The ultimate way to build muscle mass and strength is through workouts that are basic, brief and brutal’in other words, what many would call high-intensity training. Like many high-intensity proponents, I believe it to be very effective in terms of both hypertrophying a muscle (making it grow larger) and causing a strength increase. Unlike many HIT proponents, I don’t believe it’s the only way to add muscle to your frame. Many HIT followers are downright dogmatic about the system’s effectiveness and intolerant of those who believe there are other ways to build muscle. They’ll tell you that training is a science, and there can be only one scientific way to train.
That’s where I beg to differ. For me, training is not a science but, rather, an art form’because there’s no one way to build strength or mass. There are many ways. Even within the category of hard, brief and infrequent training, there are tons of ways in which to satisfy those three parameters. You don’t have to train the same way your whole life. Instead, you can enjoy a multitude of methods, all of them brief, basic and brutal.
Intense Strength Training
You may doubt the effectiveness of any training that you can do briefly, performing very few sets per workout. After all, you know plenty of people who have grown larger and stronger just fine by using high-set routines. While it’s true that some people respond well to that sort of training’and you might want to use it on occasion’once you try the examples below, you’ll never doubt the worth of basic and brief workouts again.
An Intense Example
Try this workout the next time you go to the gym, and I assure you you’ll never call a high-intensity trainee lazy again. You have no excuse for not being able to do this routine. It requires only a barbell, dumbbells, a bench press and a squatting station, items that every good gym’and most people’s home gyms’contain.
After a few minutes’ warmup on the stationary bike or a one-lap jog around the block, go to the squat rack and perform a couple of warmup sets with a light weight. Now load the bar with the amount of weight you’d usually use for 10 reps. Rest a couple of minutes and then perform at least 20 reps with that weight’and more if you can. Don’t stop until you absolutely cannot perform another repetition, even if someone had a loaded gun pointed straight at your head and threatened to shoot if you didn’t do it. Make it that intense. As soon as you finish the squats, rest only about 30 seconds and move directly into a set of stiff-legged deadlifts. Use a weight you think you can get 15 or 20 reps with and do a bare minimum of 30. Your lungs will be on fire, and your head will feel as if it’s about to explode, but get those 30 reps.
You’re not through yet, however. Rest approximately one minute after the deadlifts and move to everyone’s favorite exercise, the bench press. Using a weight that you usually press for 10 reps, go for as many as possible, shooting for 12 as your magic number and absolutely not stopping until you achieve momentary muscular failure.
Without resting, move into a set of wide-grip chins and crank out as many as possible. Once again, do not stop your set short of muscular failure. Okay. You’re almost done. For your last exercise grab a pair of heavy dumbbells (something you don’t think you could bench-press for even one rep) and go into the parking lot, your backyard or behind the gym. Pick up the dumbbells and walk as far as you can with them, until they literally fall out of your hands. Rest a couple of minutes, pick them up and walk back to your starting place. After that lie on the floor, in the grass or wherever you are for 15 minutes (maybe even half an hour), until your breathing has returned to normal and you believe you’re capable of standing once again. Don’t think that was hard? Most people reading this have never performed a workout that hard. It’s sad to say, but most probably never will, either’unless they have the courage and tenacity to give one of these workouts a try.
Another Intense Example
This one’s just as simple, basic and brutal as the above, albeit very different.
This time go into the gym and use only one piece of equipment: the power rack. It probably won’t be busy, since no one ever seems to use it (at least that’s the way it was when I trained at a commercial gym). Take a bench into the rack and set the pins so that when you lie flat on the bench, the bar is touching your chest in the bottom position of a bench press.
Perform a few reps of bottom-position bench presses with just the empty Olympic bar. Add a wheel (a 45-pound plate for you non-Southerners) on both sides of the bar and perform a single. Do several progressively heavier singles in that fashion, then load the bar with a weight that’s 95 percent of your one-rep maximum. Rest a couple of minutes, get under the bar and try to explode the weight off your chest. It might take you a couple of seconds to get the rep, but get it!
Rest two minutes, add 2 1/2 pounds to the bar and try another single. I don’t give a damn if that single rep takes you five seconds to complete; try your hardest to reach full extension on the rep. If you make it, rest a few minutes and try another single with the same weight. They’ll probably be the hardest reps you’ve ever done.
After your last set, move the bench out of the way and set the pins at the height of the bottom-position of a full squat. Perform progressively heavier singles in the bottom-position squat as described for the bench press above. If you thought all-out bench press singles were tough, just wait. These will be hell’but do them.
After those devilish squats rest a couple of minutes and perform the same sequence of singles with deadlift lockouts.
It’s one heck of a tough workout’different from the first one but still basic, brief and highly intense.
Yet Another Intense Example
Here’s a squat-and-assistance-exercise session my training partner and I recently performed. We started with explosive-rep bottom-position squats (that’s right, explosive reps) in the power rack with 275 pounds (approximately 60 percent of our one-rep max) for 7×3. As soon as I completed my set, my partner did his. We went back and forth like that, completing the sets in less than five minutes. Okay, so we didn’t take each set to muscular failure’or anywhere close’but we did the reps as explosively as we could, which makes for some very hard work on every single rep.
After that we did one set of stiff-legged deadlifts for 30 reps. Resting two to three minutes, we proceeded with squats and presses for an all-out set of 15 reps. Once that demolished us, we took an Olympic bar and two wheels into my backyard and lunged back and forth across the yard until we were ready to puke.
Brief? Intense? You bet!
The Point of the Matter
There are quite a few different ways to train, and they’re all effective. More specifically, there are plenty of ways to apply the idea of training briefly and intensely. Just pick up any issue of IRONMAN and you’ll find them. For instance, Richard Winett, Ph.D., writes about bodybuilding-style high-intensity sessions. While I might disagree with his use of slo-mo reps (I don’t think they build the explosive strength you need to be really strong), and he might disagree with my integration of speed work into brief, basic sessions, the fact is, neither of us is wrong. People can make progress on Winett’s routines if they give it all they’ve got and train with superintensity, and vice versa.
Another person with some great ideas is Bradley Steiner. He recommends doing only one heavy, intense full-body session per week, but he’s also in favor of brief, infrequent and hard workouts that are centered solely around the basic exercises.
Even Steve Holman, who champions brief and intense sessions most of the time, uses different methods to achieve his results.
So train hard, heavy and briefly, and discover for yourself what works for your body.
High-Intensity Strength-Training Programs
Here are some actual routines. They can be quite effective for adding muscle to your frame. As with the examples above, they’re all very different. Whatever routine you decide to use, stick with it for at least four weeks. After that, if you feel your body needs a change, you can switch things around. These workouts are just guidelines, so you get an idea of how very many effective ways there are to train. None is set in stone, so don’t be afraid to adapt them to what works best for you.
Workouts don’t get any heavier than these. They’re fine examples of the kind of programs favored by lifters such as Dinosaur Training author Brooks D. Kubik, powerlifting immortal and gear entrepreneur John Inzer and old-time lifters like the late Doug Hepburn and Paul Anderson. The first workout is perfect for when you’re just getting started on a heavy program. It’s a two-days-a-week program that uses heavy singles, triples and the good ole 5×5 system. There’s nothing fancy in it, but I assure you it produces results when you train as hard as possible. In fact, it’s probably better than most of what circulates as gospel truth in many of the muscle magazines.
Flat-bench barbell presses 5 x 5
Begin the week with everyone’s favorite. Perform two warmup sets of five reps, then three all-out sets of five. Your goal is to work as hard as possible here, so try tackling weights that are heavier than you’ve ever used for five reps.
Deadlifts* 5 x 1
Use the sample workout for singles above as a model, but do the intense work described on your last two sets only.
Bottom-position bench presses* 5 x 1
Wide-grip chins 5 x 5
Bottom-position squats* 5 x 1
Parallel squats 5 x 3
Perform these in standard style.
Push presses 5 x 3
Perform these as you would standard military presses, except begin the lift by generating momentum with your legs.
Barbell curls* 5 x 1
*Perform progressively heavier singles.
This one’s for more advanced lifters. The volume of work per muscle group doesn’t increase, just the number of sessions per week (in fact, overall volume for each muscle group actually drops). Work through the sequence, training two days on/two off. This is also a good program to use if you enjoy the thrill of heavy sessions. Once again, remember what intensity means as you perform the sets.
Bench presses, incline
presses or bench presses* 5 x 1
Overhead presses 5 x 5
*Alternate exercises every two weeks.
Bottom-position squats* 5 x 1
Bottom-position squats 1 x 5
Stiff-legged deadlifts 5 x 5
Squat lockouts 5 x 3
Close-grip bench presses* 5 x 3
Barbell curls* 5 x 1
Wide-grip chins** 5 x 3
Bent-over barbell rows 5 x 5
*Perform progressively heavier sets.
**Strap weights to your waist as the sets progress.
Moderately Heavy, High-Rep and Ultraintense
The majority of high-intensity devotees favor these types of workouts. You use a very minimal number of sets for each bodypart and turn up the volume’i.e., the number of reps on each set as well as the intensity’by taking each and every set to the point of absolute muscular failure, maybe adding a forced or negative rep just for good measure. This type of training was made popular by such authorities as Randall Strossen (in his book Super Squats) and Stuart McRobert. It’s also the type of training favored by Dr. Ken Leistner, who has trained quite a few powerlifting champs using the method.
On the first routine you perform only two whole-body workouts in a week, using different exercises at each session. Check it out.
Squats 2 x 20
The first set is just a warmup to get some blood flowing into your muscles. The second is all-out intensity. If you’re wondering just how intense, remember the first sample session above.
Stiff-legged deadlifts 1 x 30
Make it an all-out effort, not stopping until your muscle won’t budge the weight.
Bench presses 2 x 10
Wide-grip chins 2 x 10
Deadlifts 2 x 20
One warmup set plus one set with all-out intensity, the same as the one described for squats in Monday’s workout.
Pause bench presses 1 x 15
Close-grip bench presses 1 x 15
On the pause benches, stop the bar on your chest for a count of two seconds before exploding back up.
Barbell curls 2 x 10
As you become more advanced, you may find that you like to do fewer exercises at each workout. In that case give this four-days-a-week routine a try. Train on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and perform all sets to muscular failure.
Bench presses 2 x 10-15
Overhead presses 2 x 10-15
Tuesday Deadlift lockouts 3 x 20
Close-grip bench presses 2 x 20
Barbell curls 1 x 10
Dumbbell curls 1 x 10
Squats 2 x 20
Stiff-legged deadlifts 1 x 25
Heavy and Explosive One area where I think most basic, brutal trainees miss the boat is explosive training. That super-slo-mo crap, while it might work for hypertrophy, just can’t build the type of concentric power it takes to lift monstrous tonnage. I recommended the following program in ‘Mass and Might’ in the May ’99 IRONMAN. Because it seems so basic and simple, I think many lifters might have overlooked its effectiveness.
Give it a try if you’re interested in increasing the power on your core lifts. It could be the ultimate program for those who have only a couple of days a week to train. Alternatively, if you find you want to train a little more frequently, you could use the two workouts in an every-other-day split, taking two days off over the weekend.
Deadlifts 5 x 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Flat-bench presses 5 x 5
Bench press lockouts* 5 x 2
Push presses 5 x 5
Squats* 5 x 2
Squats 3 x 5
Barbell curls 5 x 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Alternate dumbbell curls 2 x 5
Leg raises 3 x 10-15
Hyperextensions 3 x 10-15
*Use explosive reps.
Like life, your training should be a journey, an ever-evolving process. So train with the basics, make your workouts brief and make them intense’and discover everything else on your own. IM