible, one final one is to wait 5-10 seconds after the failed rep, and then try again which should allow you to squeeze out one more rep, or at least attempt to.
4. Assistance / Additional exercises
So every workout will have one main big compound movement, but I also like to do 2-3 more exercises of 2-3 sets each. An average workout should have around 10 sets in total. These assistance exercises will use a smaller amount of muscles or even be isolation exercises. I typically use lower weights and aim for 10-15 reps per set, and I use the high intensity overload techniques on every set.
And that is the basic theory of a typical gym session. In later posts I will do some write ups of individual workouts so you can see the principles in action. This seems to be working for me giving a nice balance between strength and size gains, with body fat typically being controlled with nutrition. And on that note, nutrition will be the subject of my next post…