Bearded Beast of Duloc
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.
Destroy That Which Destroys You
"Let bravery be thy choice, but not bravado."