Anytime you plateau in training, it's rarely because your program isn't complex enough. Usually it's because you've strayed from the basics. Here's an overview of the basics of training.
"As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I was talking to Anthony Roberts the other day and he'd mentioned that he'd given a copy of New Rules of Lifting to one of his friends.
When he asked his friend what he thought about it, he replied that it was "okay."
When pressed further, he said that the training information had been a bit basic. And the diet section was, "Nothing special, just eat healthy and often – that sort of thing."
The kicker? Anthony's friend is over 300 pounds and not in great shape at all!
As one of the authors of the book, I actually agree with the points he raised though. There is nothing "sexy" about the programs and nothing cutting edge about the nutrition. But a 300 pound obese man really doesn't need to concern himself with cybernetic periodization, cyclical ketogenic diets, branched chain amino acid intake, or intermittent fasting.
It's All About the Basics
Mike Roussell and I decided to write this article on the basics. And I can hear the comments now:
"Boring as shit."
"Nothing new here."
"Not much info for an advanced guy like myself."
The majority of people need to hear this information, as most get caught up in the unimportant details from time to time. Unlike Justin Timberlake, I'm not bringing sexy back. I'm taking the sexy out!
Anytime you plateau in training, it's rarely that the program isn't complex enough. Usually it's because you've strayed from the basics.
If a beginner does an advanced program that he's not ready for, he'll stop progressing completely. However if the reverse happens, and an advanced athlete does a basic program but it challenges him, he'll still progress (albeit slowly). So if in doubt, get back to the basics.
Here's an overview on the basics of training. Sure, there are effective programs that break some of these rules. And I'm willing to bet that some of your own routines break them, but you'll say that they work for you. Regardless, these principles should still be at the heart of your training.
The 90% Rule
I believe in focusing on the commonalities between successful programs. And I feel that, although there may be differences, if you look closely the similarities are strong enough that there's a bigger take-home lesson.
I recently looked at a Houston Texans' strength program that was machine-based, designed by strength coach Dan Riley.
The push-pull upper body routine has one set of the following exercises:
- Barbell bench press (free weights)
- Avenger seated row
- Smith machine bench press
- Lat pull-down
- Hammer incline press
- Hammer seated row
- Parallel grip pull-down
- Hammer shoulder press
- Nautilus seated row machine
- Avenger shoulder press
If we contrast that with a typical upper body day from the Elite Fitness Training manual, they look a lot different:
- Bench press (work up to a 5 rep max using 4-5 sets)
- Pull-ups (3-4 sets)
- Shoulder raises (front, side, and rear; 3 sets each)
- Direct triceps work
But when we look at the similarities:
- 4 sets of horizontal pushing (bench press, incline press, and dips)
- 3 sets of horizontal pulling (rows)
- 2 sets of vertical pushing (shoulder press)
- 2 sets of vertical pulling (lat pull-downs)
Elite Fitness Training Routine
- 4-5 sets of horizontal pushing (bench press)
- 3-4 sets of horizontal pulling (rear shoulder raises)
- 6 sets of vertical pushing (front and side raises)
- 3-4 sets of vertical pulling (pull-ups)
As different as a machine-based football program and a free weight-based powerlifting program appear, there are actually several similarities. You're still pushing and pulling heavy loads in the horizontal and vertical planes for a comparable amount of sets.
The machine-based program prefers single sets of multiple exercises while the powerlifting routine favors multiple sets of the same exercises. Other than that, look at the commonalities, not the differences.
The following advice will constitute what appears to be common in about 90% of successful programs. The differences aren't worth focusing on.
Frequency: Weight Training
In 2000, a study came out in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that compared training just one day a week versus three days (with the same total volume).
The subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one day per week of three sets to failure, or three days per week of one set to failure.
The study concluded that the one day group only achieved 62% of the one rep max (1RM) increases observed in the three day group, in both upper-body and lower-body lifts.
Larger increases in lean body mass were apparent in the three day group as well. The findings suggest that a higher frequency of resistance training, even when volume is held constant, produces superior gains in lean body mass and 1RM.
In other words, training biceps three times per week for one set is more effective in experienced trainees than doing the same total volume in one workout. So regardless of your routine, frequency is a key factor for optimal progress. This is another reason why I tend to favor full-body A-B split routines.
So How Often Should You Train?
You should train about three times per week with weights for 45 minutes to an hour each time. Try to average about one minute per work set, and a one to one and a half minute rest period between sets. You'll be looking at 20 to 25 sets per workout.
If you're training with lower reps and a heavier load, you'll need more rest between sets, but your set time will be shorter. So approximately two minutes per set is still viable.
Competitive athletes will have other training and practices to do, and competitive bodybuilders need to do a bit more. But for most people, you'll get the best return for your investment training about three times per week.
If you're busier than a guy who snuck into an all-girls school and gym time is scarce, then a shorter workout performed more often is an option.
Eat more often. Period. Unfortunately, scientific studies on the effects of eating more often are limited. How often you eat is commonly an afterthought and a variable not taken into consideration in most studies. This is a mistake. Ask anyone who's dieted down to step on stage, or who's gone from scrawny to brawny – they didn't eat "three squares" a day.
That's right, consistent, frequent feedings will help you lose weight when dieting and help you pack on more muscle when bulking.
Benefits when dieting
- Increased thermic effect of food (TEF). Check out Harness the Power of TEF for more info on TEF.
- Better insulin control. Controlling insulin is the key to fast fat loss.
- Suppressed hunger. You won't feel like you're starving when you're constantly eating.
Benefits when growing
- More feedings means you can consume more calories. It's almost impossible to consume 1,500 calories, three times a day, every day. Instead you could eat 700 calories a day seven times a day. That's a lot more manageable to eat at one sitting for most people.
- Separating your meals and eating more often allows you to better modulate when you take in certain macronutrients. If you're only eating three meals a day, then your main concern is just getting enough calories. When you start eating upwards of six times a day, you can modulate your carbohydrate intake depending on the time of day and your activity level. This allows for better insulin control, which will make the difference in your nutrient partitioning and the fat to muscle ratio of the weight that you gain.
Variety: Movements to Train
When we break down exercise, this is really all the body can do:
- Quad dominant (bilateral and unilateral)
- Hip dominant (bilateral and unilateral)
- Horizontal pushing
- Horizontal pulling
- Vertical pushing
- Vertical pulling
Nine movements. That's it.
Make sure you select one exercise from each category and do it at least once per week. You can do a full-body or split routine, whatever you like, as long as you hit all these movements at least once per week.
It's important to eat a variety of foods. Sticking to the "fish and rice cakes diet" won't get you to your goal any faster. Instead you'll most likely develop a sub-clinical deficiency in some vitamin or mineral. This will disrupt your system at the most basic level and ruin your progress.
Eating the same damn food day-in and day-out isn't a lifestyle that most people can maintain. Instead, it promotes eventual cheating on your diet. Not to mention increasing your risk of developing food allergies.
Having six pack abs for two weeks is cool, but having them for two decades makes you a stud. A greater variety in your diet makes it less likely that you'll get sick of what you're eating. Thus, leading to greater dietary compliance, and to long-term maintenance of a killer physique.
Parameters for Weight Training
- Strength: Four to six reps with two minute rest periods.
- Hypertrophy: Eight to twelve reps with 60 second rest periods.
- Metabolic work: Twelve to fifteen (plus) reps with less than 60 second rest periods.
If your goal is strength, do three to four sets in the strength zone, with maybe one set of hypertrophy or metabolic work.
If your goal is hypertrophy, do three to four sets of hypertrophy work and one of the others in each workout.
You can train your core in about two sets of each.
Loading and Progressions: Weight Training
Try to increase your loads each week. There's no need to "train to failure" but doing a set of six reps with a weight that you can hit twelve with won't do much. Choose a weight that takes you into that "close to failure" zone.
Most people progress in their weight training using a single variable – load lifted.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but eventually you'll reach a ceiling. You simply can't add any more weight to an exercise.
There are a few other methods of progression that can, and should be, rotated on a regular basis.
There are various ways to do this. In a typical training program we have exercise order, exercise selection, sets, reps, tempo, rest period, and load. Most trainees experiment with two to three of these at the most.
Sample Full-Body Workout
A1. Squats: 3 sets of 6 reps with 90 seconds rest using 200 pounds.
A2. Dumbbell bench press: 3 sets of 6 reps with 90 seconds rest using 50 pounds.
Total Volume: 3,600 pounds squatted + 1,800 pounds pressed = 5,400 pounds total.
Assuming each set takes a minute, the workout is done in 15 minutes.
Obviously we can progress the loading each week. Or we could add an additional rep each workout. Or maybe an additional set. Perhaps we cut the rest period, and with the additional time, we can add extra exercises or back-off sets.
Method One: Adding Reps
A1. Squats: 3 sets of 7 reps with 90 seconds rest using 200 pounds.
A2. Dumbbell bench press: 3 sets of 7 reps with 90 seconds rest using 50 pounds.
Total Volume: 4,200 pounds squatted + 2,100 pounds pressed = 6,300 pounds total.
Method Two: Adding Sets
A1. Squats: 4 sets of 6 reps with 90 seconds rest using 200 pounds.
A2. Dumbbell bench press: 4 sets of 6 reps with 90 seconds rest using 50 pounds.
Total Volume: 4,800 pounds squatted + 2,400 pounds pressed = 7,200 pounds total.
Method Three: Reducing the Rest Period
A1. Squats: 3 sets of 6 reps with 75 seconds rest using 200 pounds.
A2. Dumbbell bench press: 3 sets of 6 reps with 75 seconds rest using 50 pounds.
Total Volume: 3,600 pounds squatted + 1,800 pounds pressed = 5,400 pounds total.
Assuming each set takes a minute, the workout is done in 13.5 minutes.
Putting Them to Use
Week 1: Perform the workout as described.
Week 2: Increase the reps on each set by one.
Week 3: Maintain the reps and increase the sets.
Week 4: Reduce the rest period by 15 seconds.
This will take us from a starting volume of 5,400 pounds in 15 minutes, to a total volume of 8,400 pounds in 18 minutes. The training density is increased, but we're doing two extra sets. That's 55% more work in only three more minutes, or over a hundred pounds additional work per minute spent training.
This is a huge increase in total work done without having to add any extra weight to the bar. So even if you're in a situation where your home gym doesn't have any extra weight, you can still make great progress. You haven't even changed exercise order, exercise selection, rep tempo, or load. Yet you're still managing to progress.
So hopefully you can see the benefits to implementing different methods of progression rather than just increasing the load all of the time. The key to progression is overload and there are various ways of doing that. Just make sure you're progressing.
Loading and Progressions: Nutrition
At the most basic level, you need to be in a caloric deficient to lose fat and a caloric surplus to gain muscle. The extent of these deficits or surpluses is very individual but there are some general guidelines.
If you're looking to pack some beef onto your frame, then increase your caloric intake every two weeks by 300 to 500 calories. It's important to consider your body type. Are you a skinny bastard? If so, then you're going to want to stick to the higher side of that calorie range. If you're a little soft in the belly, then you'll want to stick to the lower end.
And if you're on the heavy side, then you're actually better off losing the belly before you start your quest to be the next Jay Cutler. This is because your insulin sensitivity will be better when your gut is gone, allowing for you to put on more muscle and less fat.
On the fat loss side of things, it's best if you don't reduce your calories too fast. Instead use exercise to create the bulk of your caloric deficit. This will help keep your metabolism up as long as possible while you're dieting.
Initially you want to shoot for a 500 calorie deficit. Once you've maxed out the amount of exercise you can do and your fat loss has reached a plateau, start reducing your calories. First cut the starchy carbs, then total carbs, then all macronutrients equally.
Energy System Work
Again, three times per week seems to cause the fastest adaptations. Other than using cardio or other activities as plain old "calorie burners," additional work doesn't seem to result in a faster adaptation. Competitive endurance athletes may need more training sessions, but for the average fitness enthusiast looking to increase their fitness and look better, three times is pretty solid.
As far as progression goes, just try to cover more distance or burn more calories in the same time frame. A lot of trainees just switch off when it comes to cardio work. Think of the people you see reading a magazine when they should be busting their ass. You have to progressively challenge yourself!
Sequence this either directly after your weight training sessions or in a separate session altogether.
The Fantastic Four of Supplements
- Workout Nutrition: If you’re not taking care of proper pre, intra, and post-workout nutrition, then start there. Elite athletes and bodybuilders swear by Plazma™. Need a budget version? Check into Surge® Workout Fuel.
- Creatine: It’s one of the most proven supplements for athletes and lifters. Get the micronized version.
- Fish Oil: A good fatty acid supplement like Flameout® prevents inflammation, boosts your fat burning machinery, and makes you the healthiest meathead in your gym. Take it. Every day.
- Protein Powder: A common complaint from clients is that they have trouble getting enough protein in during the day. This is where protein powder comes in. A quality protein powder like Metabolic Drive® will give you a blend of fast and slow absorbing proteins that are easy on your gut. Protein powder should be used daily to augment your protein needs.
The Wrap Up
The principles that we've outlined in this article definitely won't be considered sexy, and you're probably thinking, "This shit is simple." But guess what? I bet you're not applying all of these basic principles. Look at your training program. Look at your nutrition plan. Are you consistently applying all of the things we've outlined? If not, stop complaining and make it happen.