The wisest man I ever knew taught me something I never forgot. And I never forgot it. But I never memorized it either. What I’m left with is the memory of having learned something damn wise that I can’t remember.
Oh! I remember now! Two things:
First, he taught me that whether muscle growth or fat loss is what you are after, weight lifting is the best tool for the job (no, it’s not cardio).
Second, he said that burpees rhyme with pointless, and instead, I should create a training plan based on the following 9 variables:
As I said in my previous article:
Volume is the total amount of work done per workout/week/month. Simply put, it’s the number of sets per muscle group per week.
And whether you want to gain muscle or preserve it while dieting, you need to perform a certain amount of volume to see progress:
2017 meta-analysis (an analysis of all relevant studies on a topic aka “a study of studies”)…
…Found that as the number of sets increases muscle growth increases too:
However, when you reach maximum recoverable volume no additional progress is made, and if you keep adding sets, you might even regress:
“The more the better” idiocy doesn’t apply here. More is only better as long as you are still able to recover.
So what we now have as a general recommendation is 10–20 sets per major muscle group per week. The more advanced you’re the closer to the upper end of the range you should be:
Now that you know how many sets you need to do you can start spreading them across the training week. That’s where training splits come into play.
Most gym dudes train each muscle group once a week: Monday — chest, and triceps; Tuesday — back and biceps, etc.
Unlike such gym dudes, I don’t share the same disdain for bro splits. And I’m not the only one. Eric Helms, a PhD in strength and conditioning, observed:
Wanna get more sciency? Well, scientific literature also shows training each muscle group at least twice per week is superior for muscle growth:
So instead of doing national chest day every Monday, consider full-body or lower-upper body splits (or get one of my training programs).
3. Exercise Selection
You now know how many sets you need to do and how often you need to train. Before you fill your workouts with nothing but deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and lunges, you probably, most definitely need to read this:
There are no must-do exercises unless you’re a powerlifter.
The above are great exercises but you don’t have to do them to make progress. Instead, keep the following tips in mind when selecting exercises:
- The principle of specificity — you must train specifically to your goals. If you want voluptuous glutes, pick exercises best suited for that;
- Pick exercises with a better stimulus to fatigue ratio that I talked about here;
- Don’t change exercises too often — it’s dumb because you are not giving your body a chance to progress in those exercises:1
- Choose 1–2 compound (multi-joint) and 1–3 isolation (single-joint) exercises for each muscle group per workout (article);
- Use the mix of both free-weight and machine exercises. Both training modalities produce similar muscle growth so there’s no need to avoid any of them (article);
- Pick exercises that you can do with a full range of motion (!!!) and give you no pain or discomfort due to past injuries or poor mobility.
4. Exercise Order
Every time I’m in the gym I see some girl doing a weird exercise with one leg in the air. Keeping mosquitos away, I once thought. Apparently, the exercise is called a donkey kickback and it’s often done right at the start of a workout:
I just don’t get it. It’s like doing barbell bicep curls without a barbell. Utterly useless. Anyway…
In most cases, you should perform compound barbell exercises first when you’re fresh. That way you will optimize performance and get the most out of stimulative exercises.
Exercises should be in a strategic order. If you smoked triceps with dumbbell skull crushers and you want to train chest next, guess what? Your triceps will give out before your chest will get stimulated.
So make sure you start with exercises that are most effective for your goal and ones that target your weak points or lagging muscle groups.
5. Repetition Range
A large segment of the training population has an idea of the so-called “best rep range” for muscle growth or fat loss. There is no such thing — muscle growth can be achieved when training through a wide variety of rep ranges.2
Not only that but one rep range can offer something that you cannot get from another:
- 1-5 rep range increases strength and when you’re stronger, you can use heavier weights which then translates to more volume and possibly more muscle growth;
- 6-12 rep range allows you to accumulate sufficient volume for muscle growth to occur;
- 12-30 rep range helps with joint and tissue health after beating the living crap out of them with 1-5 and 6-12 reps ranges.
But hang on, every rep range has cons too:
- Lifting only in the 1-5 rep range can result in more joint pain;3
- Lifting only in the 6-12 rep range means that you’re missing out on muscle growth that could be obtained from other rep ranges;
- Lifting only in the 12-30 rep range can be fatiguing.4 You might even start vomiting in the middle of a 30-rep squat set. No joke — this study reported vomiting in the high rep training group. Yikes…
So whether muscle growth or fat loss is the goal you should train across a wide spectrum of repetition ranges. Here’s how to set up your training:
6. Rest Periods
Remember when I said that burpees also rhyme with pointless? There’s more:
The only thing worse than burpees is people doing burpees right between the fucking sets for an “active recovery.”
STOP. DOING. THAT.
The real reason behind people doing burpees, jumping jacks, or some such crap between sets is to burn calories.
Listen, you’re not trying to burn calories when strength training. You’re trying to build muscle and strength. Leave your diet and physical activity outside the gym to handle the energy expenditure part.
Sohee Lee, CSCS, CISSN, and a researcher noted:
So stop being afraid that rest is counterproductive and take ~1.5-minute rest between smaller muscle groups and at least a 2-minute rest between compound lifts.5
7. Workout Length
Ever heard some beefcake in the gym saying that you shouldn’t train longer than 45 or 60 minutes? He probably “backed” up this claim by mentioning something about goofy cortisol or catabolism. Or both.
There’s no evidence that your muscles are catabolized — broken down into amino acids — after an hour of training.
The goal of a workout is to get sufficient volume in. Take as long as you need to get your volume in. There’s no best workout length.
As I wrote here — 8 reasons why you’re not gaining muscle — every workout results in increased fatigue and after some time, you’re going to carry some degree of cumulative fatigue. If not managed, this is what happens:
The easiest way to fix that is to take a deload week every 4-8 weeks:
You can approach it in different ways:
- Reduce sets for all exercises in half;
- Reduce weight in half;
- A combination of both.
Just make sure to eat at maintenance calories — DO NOT eat less.
Just because you train less doesn’t mean you have to live off some liquid lettuce from Mongolia — no calorie deficits during a deload week.
How are you going to recover if you’re not giving your body enough energy?
When people are desperate to lose weight or build muscle they often fall for plyometric mumbo-jumbo HIIT workouts after seeing them on Instagram.
But do you enjoy such ass-busting intensity training? Can you adhere to it for a long period of time? It doesn’t matter how good your program is if you cannot stick to it.
So ask yourself two questions:
Is my training plan realistic? Does it fit my schedule?
Listen, if you decided to train 6 times per week, how about you rethink your strategy? Instead of doing 5-6 half-assed weekly workouts prove that you can do 3 kick-ass workouts every week CONSISTENTLY.
Only then you can think about doing more (and only if you’re not progressing).
And the second Q is:
Is my training plan enjoyable? Can I do this for a long period of time?
If your training plan consists of treadmill running mode for eight weeks coupled with 100 masochistic burpees every day, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to enjoy it.
Focus on improving exercise technique, overall strength, increasing reps at a given load, etc. because those give you results and as a result, make you feel damn good about yourself.
- Start creating your training plan by allocating at least 10 sets per week for every major muscle group;
- Spread those sets in a way that the same muscle group would be trained 2-3 times per week;
- Pick exercises best suited for your goal and organize them in a strategic order;
- Train within a variety of repetition ranges;
- Rest until you feel ready to perform at your best on the next set and don’t worry about a workout length;
- Stop being a hard-core workout warrior and take recovery sessions every 4-8 weeks;
- Set up your training plan around not only fundamental principles but also enjoyment.
Thanks for reading, guys and gals. Now I’m off to the gym to witness people jumping and touching the sky for no reason at all.
Originally published by me on Medium on July 18, 2021.