Let’s face it – not everyone is built the same. Looking through bodybuilding magazines, we see endless routines that promise massive amounts of size by doing 50 sets of exercises for a single body part. Sure, if you’re a body is designed for high-reps, if you’re a genetic freak or using a little “something extra” you might be able to make gains on these kind of routines, but for us mere mortals such things often just won’t work. After a few years of burning myself out doing endless sets of bench presses, pulldowns, leg presses and such I found myself worn out and sluggish and, sure enough, I didn’t gain much more than a lack of motivation to get back into the gym due to my poor progress. Finally, I had to question what I was doing and what I had been told for so long. “You need to do 8-12 reps to gain mass”, “You can’t get huge without eating non-stop”, “You need supplements to get big”, “If you don’t eat meat, you can’t possibly develop good strength in your lifts”… the list goes on and on of everyone saying what can’t be done, making us believe that we’re all needing the same diet, exercises, reps and sets if we want to make progress. Well, it may have taken a few years of trial and error, but I’ve seen the light, and now I well know that what works for “the pros” or the huge guy down at the gym in all likelihood will not work for the rest of us. I’m going to outline a bit about how to make a radical change to your program if you’ve been on the same course I once was with bad progress, and who knows, if you try it you might just be surprised at the results!
Let me start with saying one thing – just because every magazine seems to reiterate the same statements on training and diet, don’t take it as gospel. The plan I’m about to outline will be rather different from what you’re used to seeing and reading, and although it is very contradictory to much of the common “knowledge” I’ve seen firsthand that for some (such as myself) it is the way to go. As they say, don’t knock it ’til you try it! Though, if you are on a program that’s been treating you well as far as payout for the effort you’re putting in, by all means don’t drop it until it starts to lose effectiveness. Nothing lasts forever, so if it is doing you well then keep at it. Now, on to the program!
Okay, this will seem very strange to some of you, but here’s the basis for the program – you’re going to do only 5 sets per body part, no more than 2 body parts per workout for a maximum of 10 sets while you’re in the gym, the exception being the grip work day. I know, some of you do twice that many sets for your bicep work alone, but this program is about building solid core strength and moving heavier weights to build yourself up, and spending 2 hours in the gym isn’t part of the deal. All in all, you should be able to do this workout in 30-45 minutes at most, possibly an hour at the very longest if you take longer rest breaks between sets. It isn’t how much time you’re putting in at the gym that’s important – the key is to make that time effective and work hard while you’re there. And, as the added bonus, in spending less time lifting you can do more of the other things you enjoy, so for those on tight schedules this is another nice thing.
For your sets and reps, here’s what you’ll want to do:
You’re going to be doing 2 progressive warm-up sets followed by 3 work sets. All sets will be 5 reps each, no more, no less. As with any program where you will be using a different rep scheme you might need to play around a bit to find your 5-rep max, but once you get it you’ll want to make note for where your starting point is.
For your first warm-up set, you’ll want to use around 50% of your 1 rep max. For example, if you can do a max barbell bench press with 300 lbs., you’ll want to do your first warm-up with around 150 lbs. If anything, go slightly lower to something like 135 lbs., but definitely not higher. Your second set should be around 75% of your 1 rep max. Again, if you can bench 300, your second warm-up set will be 5 reps at around 225 lbs. Though, as I said earlier, not everyone is the same, and you may have to do some figuring out what works best for you to get this right. With this in mind, you’re going to want to do your next 3 sets with between 82 and 88% of your 1 rep max, depending on what you can handle. I know people who can bench 10 reps with 85% of their 1RM, and others who can barely get out 4 reps – this is where you’ve got to experiment and find out where you can make 5 reps per set.
Need to figure out the effort that will go into these sets so you’ll know more about the weight to use? Here’s the key – your first set of 5 will be tough, but you’ll feel like you might have been able to get out one more last rep if you really fought for it. Your second set should be pretty much where you know that you couldn’t get another rep without failure. Your third set…well…if you’re not giving it 100% and coming extremely close to failure (or failing!) then you need to go up in weight. We want the last set to be incredibly difficult – and if you need a spotter to help you out after the 4th rep or if you need to get in a few breaths before the final one, so be it. But, you need to work with everything you’ve got to get that last rep out and done with so you can wrap everything up! And, the last question to be answered is, how do you know when to add more weight? The answer to this one is easy – when you can get that 5th rep out on the last set and not need any assistance to get it there, nor do you need to take a breather before getting it out – that’s how you know you’re ready. If you can blow through it with little difficulty then you’re ready to move on. But, make sure to move slowly and steadily – just add 5 lbs. each time to keep progressing with minimal chance of injury or mental setbacks due to not having a good day of progress. However, if you feel that your progress is moving extremely quickly, toss on another few pounds and have at it; at the worst, you’ll just have to drop down to the intended weight again.
Okay – now you know your sets and reps, but what about exercises? Well, being as you’re doing limited reps and sets you don’t want to be doing anything less than heavy compound movements while you’re in the gym. You’re not going to see great results from this if you’re doing cable crossovers and dumbbell lateral raises, so we’ll be ditching these types of exercises completely and going with the big ones. Rather than force you to do the same exercises I did, I’ll throw out some options for you to pick from. Here’s the list of exercises you can use:
Chest – Barbell flat bench, barbell incline bench, dumbbell flat bench, dumbbell incline bench
Upper back – Barbell rows, dumbbell rows, weighted pull-ups (if you can do at least 5 reps for 3 sets)
Lower Back – Deadlifts (there aren’t a whole lot of choices on this one)
Legs – Back squats, front squats, leg press ONLY if you don’t have access to a squat rack
Shoulders – Barbell military presses, barbell clean and press (if you want to get some added kick to your lifting), barbell push presses, dumbbell shoulder presses, one-arm dumbbell push presses
Trapezius work – Power cleans, hang cleans, dumbbell or barbell shrugs
Grip work – Farmer’s walks, barbell or dumbbell static holds, plate pinch gripping
We’re going to leave arm work at your discretion – but here’s the deal – you can only work arms once per week at most, no more than 3 sets total for either biceps or triceps (1 warm-up, 2 work sets each.) For arm work, choices are barbell curls, reverse barbell curls, dumbbell hammer curls and alternating dumbbell curls. I did arm work only once almost every 2 weeks and saw my strength rise dramatically, so don’t worry if you don’t get to do it much because you shouldn’t lose any strength along the way.
Now that I’ve outlined the exercises for this program, I suppose that the last thing you’ll need to know is the schedule for your lifting. Here’s the plan –
Since you’re going to be going all-out on this one you’ll need plenty of recovery time. Therefore, you’ll be lifting every other day so as to get a full day’s rest in between. To some this will seem very different, especially if you’re in the gym 5 days per week, but once you give your body more time to rest you’ll be likely to see greater gains. Now, here’s the schedule starting on a Sunday:
Sunday – Chest and Upper Back
Monday – Off
Tuesday – Legs and Shoulders (arms if you feel the need)
Wednesday – Off
Thursday – Lower back, Trapezius and Grip work
Friday – Off
Saturday – return to Chest and Upper Back, start cycle again
Easy enough, isn’t it? Nothing excessively technical, nothing too drastic, but rather a return to roots lifting where the main goal is to develop increased strength and size in the most efficient manner. What I also recommend is that if you’re up to see the overall gains, spend a week or two after you finish this program to test your 1 or 2 rep max in all your choice lifts. If all goes well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Diet is another key point – as common sense dictates, if you don’t eat more calories than you expend you won’t see much in the way of gains, so if you need to tweak you diet a bit then definitely get it set before beginning the program. I’m unusual compared to many – I weigh in at around 245-250 lbs. and I can make gains on as little as 3200 calories per day. I also knew a guy who couldn’t put on 3 lbs. in a year eating twice as much, and he only weighed in at 195. Again, everyone is different, so you’ll need to learn how much you can eat to maintain your weight and try to tack on 300-1000 more calories per day, depending on how your body handles it. Go low if you put on weight easily, go high if you can’t seem to put on weight without difficulty. If you put on too much weight too quickly and feel excessively bloated on the high end of the spectrum then drop the calories a bit – it always takes some experimenting to get just the right amount. Follow the usual rules of small to medium sized meals throughout the day, a decent amount of protein (though I only consume around 150-220g/day and not the usual recommendation of 1g per lb. of bodyweight.), get in a good mix of unsaturated fats and quality carbohydrates and you should see things work in your favor. I didn’t do anything in the way of supplementation other than getting the occasional strong coffee shortly before lifting, but if you’re interested in adding something like creatine or glutamine then by all means do so. Protein drinks are always helpful, so if you have a hard time eating conveniently then stock up on soy protein (or any other animal-free form) and have at it!
How well did this program work for me? Here’s a quick layout of what I’d gained in doing this program for 8 weeks:
Squats – I hadn’t squatted in almost a year due to a bad knee, but coming back out again I was able to get back up to 300 x 5 from having a difficult time with 225 x 5 on my first week. Not spectacular, but I can now squat deep and not feel any joint pain!
Deadlifts – I’d been stuck at 465 for my max for a while, and managed to budge the number up to 485 after the program (not every week was a success as far as increased weight, but looking at the total in the end a 20 lb. increase is quite nice!)
Bench – I’ve always been a horrible bencher and hadn’t done barbell bench pressing in nearly 2 years, but from a previous best at 250 from the start I was able to increase up to 285 for a max single.
Push press – Shoulders were always a weak spot for me, and I started out with 165 x 5 on my first week. By the end of 8 weeks of putting extra effort into my shoulder workout, I managed to push press 230 x 3 for a huge gain. It just goes to show, when you spend the time on the weak points you’ll see the gains come quickly!
Barbell and Dumbbell rows – My back was another weak spot for me – decent in size but strength was weak. I had a hard time doing 225 x 5 in the first week, but at the end I’d managed to get up to 260 x 5 and did a max of 295 x 2 for barbell rows.
For one last improvement, I had always been lax in biceps work as I’d train the heck out of them for a few weeks and take a month or two off so I never had much strength for curling. I did dumbbell hammer curls once every 10-12 days on the program and managed to set a PR of 85 lb. dumbbells for 3 reps each arm, which is around 15 lbs. more than I was capable of doing before. It goes to show, sometimes you don’t need to do frequent work for a body part, but consistency and intelligent hard work are will make all the difference.
So, in conclusion, if your training is in need of a serious overhaul, this might just be what you need to kick-start yourself back to getting the results you need. If you’re like me and had bad results with tons of high-rep/high set programs, what have you got to lose? While you’re at it you might just discover that lower reps and sets are the key to your progress. Good luck in your training, and if you decide to try this program be sure to send your results in when you’re through – I’d love to hear back on how well it worked for you!
Finally, I’d like to credit Brooks Kubik, author of Dinosaur Training as being a great influence on changing my lifting habits. Sometimes you’ve got to ditch everything you’ve been told and get a fresh perspective to get back on the road to progress – even if that perspective is from way before your time. If you haven’t had the chance to read this book, by all means go out and get it when you can!