I am going into this discussion with the assumption that the trainee has diet, supplementation, sleep, and stress in order. If not, the perfect routine is not going to be effective anyway. Many people go to the gym each week employing workout programs that look flashy on paper, but fail to deliver results. Why? Simply because the volume is not matched correctly to the intensity, and/or the frequency is not matched to the overall loading.
Why do so many lifters have a mis-match? More often than not it’s because they are trying to do something outside their current ability of recovery/work capacity. An important point to keep in mind is that the loading must be in tune with the lifters CURRENT state of experience. Most beginners want to do advanced routines and almost all intermediates DO advanced and highly advanced routines long before they are ready for them. Before going on I want to take a moment to lay out what I believe is important with overall loading schemes.
1. Volume should be as high as possible while STILL PROVIDING FAST STRENGTH INCREASES. This rule can be thrown out the window by extremely advanced lifters that already are very big and strong and want to do volume work purely for size. As a general rule, the higher the volume goes, to an extent, the slower strength gains accrue. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it applies to the vast majority in my experience. Don’t mis-read that as “Iron Addict likes high volume training”. I like it as high as can be done while still making fast strength gains, and for many lifters, that will be quite low volume.
2. Intensity should be matched to the volume. The more sets you do, the lower the intensity will be if you are to be successful. High volume and high intensity are mutually exclusive. No one with a functioning brain does 20 sets a bodypart to failure. If you use to failure, and beyond failure techniques, your volume will be low by necessity. Most to failure systems use one or two work sets per lift to failure, and few lifts (often one) per bodypart. Many lifters take a large number of sets to failure each workout and frankly, they are usually guys with great genetics, or lifters that are not making much progress and frustrated.
3. Frequency should be as often as possible WHILE STILL RECOVERING AND MAKING SOLID PROGRESS ON STRENGTH AND SIZE GAINS. Obviously the more often you can train/recover/grow and train again, the faster you will reach your goal. That said, training at a rate that rarely or never allows progress is fools work, and many of you are simply fools.
How to match these three up in a format that results in consistent progress is a constant source of frustration to many lifters. While there are no hard and fast rules owing to the wide disparity of genetics and experience, levels here are some guidelines to help you make the right choices when programming your training. And please keep that last statement in mind. Designing workout programs should have “programming in mind”. Most people just do “routines” with no thought of what comes next.
I will address intensity first since it is the simplest aspect of the three in program design. While it is a very simple classification and doesn’t cover all levels of intensity, I will go out on a limb and lay down the four basic categories used by the majority of lifters on their WORK sets.
1. Multiple reps short of failure. This is done most frequently with ramped loading (predetermined often) routines, and with medium-high volume loading. A couple examples are the first few sets of a lift of a trainee that is doing 16-20 sets a bodypart. The first few sets are USUALLY a few reps short of failure and either the weight is increases, or the same weight is used and as more sets are done fatigue sets in and increases the difficulty level. This is also done with lower volume routines where the weight is static for all sets. Such as doing 4 x 8 with the same weight. The first two sets are easy, the third hard, the last, almost all-out. 10 x 10’s are done with very sub-maximal weights and again fatigue over the course of many sets is the goal
5 x 5’s are done with sub-maximal weights in most cases. An example of a 300 lb bencher might look like:
300 the following week the sub-maximal weights go up, as do the last top set.
2. One rep short of failure. This is a very productive way to train that is still plenty intense, but doesn’t include the CNS fatigue most often accrued when doing sets to failure. It is often done in conjunction with sets done at lower intensity (multiple reps short of failure) and then the last work set is done one rep short of failure. In other words, you lift until you know that if you attempted the last rep it wouldn’t go. That is how I structure the majority of my routines and it allows a lot more tonnage and workload without too much CNS fatigue.
3. To failure training. This is where your work sets are taken to the point of absolute failure where try as you might, you cannot complete another rep and don’t quit until you have attempted the impossible—getting the weight up. This is a popular way to train and can be effective. The downsides are that it allows very little workload/tonnage to be completed. The can be both a blessing and a curse. The good side is since volume is so low many people recover very well and strength gains are consistent. The down sides are that many people’s CNS just do not tolerate it well and CNS is dampened a LOT unless frequency is very infrequent. Also since the tonnage is so low, SOME people do not build as much size as if the volume were higher.
4. Beyond failure training. This is where after a point of failure has been reached more work is done. Examples are forced reps where your training partner gives you JUST enough help to allow you to complete more reps after failure has been reached, rest-pause, and drop sets. Advantages are extremely compressed workload, usually one set a bodypart, very good growth stimulation with increased tonnage compared to the single set to failure method. Downsides are that it is EXTREMELY taxing on CNS.
That was a brief GENERALITY of how sets are typically performed but certainly doesn’t cover it all. What do I prefer? A combination of methods one and two. Doing a few sub-maximal sets, then, one-two sets taken to one short of failure. This allows more workload without excessive CNS fatigue, but still has enough intensity. I USED to use a LOT of to failure training and beyond failure training with both myself and training clients, but after slowly making the switch to the method just mentioned results have been MUCH better by a huge margin. And this isn’t just a small sampling; I work with about 70 clients at a time. As a side note, I don’t consider accidentally “missing” a very low rep attempt failure, as in 1 to 3 rep sets of max-effort work a per prescribed by WSB.
If you want to use to failure/beyond techniques I would recommend a “hardgainer” style routine with very few lifts, two-three days a week in the gym, and once a week per body-part if you are a beginner-intermediate level lifter. If you are ADVANCED use Dante’s (DC/Doggcrap) system. It is extremely well thought out, scalable to your needs, and takes into account many of the shortcomings of other high intensity systems and works EXTREMELY well—GREAT SYSTEM.
The workload needs to match your CURRENT experience level and work capacity. For beginners with less than 1-2 years experience, OR those that have always done everything wrong and are still at beginner strength levels after many years of training the volume should be relatively low. There are two primary schools of thought usually promoted. One line of thinking is that the beginner simply cannot generate enough intensity to do much damage so a mid volume, high frequency routine is the way to go. This usually translates into a full body 3 times a week routine. This can work extremely well. But……if it doesn’t, don’t keep doing something that doesn’t work.
Beginners usually have pretty horrible work capacity and full body 3 times a week beats the hell out of guys and girls that are totally out of shape and have poor CNS recovery. The other school of thought is that beginner’s need very little workload to grow well, and I am of this school of thought. I would rather start a beginner low and add workload as they progress. There is the old saying that “anything works for beginners” and that is only true to a point. Put a beginner on Arnolds advanced volume routine and many will get smaller and weaker every week. So….I believe starting low and working up over time accomplishes a couple very important things. It gets the trainee acclimated to lifting without beating them up so bad they quit, and allows consistent progress. And please keep in mind that at the beginner level strength gains should be pretty damn linear. If you are not getting stronger pretty much every week at this stage of the game you are doing something incredibly wrong.
Intermediates can get by with any amount of workload their bodies can handle and still recover from. At this stage, it often gets easy to lose sight of the fact that strength gains are still paramount. What generally happens is the lifter has made some good progress and has built up a good amount of strength. He is feeling good about himself, but knows he still isn’t near big enough. Scanning the muscle mags and lifting forums he looks at the stuff the pro’s and other BIG-BOYS are doing and decides that is the answer. He switches to very high volume and often high frequency and BAM! He makes a good jump is size! Then…..since he doesn’t understand that the gains he got were mostly from Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which occurs from an increase in the non-contractile cellular fluid in the muscle he thinks he has his long term training needs covered.
But….the sarcoplasma consists of nutrients, glycogen, capillaries, and mitochondria proliferation. It ISN’T contractile protein and to make contractile protein go up the rep ranges should probably be lower than what our hero is using, and with the workload having so much overall tonnage strength gains come VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y. Since strength isn’t going up what will he have to do to progress? Well more volume of course. But since he is already doing 16 sets a bodypart what next? 24? 30? Make sense? What the intermediate level needs is something that provides a balance of strength with enough volume/tonnage for better hypertrophy work than training purely for strength. This usually equates to a mid-volume routine with at least some of the work in the 1-6 rep range and higher reps for other lifts in the program.
Advanced lifters? At this stage of the game pretty much anything goes and if you are TRULY advanced you know better than anyone what works best for you or you wouldn’t have got this far. No need to make generalizations at this point.
As far as frequency is concerned, again what you want is as frequent as possible while still allowing fast progress. The variables here can be put in a lot of various sequences, but they still don’t vary too much. Again, here are more generalities that will cover a lot of ground, but will still be far from including every option are:
1. VERY low frequency, as in Mike Mentzer, John Little, Pete Sisco’s recommendations. These range as low as taking three-four weeks to hit all bodyparts. WAY too low IMO
2. Once every 9-12 days. These formats can work very well for extreme hardgainers, and even easy gainers as a de-load.
3. Once a week.
4. Once every 5 days. A favorite of mine, and something Charles Poliquin has recommended a lot.
5. Twice a week.
6. Three times a week.
7. Schedules that have multiple frequency ranges dependent on the bodypart being trained based on recovery, or need to specialize.
My preference for MOST trainees that have at least average recovery is once every 5 days setup on an upper/lower split that rotates. In other words:
If the trainee can recover from it, I put them on a 4 day a week program hitting everything 2 x a week.
Hardgainers, both real and functional are usually put on a once a week per bodypart routine until we can get their metabolic issues addresses and work on getting their work capacity up.
Advanced lifters can be put on anything under the sun they can recover from including waved volume, Rest-Pause, High volume strength based templates too, well, you get the idea, anything can go at that stage as long as it is still within their ability to tolerate the workload and suited to their goals.
A brief discussion about easy-gainers, average lifters, and hardgainers/extreme hardgainers is in order. I have had 250 lb fairly lean lifters with 19 inch arms after two and a half years training tell me they were hardgainers. Why? Because their shoulders didn’t grow fast, or their lats weren’t thick enough—BULLSHIT, these guys got it going on, and frankly, everyone likes to believe that their dedication was the prime reason for their success. Yes, it is a HUGE factor, but plenty of guys give their all 24/7 and just don’t get there that fast, or even at all.
Easy gainers are simple and a pleasure to work with. Provided they are consistent with diet and training they grow very well and results are very brisk compared to most lifters results.
Most lifters fall in the average range of bodybuilding/powerlifting potential. An educated guess is that 60-65% of the lifters have about average predisposition for lifting
A large percentage of the “hardgainers” are only hardgainers because they do so much wrong (a full length article to follow). And many are truly hardgainers due to genetics and metabolic disorders. These guys MUST approach their training different.
There are no hard and fast rules that determine who is and isn’t in which category. After doing this for over ten years I can usually make a very accurate estimate after reading a questionnaire and asking a few questions.
Hope that made sense, and makes it a bit easier when deciding what to do next in your pursuit of the physique and strength levels you dream of.
Stay tuned for the next installment!
This is M2M magazine material...sticky...and at least in my case...I just saved it in my collection of incredibly useful material.
I have been making excellent progress using the strength based routine. Thank you
Very interesting article, thanks for writing it.
Yeah IA. I just got back into gear with my life and training and I honestly would recommend this to anyone who is in the same position as me. I train every body part two times a week. Of course the load of weight would be different for me
Thank you for this post. Im going to print it and save it in my articles....
What variations, if any, would you make to the program for someone who was, a few years ago an intermediate lifter with good size and low bf%, but who took a few years off and is now fat (>25% BF) and primary goal is to lose weight? In terms of rep range, # of sets, etc.
I've been getting back into it with diet and training the last couple of weeks and doing elliptical for 20-25 minutes 4x/week and doing some compound exercises on those days. What I've been doing is 3 sets, 8-12 rep range, low weight. Soreness isn't bad at all with the exception of legs after my first time back at the squat rack. More than anything, the limiting factor at the moment I think is conditioning related (pulse shoots way up on the weight training and I quickly feel burnt out).
Any recommendations? At this point, I'm most inclined to look for what will shed the fat fastest from a weight training point of view.
This was a wonderful refresher for me - the queen of volume. I've just started reducing my volume and I'm hoping to start seeing better strength gains as a result. Thanks. I'll be referring a few people to this article.
Kicking ass is my comfort food
Great article IA, great information. I'm going to try and integrate this kind of approach into my current training.
if my body gets enough food (lots) and sleep, i found out that with low volume and high frequency routines short to failure the progress is awesome with minimum fat gains, much better than higher volume, medium frequency routines
i also found this is true to all of my friends ,when switching from high splitt isolation routines to 3x a week full body / compound routines, they explode!
i especially like the fact that fat gain is much easier to controle on high frequency routines and youre body can even stand some pizza...
as far as recovery goes, i foud out that for me 4x full body a week is quite optimal, more is not tolerable, especiall low-back-exhausting exercises are usually limited to 2x week