Strength training for muscle gains

by Reggie Johal, owner of Predator Nutrition

I have been training for over 15 years now and for the first ten of those years I would read everything and anything I could about training. Like most people I initially gained well following the advice of my friends, and others in the gym. It helped me that I came to the gym via sports so that I knew how hard I needed to work for my gains, but, after a couple of years of rapid gains, my progress soon stalled. I redoubled my training efforts, made sure I NEVER missed a meal or stayed up late, and tripled my intake of bodybuilding supplements!

Despite all this, my progress was not satisfactory at all and I began to question what I had assumed were important elements of a good, training program.

Once I began to move from reading the routines of pro bodybuilders (or at least what they claim to train like since most such articles are total fabrications), my education moved on in leaps and bounds.

I soon learned that I was training in a very illogical way, was overtrained, and fundamental principles I had assumed were beyond challenge such as training to failure, now became open to question.

Over the next few years I constantly looked at ways to improve my training, noting all the different contributions made by various esteemed members of the strength coaching and bodybuilding community.

As I gained knowledge of how the body responds to external physical stresses, the timeframe involved for recovering between training sessions, and the challenges faced in integrating muscle cell recovery and central nervous system recovery, it became clear that the one thing I would have to dispose of quickly was my innate desire to train as hard as possible every time I trained.

It had already become clear this approach was no longer working and now I understood, after reading the likes of famed coaches such as Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Mel Siff, and Louie Simmons, just how limited my previous training view was.

By applying the principles which I will outline now, I am 100% sure that your training progress will go on an upward path, if, like me, you have been training based on the "principle" that the biggest guy knows best.

On the contrary what I have learned is that the biggest guy is the biggest because of copious drug use and outstanding genetics, as well as being someone uniquely sensitive to drug use. In the same way that a tall guy cannot show you how to get tall, and the cleverest people will not necessarily be good teachers, so taking advice from someone just because he is big is not necessarily going to be appropriate for you. That is the most common mistake I see people making in gyms.

If being good at something predicted success in training someone else, then most football managers would be former star players (the opposite applies mostly). It would also mean you should safely ignore any human advice and instead copy the habits of a mountain gorilla which could probably bench press 1000lb in its sleep!

Seven Essential Principles of a good training plan

Training Volume

It is probably true to say that the majority of people out there are training with either insanely high training volumes, or else, in the case of hardgainers, too little in many cases. The biggest problem I is see is the systematic adoption of high volume training popularized by pro bodybuilders and a failure to take into account the limited recovery ability of a natural athlete with average genetics.

Even worse, is the emphasis many people place on continually adding sets and reps despite failure to already recover adequately in the belief that the sorer they are the better their likely progression. If that was the case drop sets on every exercise with 100 reps per set would work well but we know this is not the case.

Any well founded training plan must allow for a gradual increase in volume and phases of training where the training volume is reduced. In this way, the body can adapt to the training stresses imposed and it allows for recovery as a result. This means structuring training phases where volume moves up and down rather than continually up, as I know many people seem to do with no success.

Intensity

One of my favourite concepts but one that few people have a clear idea of.

Is an intense training regime one where you puke after lifting?

Maybe it is one which makes you see stars after a deadlift session?

How about the session which leaves your body stapled to the bench after a set of bench presses?

No, not quite.

Intensity as defined in strength training circles is merely a measure of the weight on the bar relative to your 1 rep maximum (the most you can lift for one rep). In this instance, 90kg is always going to be more intense than 85kg even if the 90kg is lifted once versus 10 times for the 85kg. Do not confuse volume with intensity.

Like training volume, intensity should not be constant week after week (think of the people bench pressing religiously the same weight week in and week out with no improvement in sight, hoping to eventually bore their muscles into submission).

A periodized training program would ensure that both intensity and volume fluctuate over the course of a training plan. For people who have been training for some time the intensity should generally be in the range of 80% of their 1RM to recruit all muscle fibres fully. Where beginners can progress well on an intensity of as little as 60% of their 1RM, this would be too low for advanced athletes to obtain much of a training effect where size and strength is required.

Frequency

Training frequency is one area where there is a lot of scope to improve the way people train for muscle gains.

In the past, many would work to upper/lower training splits, or push/pull training splits, but lately the most common training approach is where you train one muscle group per week with an extremely high volume in the belief this is the only way to stimulate muscle growth. Although this may work to some degree it has some glaring problems.

First, by only training a muscle once per week, you will be spending most of the week fully recovered and actually beginning to detrain due to the lengthy time spent resting between training sessions. Considering some athletes have to train their muscle groups on a more frequent basis (including very powerfully built strongmen and weightlifters) and attain impressive amounts of muscle there is clearly no reason why bodybuilders should be fixated on training once a week. By doing so, muscle recovery will typically occur in no more than 72 hours at which point the time is ripe to train again.

The main reason we see bodybuilders struggling with higher frequency routines is their overwhelming volume and extreme methods such as forced reps causing a big drain on the central nervous system. This leads to a big decline in the amount of force they can produce even after full muscle recovery has taken place. Most such people training like this will struggle to even maintain their strength levels after 72 hrs let alone be able to exceed their previous session, hence the fact they will wait one week by which time the CNS should have recovered. Unfortunately, while they are waiting for strength to recover their muscles have already begun to detrain, having been ready to go after around 72hrs (less for smaller muscle groups).

One of the key challenges in preparing a training plan for athletes is somehow balancing muscle recovery, with CNS recovery. For bodybuilders, a reduced emphasis on extreme training techniques such as forced reps, training to failure and drop sets would allow their brains to be more fresh allowing for faster CNS recovery and so more frequency can then be employed which would benefit their muscle gains as a result. Plus by more frequent training you get the benefits of improved insulin sensitivity, better partitioning of nutrients, as well as have more opportunities to take advantage of the post workout anabolic window when the body is more receptive to nutrients ingested.

Training Splits

One of the toughest of things to consider if you look at the frequency principle is how to work out an effective training split. Let us consider some examples.

Routine 1

Monday: Quads

Tuesday: Chest

Wednesday: Back 

Thursday:  Hamstrings/Calves 

Friday: Arms

Saturday: Shoulders

Sunday: Off

The above is a typical routine you will see in many bodybuilding magazines. With one day off per week you can see it is quite impossible to train a body part more than once per week. As already outlined training body parts only once per week is not an optimal strategy.

Let’s look at ways in which this can be done and examine their likely success.

Routine 2

Monday: Chest/Back

Tuesday: Legs   

Wednesday: Shoulders/Arms   

Thursday:  Off   

Friday: Chest/Back 

Saturday: Legs

Sunday: Shoulders/Arms

In this case we have combined chest and back in one session and repeated in Friday. The leg session would combine quads, hamstrings, and calves and be repeated on Saturday. Shoulders and arms looks okay at first glance but consider that if you train them on Sunday you have to train chest on Monday which will severely compromise the weights used so this program is not really practical (plus at 6 days a week in the gym is not going to be good for CNS recovery).

Some better approaches:

Routine 3

Monday: Chest/Tris/Shoulders

Tuesday: Legs   

Wednesday: Back/Bis      

Thursday:  Off   

Friday: Chest/Shoulders/Tris    

Saturday: Legs

Sunday: Back/Bis   

This is okay for those with a high tolerance for volume but for most people, six sessions a week is brutally hard. With just one recovery day a week the CNS will overtrain for most people even if adequate time is given for muscle recovery.

Routine 4

Monday: Chest/Tris/Shoulders

Tuesday: Off   

Wednesday:  Legs   

Thursday:  Off   

Friday: Back/Bis    

Saturday: Calves/Abs 

Sunday: Off   

Routine 4 is one which is used by a majority of people in gyms. They may vary things a little (maybe combining chest with back and maybe shoulders and tris with back etc) but the result is 3 off days a week which is crucial to ensure the CNS stays fresh. However, each muscle group is only trained directly once per week. Most people using this approach would adopt a routine employing a large number of sets per workout/muscle group. With a long rest between training sessions, they are banking on muscle recovery to not take place for a full week. Research tells us that muscle recovery occurs over a much shorter time frame.

Routine 5

Monday: Legs 1

Tuesday: Upper Body 1

Wednesday: Off      

Thursday:  Legs 2

Friday: Upper Body 2     

Saturday: Off   

Sunday: Off

This type of split is one that is seen with a lot of athletes. If you had a football game for instance on Saturday, this type of split allows training to occur without being fatigued for your match on Saturday. This is because you would have time to recover from your leg sessions on Monday and Thursday.

At first glance this looks like a tough training split. Most bodybuilders would be staggered at the idea of training their whole upper body on one day but if we look at the typical routine of someone running the routine 4 above it would not be unusual to see 10 sets performed per muscle group. We can see that by just cutting the volume in half for each upper body workout and doing it on two separate days you get the same volume but the sets would be performed at a higher intensity.

This is how it works in practice.

Imagine you are doing 10 sets of chest on Monday in routine 4 and this equates to 6 sets of bench press and 4 sets of dumbbell presses. Obviously fatigue will set in gradually and by the end of the workout your working weights will be pretty poor.

By contrast, look at routine 5 and imagine if you performed half that number of sets of chest on Tuesday, so did 3 sets of bench press and 2 sets of dumbbell presses and repeated the workout on Friday.

By doing only half the number of sets compared to routine 4,  you would be able to come back on Friday in the same week and use a weight far heavier than you would for the second half of routine 4’s chest session where you did all the sets in one marathon session.

This is one of the main reasons combining multiple muscle groups in one session works well. You get the opportunity to hit the muscle groups twice a week while fresh. Routine 5 allows for 3 days off per week as does routine 4, but with the advantage of more frequent loading which means the muscles get to experience heavier weights and two post workout windows per muscle group per week.

It is for these reasons that an upper/lower split makes an excellent choice.

Routine 6

Monday: Whole Body   

Tuesday: Off   

Wednesday: Whole Body      

Thursday: Off   

Friday: Whole Body      

Saturday: Off   

Sunday: Off

Believe it or not, a whole body routine where you train all muscle groups on a single day is possible. How?

Well the answer, which routine 5 provides a clue to, is that you do not train any more per week but just cut your weekly number of sets per body part into three distinct sessions.

If you would normally do something like routine 4 and do 9 sets of chest on Monday, now you would just do 3 sets per workout above for chest which equals the same number of sets per week (3 sets performed 3 x a week = 9 sets of chest still) but with the advantage of entering each workout fresh from a day off and able to hit heavier weights than you would by comparison to grinding through a workout featuring 9 sets.

Disadvantages?

The main issue with a full body workout is that they can tend to be strenuous and by training everything 3 x a week, can be taxing on the joints. For many people, they will find an upper/lower split preferable with the added advantage of an extra day’s rest between each workout for a given muscle group as routine 6 only gives 48hr recovery for muscles from Mon-Fri.

Comments on training body parts more than once per week

For this type of training to work effectively we must avoid some of the typical methods used by bodybuilders, or keep them to a minimum. These include:

  • Forced Reps
  • Negatives
  • Training to failure
  • Dropsets

The inclusion of any of these will not really do anything except cause a huge stress on the body’s recovery abilities and seriously compromise the ability to train twice a week. Instead, rely on the fact you will be able to lift heavier if training more frequently and leave these techniques for the uninformed.

Exercise Selection

Okay, so you have now understood the key principles established above and go to work to create yourself a program centred around triceps kickbacks and sit-ups. If this is you you have the answer for why you are not progressing well in front of you.

When it comes to the topic of selecting exercises for training, it is natural that most people gravitate towards a few favourite exercises. Nothing bad in this if your favourite exercises are squats, deadlifts and bench presses, but when you find yourself spending a lot of time on isolation exercises it creates big issues.

Quite simply, and without getting overly technical, isolation exercises will not activate as much of the targeted muscle group as a compound exercise which requires the co-ordination of more than one primary muscle group. As such it should be no surprise that any exercise program where we are looking to see serious gains in muscle and strength should be biased towards compound muscle exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows, and cleans.

Once fatigue sets in should we can look at incorporating easier, isolation exercises. At all times, do not misconstrue the extreme muscle burn of isolation exercises with actual muscle gains. The failure of most isolation exercises to allow for strength increases to occur using good form means they will always play only a small role when it comes to bodybuilding gains. While you may read of people who employ isolation work to maintain a physique, this is entirely different, in most cases, to how they achieved large size gains in the first place.

One final word on exercise selection is to ensure that when constructing a training routine that the most technically complicated exercises which require the most CNS activity should generally be introduced at the start of the session when you are fresh. As the session progresses you can then introduce easier isolation work, but the other way around is not recommended.

So, if training legs you would perform something like:

One Legged Squats - Squats – Leg Presses – Leg Extensions

Actually, leg extensions would never be in any of my sessions!

Sets/Reps

A question I get a lot is, “How many sets and reps should I be doing?”

You may as well ask how long is a piece of string. From the principles outlined above what should be clear by now is that sets and reps, just like volume and intensity, should be cycled rather than dogmatically following a given training routine ad infinitum.

Let us consider the issue of number of reps first.

In general, most beginners would seem to respond better to slightly higher reps due to poor conditioning and technique which makes their bodies responsive to higher reps (many lack the co-ordination to lift heavy weights properly). Even for beginners though they should bias their repetition number aiming for lower reps on more technically demanding work (unilateral work, or exercises requiring a high degree of balance like power cleans), slightly more for major compound exercises such as squats or bench presses, and a higher repetition count still for isolation exercises (since going heavy on isolation exercises which tend to be single joint in nature can be a one way trip to the therapist pretty quick).

As trainees progress, it is generally observed that as they become more conditioned and better adapted to their training loads, that a lower repetition number is often needed for continued muscle gains.

As far as sets are concerned, the rule of thumb is that the lower the number of reps per exercise the more sets are needed to stimulate muscle gains. So if doing sets of 5 reps, which you would do for compound exercises only, you may do 4-6 sets, while if you follow this with isolation work and do 12 reps per set, just 2-3 sets will suffice. Clearly, for a given repetition number, to obtain the desired volume we will need to do more sets for lower rep work than for higher rep work.

Is there a particular ratio of sets and reps which works best?

The short answer is no, and your likely muscle gains will vary according to your muscle fibre makeup (people with a high degree of explosive muscle fibres tend to do better on low reps/multiple sets, while those with muscle fibres with a lot of slow twitch characteristics will do better with a higher number of reps).

Despite this, what works well for most people will be a workout routine which emphasizes a mix of set and rep ranges, either within the same session, or at least some time during the training week/month, with a typical session starting with heavy weights on a compound exercise and once 4-5 sets are completed, transitioning into assistance exercises done for higher reps, chosen to work on weaknesses in a person’s physique.

So, someone with weak hamstrings may start a leg session with deadlifts (more of a hamstring focus than quadriceps), followed by Good Mornings (very hamstring and lower back reliant), and then Glute-Ham-Raises (very demanding isolation work for the hamstrings), gradually increasing reps and decreasing sets through the workout.

If someone has a weak triceps and trains their full upper body in one session then you may start with lots of sets and heavy weight on close grip bench presses, before increasing reps and reducing sets on tricep extensions, and increasing reps and reducing sets still more on tricep pressdowns.

In practical terms this achieves the aims of working the muscles with a heavy weight while they are fresh and then working on weaknesses in your body with isolation exercises.

Recovery, Diet and Nutritional Support

Is your idea of recovery and relaxation going out to nightclubs every night and eating takeaways while you are there?

Clearly, that will not allow even a carefully planned and brilliantly executed training program to work well. It should be obvious to say that proper sleep, a good diet and excellent nutritional support are needed for any aspiring bodybuilder but beyond the basics is there anything else which may be overlooked?

Let us go back to some of the things discussed earlier, namely the utilization of undulating training volume and intensity. This is done to prevent adaptation from changing into stagnation and, worse still, regression. We have all known someone stuck forever on the same lift, done at the same time, in the same order, with the same weight who goes nowhere and eventually even begins to lose strength even!

One of the key things this guy may be missing, even if he is sleeping and eating well, plus taking high quality sports supplements to aid his training efforts, is that his training program does not build any element of recovery into the plan. In sporting circles this is referred to as an unloading phase and it means just that, a reduction in load and/or volume to allow for full recovery to take place. If you are familiar with boxers training very hard and then gradually tapering their training off to a minimum just before a fight then the same concept applies to bodybuilding. Periodic rest or reduction in the amount of training will help lay the groundwork for better performance in future.

This is the one concept that has permeated every sport in the world except bodybuilding where the mindless exhortation to train every session to full muscle failure still exists. It can be a difficult habit to break but every model of how muscle and strength gains occur, plus real world experience of champions from every sport (including the bodybuilders I know) demonstrates that one of the key things to making consistent progress is the introduction of recovery weeks where the mind and body gets a break relatively speaking to prepare for the challenges to come.

No-one in their right mind would expect to be able to perform at their best in an exam working non-stop with no rest and the human body will not gain muscle at an appreciable rate until proper rest and recovery is introduced.

Once we have established a properly periodized training routine with adequate volume, intensity, frequency, and exercise selection, with built in recovery periods, we can heighten our results via the use of sports supplements such as protein powder, creatine, beta alanine, branched chain amino acids, testosterone boosters, and fat burners.

Similarly, recovery methods such as contrast baths, massage, physiotherapy should be employed by all athletes to ensure that recovery and physical health is optimized.

Conclusion

I hope after reading this, people have a better idea now about some of the key facets of a good training program for building muscle. Stay away from cookie cutter routines but apply the knowledge contained within this article and you should be able to create a training plan for your own long term aims much more effectively.

by Reggie Johal, owner of Predator Nutrition

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