Exercise Programming is a Black art of Trial and Trial
In part 3 of this 4 part series on why you’re not getting result at the gym we’re going to talk about I think what is, the most asked question in weight training for building muscle mass. “What program should I do?”
Here’s the thing with programming. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. What seems to work for the guy in the gym who’s both genetically gifted and on steroids ISN’T going to work for you. What that guy doesn’t even want to know (because his ego is bigger than his muscles) is that what he’s doing isn’t even the optimal program for him. Or you get the guy who says “I’ve been training for 20 years, I know what I’m talking about”. Funny, they don’t train that hard and someone forgot to tell their muscles they're training.
So, let’s be very clear right up front. No one can give you a definitive weight training program that perfectly suits you for optimal possible results. Period!!!
We are all individuals. No one person’s genetics are the same as anyone else’s. Even different people’s perceptions of what “hard” training means and their motivation to tolerate pain to push that little bit harder is different.
On one side we have guys in the gym telling us to do one thing. Some of whom don’t look like they follow their own advice. Or the PTs who are supposed to know what they’re doing. FYI. Most PTs I see have no idea. Mostly because they are victims of the companies selling PT training and suck people in to the idea of having their own business or living some fantasy life. Warning. Don’t take advise from even a PT who doesn’t look like they follow their own advice; you don’t see them in a gym training hard themselves; they don’t look to a greater or lesser extent that they have the results you’re looking for; and you don’t see their other clients getting results.
On the other side you have the people online who are usually genetically blessed to some extent and/or start quoting “research” that “states” that you only need 15-20 sets per body part per week. Here’s my problem with these types of people. You get a genetically gifted person who’s genetically gifted to some extent who could do just about anything and put on mass. Whatever they say isn’t going to be appropriate for the majority of people. Any YouTube headline that says something like “how to get huge arms in 30 days” is BS! Then what’s the thing with people trying to give themselves credibility quoting all the “research”. Just think for a minute. What type of people are going to volunteer for research? People who are already interested in training. Look at any gym. Going by the people you see in the weight room you’d be thinking that the majority of guys can build mass quite easily. No. It’s just that the people who keep going to the gym are ones who get results easily. The ones with some degree of genetic predisposition. Or, again for research, people who are absolute beginners. The “research is then averaged out. Oh, and they always quote “meta” studies. In case you don’t know the difference, a “meta” study is looking at other peope’s studies and trying to aggregate all the results into a new paper.
I’ll be honest that I’m nothing out of the ordinary, just a guy who doesn’t put on mass easily. I have to work hard for every single little bit of growth. I can tell you that 15-20 sets per week (that’s 7 – 10 in each of the 2 workouts in a week – more on that later) does absolutely nothing for me. Personally, I need lots of volume. As much as I can recover from. But that’s just me. So, “research”?
The only thing anyone can do is to give you a starting point. The guys at the gym on the “gear” can’t even give you that. Remember, 99.999999% of guys have no formal education at all from which to base any of their “knowledge”. If they did, they themselves would at least be doing an exercise correctly. Online it’s not much better. The best thing anyone who’s serious about building mass, or even if you just want to make the most of your time on the gym can do is self educate. Yes, that normally requires real books. The basic fundamentals of building mass have not changed for a long time. Most people you see online don’t take into account any of the fundamentals. Like… no one can give you a definitive program for you.
Ok, rant about what not to listen to over. Now what.
All that being said. No, I’m not going to give you an ideal program for you here. Because no one can give it you. There is no easy route to building muscle mass. The harder you work the better your results. The work isn’t only when you have a weight in your hand, it’s also in the preparation. What I am going to give you are the fundamentals and a starting point. I’m going to educate, not tell. What’s the old saying about “teach a man to fish…” Of course I will as always smack some egos around and if your ego is that important maybe stop reading now. If you care more about being effective than feeling like you’re always right, read on.
1) Muscle physiology
Muscles are made up of fibres, No surprise there. But if you look at for example the chest, the fibres run in all different directions. Therefore, you have to work the chest from multiple angles to work the most fibres as effectively as possible. So that means we need more than just a flat bench press. Or even an incline. The chest helps move our arm far more directions than just pressing. Pressing alone we have in broad terms three angles. The chest helps us also pull our arms down at the front and push down when our elbows are behind our body. That’s why we need exercises like pullovers and dip movements included in a chest workout.
We also don’t just use dumbbells or cables. We mix it all up as the different equipment gives a different load profile to the muscles. Some are harder at the start of a movement, some are more consistent or perceived harder at the end of a movement. This is all down to biomechanics and the way the muscles work with the levers of the body and the way the weight interacts with gravity through the exercise range of motion.
The result of all this is that we need to mix up our exercises. We’ll discuss how shortly.
Volume is how many reps per week a certain muscle group is loaded with. I mean reps as part of intensesets, not “oh I’ve done 10 that’s it, gee that wasn’t too hard”. I mean sets that hurt and take real effort to squeeze the last couple out. Some of the “research” people say we should be doing 120 – 150 reps. Averaging 10 reps that’s 12-15 sets a week. That’s obviously not a hard and fast number. Averaging the 8-12 rep range we’re just using 10 as a guide so we get 12 – 15 sets a week. Of course if you need to do another rep or two to max out the muscle you do it. The other side is you take a leaf from Arnie who says that as much volume as you can recover from is the right amount to train. I’ll be honest that I respond better to higher volumes. I’ve trained about every split for a program and intense high volume is what it takes for me. But, through trial and error I can, with a high degree of certainty say I know what works for my genetics and body type. So, what’s the answer for everyone else. Trial and error. Or as I prefer to say, test, measure, tweak, test, measure, tweak….. repeat. Program wise I’m quite set but I still play with exercises to see if I can tweak them to be the most effective they can be for my biomechanics and further enhance my mind muscle connection. I care about results, not feeling like I’m always right.
As a starting point (I’m assuming you’re serious and aren’t a complete beginner) you need to be looking at between 6 and 8 sets per body part per week. That may sound a lot but bear with me. In the next point I’ll talk about how ways to put it all together. Unfortunately, with bodybuilding results are directly related to time and workload.
Where you go from there depends completely on you. Your genetics. Your commitment. If you find you’re not recovering, meaning your weights are slipping and you find yourself consistently not being able to train hard enough you need to back off. If you find your weights are progressing and you’re building, then great. If you’re going forward and have the time experiment with more volume. Add a couple of sets to each workout. Give yourself some time to adapt and see what happens. Then adjust as necessary. It’s better to start off conservative and work up.
In the real world there is this thing called time that we also have to contend with. The more sets we do the more time it takes. We don’t all have 3 hours a day to spend in the weight room so there are limitations that aren’t our body.
3) Training frequency
I think anyone who has been involved in weight training for a while has tried a few different routine splits. Bro splits, push pull legs, full body.
I see full body as usually a beginner’s workout, for people who are time poor, or for those whom weight training is a good idea for exercise but aren’t serious about putting on mass. Push pull legs… kind of the same thing just moved past full body. This type if split really doesn’t allow for the specificity required for something like the deltoids or focusing on arms.
Then you have the Bro split. One body part per day of the week. I spent years doing that because it’s just what was done. It’s what anyone who was “serious” did. Sure it got results, but we now know not optimal resutls.
Now the facts.
For optimal growth, we need to be training a body part twice a week so we total out the week with enough volume and don’t waste muscle recovery time.
Our muscles don’t take a week to recover. Therefore, if we go for a Bro split we have muscle groups sitting idle for far longer than they need. They’re actually being given days to effectively detrain. Smaller muscles like biceps and triceps take about 2 days to recover. Larger ones 3 days. For optimal growth we need to be hitting a muscle group just as it’s recovered to keep the cycle of damage and repair continuous. There’s no point in having the muscles sitting idle for days at a time.
4) Putting it all together
Sometimes I think fitting it all together into a workable program is harder than the actual workouts themselves.
At the start when your set count is maybe on the lower side it’s not such a big deal. For example 3 or 4 sets for something like chest then a couple for biceps isn’t too onerous in the gym. Maybe mixing in some shoulders with chest and back. Remembering working all muscle groups twice a week. Still very workable given 2 minutes between sets. If that’s getting you results then great. If you’re still recovering well, want even better results and have the time do more. However, no point throwing volume at yourself to start with. Better to start on the lower side, then add volume a little at a time. There could well come a time when you aren’t seeing extra gains for the extra volume, only feeling tired all the time and seeing your weights slip, so you’ll need to back off.
When you start to see your volume needs rising you have to get more creative with how you make the most from your time in the gym. Super setting becomes not an option but a must. As in for examply do a chest exercise and in the rest period between those sets you’re doing biceps. It’s all about getting the most work done for your time in the gym. A side benefit of super-setting is that you start to get a cardio benefit from your weight training session.
Test, measure, tweak, test measure, tweak…
Always remember too that you’re going to need at least a day of rest per week. What I do is have my program cycle. Workouts planned for day 1-6, but I don’t plan a rest day. Why? Because I live in the real world and listen to my body. I know that in any given week I an going to have a day when things happen that mean I just can’t get to the gym. That becomes my day off. If for some reason my body is telling me it really doesn't have a hard workout in it that can be a day off. If I end up with 2 days off in a week, I don’t beat myself up. It’s called life. We aren’t pro bodybuilders who have nothing to do but train, rest and eat.
The workout for the day I missed just gets moved to the next day. You don’t miss a workout because you missed the day, if that makes sense. Not having a specific workout for a certain day my be a foreign concept to some but oncw you get your head around mixing body parts and training a body part twice a week it all really doesn’t matter. I know, what would some people do without Monday always being cheat day.
All along the way and even at the start you have to decide how important weight training is to you. If it’s just a good idea for some fitness that’s perfectly fine. The down side is that you will allocate the amount of time you feel is enough for a “good idea”. If weight training is one of the most important things in the world, then you’ll allocate the time required for the results you have in mind and you’ll prioritise it over just about anything.
I hate to burst people’s bubble (again) but if it’s just a “good idea”, your training intensity won’t be that high. The reality is that you just won’t be motivated to tolerate the pain necessary for intense training. On the other hand, if it’s about the most important thing in the world, you’re intensity will be high as your pain tolerance will be high. Ok, that’s assuming you even know what the correct level of intensity should be.
Weight training for mass gain is a dynamic process. All along the way you’re making adjustments. Testing. Trying different exercises. Refining how specific exercises work for you. Learning new things. Most importantly, learning a new level of patience as each change, each result can take months to make a visible difference. I hate to think of the time I’ve invested in trying different things. If only someone could have come along and given me my current program 30 years ago. Of course that’s impossible, as it’s taken this long to find out what specifically works for me. Complicating things. I’m not the same person I was 30 years ago.
Weight training… a never ending process to an ideal we have no hope of achieving, but we still work to be the best we can be. Maybe it’s not the ultimate lesson in patience. Maybe it’s the ultimate lesson in faith.