Bearded Beast of Duloc
New Year Check-list
Let’s start the year off right and make a commitment to making it the best training year that you’ve ever had. To help you accomplish this I’m going to put together a check-list for you, and if you really use it – it’ll get the job done.
Your Workout Program
I want you to get out last years training journal and go through it with me. I’m serious; go get it right now I’ll wait. We’re going to use it as we go through the checklist. We need to find the areas where you didn’t do what you know you were supposed to do. And we’re going to find the things that you know you shouldn’t be doing, but you kept doing them anyway and probably ended up getting sick, hurt, overtrained, or at the least you ended up with zero results. Go get it – it’ll be a good reference tool.
□ Structure your workout properly
How many days per week were you working out? Was it two or three? Or were you trying to be like the steroid users and hit it four or more times per week? If you were able to train more than three times per week then several things were happening. You have no responsibilities in your life outside of training, or you aren’t training as hard as you should be, or you are taking steroids. After being in the game as long as I have, and after working with so very many trainees, I have very, very few who strength train more than three times per week. Experience has taught me that you can make much more progress strength training two to three times per week. And isn’t that what it’s all about anyway – making progress? If you just love training and can’t fathom being in the gym only two or three times per week well then you need to satisfy this craving by spending another two days performing aerobic work (which will not stress you systemically) and possibly doing some other type of General Physical Preparation (GPP) work. Your GPP work could possibly include low level plyometrics/medicine ball work as presented in the chapter (From my book: REAL STRENGTH REAL MUSCLE) Complete Conditioning Part II, light kettlebell work, or even participating in a sport. This scenario actually gives you four to five total workouts per week. So, take a good look at your journal and be honest with yourself. Did you try and hang on to a weight training program that had you training more than three times per week even though progress was less than you expected? If so, take a good look at the last workout of each week. Was it consistently sub-par in the performance department? Did you make any notes on how you were feeling? Do you remember having to pound some extra coffee to get that workout going? Were you constantly nursing a sore elbow, back or shoulder? Did it really get you the results you thought it should?
You’ve got to face reality. If you have a real life with career, family, academic, church, and other responsibilities, there is no way you can train four or more times per week while maintaining a balanced, happy life and make any significant progress in strength and size. And I have found that in many cases even three sessions per week is too much - once the switch is made to two sessions the results start pouring in. A side-effect is that you get your work completed on time so you get a promotion at work, or, you go from being a “C” student to an “A” student, or, your wife and kids actually start seeing you more often and can stop carrying a picture of you around (so that they could remember what you look like).
Okay, so let’s get a good workout structure for the coming year. Here are generic workout templates to be performed two times per week and three times per week.
1. Crunch 1 x 5-20
2. Squat 2-5 x 5-15
3. Stiff-legged deadlift or back extension 1 x 10-15
4. Bench press 2-5 x 5-15
5. Pulldown, Chin, or Row 2-5 x 5-15
6. Calf raises 1 x 5-20
7. Static grip 1 x 60-90 seconds
1. Sidebend 1 x 5-15
2. Deadlift 2-5 x 5-15
3. Military press 2-5 x 5-15
4. Barbell curl 2-5 x 5-15
5. Close-grip bench press 1-3 x 5-15
6. Wrist curl 1 x 15-20
7. Reverse wrist curl 1 x 15-20
Here is the three times per week template. Recommended sets and reps are the same as the two times per week template.
2. Stiff-legged deadlift or back extension
3. Bench press
4. Pulldown, Chin, or Row
5. Wrist curl
6. Reverse wrist curl
2. Barbell curl
3. Military press
4. Calf raises
3. Close-grip bench press
4. Static Grip 1 x 60 seconds
I kept the rep range broad because the rep target that you choose needs to be based on your goals and training experience. I generally recommend new trainees to start out utilizing higher rep targets in order to help develop motor skills (technique) and to keep the overall force on the connective structures relatively low (compared to sets of five reps and below). To go into great detail on how to structure a program is beyond the scope of this article. To learn more about how to structure a workout program in detail read Designing Your Training Program (read excerpt).
□ Choose exercises that are productive and safe
There are many exercises that you could substitute for the ones that I have listed above. But, they have to be productive and safe. A productive exercise is generally one that works a lot of muscle per time spent performing it; the squat works more leg muscle than the leg extension. A safe exercise is one that puts the body’s hard and soft tissues in a position that creates the least amount of un-natural stress; the bench press versus the pec fly. This definition of a safe exercise is a broad one. There are trainees who might have specific limitations that would make an otherwise safe exercise under the definition above, a dangerous one to perform. Exercise selection then becomes an individual matter based on a trainee’s goals and limitations. The exercise list that follows is based on these criteria, and experience had taught me that they can be performed by almost all trainees as long as they know how to perform each exercise correctly.
Many trainees that I’ve either worked with, or have consulted with continue to try to hang onto “old favorites” even when they are causing injuries, or that they think are going to produce results better than a safer exercise. Stop performing un-safe exercises. Your shoulder is killing you from performing flyes yet you’re still doing them because benching just doesn’t seem to work your pecs. You keep doing leg extensions because squats hurt your knees. How about those lateral raises with 10 lb dumbbells? I bet they give you a great burn but your deltoids aren’t any bigger and they sure as heck aren’t turning you into a strongman. Here’s one that always makes me laugh; you can complete over 500 total reps of various weenie abdominal exercises in a 10 minute period yet you have no abdominal development to speak of and your back always gets hurt when you squat. I could go on and on but I think you get the point. Let me give you some simple advice on the scenarios presented above, in the order that I presented them.
Benching isn’t building your pecs because you don’t know how to bench. Ninety-nine percent of the time squatting hurts your knees because you don’t know how to squat. Or another reason is you are simply making an excuse about your knees because you don’t want to work hard and squatting requires you to work hard. Mr. Steroid in Mainstream Muscle magazine says the lateral raise hits the side delt like nothing else. Remember, Mr. Steroid knows nothing about “real” muscle building. If you want to “hit the side delt” then make it lift well over one hundred pounds over your head by using a Military press instead of using a relatively miniscule weight on the lateral raise. Five hundred reps in 10 minutes should give you a great burn in your abs, but it’ll do nothing to build strength or “grow” impressive abdominal muscles. Perform one to two sets of direct abdominal work per week and build up to where you can perform a feet-supported crunch for 10 reps with a 150 lb. dumbbell held high on your chest, and your abdominals will be as strong and developed (you’ll see them if your bodyfat is low enough) as you’ll ever need.
It is beyond the scope of this article to give you a list of all the “safe and productive” exercises that exist. But here are the mainstays that should comprise 99% of your training.
Legs – Squats (most varieties), Bent-leg deadlifts, Stiff-leg deadlifts, Leg press, Leg curls, Pullthroughs, Glute-ham raises, Romanian deadlift, Lunges, Cleans
Chest – Bench presses with barbell or dumbbells, Dips, Weighted Push-ups
Upper back – Dumbbell rows, Chest supported machine rows, Chin-ups with supinated, pronated, or parallel grips, Pulldowns with various grips, Power cleans, High pulls
Lower back – All deadlifts, Back extensions, Arched-back good mornings, Romanian deadlifts
Abdominals – Weighted Feet-supported crunches, Weighted sit-ups, Hanging leg raises, Sidebends
Shoulders – All overhead pressing with barbell or dumbbells, Various “raises” dependant on circumstances
Arms – Standing or seated curls with barbell or dumbbells, Close-grip bench presses, Dips, Bench dips, Pushdowns, Lying extensions
Forearms – Static grip work, Gripper machines or hand grippers, Wrist curls and Reverse wrist curls, Finger extension in rice
Calves – Standing calf raises on machine or with barbell or dumbbells
□ Make sure your technique is good
First make sure you know what good technique is. Study this book; there is technique instruction throughout its pages – especially the pictures. And look for my forthcoming book REAL STRENGTH REAL MUSCLE - Exercise Techniques Developed from the Trenches. In the mean time I would suggest the book The Insiders Tell-All Handbook on Exercise Technique by McRobert. I helped to edit this book and although the instruction is very basic and limited in detail, it is sound.
Once you know what good technique is you have to have a method that holds you accountable. The best is videotape. If you don’t own one, borrow one or rent one. Video a workout every couple of months and really analyze it. Don’t just watch the tape to see how good (or bad) you look. Really take the time to “break the tape down”. View a specific repetition of a specific exercise over and over again. You may want to get out of the chair you’re sitting in and practice what needs to be changed. Did all of your squats really make it to parallel (if you can safely squat to this depth), or did the last two or three cut it a little short so that you could make your target rep. Be honest. Using this example, did you perform them “short” (not achieving the correct depth) for several months because you were adding weight too fast? Maybe you just weren’t concentrating hard enough on getting to parallel.
What about your bench press? Did the last couple of reps become more of a “bounce” off of your chest versus a “light tap”? On the last very difficult rep of a set in which you failed, did your chest “cave in”, instead of maintaining the retracted position of your upper back? If you had concentrated on staying retracted instead of just “panicking” to make that rep any way possible I guarantee that you would have made it.
Are you leaning back to make your last couple of reps on curls? Are your elbows moving backward to initiate the movement and then forward to complete it? If so, you are missing out on thorough bicep stimulation.
Take a good look at your lat pulldowns. Are you pulling them “down” in front of you or are you pulling the bar “into” your clavicle / upper chest area? So, you’re getting a good bicep workout but you don’t feel them in your back the way you should be.
I could go on and on about all exercises, but I think you get the point. Make sure you have your workout journal with you so that you can write down technique changes that need to be made. Make a list at the front of your journal of what you need to work on for each exercise. Then make sure you transfer that note to the top of the workout page for the particular day that exercise is performed so that you can be reminded of what change to focus on. Make it a priority this year to get it right. Really earn the next pound or two on the bar. Don’t fool yourself. Use video to hold yourself accountable.
□ Commit to working hard
Have you ever noticed the number of different sensible programs that have produced results for trainees over the years? Each of these different interpretations of sensible training has examples of successful trainees who received great results. Even programs that are not so “sensible” produce some results for “regular” trainees that aren’t on steroids. This contradiction is a major source of confusion and frustration for many trainees. So, you may ask, what gives? Here’s the reason. Outside of gym factors held constant; the reason is good old fashioned hard work that results in progression (more weight on the bar) performed for a long time. What has become known as High Intensity Training will work for some because they like it, and will work hard at it for a long time. Single progression will work because trainees they like it and will work hard at it for a long time. Periodization type programs, double progression programs, and even Conjugate training will work for the same reasons. But, there’s a flip-side to this. Some trainees won’t make progress on anything because when it gets right down to it, they either don’t want to work hard enough (or aren’t conditioned to work hard enough) or won’t stay at it long enough. So, if you think you’re going to “Micro-load” your way to the top without working hard, you’re fooling yourself. No matter what interpretation of sensible training that you follow you must hold yourself accountable to simply putting out maximum effort.
Here is my definition of what constitutes hard work as applied to my primary training approach; single progression type of program that utilizes Micro-loading as the means of progression. If you are not just starting out (or starting over) on a weight training program, then the last rep you perform on any “live” set should be the last one that you can perform while maintaining good technique. Theoretically, this is the ideal, but it is not realistic that you will be at this “spot” every workout until you become very experienced utilizing Micro-loading and reading what your body is capable of doing. Let me explain further. Let’s say that you’ve been Micro-loading on the Military press for 16 weeks adding a pound per week to your three sets of six reps. You started the program under my guidance and I “set” your initial workout poundage knowing that rep six on the last set was the last rep that you could perform. During the ensuing 16 weeks you’ve been “busting your butt” to make that last rep on the last set – or so you think. At this point I instruct the trainee (he is not training under my direct guidance in this example) to perform the “go to failure test”. Every four months or so take the last live set of each exercise you perform and go to muscular failure. Find out if you have any reps left in you. I call these reps “reserve reps.” Many trainees that have started out on a single progression based program utilizing Micro-loading as the means of progression get into such a training “groove” that each workout becomes automatic – they can continually add that pound or two to the bar and keep making their goal reps. This is absolutely great and is what makes Micro-loading work so well, but, this can also work against you. It can lull you to sleep; into complacency. And that’s what happened in the example above. At week 10 the trainees body had super-compensated for the pound that he had been adding to the bar each week and his body was really capable of making a seventh rep on the last set, and by week 16 he could actually make an eighth rep – but the trainee is so conditioned (on autopilot) to his current “effort level” he doesn’t realize that he’s not putting out his best. So, if he continues to add the pound a week he is not working as hard as his body is capable (because he has two reserve reps left in him) and thus not getting the best results possible. By “testing” himself he would realize that those two extra reps are in there and readjust his rate of progression for the next workout by adding three pounds instead of the one that he was adding and this will then challenge his body at the right level. As a trainee becomes more experienced at using Micro-loading I instruct them to “take the extra rep” in every workout if they know they can make it. But, it takes time to develop the training instinct to know when that is.
If you are a trainee that uses a program that requires you to “train to failure”, make sure you’re not fooling yourself. What I mean by this is that I’ve had trainees who I’ve seen purposefully “slow up” the last rep or two of a set so that lactic acid will accumulate faster which will terminate the set prematurely. They do this because they don’t want to put out the extra effort or tolerate the pain associated with the extra three or four reps that they were really capable of performing.
Destroy That Which Destroys You
"Let bravery be thy choice, but not bravado."