Today I’m mixing things up with a lighter post; less science (although all of these tips are definitely firmly rooted in the literature), straight to point, and no lengthy discussions.
I’ve never had an easy time putting on muscle. My body has always been more geared towards a slender look, rather than the beefy looking physique. So, in other words, I know how hard it can be to gain muscle and strength – at least if you’ve been training for a while. During my first couple of years of weight lifting I remember thinking that the experienced trainees and coaches in the gym knew the secrets to a perfect training program that contained all the ingredients necessary for optimal muscle growth. It only seemed natural that these experienced trainers, with their years of education, knew how the “optimal” strength training program looked like. However, I now know better; there is no one size fits all. However, there are some general guidelines/principles that everyone should stick to. Here are 5 of the ones I’ve found to be most important.
1. Base your training program around a set of compound exercises
Most people don’t need a lot of assistance work. My recommendation is to choose 4-6 exercises that make up the core of your training program. Put a lot of emphasis on your technique and progress in these lifts, as they are the movements driving a lot of your muscle and strength gains. I recommend choosing 1 exercise from each of these categories. I’m listing the ones I typically favor, but there are some other good options you can also choose from. Pick the ones that you master well and typically progress well in!
- Squatting movement. Regular back squat (low or high bar, with or without a box) or front squat (with or without a box).
- Hip dominant exercise. Deadlift (sumo or regular) or box squat.
- Pressing movement (shoulders). Press or some other type of shoulder press.
- Pressing movement (chest). Bench press, weighed push up, or dip.
- Pulling movement (back). Chin-up, pull-up, or lat pulldown.
2. Train every muscle group/major exercise 2-3 times a week
Contrary to what you might have read in Flex Magazine, completely destroying each muscle group once a week is not the optimal way to go for muscle growth. Actually, research indicates that training every compound lift multiple times per week is best for the majority of people.
Finding the right balance between volume and frequency is one of the keys to long-term progress. Based on the scientific research and my own personal experience, I’ve found 30-60 reps for each muscle group 2-3 times per week to be a good general guideline for most people. This rep range probably looks low to those people who are used to following a bodybuilding-type program, but it’s actually more than enough if you primarily train heavy compound lifts.
3. Focus on progressive overload in the major lifts
This should be a given, but this basic principle is often forgotten. All too often I see gym goers using the exact same weight, sets, and reps every workout. However, if there’s one thing we know about training it is that you have to adjust the stimuli in order to see adaptation. Buy a training journal, and always keep track of your progress in the major lifts.
4. Never fully adapt
One of the essential keys to long-term progress is to consistently add small amounts of weight to the major lifts, as this type of progressive overload is what causes you to gain muscle and strength over time. However, I’ve found that although progressive overload in the compound lifts should be the core principle of your program, many intermediate-experienced lifters require a different kind of stress as well.
When it comes to strength training, finding the right balance between specificity and variation is one of the most difficult things. As Will Vatcher said it in his excellent article at BretContreras.com: “There is a delicate balance between the correct blend of specificity and the correct amount of variation to progress“.
In order to continue progressing we want to never fully adapt. However, this clearly doesn’t mean that we should do a whole bunch of different exercises every time we train, as this type of random program doesn’t produce a specific physical adaptation over time. So, too much variation is definitely not a good thing. However, I’ve found that too much of the same thing isn’t optimal either. While beginners (and some intermediate lifters) don’t need any more than the compound lifts, more experienced trainees often don’t get optimal results (at least over time) from this very basic program. For these lifters, progressive overload in the basic lifts is still a priority, but supplementing with some random “pump” work could also be a good idea.
From a practical standpoint, one way to implement this is to begin by doing the primary exercise for a muscle group, with the load, sets, and reps you’ve planned, before you finish off with 1-2 other “random” lifts. Another way is to make minor alterations every couple of weeks, such as changing the rep ranges, rest periods, and/or exercise variation.
5. Leave something in the tank
For most gym goers, the problem isn’t that they’re training too hard, but that they’re not exhausting themselves at all. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are a lot of strength trainees who seem to think that more is always better. It’s not unusual to see people doing 5 sets in the bench press to complete failure before they move on to flyes, dips, and decline presses. But as we know, more isn’t always better, and I’ve actually found that leaving the gym with some energy left in the tank is a good approach. Unless your recovery rate is extraordinary, completely exhausting yourself every workout is not a good idea.
If we think about strength training from an evolutionary perspective it’s clear that getting into the gym and doing 20 sets of chest training is a very unnatural and novel behaviour. Lifting heavy things and performing fundamental human movements have been a natural part of human lifestyle even since the paleolithic, but the 10 set bicep workout is definitely a recent introduction from an evolutionary point of view. Does this mean that we shouldn’t do it? Not necessarily. However, looking at indigenous human activity patterns can help us understand how to realign our daily physical activities with the archetype that is encoded within our genome.
Bottom line: If your primary goal is to gain muscle and strength, progressive overload in a set of compound exercises should be the number one priority. Supplementing these compound lifts with some assistance exercises, pump work, etc. is usually a good idea for those who’ve been training for a while. Also, adding in some sprinting, rowing, and other physical activities will help optimize gene expression and confer robust health.