The elements of a successful training plan
I remember first going to the gym in 1994 to build up some muscle mass. I was a talented but undersized American Football player and I needed to rectify that to enable me to compete against people outweighing me by 50kg.
I was first introduced to the gym by my older cousin and his collection of bodybuilding magazines. Ignoring his advice to concentrate on just a few sets, after reading about the routines performed by elite bodybuilders, I soon adopted a high volume routine with the express aim of going into each session not simply to train, but to declare total war on my muscles.
Although the work was punishing, the gains came quickly - at least initially. It helped that I came into weight training via sport as I already knew how hard I would need to work in order to gain muscle. However, after a couple of years my progress tapered off to a total standstill.
At this point I took my war to a whole new level. I redoubled my training efforts, made sure I NEVER missed a meal or stayed up late, and tripled my intake of bodybuilding supplements! Despite my relentless dedication I found that as time went by it became increasingly difficult to continue to improve in the gym, and progress would stall for lengthy periods despite my best efforts. Around this time I also noticed that I would begin to dread certain workouts.
By now I was starting to realise that there must be something I was missing, so I began to research the fundamentals of training and nutrition to get a better grasp on the problem I was encountering. Moving on from reading the routines of pro bodybuilders to books written by scientists was the best decision I ever made.
I learned that I was training in a very illogical way, that my mental fatigue was a result of being overtrained, and that many of the fundamental principles I had assumed were beyond question such as training to failure and performing forced reps might actually be stunting my progress.
As I learned about the body's response to physical stress, the time involved in recovering between workouts and the challenges the body faces in integrating muscle cell recovery and central nervous system regeneration, it became apparent that the single thing I had to eliminate was my innate desire to train as hard as possible every time I trained.
After a great deal of time spent poring over the works of esteemed coaches and sports scientists such as Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Mel Siff and Louie Simmons, it became increasingly clear just how limited my previous worldview was.
Theory is good but empirical feedback from the body is the real test by which any training plan should be judged. Placing my trust in those who backed up their recommendations with research rather than listening to the biggest freak in the gym set my training on an upward curve which it has maintained, barring injuries, to this very day.
My strength, muscle mass and speed all improved markedly and steadily. Understanding that in the gym hard work does not necessarily equal smart work was the most important thing I ever learnt.
Remember, if being good at something predicted success in training someone else, then most football managers would be former star players. It is the same in bodybuilding, where many of those at the top rely on genetics and drug use to compensate for sloppy training habits. Not all, but certainly a substantial number.
So, without any further delay let me move on to the subject at hand - the seven key training principles which will make or break the success of your training program.
Seven principles of a good training plan
When we look at most people training in the gym and not progressing they are often doing far too many sets, or, as an extreme reaction to high volume training, performing too few sets.
When they fail to progress, many people will either increase volume in an effort to batter their way through a plateau, or, if they follow a low volume training plan, conclude that they are overtraining themselves and cut volume back to a point where they have no hope of gaining muscle or strength.
A good training program should allow for a steady increase in volume as well as phases where volume is reduced. That way, the body can adapt to the training stress that is imposed, then during the period where volume is reduced and fatigue dissipates, the gains will come readily. A good training plan should vary training volume over time rather than continually increasing sets and reps as many beginners believe they must do.
Intensity means a lot of different things depending who you speak to. Is squatting for reps til you puke an example of an intense workout? What about a deadlifting session which leaves you unable to walk for days afterwards? Maybe an arm workout that leaves you unable to comb your hair (if you are lucky enough to have any!)?
No, not quite.
Intensity as defined in science is based on the weight on the bar relative to an individual’s 1 rep maximum. Using this definition, 100kg is always going to be more intense than 95kg regardless of reps. Many people assume a 95kg workout is going to be more intense but it is not. Remember that the extra reps means the volume is higher, not the intensity.
Like training volume, intensity should not be constant week after week. Think of the people religiously bench pressing the same weight week in and week out with no improvement in sight, hoping to eventually bore their muscles into submission.
A periodised training program will ensure that both intensity and volume fluctuate. For people who have been training for some time, intensity should generally be in the range of 80% of their 1RM to recruit all muscle fibres fully. Where beginners can progress well on an intensity of as little as 60% of their 1RM, this would be too low for advanced athletes to obtain much of a training effect where size and strength are required.
Training frequency is a controversial subject which can become confusing the more you listen to the advice of (most) bodybuilders.
In the past, most successful bodybuilders would train using upper/lower body training splits, or push/pull training splits. During the '60s, full body routines were popular.
Since the '80s, the most popular training method is one where each body part is trained once per week to a high volume with the emphasis being not so much on training the muscle but on pounding your muscle fibres into submission. This is despite consistent research showing that muscles recover in a much shorter time than that.
Let's explore this a little further.
Firstly, only training each muscle group weekly means that individuals will be fully recovered for most of the week and begin to de-train as a consequence of the long time intervals between training bouts. Considering many sportsmen are able to train muscles on a more frequent basis (including heavily muscled strength athletes) there is no apparent reason for bodybuilders to be fixated on training weekly. Certainly from the point of view of muscle recovery, training once a week is not justified.
The reason many bodybuilders struggle to maintain high frequency training is due to the high volume and extreme methods that are popular in bodybuilding, such as forced reps and drop sets. These methods act as big systemic stressors, which cause the central nervous system to struggle to recover.
As a result, it can take much longer for athletes training like this to recover their strength, even once the muscles have recovered fully. As they wait longer for strength to be restored, the actual muscles begin to de-train. This is a reason why we should not blindly use methods promoted in bodybuilding to build muscle mass, as they can actually delay our progress.
Balancing central nervous system and muscle recovery is a big challenge for athletes in particular. Activities such as sprints, plyometrics, weight training, skill work and practice of the sport itself all need to be incoprorated into a training plan, and yet they all present a challenge to the central nervous system such that training must be carefully managed to maintain continued progress.
In bodybuilding, the needs of the athlete are easier to manage and bodybuilders will feel fresher following the avoidance or overuse of extreme techniques such as forced reps, training to failure and drop sets due to improved CNS recovery. This in turn can enable them to implement the higher frequency of training that their muscles require to promote optimal progress.
Training on a more frequent basis will also allow for improved nutrient partitioning, as it will enable you to take advantage of more post-workout windows where insulin sensitivity is heightened, in turn ensuring better uptake of substrates by the muscles.
One of the toughest of things to consider if you look at the frequency principle is how to work out an effective training split. Let us consider some examples.
Monday - Quads
Tuesday - Chest
Wednesday - Back
Thursday - Hamstrings/Calves
Friday - Arms
Saturday - Shoulders
Sunday - Off
This is a typical routine you will see in many bodybuilding magazines. With one day off per week, it is quite impossible to train a body part more than once a week. As I have mentioned, training body parts only once a week is not the best strategy.
Let’s look at ways in which we can get around this problem and examine their likely success.
Monday - Chest/Back
Tuesday - Legs
Wednesday - Shoulders/Arms
Thursday - Off
Friday - Chest/Back
Saturday - Legs
Sunday - Shoulders/Arms
In this case we have combined chest and back exercises in one session and repeated this on Friday. The leg session would combine quads, hamstrings and calves and be repeated on Tuesday and Saturday. This seems okay until you consider that you would have to train shoulders and arms on Sunday then chest on Monday, which would severely compromise the kinds of weight you will be able to lift. Plus, six days a week in the gym is not going to be good for CNS recovery.
Here are some better approaches.
Monday - Chest/Shoulders/Tris
Tuesday - Legs
Wednesday - Back/Biceps
Thursday - Off
Friday - Chest/Shoulders/Tris
Saturday - Legs
Sunday - Back/Biceps
This is okay for those with a high tolerance for volume but for most people, six sessions a week is brutally hard. With just one recovery day a week the CNS will overtrain for most people even if adequate time is given for muscle recovery.
Monday - Chest/Tris/Shoulders
Tuesday - Off
Wednesday - Legs
Thursday - Off
Friday - Back/Bis
Saturday - Calves/Abs
Sunday - Off
Routine 4 is one which is used by a majority of people in gyms. This may vary a little (e.g. chest might be combined with back or shoulders and tris with back) but either way the result is the same, with three off days a week, which is crucial to ensure that the CNS stays fresh.
However, each muscle group is only trained directly once per week. Most people using this approach would adopt a routine employing a large number of sets per workout or muscle group. With a long rest between training sessions, they are banking on muscle recovery taking a full week. As we have mentioned, research tells us that muscle recovery occurs over a much shorter time than that.
Monday - Legs 1
Tuesday - Upper Body 1
Wednesday - Off
Thursday - Legs 2
Friday - Upper body 2
Saturday - Off
Sunday - Off
This type of split is used by a lot of athletes. If you had a football game on Saturday, this type of split would allow you to train without being too fatigued for your match, as you would have time to recover from your leg sessions on Monday and Thursday.
At first glance this looks like a tough training split. Most bodybuilders would be staggered at the idea of training their whole upper body in one day but if we look at the typical routine of someone running this kind of programme it would not be unusual to see just 10 sets performed per muscle group.
By simply cutting the volume in half for each upper body workout and doing it on two separate days, you can get the same volume but perform the sets at a higher intensity.
This is how it works in practice.
Imagine you are following routine 4, doing 10 sets of chest on Monday equating to 6 sets of bench press and 4 sets of dumbbell presses. Obviously fatigue will set in gradually and by the end of the workout your working weights will be pretty poor.
By contrast, look at routine 5 and imagine if you performed half that number of chest sets on Tuesday, i.e. 3 sets of bench press and 2 sets of dumbbell presses, and repeated the workout on Friday.
By doing only half the number of sets compared to routine 4, you would be able to come back on Friday in the same week using a weight far heavier than you would have for the second half of routine 4’s chest session, where all the sets would have been performed in one marathon session.
This is one of the main reasons why it is a good idea to combine multiple muscle groups in one session. You get the opportunity to hit the muscle groups twice a week while they're fresh. Like routine 4, routine 5 allows for 3 days off per week but with the added advantage of more frequent loading, which means the muscles get to experience heavier weights and two post-workout windows per muscle group per week.
It is for these reasons that an upper/lower split makes an excellent choice.
And now for something completely different.
Monday - Whole Body
Tuesday - Off
Wednesday - Whole Body
Thursday - Off
Friday - Whole Body
Saturday - Off
Sunday - Off
Believe it or not, a whole body routine where you train all muscle groups on a single day is possible. How?
Well the answer, to which routine 5 provides a clue, is that you do not train any more times per week but just cut your weekly number of sets per body part down into three distinct sessions.
If you would normally do something like routine 4 and do 9 sets of chest on Monday, now you would just do 3 sets per workout for chest. This would still equate to the same number of sets per week but you'd have the added advantage of entering each workout fresh from a day off and able to hit heavier weights than you would by grinding through 9 sets in a single day.
The main issue with a full body workout is that they can be very strenuous, particularly on the joints. Many people will find an upper/lower split preferable with the added advantage of an extra day’s rest between each workout for a given muscle group.
For this type of training to work effectively we must avoid some of the methods that are typically used by bodybuilders or keep them to a minimum. These extreme training techniques include the following:
- Forced Reps
- Training to failure
The inclusion of of these methods will not really do anything except place a huge stress on the body’s recovery abilities and compromose your ability to train twice a week. Instead, you will need to rely on the fact you will be able to lift heavier weights if you train more frequently and leave these techniques for the uninformed.
When it comes to the selecting exercises for training, it is natural that most people gravitate towards a few favourites. This is not so bad if your favourite exercises are squats, deadlifts and bench presses, but if you find yourself spending a lot of time on isolation exercises this can create big problems.
It should come as no surprise that any exercise program that seeks to achieve serious gains in muscle and strength should be biased towards compound muscle exercises requiring the co-ordination of more than one primary muscle group, such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows, and cleans. Once fatigue begins to set in in, easier isolation exercises can be incorporated.
Take care not to misinterpret the extreme muscle burn you experience when performing isolation exercises as actual muscle gains. The failure of most isolation exercises to contribute to decent strength increases means that they will always have a relatively small role to play in muscle gain. While you may read of people who employ isolation work to maintain a physique, in most cases this is entirely different to how they achieved their large size in the first place.
When constructing a training routine you should ensure that the most technically complicated exercises requiring the most CNS activity are introduced at the start of the session when you are fresh. As the session progresses you can then introduce easier isolation work, but the other way around is not recommended.
So, if you're training legs you might do something like this: One Legged Squats - Squats – Leg Presses – Leg Extensions.
A question I often get is, “How many sets and reps should I be doing?”
You may as well ask about the length of a piece of string. What should be clear by now is that sets and reps, just like volume and intensity, ought to be cycled rather than dogmatically following a given training routine ad infinitum.
Let us consider the issue of number of reps first.
In general, most beginners respond best to slightly higher reps due to poor conditioning and technique, as many lack the co-ordination to lift heavy weights properly. Even beginners should aim for lower reps on technically demanding work (unilateral work, or exercises requiring a high degree of balance such as power cleans).
Slightly more reps may be performed in the case of major compound exercises such as squats and bench presses, and more still in the case of isolation exercises. Going too heavy on isolation exercises, which tend to involve a single joint, can be a one way trip to the therapist pretty quick.
As you progress and become more conditioned and better adapted to your training loads, a lower repetition number may be required for continued muscle gains.
As far as sets are concerned, a good rule of thumb is that the lower the number of reps per exercise, the more sets that will be required to stimulate muscle gains. So if you're doing sets of 5 reps, which you would do for compound exercises only, you might do 4-6 sets, whereas if you do 12 reps per set of isolation work, just 2-3 sets will suffice.
Is there a particular ratio of sets and reps that works best?
The short answer is no, and it is likely that your personal preference will vary according to your muscle fibre makeup. People with a high degree of explosive muscle fibers tend to do better on low reps/multiple sets, while those with muscle fibers with a lot of slow twitch characteristics will do better with a higher number of reps.
Most people respond best to workout routines incorporating a mix of set and rep ranges, either within the same session or the training week/month. A typical session would begin with heavy weights on a compound exercise then once 4-5 sets have been completed, you might transition into assistance exercises done for higher reps, chosen to work on weaknesses in your physique.
So, someone with weak hamstrings may start a leg session with deadlifts (more of a hamstring focus than quadriceps), followed by Good Mornings (very hamstring and lower back reliant), and then Glute-Ham-Raises (very demanding isolation work for the hamstrings), gradually increasing reps and decreasing sets through the workout.
If someone has weak triceps and wants to train their full upper body in one session, they might start with lots of sets and heavy weight on close grip bench presses before increasing reps and reducing sets on tricep extensions, then finally increasing reps and reducing sets still further on tricep pressdowns.
In practical terms this works the muscle groups with a heavy weight while they are fresh before targeting weak points with isolation exercises.
Recovery, diet and nutritional support
Is your idea of recovery and relaxation going out to nightclubs or slobbing out at home and eating takeaways?
Clearly, such habits will not allow even the most carefully planned and brilliantly executed training program to work to full effect. It should be obvious that proper sleep, a good diet and decent nutritional support are essential for any aspiring bodybuilder, but beyond the basics is there anything else that may be overlooked?
Let us go back to some of the things we discussed earlier, starting with the undulation of training volume and intensity. This is done to prevent adaptation from turning into stagnation and, worse still, regression. We have all known someone who has been stuck forever on the same lift, done at the same time, in the same order, with the same weight, who might even have started to lose strength after a while.
One of the key things this person might be missing, even if (s)he is sleeping and eating well and taking high quality sports supplements, is an element of recovery in his or her training programme. In sporting circles this is referred to as an unloading phase and it means just that, a reduction in load and/or volume to allow for full recovery to take place.
You may be familiar with boxers training very hard and then gradually tapering their training off to a minimum just before a fight - well, the same concept applies to bodybuilding. Periodic rest or reduction in the amount of training will help to lay the groundwork for better performance in future.
This is the one concept that has permeated every sport in the world except for bodybuilding, where the mindless exhortation to train every session to full muscle failure still exists. It can be a difficult habit to break, but every model of how muscle and strength gains occur, together with the real world experience of champions from every sport (including the bodybuilders I know), demonstrates that one of the key factors in ensuring consistent progress is the introduction of recovery weeks, where the mind and body get a break relatively speaking to prepare for the challenges to come.
Nobody in their right mind would expect to be able to perform at their best in an exam having worked non-stop with no rest. Similarly, the human body will not gain muscle at an optimal rate until proper rest and recovery are introduced.
Once you have established a properly periodised training routine with adequate volume, intensity, frequency, and exercise selection together with built in recovery periods, you can maximise results using sports supplements such as protein powder, creatine, branched chain amino acids, testosterone boosters and fat burners.
Similarly, recovery methods such as contrast baths, massage and physiotherapy can help to ensure that recovery and physical health are optimised.
I hope that having read this you have a better idea about some of the key facets of a good training program for building muscle. By avoiding cookie cutter routines and applying the knowledge contained within this article, you should be able to create a training plan for your own long term aims much more effectively.
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