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Does Abbreviated Training Work?

Program Design and Training Frequency

Q: I’d like to try your abbreviated-training approach, but I’m not convinced it will work. In fact, a number of people have told me that it didn’t do much for them. Can you give me some good reasons why I should try it and why it doesn’t work for everyone?

A: Anyone who thinks abbreviated training doesn’t work simply hasn’t applied it properly. Abbreviated training isn’t just about what you do in the gym. What you do and don’t do out of the gym can determine your bodybuilding success, even if what you do in the gym is in really good order.

Some people have told me they use abbreviated training routines, but on investigation I discovered that they use nothing of the sort. An abbreviated routine contains a maximum of eight exercises’and that’s the upper limit. For most hardgainers a maximum of only five or six exercises per workout produces much better results.

Some people have told me they use the big compound exercises, but on investigation I discovered that more than half of the exercises they use are isolation movements.

Some people have told me they use good form, but on investigation I discovered they use a travesty of good form. For example, they squat with their heels elevated and parallel to each other and lower the bar on bench presses to the wrong position on their chest.

Some people have told me they use controlled form, but on investigation I discovered that they use nothing of the sort. One second up and one second down is not controlled training.

Some people have told me they train hard, but on investigation I discovered that they could do extra reps on every single work set if they were really pushed.

Some people have told me they get lots of rest between workouts, but on investigation I discovered that they have more ‘on’ days than ‘off’ days. Typical trainees can’t recover fully on such a schedule’you need more off days than on days.

Some people have told me they gets lots of sleep, but on investigation I discover that they average fewer than eight hours of sleep a night, and in many cases fewer than seven hours.

Some people have told me they eat lots of good food, but on investigation I discovered that they simply don’t consume enough calories and nutrients to grow on’and they eat junk food daily. No food supplements or pseudo supplements can compensate for a deficiency in calories and basic nutrients. You need five or six feeds of quality food each day and a total quantity that will put you into caloric and nutrient surplus. There are many bodybuilders whose progress has stagnated for ages, and they still don’t understand why. They train too much and too frequently’but not hard enough’don’t focus on the big compound exercises, don’t use good form and don’t rest, sleep and eat enough. As a result, they don’t have a hope of building a better physique.

The rules of successful bodybuilding are not mine. I just publicize them. To get bigger muscles, you need to build muscles that are much stronger’not just a few pounds stronger. That means a 25 percent increase in all your poundages if you want to see significant size increases and 50 percent if you want to see substantial growth. And all the time you must maintain impeccable form.

To get stronger muscles, you must train hard and briefly on the minimum of exercises so that you don’t exceed your recovery ability. And you must keep adding a tad of iron every week or two for year after year after year’as long as you want to build bigger muscles. To be able to do that, however, you must be able to recover from your training. If you return to the gym before you’ve recovered, how can you add iron to the bar? And if you can’t add iron to the bar, how are you going to build the extra strength that yields bigger muscles?

If you don’t eat enough, how is your body going to have enough of the raw materials to recover from the growth stimulus? What’s more, you won’t be able to add a tad of iron to the bar every week or two if you’re not getting at least eight hours of sleep each night. If you shortchange yourself in the recovery department, your body will shortchange you in the growth department.

Be brutally honest with yourself. Are you really following an abbreviated training routine? Are you really weight training only twice a week? Are you really focusing on the big compound movements? Are you really using good form and a controlled rep cadence? Are you really training hard? Are you really consuming five or six feeds daily and getting enough calories and nutrients to grow on? Are you really sleeping well for at least eight hours every night? Are you really keeping written records of your workouts and noting the addition of a tad of iron to each big exercise every week or two?

If you can’t answer yes to all of those questions, you have only yourself to blame for slow or nonexistent progress. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but that’s the grim reality.

Find the deficiencies in your approach to bodybuilding’both inside and outside the gym’and correct everything that’s out of order. If there are big deficiencies, don’t merely tinker with things. Make wholesale changes or you’ll have to endure continued stagnation or minimal progress. Crank up your dedication and determination, and get your training working well.

When applied properly, abbreviated training works big time, not only for hardgainers but for other kinds of gainers too. It doesn’t, however, work in just a month or two. You need the patience to stick with it year after year. Then you can get as big as your genetics will allow. For your training to yield the goods over the long term, however, you need to see progress over the short term. That’s why you must see a small increase on each big exercise every week or two. If that’s not happening, you need to make changes’inside the gym, outside of it or both’so you start making progress.

There’s no single one-size-fits-all interpretation of abbreviated training. There is a basic framework, but you must personalize it to your individual needs. For example, you need to choose from the available equipment the big compound exercises that are best suited to you, you need to choose the set-and-rep scheme that works best for you on each exercise (not necessarily the same for every exercise), and you need to discover how many calories and how much protein it takes to put you into growth mode.

On paper bodybuilding is a straightforward activity, but putting it into unrelenting practice’day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year’is very demanding. This is where your mettle is tested. Rise to the challenge, and you’ll reap big rewards.

Program Design and Training Frequency

Q: I’ve been told I should train my full body using the same routine twice a week. Isn’t that more than you generally recommend?

A: Maybe you’d prosper on a program in which you used the same full-body routine twice a week’for a while. I would put beginners on such a schedule; but later I’d likely move them to another program, on which they still weight trained twice a week.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe that training the same full-body routine twice a week is the best way to go once you’re beyond the beginner stage. For most nonnovices most of the time it has you working the same big exercises hard too frequently. If you want to use a full-body routine, it’s better to train less often than twice a week to provide more recovery time between hits on the same exercises. Alternatively, you can train twice a week but use a different set of exercises at each of the two workouts. That way you perform each movement only once a week.

Experience affects training frequency. Beginners usually need to train each exercise more often than experienced trainees because they need to learn the skills of the exercises quickly and because they are not yet training very hard.

Intensity affects training frequency. Some experienced trainees who really train balls to the wall will need more recovery time. But some may require a greater frequency of training at a lesser, though still ‘hard,’ intensity. If, however, the intensity is anything less than hard, you’re unlikely to stimulate growth no matter how frequently you train.

Nutrition affects training frequency. If you cut corners on the nutrition front’calories and/or nutrients’you’ll compromise your recovery and extend the time you need to recover fully between workouts. Eat really well, however, and you’ll recover quicker and thus be able to get back to the gym sooner for another progress-yielding workout. Just make sure you don’t overdo your calorie intake and get fat. You need to strike the right balance. Sleep affects training frequency. Even if your training and nutrition are perfect, if you shortchange yourself in the sleep department, you’ll delay recovery and thus stretch out your productive training frequency.

Productive bodybuilding is the result of a package of factors. To maximize your rate of progress, you need to get many components in good order. You may still be able to progress while cutting a small corner or two, but you won’t make your optimum progress that way. Cut more than just the odd corner and you’ll kill your progress.

The bottom line is progress. If you’re not training fully in line with the general guidelines I believe are best for most trainees but your training is working well, that’s fine. But if your training isn’t working, you need to make changes. While it may not be your gym work that’s primarily at fault’the problems could be in the nutrition and sleep departments’for most trainees the gym component leaves a lot to be desired.

Because I can’t see you train or observe your eating and sleeping habits, I can’t put my finger on your specific problem. Even if I watched a video of you working out, it’s unlikely to be a typical workout. The fact that you were being recorded would probably produce important changes in the training’harder work and perhaps tighter form. I’d need to be a fly on the wall of your gym for a few workouts to see precisely what you do.

A list of what you eat isn’t enough either. I’d need to see what you eat on a daily basis rather than read what you eat on a good day, which is what I usually get when people tell me about their nutrition.

Many coaches teach people to train the way they’ve found to be successful for themselves. They forget that most other people don’t share their recovery ability, tolerance for exercise-induced discomfort, genetic inheritance, lifestyle, etc. I can think of a number of coaches I’ve known over the years who have done that. When they apply their accelerated training methods to typical trainees, they find them to be not only unproductive but in some cases harmful. While that isn’t as bad as the follow-the-champions-to-become-a-champion mentality promoted by some people in the bodybuilding world, it’s the same sort of thing.

You have to train yourself. You need to learn enough about training so that you really know what you’re doing. You also have to know enough about yourself to be able to fine-tune general guidelines and find a productive overall formula that works well for you. You need to do some sensible trial-and-error experimentation. Further, you need to evaluate how well you satisfy all the components of recovery. Be very demanding, discover the shortcomings and then put them right. Become your own expert trainer.

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert is the author of Brawn and Beyond Brawn, which are both available from Home Gym Warehouse, 1-800-447-0008, or visit He also publishes Hardgainer magazine. For free information, write to CS Publishing Ltd., P.O. Box 20390, CY-2151, Nicosia, Cyprus, or visit IM

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