Over 90% of the questions I’m asked at the gym or via email are about the best weight lifting routine to get huge and strong. How many sets, reps, drop sets, super sets, rest time, frequency, duration etc…?
My answer is always the same. It doesn’t matter You don’t grow in the gym, you grow at the dinner table.
It’s never the training routine that’s limiting growth, it’s always the recovery phase, eating and sleeping. The vast majority of people who want to get bigger and stronger already train hard enough to grow, they just don’t eat and sleep enough to grow. They carry a notebook and want to show me every rep and set of every workout and routine they’ve done for the past three years, but there’s not one page with a record of their meals. I feel bad for them because I know they work hard in the gym and they rarely miss a workout, but the notebook just documents all the muscle they’ve broken down and has no record of what they’ve been doing to build it up. I know because I did it myself. When I started college nearly 30 years ago there was no Internet and few reliable resources to find information about getting big and strong. I started lifting two hours a day, six days a week, doing endless sets and reps of every exercise in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. I struggled to put on five pounds a year until I finally came across an experienced lifter who told me I was wasting my time with all that lifting and told me to go home and eat. By cutting my training back to an hour three days a week and hiking my calories up to over 5,000 a day, I was able to put on 20 pounds in less than a year!
In the book outliers, they speak of the 10,000 hour rule as the necessary amount of time to become an expert at any given sport. It doesn’t apply to bodybuilding or powerlifting. PowerBuilding is not a skill like pitching a baseball, sinking a three pointer, hitting a golf ball or even playing the piano. Those pursuits require thousands of hours of practice to perfect the motor skills necessary to become an expert. PowerBuilding is very different. Lifting weights is not a skill (Olympic lifting not withstanding), it is simply a stimulus for size and strength, and it doesn’t actually build muscle, it just breaks down muscle. And lifting light weights that don’t force the body to adapt provide little to no stimulus at all for growth. Don’t get me wrong, walking around the neighborhood and doing a few curls with the pink rubber hand weights is great for your mom to stay healthy, but you’ll never get huge and strong doing her workout – I don’t care how many hours a day you do it!!
It really is this simple:
Lift heavy weights three times a week for an hour. Eat lots of food and sleep as much as you can.
That’s it. There’s nothing more to add. I’d love to be able to just stop there and trust that the person asking the question will do exactly those two things and get huge and strong.
But, there’s always a million nit picky questions to follow, the answers to which really make very little difference. People have become well informed and read everything they can about the sport, so they want to hear me confirm or negate every last theory, belief, bias, research study, proposal, hunch, testimonial and Dr. Oz episode they’ve ever watched. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. It’s always a good idea to educate yourself and keep track of your training and diet, but there is no holy grail. Using a bunch of words nobody understands and trying to explain to yourself or others every detail of the Krebs cycle has very little effect on your progress.
I’m as bad as anyone about trying to learn all the latest training and nutritional information, but I understand that 99% of progress comes from those 2 simple rules: Lift heavy weights and eat and sleep a lot. Therefore, I don’t let myself stray from the basics and I don’t waste half my time chasing the 1%, I spend most of my time and effort making sure I’m doing the 99% as hard and as consistent as I can. Train heavy, eat and sleep. Repeat.
What is heavy? Don’t over complicate the answer. If its too easy, add more weight. Repeat.
How much is enough food? If you’re not gaining muscle, eat more. Repeat.
Sure, if you try to lift too much weight with horrible technique, you’ll get hurt. Duh!
Sure, if you eat hot dogs and pizza all day, you’ll get fat. Duh!
Beyond that, don’t get caught up with all the details spewed out of the mouths of every card-carrying-weekend-online-personal-training certificate holder trying to tell you that you HAVE to keep your elbows tucked to your sides, arms perpendicular to the floor, don’t go past ninety degrees, slightly bend at the knees, breathe in, now breathe out, don’t lock out, two seconds on the way down, four seconds on the way up, 10 more, 9, 8, good, 7, 6 more, you can do it … Somebody shoot me in my “$&@:/#” face so I don’t have to listen to that any more!
Likewise, don’t stock up on bags of shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and fish eyes because you heard Japanese people eat it and they live longer. They live longer because they have 1/10 the obesity rate of Americans so the fish eyes aren’t the answer, just stop being a fat ass and you won’t drop from a heart attack four years before a Japanese person!
Don’t chase the 1%, there is no magic training routine or diet that’s going to provide any measurable results over the basic principles for getting huge and strong: Train heavy, eat and sleep more.
Again, I should stop there because I don’t care if I piss off the wanna-be’s and know-it-alls we hear advising everyone who mistakenly comes within earshot of these self proclaimed experts and perennial advisers of the masses, but I know there’s some very hard working and passionate lifters out there who are struggling to get better results and need just a little more to chew on so they don’t keep wasting endless hours in the gym and untold dollars on the latest worthless pill or potion at the store.
For them, I will peel back one more layer of this simple recipe for results, but don’t be disappointed when you see behind the curtain and find out the Wizard of Oz has no magic powers. You’ll see it’s all common-sense stuff you already know and it boils down to hard work, discipline and consistency.
1 Train heavy
Hypertrophy is best achieved in the 5-10 rep range. Lift the heaviest weight you can handle for at least 5 reps and if you can lift it more than 10 times, increase the weight. Google “Dorian Yates Workouts” to learn all about “growth sets” so you understand that maximum intensity provides the stimulus for muscles to grow, not endless reps and sets. For example, If you’re doing incline dumbbell presses and you do 10 reps with the 60’s, then ten reps with the 70’s, then 10 reps with the 80’s, then finally go to failure with seven reps plus two more assisted with the 100’s, you didn’t do four sets. The only set that counts is the growth set. The set you put maximum effort into, the one where you failed and struggled through a couple more assisted reps. You did one set. The rest of those “warm up” sets were a waste of time and only served to put unnecessary repetitive strain on your tendons and ligaments. Just do a few reps of each lighter weight to warm up on your first exercise then even fewer warm ups on subsequent exercises. Save your energy and your joints for the sets that count, the growth sets.
2 Don’t sweat the small stuff
How many sets and exercises? It doesn’t matter. I can build an entire workout around one or two max effort growth sets and go home and grow. Volume doesn’t improve results, intensity does. Don’t train for more than an hour and don’t count all the warm ups. Do one or two Max effort sets of a couple multi-joint mass building exercises and go home. Don’t follow up a couple sets of 400 pound bench presses with cable crossovers and don’t do five reps of 500lb rack lockouts for triceps then try to follow that with some cable push downs, it’s a monumental waste of time!! If you can’t grow from heavy squats, the leg extension machine ain’t gonna help you one bit so skip it and do the squats! And quit doing curls in the squat rack simply because the lighting is better and the mirror is full length!
3 Less can be more
How often? Three days a week is plenty. Push, pull, legs is still a great way to grow. Chest, shoulders and triceps one day, back and biceps another and then legs. The basic movements like bench and dips work all the muscle groups in the push chain so you don’t need a bunch of isolation exercises if any. Same is true of T-bar rows and chins for the pull chain and squats for legs.
If you are powerlifting then transition from the hypertrophy phase into the powerlifting phase about 8 weeks out from a meet and begin doing heavy doubles and triples on the powerlifting movements followed by maybe one or two sets of one or two ancillary exercises afterwards. For example, work up to two or three sets of doubles or triples on flat bench then follow that up with a heavy set or two of rack lockouts or dips and go home.
When I squatted 905 lbs raw in training, I was only squatting every OTHER week. Twice a month! I deadlifted on the alternate weeks and benched once a week. You heard correctly, I trained twice a week when I hit my 2,303 pound raw total and set the all-time world record. I would bench on Mondays and squat OR deadlift on Saturdays. Wednesdays was stretching, balance and core work. That’s it!
It’s about recovery. I didn’t do any “light” days, waste of time. I have no idea what’s suppose to be accomplished by doing a few reps with 60% of your max. What about “Speed work?”. What about it? Waste of time!! If I don’t bench heavy on a Monday night then I sure as hell don’t do some really fast light reps or a bunch of push ups. I load up the incline press with 500 pounds or grab the 200-pound dumbbells and knock out as many reps as I can or behind the neck press 315 for reps. I try to take my body somewhere it hasnt been before so it will adapt and grow when I eat and sleep.
The only reason to lift weights is to stimulate a growth response. Lifting half what you’re capable of isn’t going to stimulate anything.
I really have come to believe that all these fancy machines and “cutting edge” routines are designed BY lazy people FOR lazy people who can’t or don’t want to do the hard work necessary to get results. How many years have you been going to gyms and see the same people lifting the same weights and looking the same as they did when they started?
Don’t let that be you. Take your body somewhere it hasn’t been before then give it enough food and rest so it can adapt and grow!!! I know it’s difficult to look yourself in the mirror and admit that it’s your own fault if you’re not getting results. It’s not because you don’t know something someone else knows or haven’t figured out the right set and rep scheme or bought the right blend of supplements, it’s because you need to get back to the basics and train heavy then eat and sleep with the kind of consistency and intensity that will create results.
4 Eat lots of food and sleep as much as you can
The sleep part doesn’t need any explanation. Don’t run if you can walk, don’t stand if you can sit and don’t stay awake if you can sleep. Done.
What do you eat? The answer to this question has been made more confusing and complicated by everyone trying to sell you their version of the latest greatest diet or supplement program but it’s not rocket science either.
Eat numerous meals a day, each one consisting of a quality animal protein source (eggs, lean red meat, fish, chicken, milk) along with some complex carbs (rice, oatmeal, bread, pasta, vege’s). It’s that simple.
If you insist on percentages then go with 33/33/33 for fats/protein/carbs. If you’re gaining too much fat, reduce the calories. If you’re not gaining weight, increase the calories. Easy enough.
There’s your 99%. All the other stuff combined (meal timing, ratios, supplements, high carb, low carb, no carb, high fat, low fat, Atkins, Paleo, Zone, etc…) doesn’t add up to 1%. Most of the time, going to one extreme or another sets you back instead of improving your results.
I told you – it’s common sense. Problem is, executing a successful plan every day, every week, every month and every year is the stumbling block. It’s easy to understand, but are you doing it?
Every time I’ve reached a “plateau” in my results, I’ve never been able to solve the problem by implementing some new training routine or diet. I’ve always had to admit to myself that I wasn’t executing the 99% plan. You have to be honest with yourself about wasted workouts, missed meals or a few short nights of sleep. That’s always where the problem is. So if you see me at the gym or a show, just tell me you already know what the problem is and you’re gonna train harder and eat and sleep better. That way we can skip all the worthless postulation about the 1% and talk about something more meaningful like your family or your business.
All my best!