A methodical approach to looking freakin’ awesome naked
Although I have over the years become partial to training for mostly performance, when starting out almost everyone that gets into the gym does it primarily for a single reason. To look good with your clothes off. If you disagree, then you’re either an anomaly (prospective D1 collegiate athlete, aspiring Olympian, etc.), or a fucking liar.
Likely the latter. Statistically speaking of course.
So this one’s for you guys (and gals) that are in the gym to get lean, jacked, huuuge, swoooole, or even (winning the top spot for my least favorite adjective ever…) “toned”. Unfortunately for you, in contrast to the relatively evidence-based practices of the performance community, the most of the information available in the mainstream health/fitness/physique space is ripe with more misinformation than the annual anti-vaxxer’s convention (if such an atrocity even exists).
So in an attempt to combat this a little bit, I’ve put together this little program. What it is, is an application of the basic principles of muscle growth and the most current evidence on the topic, formulated into a program that can be adapted to a variety of different goals and lifestyles.
So pretty much, to try and help you build as much muscle as possible, as quickly as possible, as sustainably as possible. Without wasting any time or effort on useless bullshit. Only the good stuff.
P.S — This is a pretty long read, so if you’d like a pdf version that you can carry around and pick up whenever, here it is :)
A lot of the topics discussed in this explanation of the program require at least a basic understanding of the basic principles behind hypertrophy and strength, which if you are not aware of can feel free to familiarize yourself with here.
In a nutshell, there are 3 main mechanisms through which you can build muscle 1…
- Mechanical tension: How much physical work is done by your muscles during a movement. Usually directly related to your training volume in low-moderate rep ranges. Increasing mechanical tension over time is your best bet for continuing to get bigger over time.
- Physical damage: This involves actual damage to the muscle fibers themselves, theorized to stimulate your body to rebuild said fibres bigger and stronger than before as an adaptive response.
- Metabolic fatigue: Usually associated with much higher rep-ranges, involves buildup of chemicals released when muscles are contracted repeatedly theorized to stimulate hypertrophy through a variety of mechanisms.
There are a few other factors thought to be involved, but the ones above are the only ones proven to any extent at this point. The biggest takeaway from this should be the following…
“There is no such thing as a special type of training that will get you wildly better results than any another.”
No magic in “one set to absolute failure”. Or “7 sets followed by deep fascia stretching”. Or “10 sets of 10 once a week”. These are all just manipulating the minutia of what actually makes a program effective. Namely, lifting progressively heavier weights, for progressively more sets and reps, on effective lifts, for a long long time.
There are of course a few other things involved. But that’ll without doubt get you most of the way there. Everything else should be an afterthought after you’ve got the basics down. And all this (not so) humble little program will try to do is provide a framework for you to apply these principles and turn them into an actual plan you can use.
Luckily for you though, hypertrophy is actually the most simple of all the qualities in strength training (others including strength, speed, power, and sport-specific skill). Meaning, it requires the least complexity in training to optimize for it. There’s no need to peak your strength for a meet, worry about complete technical mastery of a movement, or manipulate fatigue across a training cycle the same way you would for a performance athlete. It does however have it’s own set of hurdles so don’t start getting too cocky there.And just because something is simple does not by any means make it easy.
Arguably the most important of the basic principles. I mean, you wouldn’t train a marathon runner the same way you’d train a powerlifter would you? That’s of course an incredibly crude example, but you get the point. But it’s the application of this principle that greatly reduces the complexity of training mainly for hypertrophy. Almost any movement is fair game as long as it adequately stimulates the target muscle group. You don’t have to worry about things like how much it’s going to carryover to your competition events or anything like that. Just how well it stimulates whichever muscle you’re aiming to target with said movement.
However, this doesn’t mean that getting stronger isn’t important. Based both on the mechanisms mentioned earlier and the body of research collected on the topic, getting stronger is an integral part of getting bigger. On an analysis of the evidence though, getting stronger in certain rep ranges (usually those above 5 reps/set) has been shown to be more efficient and effective for muscle growth in particular than lower rep protocols 23. This is not because lower reps are ineffective for muscle growth though. In fact, there has been research suggested that it might be just as if not more effective if all other factors are kept equal 4. However, in the same study the lower-rep group had reported much higher levels of fatigue and joint pain, along with a higher drop-out rate from the study as a result of this. This in combination with the simple fact that when equated for volume, a lower-rep protocol takes much longer than a higher-rep one due to the inherently longer rest times required between sets. Based on the evidence, Eric Helms (who is pretty much the Neil Degrasse-Tyson of bodybuilding for those of you who are unaware of his awesomeness) has made the following recommendation in his most recent book, which we will be using here as a basis for determining the rep ranges we’ll use to remain specific to our goal:
“If your goal is hypertrophy, 2/3rds-3/4ths should be in the 6–12 rep max range, with the rest being both above and below this load level.”
Even though this would normally be covered in the next section (concerning volume, intensity, and frequency parameters), it’s been put here as the rep ranges you’ll be working in are a big part of being specific to the goal of hypertrophy.
Overload: Volume, Intensity, and Frequency
To oversimplify what all this involves, it’s just how much work you do, and the strategies you use to increase that work over time. Like I mentioned though, for the goal of hypertrophy, these parameters are also intimately tied to the principles of specificity.
One thing we should cover here though, is the concept of autoregulation. This basically involves using certain objective measures to modify your training ‘on-the-fly’ to make the most of your results in the long-term. It pretty much allows you to hit it extra hard on the days when you’re able to, and back off a little on those days when you’re feeling (and therefore performing) like complete dogshit.
And to be completely honest, this isn’t a completely foreign concept to most hypertrophy programs. If you’ve ever seen an exercise prescribed with a specific amount of reps and a range of how many sets to do (e.g. 3–6 sets of bicep curls with 20lbs), then you’ve seen a rudimentary application of autoregulation to regulate volume. On a day where you’re able to handle more volume and don’t hit failure as quickly, you can get some extra volume in, and on the days where the DOMS are really getting to you, you can just go with the lower end of the range of sets. The inclusion of a minimum and maximum amount of sets also prevents the trainee from either taking it too easy and sandbagging the session when they’re just feeling lazy (we’ve all been there), or going way too H.A.M. cause they “accidentally” took one-too-many scoops of pre-workout.
And just to add one more layer of control over this little arrangement, we’ll also be using RPE values to regulate the intensity of any given movement. All this is a method of quantifying how hard a set was. A rough breakdown of how it works can be found in the image below from the good folks at RTS.
Recovery: Deloads and Mobility work
Because you’ll be working in relative lower intensity ranges, you can afford to worry about injuries a little bit less than your performance athlete counterparts. However, that doesn’t mean hypertrophy-focused training can’t be extremely fatiguing, and even lead to injury if not programmed correctly.
What I mean is, even though there is less acute joint and connective tissue stress with higher-rep training (in comparison to lower rep-ranges), over the course of many weeks you’ll still accumulate a metric fuckton of fatigue. Said fatigue necessitates this annoying little thing called a deload. This involves taking a week or so to drop your training volume and intensity a ton, and let both your body and mind recover from all that hard training you’ve been doing for the past month or so.
I know. Not training hard is lame. But good news is, after you’re done with that week of pussyfooting, you’’ll be even stronger and better prepared to crush it in your next phase of training. Not to mention the psychological angst you’ll have built up not being able to train hard, that’ll just stoke your fire to train even harder in the weeks to follow.
There is a camp that suggests that simply training in a way that doesn’t accumulate so much fatigue that you need to deload might be a better approach. I disagree however. I mean, this approach might very well work if you’re first starting out, when you can make progress with relatively little stimulus. But as you get more experienced, the amount of overload you need to continue stimulating growth simply can’t be achieved without also accumulating a ton of fatigue, therefore eventually necessitating a proper deload to keep you pec from ripping off your ribs.
Ok that might be unlikely. But still…
You’ll also be prescribed some daily mobility/movement to be done away from your workouts, as well as a comprehensive warm-up to be done before each training session. And yes I know. This stuff isn’t fun. And it’s benefits might not even ever be truly tangible.
But taking the time to do it is kind of like paying for health insurance. It might be a royal pain in the ass, but if shit does end up going down… you’ll be glad you did.
Periodization and Long-term planning
Over the course of a single training cycle, you’ll start out with doing relatively high training volumes with lower-weights for higher reps, and end doing relatively low training volumes with higher weights for lower reps. This variation in overload parameters over the course of a training cycle is what us nerds call periodization. But as far as you’re concerned, it’s there because it’s proven to enhance your long-term progress a little bit, and the variation tends to keep things a little more interesting.
And once again, this isn’t some magic “get bigger than Ronnie Coleman in a month” type of program. Mostly because no such programs really exist, but I digress.
This is a long-term commitment. If you really want to reap the benefits of it, I recommend carrying it out as prescribed for at least 1 complete 7-week training cycle. This training cycle can be repeated as many times as you like. Either till you stop seeing results from it because you’re so jacked that you’ve literally outgrown the program. Or maybe you just get bored.
Likely the later. Statistically speaking of course ;)
To sum up how the program will be structured, and the reasons why…
There will be a total of roughly 4 training days each week. These 4 days will cycle continuously throughout each 7-week cycle. They don’t have to be associated with any specific day of the week. As long as you manage to get adequate rest in between training sessions almost any arrangement is fair game.
You will be hitting both your upper and lower body at each of these training sessions. This is to take maximum advantage of the advantages of increased training frequency for mass gain 4. However, trying to have balanced emphasis on all body parts on each training day would inevitably lead to a compromise on how much volume you’d be able to get in for each body part. It also integer’s with any chances of you getting a ‘pump’ in your training, which might not have a huge effect on growth but definitely adds to the perceived enjoyment of training for size. And it’s important to have fun.
Therefore, the following structure will be employed to reach a compromise between frequency and volume parameters in a way that aims to optimize for both growth, practicality, and (most importantly) making training fun:
- 2 High Volume days earlier in the week: One each with emphasis on your upper and lower body respectively. You will still hit at least one lower body movement on the upper-emphasis day, and vice versa. But the bulk of the movements with be for the body-parts being prioritized on the day.
- 1 Balanced-emphasis Heavy Day: To hit those lower rep ranges, while still providing enough volume for growth. This serves the dual purpose of working heavy enough to stimulate some neural adaptations to promote long-term strength gain which will in turn support your mass gain goals, as well as providing your muscles a novel stimulus from earlier in the week.
- A “Bodybuilding” day to end the week: The use of inverted-commas in that description is because this day will exemplify the kind of training that people would generally associate with “bodybuilding”. Higher reps at relatively lower intensities, with a focus on covering up any body parts which did not receive adequate stimulation earlier in the week.
Will this program help me get “toned” because I don’t want to get too big and bulky?
I completely understand that a lot of people that have this question do so because they’ve been misinformed at some point in the past about how people get to look a certain way. First of all, I’d like to apologize on behalf of whichever dumbass that fed you that bullshit.
And now to clarify things…
For the most part:
- Muscles can only get bigger and smaller. They can’t change shape. The ‘shapes’ of muscles are largely predetermined by where they attach and insert to your bones/joints.
- You can however create the ‘illusion’ of changing their shape by selectively developing certain muscles or parts of muscles more than others.
- Fat can also only be lost or gained. And there’s no way to control from where. The best you can do is put yourself in a calorie deficit for long enough that you reach your desired body composition.
- There are certain strategies you can use to veryyyyy slightly emphasize fat loss in ‘trouble areas’ but these are only of any real use to those that are already extremely lean and just need to add some finishing touches to their physique for a specific purpose (physique show, photoshoot, etc.)
- The look that people often refer to as “toned” just refers to what’s achieved when someone has a moderate to high amount of muscle mass with relatively low levels of bodyfat.
- Looking ‘bulky’(at least in the context of drug-free trainees) is simply a result of carrying more body fat that you would deem to be aesthetically pleasing. It has very little to do with how much muscle you carry or how you train.
Does soreness directly relate to how much muscle I’m gaining?
Although soreness does not directly relate to muscle growth, it is definitely a sign that you’ve caused some muscle damage to occur and is definitely at least somewhat related to muscle growth. Therefore:
- It’s safe to use perceived soreness after a training session as a very rough estimate of how much stimulus you provided a certain muscle in a workout
- No soreness at all at any point in the program is probably a sign that you’re simply not going hard enough or need more volume to adequately stimulate that muscle
- Debilitating levels of soreness are rare and occur when you seriously exceed your short-term recovery capacity for a muscle. This means you should definitely back off next time. It might also occur when you first start he program, in which case you should take a few extra days of rest than prescribed till the soreness at least somewhat subsides.
- You should aim for moderate levels of soreness interspersed across the training cycle. This should simply serve as another sign that you’re continuing to provide ample stimulus for the muscle to grow.
How should I eat while on the program?
Truth is… it depends. If you already have a decent amount of mass on you and would like to cut down a little to reveal some of it, this is a perfectly viable option for a program to use while in a moderate caloric deficit.
However, the ideal situation in which to run this would be in a bulking/massing phase, in at least a slight caloric deficit. This is particularly true for those of you that have been in the gym for less than 2–3 years or so and still have tons of potential with regards to how much muscle you’re able to pack on your frame.
Now after suffering through listening to me for the past few minutes, you’re probably wondering where-the-frick this program is exactly.
So with that said…
Have fun crushing your goals in the face.
Let me know how it goes.
And as always, you can direct any questions, queries, or insults you might have to email@example.com and I’ll get back to you asap.
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