“The internal processes of muscle growth are seriously complicated, people devote their lives to it, but the external processes that kick it off, the things in your control can be distilled down to a few principles: Get stronger in the right rep ranges, eat appropriately, commit to the program and consistently work hard at it.”
Strength and hypertrophy regimes are becoming more numerous and complicated. There are so many programs out there now that it is confusing for any trainee to know where to start. This confusion is compounded by the fact that many articles contradict each other in their training methodology and rationale. Regarding hypertrophy for example, one trainer will recommend high volume training, whilst another will declare that low volume high intensity work is most effective.
For the trainee the solution to all of this is to not focus on the differences or get bogged down by detail. Becoming fixated with complex training variations will only induce paralysis by analysis. You end up over thinking and not training. I know and have been there. You must strip away the non essentials.
I have personally stripped down and simplified my training routine to a bare bones workout that still covers all the bases. I wish I had taken on this information 30 yrs ago, but I guess with age comes wisdom and experience. The young me probably would not have listened anyway.
Despite the conflicting information that bombards us there are certain universal principles that all effective training regimes share which will facilitate physical training adaptation. I will itemise these for you in no specific order of importance.
General principles of physical training adaptation
Follow an intelligent nutrition plan:
In other words get a balanced diet and provide your body with high quality real food. If you consume one gram of protein for each pound of lean body-weight per day then that is plenty assuming that you are a natural athlete. Natural trainees are rarely deficient in protein. Do not assume that more is better as far as ingestion of protein is concerned. If you are a natural athlete the body will use what it needs and the excess will be dumped. Try to drink plenty of water and eat vegetables and some fruit everyday. Reduce consumption of simple sugars, and avoid excessive alcohol intake.
Ensure your body receives proper recuperation
Recuperation is notoriously overlooked and is paramount in ensuring physical training adaptation. Trainees tend to overlook or ignore this and mega dose on protein instead, I know as I was one.
Physical training adaptation processes such as muscle growth are not stimulated by extra protein consumption and they occur whilst we sleep, not whilst we are training. Training is the stimulus for growth and adaptation, but your sleep, rest and nutrition facilitates the adaptation to occur. Most trainees require a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night.
During the workout, you will need more rest between sets for heavy lifting (i.e. 3 to 5 minutes), and less rest between sets for lighter work (i.e. 60 to 90 seconds). As a general rule, the greater the intensity of the set, the more rest is required. In time you will intuitively know when you’re ready for the next set.
More is not better when it comes to the duration of your workout. Best results are achieved when mental focus and energy levels are at their highest i.e. the first thirty minutes of your workout. Optimum training should be forty five minutes or less. Intensity is a function of time, as Mike Mentzer stated, you can train hard or you can train long, but you cant do both. Training for too long can cause a drop in your natural anabolic hormone levels and a rise in the catabolic stress hormone cortisol, leaving you feeling drained and weak. You should feel invigorated at the end of your workout. Overtraining is not a myth.
Training four times a week is optimum and allows sufficient time for recovery between workouts. Chemically enhanced athletes can obviously train more frequently due to their increased recuperative powers.
Employ primarily compound multi joint exercises in your workout
Ensure that you predominantly utilise compound, multi joint exercises with free weights. In other words exercise movements, not individual muscles. Utilise big pushing and pulling movements and their variants such as squats deadlifts and rows, chin ups, overhead barbell and dumbell presses, chest presses and power cleans. These movements involve more and larger muscle groups and elicit greater neuro – muscular activation than isolation exercises ever will. They also provide a systemic effect on the body resulting in increased hormone production and greater strength and size adaptations. Exercises such as deadlifts recruit 70% of the bodies musculature, providing huge stimulus for adaptation.
Ground based exercises are also considered superior to those performed on benches or seated. These movements provide a greater challenge and are more functional. They also promote more central nervous system involvement and activation of the core musculature.
Don’t waste time on isolation exercises unless you are using them to rehab injuries, additionally, machine training is generally inferior to free weight training. Machine work is more effective for hypertrophy than for strength development and can be useful for rehabilitation, however where possible the core of your workout should be centered on compound free weight movements.
Utilise progressive overload
Over time you must continually force the body to adapt. Progressive overload is a fundamental principle of physical training adaptation. Training overload can be achieved in several ways – by increasing load, doing more repetitions with the same load or by doing more work in less time. If the goal is hypertrophy you can also improve your mind muscle connection and “feel” the movement throughout the entire range of motion. Historically many successful bodybuilders have advocated this approach as their primary mode of training with great success, Frank Zane being a prime example.
I would advise that you seek to progressively increase workout poundage over time. This is easy for trainees but advanced athletes may need to cycle their workouts.
Exercise the core musculature.
Ensure your core musculature is effectively trained. That is all the muscles of the midsection including the spinal erectors and glutes. If you are utilising big compound multi joint exercises (as you should be), then your core musculature will be getting a sufficient workout. By using functional, free weight, ground based movements you will be recruiting the entire mid section.
Balance agonists and antagonist muscles
Ensure that you train your pulling muscles at least as much, or preferably more than the pushing ones. This is an important principle for increasing strength, size, neuro-muscular adaptation, and preventing injuries. The strength of a muscle and power it can generate is largely dependent on its antagonist and ability of its stabilisers to eccentrically stabilise the joint.
Trainees tend to exercise the showy muscles on the front of the body such as chest and biceps whilst neglecting those that are not visible. This usually means that their posterior chain is neglected and weak. It also ensures the presence of muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances can cause dominant muscles to overcompensate causing further imbalance. You can see this phenomenon on trainees who display rounded shoulders and over developed pectorals and anterior deltoids.
Restrict the use of straps and wraps
There should be no need to utilise wraps or straps and other training accessories during most of your regular training, (at least up until the heaviest sets are conducted) as this can decrease the involvement of important core stabilisers as well as compromising grip strength. These training accessories should be reserved for the heaviest sets of squats or deadlifts and competition, unless otherwise indicated for specific injuries or conditions.
Incorporate strongman and odd object training.
Odd objects training such as that performed by strongman place additional stress on your body to that of regular barbell training. These movements will also develop your proprioceptive ability and stimulate new neural muscular recruitment patterns. Exercises such as sled dragging, keg tossing, thick bar training, farmers walks, log pressing and sandbag carries optimise physical training adaptation by increasing the use of muscles that may not be stimulated effectively by barbell work in the gym. This type of training also places high demand on your ‘core’ musculature and joint stabilisers.
Periodically change your workout routine.
Too much variation in your training is undoubtedly counterproductive, and taken to extreme it becomes akin to crossfit i.e. unprogrammed exercise rather than training. Conversely, if you continually repeat the same workouts, performing the same exercises in the same order, with the same set and rep range, your body will get accustomed to it, physical training adaptation will not occur and your progress will diminish. I remember returning to an old gym where I formerly trained and bumped into a couple of novice bodybuilders I used to train with years earlier. They were still doing the same routine, same weights, same rep range. They still looked the same too with little evidence of increased muscularity. Some trainees are genuinely perplexed as to why their size or strength has not increased, but if you do not ask your body to get bigger and stronger by progressively increasing load it has no reason to adapt. Therefore you should seek to vary your exercise regime in addition to increasing load in order to continually challenge your body and force adaptation.
Your workout can periodically be varied by utilising different rep ranges (i.e. lower reps for strength, or moderate rep range for hypertrophy). In order to facilitate physical training adaptation as hypertrophy you should ideally change your primary exercises, preferably every few months. Depending on your training goals, you may need to incorporate speed training as well as strength in your training regime – if you wish to progressively increase your power generation for example. Activities such as plyometrics, sprint training, sled dragging, and olympic weightlifting type exercises are also all very effective for this. I particularly recommend the prowler and hill sprints. Ballistic training with kettlebells is also highly beneficial.
Advanced trainers and powerlifters often cycle their training and employ periodisation which is outside the scope of this article but warrants further study if you intend to maximise your progress.
Disclosure: I get a small referral fee from Amazon and a few other companies on here if you purchase a product which I advertise or recommend. This helps to support my continued fitness and training information work. I will only rarely recommend products and when I do it will be those which I either use, or have positive evidence of their efficacy.