There’s a truism in strength training: The best program is the one that works best for you. Nonetheless, there are some ground rules that I believe apply to all lifters who are serious about building muscle and the strength that goes along with it. Once you’ve applied those rules properly, you need to change the program to accommodate such things as age, training experience and goals. Before we get to the alteration process, however, let’s discuss the things that the most successful strength routines have in common.
If you’ve read any of my previous articles in IRON MAN, you know my dislike of so-called split training routines. I believe that the best routines are ones in which you work your entire body at each session or’at the most’split your body over two sessions. If you don’t work all the major muscle groups at each session (the chest, back and legs), you need to work at least two of them. Do some type of pressing work for your chest and shoulders, followed by either heavy back work or heavy leg work, if not both.
That type of training is critical for strength athletes. Unless you’re some type of lift specialist, like a powerlifter who only competes in the bench press, you compete in a sport in which you use most of your major muscles. It’s only logical that you’d want to strengthen all of those muscles in the same session. Athletes who train that way have no problem being in shape on competition day.
Your training must always be heavy. Don’t succumb to the notion that to get in great shape, you need high reps, even on your core exercises. If you’re trying to lose bodyfat, let your aerobic conditioning and, more important, diet take care of that aspect.
If you compete in a strength sport, heavy training is a must. And when I say heavy, I mean heavy. We’re talking sets of fives, threes, doubles or singles. Only rarely do I have any of my lifters perform more than five reps on their core lifts.
No matter what your goals, you need to perform some type of speed work. The problem with ultraheavy training is the fact that it makes you slower at the lifts you’re performing. That’s where dynamic lifting comes in. Combine it with heavy training, and you’ll become stronger, bigger and faster.
Customizing Your Strength Program
Keep in mind that any program published in this magazine is just an outline. That’s one of the problems with written programs: The person who writes it is not there to make changes based on how your body responds’or doesn’t respond’to the workouts. ALL Core Exercises
There are plenty of lifters’especially competitive powerlifters and Olympic lifters’who are perfectly satisfied with doing the same core exercises year-round, while others need constant change to stay interested. I would have to put myself in the first group, but since I lift with three of the lifters I train, and since they need change to stay interested, I rotate exercises at least every two weeks.
One of my uncles holds the state masters record in the deadlift in Texas’or did at the time of this writing’and he’s happy doing the same core exercises, bench and deadlift, all year. That works well for him because he doesn’t have a consistent workout partner, and it brings him good results. He’s been training that way for many years and enjoys doing it, but most people need more variety.
Many lifters have to change their routines or they grow stale and hit sticking points. That’s particularly true for advanced lifters. Many need to change their exercises every week’and if they don’t change the exercises, they need to change the reps.
The biggest problem I run into when lifters change exercises is that they pick easier lifts instead of hard ones. The new exercise has to be as demanding as the one you’re trading it out for. Many who have read my articles understand that for strength and power work I use a heavy/light/medium system of training that is, basically, a combination of Russian and Eastern-bloc methods and a lot of the methods of strength coach’and regular IM contributor’Bill Starr, with a few extras thrown in. For advanced athletes I usually recommend switching to a new exercise at each workout instead of benching three times a week, squatting three times a week, etc. And the more advanced the athlete, the more weeks of different workouts I have him or her use. The important thing is that you must trade a heavy exercise for a heavy exercise, a medium exercise for a medium exercise, and so on.
Another important decision is how many core exercises to do at each workout. If you are competing in football or basketball (the two most common types of athletes who ask me for advice), I recommend squatting at each session, followed by some type of bench work and, finally, a core lift for the back muscles’for example, deadlift, power clean, high pull, etc.
If you compete in power events in which you do fewer than three lifts (push/pull competitors, for example), it’s perfectly fine to do only two core exercises’one for your chest and shoulder girdle and one for your lower back, legs and hips.
For most full powerlifters, I recommend three core lifts’some type of squat followed by chest and back work; however, I’ve worked with guys who got better results by alternating a back exercise and a squatting exercise. Usually, those are wide-stance squatters who work the same muscles when they deadlift as when they squat. Sets and Reps
I don’t give a damn what any pseudo-Zen bodybuilder claims, strength training is not an art. It’s a science, and, therefore, there are optimum numbers of sets and reps to use. For building muscle mass and strength, doing three to six sets of three to six reps is best. For building dynamic strength, it’s six to 10 sets of one to three reps, and for building maximum strength, it’s one to three sets of one to three reps.
For lifters who are just starting out, I recommend four to five sets of four to five reps. The math is very easy, and it’s the best way to train a large group of people (high school coaches, pay attention!). I discovered that a few years back when I was asked to teach a strength-training class at a local college. I had so many students, most of whom were not athletes, and such a short time in which to train them that I had to find a system that would produce results across the board. I stuck with the four to six sets of four to six reps rule, and everyone who adhered to it made good gains in only one semester. It was also a very easy concept for the students to understand and take with them once they left to train on their own.
As you get more advanced, of course, you can add sets and reps. All of the guys who train with me have at least a year of training under their belts. After we perform whatever sets and reps are the order of the day, I almost always have us do at least one or two back-off sets for anywhere from eight to 20 reps. One or two sets is usually all we need; any more cuts too much into recovery.
If you’re interested solely in building muscle and don’t give one whit about strength (I know there are some of you out there), then doing more reps on most of your sets will suit your needs better [see ‘Mass X-celeration’ on page 198]. Start off with four sets of 10 as your base, and switch to another set-and-rep combination after about three weeks; for example, three sets of 12, five sets of eight.
This confuses many lifters, and the reason is that weight progression is different for everyone. There are, however, some basic guidelines.
Never use a pyramid-style weight progression, in which you add weight and drop reps on each successive set. I understand that it’s a a popular method with bodybuilders and has been for a number of years, but it’s an awful way to build strength. As you add weight, keep your reps the same. In other words, if fives are the order of the day, start off with fives and stick with them until your last set. After you’re finished with your final set, you can drop weight and do the higher-repetition work.
The exception is when your goal is heavy doubles or singles. In that case do two to three progressively heavier sets of five and then start with the doubles or singles.
Make sure that your jumps in weight are as balanced as possible from the first set to the last. For instance, if your goal on squats is to beat your previous week’s five-rep record of 315, your jumps should look like this: 135×5, 185×5, 225×5, 275×5 and 325×5. If you were to make all five reps on the final set, then you could add one more’or quit where you are’and try to beat the record the next time you use fives.
I have a couple of lifters who prefer to do the fourth set with weights that are closer to their final set. For instance, they might use 300 for their fourth set before jumping to 325. Conversely, I have some lifters, usually more advanced ones, who prefer for their fourth set to be lower than in the above scenario. They might go from 225 on their third set to 250 on the fourth and then jump all the way to 325 on the fifth. You’ll have to experiment before you find which works best for your muscles and nervous system. Workload at Each Workout
No matter how a person’s body responds to different levels of volume, all lifters must consistently up their volume’to a certain point. The starting point for volume, however, is different for everyone. Even though you lift with someone of the same age, training experience, strength and bodyweight, you still might need a different amount of volume from what your partner needs. Some lifters thrive on a lot of volume, while others at the same level get burned out quickly that way.
I discovered a long time ago that I need less total volume than others who are at my level and have the same goals as I do. Even after more than a decade of training, I still respond well to about seven to 10 sets per lift, and that includes warmups. In fact, there are many days when I only do five sets per lift, even at my heavy workout.
One of the lifters in my group almost always adds an extra two to three sets per lift over what the rest of our training partners do. Every time he drops the extra volume, his lifts begin to regress.
The same goes for speed work. I usually stick with seven to nine sets per exercise on speed work, whereas other lifters I work with do better with 10 to 15. That’s not to say that you can’t add extra work occasionally’you can’but you need to temper it with the wisdom of knowing what works best for your body. If you respond well to lower workloads, then learn to cut back on weeks following higher-workload weeks.
Summing It Up
I hope this article has helped to clarify many of the questions you may have about training programs. Just make sure that you enjoy your workouts. The best program is not only the one that’s best for you, but it’s also the one you like doing the best. IM