Monthly Archives: November 2010
Intensity: Qualitative measure of your effort level in the gym, how “hard” you work out.
Recommendations: Push yourself to momentary muscular failure on most sets.
Here is the tough love truth — most people just don’t work out hard enough, or use enough discipline with their nutrition plans, to get noticeable physique transformation results. Trust me, it takes work, it takes A LOT OF WORK, to build a fit body. Sure, many people may be following an intelligently designed plan or program, but they are just going through the motions. They check off this exercise and that exercise like it’s a grocery-shopping list, never digging down and exerting anything close to maximal effort. They don’t challenge themselves or push beyond their limits. They do just what is comfortable. That ain’t body composition training to me.
BAD -> DECENT vs. GOOD -> GREAT
Here’s the deal. Barring psychological issues beyond the scope of this article, it’s relatively easy to go from severely deconditioned, overweight, and out of shape, into decent shape. You clean up the diet, implement some basic fitness nutrition principles with some moderate level of consistency, walk more, and strength train using body composition-based training principles. It takes breaking some bad habits, building some good habits, and kind of just showing up and going through those new motions. You don’t have to challenge yourself too much to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
But to go from decent/good shape into great shape, that’s a whole other ball game my friends. Going from 40% body fat to 20% body fat is one thing. Going from 15% body fat to 5% body fat is another. It takes an incredible amount of discipline, consistency, effort, and intensity. Part of that entails going beyond your comfort zone and pushing your body to the limits with your training program.
This is nature. As human beings, we are not meant to be obese. It’s not healthy, it’s not functional, and it’s not natural. In the Information Age, the prevalence of this condition is so high because we have moved so far away from our evolutionary past. We eat too many processed foods, have never-ending access to an abundance of food, eat ridiculous portion sizes, and don’t move enough. Move closer to our past by eating more natural foods in moderate amounts and exercising/moving more, and you can maintain a more natural, decent weight without a ton of effort.
But at the same time, it’s not natural to be ripped at 5% body fat. It goes against our genes. Keeping a certain amount of body fat for energy reserves was advantageous for survival in caveman times, and our bodies have held on to this natural survival mechanism in the modern era. If a group were stranded in the desert, the fitness model would be the first to die due to lack of energy reserves, the overweight person would be second (because they couldn’t defend themselves or travel far to try and reach safety), and the person with just an average weight and build would have the best chance at survival.
We are training against nature to get ripped to the bone. If you have these higher aspirations of top-level physique development, than at some point you will be going against nature’s intentions. This means incredible discipline with the diet. And for the purposes of this article, it means incredible intensity in the gym. In other words, it means busting butt to push your body well beyond what you think it is capable of.
People who have never attained low, single digit body fat percentages severely underestimate how difficult the process really is. Oh just pop a couple of fat burners and protein shakes, and pull out the “get shredded in 6 weeks” training program from the latest fitness magazine, and presto, you’re on the cover of said fitness magazine. Dude, or sista, I wish it really were that easy. Most fitness athletes, models, and bodybuilders (minus the genetically elite) have been training their whole lives to build their bodies. What makes you think you can do it in 6 weeks by just by showing up and going through the motions?
TRAINING TO FAILURE
The real road to “rippedville” starts with knowledge. Through this article series, I hope I’ve provided you with the base knowledge necessary to train specifically for cosmetic enhancement. But all of that knowledge is meaningless unless it is applied consistently, and applied with a warrior’s level of intensity.
Getting ripped is about maximizing your lean muscle-to-body fat ratio. It’s about building lean muscle levels higher than what nature intended. It’s about slashing body fat lower than what nature intended. This means asking your body to do what it is currently unaccustomed to. In other words, you need to train to failure on most of your working sets to force your body to respond.
If you just do what you are already capable of in the gym, there is no stimulus for your body to change. The body prefers homeostasis, or to remain in its current state of development. If you want to reach the upper echelon of physical appearance, you have to consistently force your body to adapt to higher and higher levels of training stress.
1. Intensity is not just about a quantitative measure like how much weight is on the bar. It’s more of a qualitative measure about how hard you push your body. It sounds counter-intuitive, but many people actually reduce training intensity by increasing their training weights, due to the deterioration of proper exercise form. Conversely, many people would benefit by reducing their training weights and focusing more on true muscular overload.
Remember this is not powerlifting or ego training. It is about building and shaping your body. Don’t worry so much about the weights you use, focus on squeezing every last ounce of effort out of the target muscle. The weights you use should be secondary to the effort exerted within the set.
2. People often misinterpret what training to failure really means. In regards to strength training, we are talking about momentary, localized muscular failure. We’re not talking about system wide collapse where you crash to the ground and can no longer move. Simply train to the point where the muscles lose the ability to complete the task at hand with a given resistance.
3. Never sacrifice form for more reps or more weight. That’s not training to muscular failure, that’s cheating, incorporating other muscle groups, and/or using momentum; all which take tension off the muscle. Real failure training means training to the point where you can’t complete another rep with proper form. Anything beyond that is counterproductive.
To summarize lift, lift hard, maintain good form, challenge yourself, and tell nature’s whole body fat survival mechanism to kiss your ripped ass.
Inter-set Rest — the amount of time you rest in between sets
Recommendations — 30 – 120 seconds
Did you think I would leave any training variable to chance? We get down to every little detail in regards to physique development, including interest rest. Applying sound principles to every step of the process is called proper program design. That’s the way to use scientific knowledge to our full advantage. That’s the way to come up with the most efficient training strategies for body composition enhancement. That’s the way to build THE optimal plan for your goals.
BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD
According the National Strength and Conditioning Association:
The length of the rest period between sets and exercises is highly dependent on the goal of training, the relative load lifted, and the athlete’s training status (if the athlete is not in good physical condition, rest periods initially may need to be longer than typically assigned).
Their rest period length assignments based on individual training goals are as follows:
- Strength: 2-5 minutes
- Power: 2-5 minutes
- Hypertrophy: 30-90 seconds
- Muscular endurance: <30 seconds
The use of appropriate exercise intensities and rest intervals allows for the “selection” of specific energy systems during training and results in more efficient and productive regimens for specific athletic events with various metabolic demands.
Their work-to-rest period ratios based on exercise (set) time and primary physiological systems stressed are as follows:
- Phoshagen (5-10 second sets) = 1:12 to 1:20 work:rest ratio
- Fast glycolysis (15-30 second sets) = 1:3 to 1:5
- Fast glycolysis and oxidative (1-3 minutes) = 1:3 to 1:4
- Oxidative (>3 minutes) = 1:1 to 1:3
*Fast glycolysis is the primary systems we are using in strength training programs designed specifically for physique development.
*So a typical 30 second hypertrophy set would necessitate a 90-to-150 second rest period.
You can see that even with the time you rest between sets, training for performance (either endurance or strength) is different than training for appearance. That’s why your training program, and ALL of its individual parameters, needs to be tailored to fit your specific goals.
THE CIRCUIT TRAINERS
There are a lot of training programs based on the principle of go-go-go, with no rest between sets or exercises. Examples would include circuit training, cross training, boot camp style workouts, hot dog eating contests, and the Miyaki Brothers at an all-you-can-eat sushi joint.
As you can see, however, this style of training is more appropriate for building muscular endurance than it is for building actual muscle (hypertrophy) — the most important part (training-wise) of the physique transformation process. With circuit training you’ll be going through a lot of sets and exercises, but you won’t be maximizing muscular development. It’s like going to work, doing a lot of busy-work, but getting nothing done.
Many trainees mistakenly believe that rapid training improves training efficiency. Efficiency, however, involves two factors — doing the best job AND doing it in the least amount of time possible. Rushing through workouts covers “the least amount of time possible part”, but it’s not doing the best job in terms of cosmetic enhancement.
It’s time to dispel a widespread training myth. Despite what you’ve heard, circuit-style training does not help you burn more body fat. This is misguided thinking. Well, because of fuel dynamics, maybe it helps you burn a small fraction more during your actual training. But remember, visual fat loss is not about how many calories you burn while training. It’s about all of the calories you burn in the recovery and repair process in between training sessions. In other words, its not about how many calories you burn in the one hour training session, its about how many calories you burn in the other 23 hours of the day.
How do you increase that number? The best way is to build metabolic-boosting muscle. And how do you accomplish that? By implementing a strength training program that is designed around established hypertrophy principles. Your weight training workouts should never be about “burning fat”. They should always be about building muscle. Lean muscle will IN TURN coax your body into burning more body fat over time.
I guess part of the problem is that we are an attention deficit disorder generation. People need to be moving all of the time, and just want to rush through their training programs. These days they’re so wired up on 32oz coffees or Red Bull’s wings they can’t sit still for a second, let alone thirty-to-ninety.
THE SOCIALIZERS AND STRENGTH GUYS
On the other end of the extreme you have the people who do a set, and then walk around cruising the scene for ten minutes before they do their next set. They are talking with friends, telling everyone about their life, making plans for the weekend, etc. Or, they are staring at the chic’s or dude’s asses, whatever you prefer, trying to make a move, and are more interested in turning the gym into a nightclub scene than they are actually working out.
And the vain meatheads and diva’s, listen up. If I can stare at the mirror and fall in love with myself in less than 90 seconds, anyone can. Besides, you can go right back to the mirror for another 90 seconds after your next set, but you have to get the job done too. You have to stay focused on the task at hand.
In all seriousness, there are ATHLETES who do benefit from longer rest periods — power and strength athletes. Longer rest between sets can be beneficial for two reasons: (1) The nervous system takes longer to recover than the individual muscle fibers (2) Complete resynthesis of ATP stores, the compound that fuels muscular activity, seems to occur within 3-5 minutes. Full recovery equals more strength and better lifting totals, which is the name of the game in these sports.
But remember, training for strength and sport performance is different than training for development and physique appearance.
THE MIDDLE GROUND FOR HYPERTROPHY
As you now know, we have a lot of training parameters we must follow to get the best body composition transformation results. We have lower limits of training volume, lower limits of training load to produce an adaptive response, and upper limits of training duration. The only way to accomplish all of these goals simultaneously is with moderate interest rests.
Rest periods that are too short limit training load. The body needs a certain amount of time to clear lactic acid (a by-product of anaerobic metabolism) from the blood and resynthesize ATP, the compound that fuels muscular contractions. If you try to jump back in too soon, your performance will suffer, and you will not be able to achieve the same amount of muscular overload in successive sets. Lactic acid will inhibit muscular contraction. A sprinter would not be able to perform a 100-yard dash at maximum capacity, and turn around and do it again at the same intensity level without some sort of rest.
Ultra-short rests limit training load, makes your weight training more aerobic in nature, and predominantly uses slow-twitch/endurance muscle fibers to complete the near-continuous tasks. This limits fast-twitch fiber recruitment and overload, which is the key to physique development. You become more fatigue-resistant and build muscular endurance, but you won’t drastically change your physical appearance. Training for growth needs to be more intermittent/interval-based. This allows the system to recover so you can maximize tension and overload with successive sets.
Rest periods that are too long force you to either (a) reduce the amount of training volume per muscle group or (b) exceed training duration recommendations. Neither of these scenarios is optimal for physique development. We need a certain amount of volume to maximize muscle growth, but also need to limit training duration to prevent overproduction of cortisol and muscle oxidation (muscle wasting). This involves finding the sweet spot for interest rest.
Remember for pure strength development, we should rest longer between sets because the nervous system takes longer to recover than the muscular system. But as physique athletes we are not trying to maximize strength, we are trying to maximize development. We can jump back in a little sooner to further overload the muscular system without waiting for full recovery of the nervous system. We are training our body for development, not our ego for maximum lifts. And many believe that training for growth involves some degree of incomplete recovery, oxygen debt, and accumulation of fatigue.
If you’ve made it this far in the series, you probably are beginning to understand that hormones play a critical role in the physique development process. Much of our program design is geared towards maximizing anabolic/fat burning hormone output and minimizing catabolic/fat storing hormone output. Well, moderate rest periods, right around one-minute, provide the biggest increases in acute testosterone and growth hormone output. This is a large reason why these rest periods are associated with maximizing the hypertrophy response.
In short, don’t rush through your sets and circuit train, rest, but don’t rest too long.
Exercise form: The manner in which you execute/perform a particular lift
Recommendations: Use various tempo prescriptions, always with a controlled negative/lowering phase. Most common: 3-1-1-0, 3-0-1-0, 2-0-2-0, 2-0-2-1.
If I was forced to put a number on it, I’d say that 75% of the average gym population is exercising improperly. A good percentage of those people are just plain exercising dangerously. You know what I’m talking about. The heaving, limbo barbell curls. The sternum crushing, bouncing barbell bench press. The swinging, hip thrust pull-up. The knee shredding, lower back crushing rebound squat. The list goes on and on…
POINT A TO POINT B, OR SOMETHING MORE?
You see people do all kinds of body contortions to complete a lift, solely thinking in terms of moving the bar from Point A to Point B. This builds the ego, not the body, and predisposes trainees to injury.
Appearance-based training, as opposed to Power lifting or Olympic lifting, is all about stimulating and overloading the muscle, it is less about how much weight is actually on the bar. We are not trying to get better at various lifts for competitive purposes. The lifts are simply a means to an end. They are tools we use to achieve our ultimate goal — physique transformation.
Your muscles don’t know the difference between 50lbs and 500lbs (ok yes they do, but for educational purposes just bear with me), they only know if the workload they’ve been given has forced each and every motor unit and muscle fiber to fire to exhaustion. This is what causes muscular overload, and a resulting adaptive response (muscle growth). For some, that very well may be 500lbs, for some it may only be 50lbs.
Cheating, using momentum, etc. reduces tension and workload on the target muscle and allows it to shift to the other muscles and/or joints. At best this is ineffective for physique development. At worst it can predispose you to training injury.
Coach Scott Abel talks a lot about this in his various works on bodybuilding and fitness training. He advises body composition athletes to think in the following terms, “train the muscle, not the movement.” In other words, we are using the barbell biceps curl to overload the biceps and force biceps growth. We are not barbell curling just to get better/stronger at barbell curling. For physique development, you are better off using 60lbs with proper form (controlled negative, no rebound, etc.) than using 100lbs with improper form (dropping the weight, heaving it up with knees, shoulders, lower back, and everything else EXCEPT the biceps).
Now don’t misunderstand me. We DO want to get stronger. The hypertrophy process is somewhat dependant upon progressive overload and strength development. We just don’t want to see strength as the be-all-end-all (there are other factors involved in the physique development process), and sacrifice proper form for strength increases at all costs.
You should train for yourself, to develop our own body, not for anyone else. We all fall at various places under the strength spectrum. And I can guarantee you this. There is always someone out there who is stronger than you are. At the same time, there is always someone out there who is weaker and more uncoordinated than you are. So don’t even worry about it. Where someone else is at and what they are lifting in the gym makes no difference on what your body is capable of.
Besides, it’s not about where you are at; it’s about where you are going that matters. Feel free to give me a hug in spirit right now.
Despite this, there will always be the strong urge/inclination to ego train, especially when a hot chic (or dude, whatever you prefer) is training right next to you. “Slap a few plates on Joey. Gotta warm up.” So here are a few errors to keep an eye out for:
1. Using momentum/rebound to lift the weight.
The best example of this error is the barbell bench press. The person barely controls the weight down and rapidly and violently bounces the bar off the chest to lift it back up. Not only is this dangerous for the sternum and shoulder joint (most pec and rotator cuff injuries happen this way), it is ineffective for chest development.
The chest fibers are maximally stimulated in the stretch-to-midrange position. The top third of the movement is all triceps. By bouncing the bar off the chest, you are eliminating most of the lift that overloads the chest muscles. For physique development you are better off lightening the load, controlling the negative, and using pure pec power to lift the weight up.
2. Incorporating other muscle groups
The best example of this is the barbell curl. The biceps contract to flex the arm at the elbow joint, pulling the forearm towards the upper arm. What kinesiology tells us, then, is that only the forearm should be moving with a proper barbell curl, at least a barbell curl specifically performed for maximizing tension and overload on the biceps.
If any other body part is moving, you are incorporating other muscle groups to perform the lift, thus reducing tension on the biceps. You are starting to train the movement, and moving away from training the muscle.
Slight cheat would be upper arm movement. Muscles generally work on the insertion point, and thus initiate movement on the limb beneath it. Biceps contract and shorten to move the forearm. If your upper arm is moving, it is being initiated by shoulder contractions.
Major cheats would be lower back swinging, possibly combined with knee movement.
3. Not using a full range of motion
The two best example of this are the squat and leg press. Trainees will load up a bunch of plates on the bar, I assume to try and impress the rest of the gym crowd, and then proceed to barely budge the bar or sled ¼ inch. That does nothing to build the legs, and stresses the knee joints and lower back.
4. Letting gravity do all the work
People think of weight training as “lifting”, but research shows a lot of the structural damage that triggers the repair and growth processes occurs during the “lowering” or negative phase of the lift. If you lift the weight, and drop it down without using the target muscles to control it against gravity, you are missing out on many of the physique enhancing benefits of weight training. You certainly are not maximizing your development, and you are predisposing yourself to either traumatic injury (muscle, tendon strains) and/or chronic pain (join wear and tear).
If I could give just one piece of form/technique advice to the average gym-goer, it would be this — slow it down — just a little bit. Not excessively, as with super slow training, which is meaningless for physique development, but just a little bit.
Tempo training is one of the best techniques to teach people proper form without actually being there to correct all of the little technique errors. It’s also a great way to ensure you are overloading the muscles, and not using too much momentum or rebound to initiate lifts.
To get your beach bod, you gotta use good form. Tempo prescriptions (made famous in the strength training world by Charles Poliquin) help trainees accomplish this goal. There are four numbers in the system. I change tempos all of the time but I think a great one to start with is 3-1-1-0.
The first number (3) is the negative or lowering portion of the exercise — when you’re muscles are elongating and working to resist gravity. You should lower the weight under control in three seconds, instead of just letting it drop towards the ground.
The second number (1) is the transition phase between the negative and the positive (lifting) — bottom of the bench press. A one second pause eliminates momentum and forces the target muscle to initiate the movement.
The third number (1) is the actual lift. You don’t want to sling the weight up, but you do want to use some controlled force to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Super-slow training (10 second lift) reduces the workload too much and is ineffective for muscle development. That’s why they call it weight lifting, not weight budging. So power the weight up in a controlled fashion without cheating or using other muscle groups to get the job done.
The fourth number (0) is the lockout phase. A good example is the top of the bench press where your arms are extended. Most people lock out their joints, rest for a second between reps, and allow the target muscle to rest. This prolongs the set but reduces tension on the muscle — not what we want for physique development. Stopping just short of locking out and immediately starting the next rep without a rest is the best way to overload the target muscle.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
If you can’t feel your muscles working during a set, you probably are not doing it right. Look at slowing things down until you can feel the target muscle(s) working, especially with isolation movements. Think slow stretch and controlled, but forceful contraction with each rep. Remember, you are there to train and develop your body, not just sling weights around.
Repetitions (Reps): The number of times you lift the weight in a given set.
Recommendations: 6-15 reps per set
THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR
The research and literature regarding adaptations to strength training protocols are quite clear:
- 1-5 reps are primarily for strength
- 6-15 reps are primarily for size/development
- 15+ reps are primarily for muscular endurance
That’s simple enough to apply in the real world, but that’s also the problem. People feel they always need more complicated and revolutionary theories to get results. Trainers and coaches feel the need to invent exotic rep schemes and periodization plans to establish credibility, project value, and remain on the cutting edge.
This problem is compounded by the fact that many consumers are lazy and don’t get results on basic programs because (a) they are not following those programs with any real consistency or (b) they are not working hard enough within those programs to elicit noticeable change. They remain overweight, and bash the program for its ineffectiveness. But the simple, tough love truth is that its not the program, it’s the person.
As a result, consumers feel the need to go outside of basic training parameters and embark on the never-ending search for the magical programs that will produce magical results. They believe any marketing flash and unscrupulous claims, without checking the credibility of those claims. Hence, the market place is flooded with false promises, and training programs that are moving further and further away from the scientific foundations that produce real world results.
If you want to stop chasing infomercial claims and change your physique, you need to get away from the fitness marketing madness, and get back to objective scientific data. Trust me, if you can’t get results busting your ass doing basic exercises with basic set and rep schemes, nothing is going to help you.
IN DEFENSE OF THREE SETS OF TEN
The standard three sets of ten training protocol has taken a beating by the so-called “experts” and “innovative” trainers within today’s fitness industry. This is the first rep scheme to get blasted for its archaic and uninformed recommendations. “Oh, that’s so 1980’s” or “What did you just copy that out of a fitness magazine or bodybuilding book?”
Are these jokers frickin’ serious? Three sets of ten falls right within the parameters of optimal training for physique development. Informed and intelligent coaches and trainers that care more about their clients results (and not just making up new crap to sell) actually copied that scheme out of numerous research journals, University labs tests, and anecdotal evidence from thousands of physique athletes who make their living from their physical appearance. Remember, simple on paper does not necessarily mean simple in research and design. E=MC2 encapsulates a lot in one little equation.
ONE TO FIVE
Perhaps looking at the physiological responses to OTHER rep ranges will help clarify our stance on the optimal rep ranges specifically designed for physique development. What happens with low rep training, or sets of 1-5 reps? Other than meatheads loading up too much weight on the bar and (a) using terrible form or (b) budging it ¼ inch?
Low rep sets primarily lead to nervous system adaptations. The body becomes more efficient at recruiting the maximum number of motor units possible, and generating incredible amounts of force for a very short period of time. This is all about lifting heavy loads. Now that’s all great for performance-based goals like Powerlifting or Olympic lifting, or showing off at the gym, but what about physique development?
Training for performance is different than training for appearance. There are plenty of lifters who are incredibly strong and can move awe-inspiring loads, but don’t necessarily “look” like they can. I’m sure you can think of a few examples in your gym. There are plenty of overweight powerlifters and underdeveloped Olympic lifters that would make you or I feel like the weights we use might as well be coated in pink plastic. However, their physiques remain less than desirable.
That’s cool. Their goal is not to be a pretty boy or pretty girl, and they would probably gag at the idea of training for cosmetic enhancement. Their goal is to lift heavy shit. The real question is what is your goal? If your goals are to lift heavy shit, than train with 1-5 reps most of the time. But if your goal is to attain a certain look, you need to think outside of that rep zone.
While the body gets better at recruiting more motor units and generating more force, the individual muscle fibers within those motor units do not spend enough time under tension for maximum muscular development. This is why we say 1-5 reps results in primarily neural adaptation, not necessarily muscular adaptations. The latter is what we are after for physique enhancement.
Scott Abel is a physique coach who talks a lot about the difference between training for strength vs. training for development. Here is some of the research he presents on his blog:
And in 1995, David Behm’s research was more direct. His research article “Neuromuscular Implications and Applications of Resistance Training” came to the following sound conclusion so important to those of you interested in developing a better physique: “Maximum strength training methods with their high intensity resistance but low volume of work do NOT elicit substantial muscle hypertrophy.” His research some 10 years later served to reinforce this conclusion as well.
“Therefore a higher volume of work, (greater than 6 reps, with multiple sets) [emphasis and references are his] is needed to ensure a critical concentration of intracellular amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis” (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1995: p271).
So why not just blast out 50-100 rep sets? Well you can every once in awhile to shock the body, but in general, high rep sets primarily lead to metabolic adaptations. The body becomes more efficient at maintaining aerobic metabolism during higher intensity levels, and increases its lactic acid threshold. In essence, it becomes more fatigue resistant and can do more work without “hitting the wall”.
Again, this is great if your sport requires a certain amount of muscular endurance, but endurance training does not “build” or “shape” a body. For development the muscles need time under (an adequate amount of) tension. The load, or “tension”, is not great enough with ultra high-rep training to produce an adaptive response within the muscle fibers.
You could curl a pencil a thousand times and eventually it would start to burn, but it wouldn’t do much for building your biceps. The resistance is not enough to force the body to tap into its higher threshold, larger motor units; the one’s mostly responsible for growth and development. You just get better at the process of curling, which is meaningless for body composition change.
There is another problem with endurance training for physique development. There are certain “intermediate” muscle fibers within our bodies that can take on either the properties of fast-twitch fibers (power, strength) or the properties of slow-twitch fibers (endurance) depending on training style. Endurance training leads to the conversion of those fibers’ characteristics into the slow-twitch type.
The problem for physique development is that slow-twitch fibers don’t really grow and contribute to gains in overall lean muscle mass. Slow-twitch fibers just get better and more efficient at what they do – maximizing endurance. This is great for performance improvements, but lousy for appearance improvements.
Fast-twitch fibers are the ones that grow and are most responsible for gains in overall lean muscle mass. Emphasizing the development of these fibers is what builds, tones, tightens, and shapes the body, or whatever your particular goal may be. Training in the right rep range — the hypertrophy zone — will maximize lean muscular development. This is can have varying effects on performance depending on your sport, but it is awesome for appearance.
This “conversion factor” is my biggest problem (in terms of physique development) with boot camps, cross-training, circuit training, or any other strength training mode that emphasizes high rep training in a non-stop fashion. What’s happening is the body is building muscular endurance with these plans (and more than likely converting intermediate fibers into the slow-twitch variation) — which is why you feel like you are going to die the first session, but after time you get better at completing the course. Getting better at doing something is a performance adaptation, not an appearance adaptation.
Don’t get me wrong, these workouts are challenging and will kick your ass. But will they build your ass? Will they help you in terms of physique development? There are better, more efficient ways to train if that is your primary goal.
There is this prevailing fitness myth that high reps will help you burn more fat and cut-up. Many people who are primarily concerned with fat loss follow misguided training programs that emphasize ultra-high reps along with non-stop circuit training as their foundation. High reps don’t help you burn fat or rip up. Building muscle (through hypertrophy training) to boost the metabolic rate and maintaining a relative calorie deficit (through proper diet, and maybe some cardio) are the two keys to fat loss. You can’t build muscle with ultra-high reps. If anything you will lose muscle, and end up with a soft/flabby appearance.
The hypertrophy range will indirectly help you burn fat and rip up because building muscle in this range boosts the metabolism and helps you burn more calories — predominantly from fat — at rest. We burn most of our fat at rest, not while we actually train. We burn mostly glucose/glycogen while we train. The damage from this training sets up the environment for fat burning in the recovery process. So to try and burn more fat while training (through cardio or higher reps or cross training or longer duration sessions or “fat burners” or whatever other misguided ideas people have) is a relatively ineffective and inefficient endeavor.
In practical terms, don’t use your weight training sessions to “burn fat”. Let your diet, and to a much lesser extent cardio, burn fat. Always use your weight training sessions to try and build lean muscle. And yes, this includes you ladies. Lean muscle is what shapes your body. You won’t get huge like a guy because of the difference in hormone profiles — testosterone/estrogen ratio. And make no mistake, the overly masculine women you see in bodybuilding mags are taking steroids to change their hormonal profile to resemble a man’s.
This means moderate rep hypertrophy training, not high rep endurance training, is the way to go for both men and women trying to attain a lean, shapely appearance.
SIX TO FIFTEEN
Any training will cause somewhat of an adaptive response. You will get some muscle growth training with both low reps (1-5) and high reps (15+). But for the reasons already discussed above, you will not get optimal growth, and will not be maximizing your physique development potential. And as a physique athlete, you want the most effective and efficient training plans to change your physical appearance.
So, we come full circle back to the optimal hypertrophy zone. The majority of your training should fall within the 6-15 rep range if your goals are related to body composition transformation. Here’s what happens in this rep zone:
- There is adequate tension to force all motor units (small and large) to be recruited.
- There is adequate time under tension to cause muscular damage, which leads to an adaptive response (growth). Muscle fibers become larger and more dense by increasing the size and number of contractile proteins (called actin & myosin) within those fibers.
- The area surrounding the muscle is pumped with blood and nutrients, which triggers protein synthesis (and makes you look good in the mirror).
- You get the greatest acute increases in anabolic hormones: testosterone, growth hormone.
A LITTLE EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY
Here’s just a little more science to take this thing home. In Exercise Physiology, there is a principle called the Size Principle of Motor recruitment. This states that:
Motor unit recruitment depends on the force/resistance of the exercise. With light intensity exercise the Type I (slow twitch) motor units are recruited. When the load is increased, the Type IIa (fast twitch) will be recruited with the help of the Type I fibers. When the load becomes even greater, the Type IIb/x will be recruited with the help of the Type IIa and Type I motor units. Therefore Type I motor units are always firing no matter what the intensity. – Jennifer Hill
The hypertrophy zone (6-15) allows this natural neural process to take place. With this rep zone, all of the muscle fibers within a muscle group are recruited (including the one’s that grow the most, the fast twitch varieties) AND those fibers spend enough time under tension for maximum development.
With high reps, only the slow-twitch motor units are recruited. The resistance is not enough to force the higher threshold units (IIa, IIb/x) into action. The problem is, these are the fibers that grow the most, and change a physique.
With low reps (1-5), the tension is great enough to force all of the fibers into action. However, the tension is so great that the body loses its ability to generate force (nervous system fails) before the muscles completely fatigue/exhaust (muscular system fails). Thus, the muscle fibers are not maximally overloaded. They do not spend enough time under tension to cause optimal development.
The take home message is this: Please, just trust me: 6-15 reps is where you should spend most of your time.
Exercise selection: The exercises you use in your training program
Exercise selection recommendations: Focus on traditional, basic exercises (examples embedded within article).
THE CIRCUS SHOW
Most gyms these days have become circus shows. Some of the shit you see in the name of “cutting edge” or “innovative” fitness is simply ridiculous, and offers little to no benefit in terms of real physique enhancement.
At the very least it is a waste of time. Like lying around trying to meditate/stretch your way to fat loss, or balancing on a ball like a seal, or more accurately like a lazy housewife (or house-husband) just pretending to work out.
At the very worst it is dangerous – twisting and swinging around at odd angles — the gung-ho dudes who are going to train like “beasts” until their shoulder pops out doing momentum-based pull-ups, or their back gives out doing a crazy boot camp drill.
I mean c’mon, I saw a professional trainer the other day have a client flop around on the ground like a fish out of water. That was the actual exercise. I swear, I am not messing with you. This literally happened right in front of my face.
To me, much of the fitness industry has it backwards. The gym is full of complicated, complex, weird, cute, wild, and new exercises and exercise systems backed by little scientific basis. It’s all about the trends and the fads and what sells (products or services), not about what is truly effective.
But we can’t put all of the blame on the fitness industry. Some of the blame falls directly on you — the consumers. You’re the ones who keep searching for the magic pill. You’re the ones who keep paying for the nonsense that is flooding the marketplace and invading the gyms. You want to believe there is some magical training system that can either (a) allow you to eat whatever you want/make up for a poor diet (b) allow you to get into shape without actually having to work hard and earn it. Sorry my friends, that magic plan is about as real as Santa Clause. You fitness kids need to grow up, embrace the truth, and get to work.
What you really need to do is ask yourself some important questions. Do you want to do exercises that make you look cool, intelligent, or cutting edge, or do you want to do exercises that are effective for physique development? Are you lazy, and just want a program that makes you “feel” like you are working out? Or are you willing to put real work into real workouts that give you real results?
Effective training for physique development is exactly the opposite of the fitness trends and fads. It uses the complicated science of Kinesiology and Biomechanics to yield relatively simple exercises and simple programs. Now don’t misunderstand me. That means simple on paper, but it is actually challenging in its implementation and execution.
With all of the complexities of the human body, human movement really comes down to nothing more than a simple lever system. Your bones are the levers and your joints are the fulcrums. The biceps contracts to flex the arm and bring the radius and ulna (forearm) towards the humerus (upper arm).
Attach some resistance onto the end of that lever (ie a dumbell) and you have yourself a results producing exercise. It’s not rocket science, it’s physics, and the actual real world application is simple common sense. You don’t need crazy, weird exercises that have you balancing, twisting, and flipping all over the place, unless you are training for the circus. You need simple movements that overload the muscles and provide the initial spark for the adaptation process. That’s how you efficiently build a body. The basics may not be cool or hip or innovative or cutting edge, but they damn sure are effective!
Ineffective training programs: use simple science to yield complicated exercises that are relatively easy to perform (think one leg, twisting hip thrust curls while balancing on a ball).
Effective training programs: use complicated science to yield simple/basic exercises that are difficult to perform (think squats and lunges until you can’t move anymore).
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
There is an old saying in the strength and conditioning world that “form follows function”. In other words, the form of a particular exercise should mimic the function(s) of the particular muscle(s) you are trying to work.
So what type of exercises should you be doing in the gym for physique development? Here you go:
|Anatomical name||Gym name||Function||Exercises|
|Pectoralis major, clavicular head||Mid-to-upper chest, pecs||Flexes arm, brings arm across midline of body (horizontal adduction)||Incline presses, incline fly, flat presses, flat fly|
|Pectoralis major, sternocostal head||Mid-to-lower chest, pecs, titties||Downward and forward movement of arm||Decline presses, dips, cable crossovers|
|Trapezius, upper fibers||Traps||Scapula elevation||Shrugs, upright rows|
|Trapezius, middle fibers||Mid-back||Scapula adduction (pulling shoulder blades together)||Rowing motions|
|Trapezius, lower fibers||Mid-back||Scapula depression (pulling shoulder blades down)||Lat-pulldowns, rack pull-ups|
|Rhomboids||Mid-back||Scapula adduction||Various rowing motions|
|Anterior deltoid||Front of shoulder||Raise arm to the front||Front raises, shoulder press motions|
|Medial deltoid||Side of shoulder||Abduct arm, raise arm out to the side||Lateral raises, shoulder press, upright rows|
|Posterior deltoid||Back of shoulder||Raise arm to the rear||Rear delt fly, shoulder press|
|Latissimus dorsi||Back, lats, wings||Extend humerus, pull arm down towards pelvis||Pull-ups, lat pulldowns, straight arm pulldowns|
|Spinal erectors, erector spinae||Low back||Extend spine, stabilize spine||Deadlift variations, hyperextensions|
|Rectus abdominis||Abs, six pack||Flex spine, stabilize spine||Leg raises, crunch variations|
|Obliques||Side abs||Rotate torso, flex spine||Rotating movements (ie medicine ball twists), bicycle crunches|
|Transverse abdominis||Deep abs||Stabilize spine||Iso contractions, ab wheel, planks|
|Biceps brachii||Bi’s, arms, guns||Elbow flexion||Curl variations|
|Triceps brachii||Tri’s, arms, gun show||Elbow extensions||Triceps extension and press variations|
|Quadriceps (Rectus Femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medius, vastus intermedius)||Quads, thighs||Extend knee, flex hip||Squats, leg presses, leg extensions|
|Hamstrings (Biceps femoris, semitendinosous, semimembranosous)||Hams, back of thighs||Flex knee, extend hip||Leg curl and deadlift variations|
|Glutes (gluteus maximus)||Butt, booty, junk in the trunk||Hip extension, decelerate the seated movement||Squats, lunge variations, glute bridges and kickbacks|
|Calves||Calves||Elevate heel (plantarflexion)||Calf raise variations|
WHAT LOOKS UNINFORMED IS ACTUALLY HIGHLY INFORMED
Traditional bodybuilding and fitness programs tend to get bashed in the fitness industry as unintelligent/uninformed. I will concede that many meatheads and fitness diva’s DO give bodybuilding a bad name. “Just squat ’til you puke Junior. What your knee hurts and you have chronic low back pain? Well squat anyway you wuss.” “Just do cardio for 3 hours a day, eat only a salad, and make sure to sound really stupid when you talk because that’s what boys like.”
Whatever. That’s not real bodybuilding or fitness to me, it’s just ignorance. And keep this in mind as a person trying to learn about the physique transformation process: Just because someone looks good doesn’t mean they know anything about the scientific process behind physique development, not to mention general health and overall well-being.
The problem in fitness, however, is that because of this negative association with bodybuilding, the industry is going too far in the other direction. Anything old-school or even remotely basic in nature is considered worthless. Everything has to be new and cutting edge to be effective. On a side note, is the cutting edge stuff really effective? Many of the people I see balancing, flipping, bouncing, or meditating around don’t look like they’ve ever stepped foot inside a gym.
But real bodybuilding and fitness programs, designed by coaches and trainers with scientific backgrounds and true expertise, are far from uninformed. They select movement patterns and exercises based on the anatomical functions of the muscles. These basic exercises are the basics for a reason – because they work. This is a highly informed and intelligent way to train. And quit frankly, it’s the most effective and efficient way to build/shape a body.
So a shoulder routine consisting of: military press, seated side laterals, rear-delt flies, and alternate front raises may look too old-school and simple on paper to the fitness “experts”, but it actually works all planes of motions and functions of the shoulder and optimally overloads the delts for maximum development.
What about twisting, lunging, hip thrusting, rotating, one-arm shoulder presses with a hop? Can it be effective? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely not. If anything, it limits overload on the delts because of the complexity of the movement. It overloads the nervous and potentially cardiovascular systems before the muscular systems, which is not what we want for physique development. Is it cool looking? Maybe to novices. But to me, that shit looks better on desperate housewives than on real fitness warriors.
So stick to the basic exercises based on the knowledge of the body as a simple lever system and the knowledge of each muscle’s natural movement function. It’s the best way to get real world results.
That is unless you are willing to buy my latest and greatest training invention for ultra-fast results. We’re talking losing 30lbs in 3 days with no changes in diet necessary. In fact you can eat anything you want in unlimited quantities because I finally found the magic pill. Its called S.B.H.T.P. = The Stability Ball Humping Training Program. All you have to do is grab a stability ball and…