This is the time. You’ve made up your mind that you are going to buckle down and get into the best shape of your life. No more starting, stopping, and starting all over again. This is the year you finally build the body of your dreams. You’re committed, you’re motivated, you’re pumped up, and you can’t wait to get started. But hold on a second their cowboy (or cowgirl), where do you start?
There are hundreds of fat loss gurus, thousands of exercise books, and millions of training articles on the market today. Everyone in the fitness industry has a plan. Some are good, some are bad, and some are flat-out ugly. To the advanced bodybuilder and fitness athlete, it can be confusing. To the beginner, it can be mind-boggling.
MATCH YOUR TRAINING PLAN WITH YOUR TRAINING GOALS
This seems like an obvious step, but most people fail to truly analyze how their chosen training program is applicable to their training goals. They blindly follow a program, ANY program, and expect to get their desired results just by showing up. This is a bad idea in an era where everyone is an expert and we all suffer from information overload. It takes more than just doing something at the gym; you have to do the right thing based on your goals.
These days you have bodybuilders following routines better suited for performance athletes, performance athletes following routines better suited for endurance athletes, endurance athletes following routines better suited for post-rehabilitation patients, and everyone across the board confused as hell. Again, this is because many athletes fail to critically analyze the validity and relevance of their training programs. So before we talk about specific sets, reps, and exercises, we must look at the big picture and determine what your primary goal is.
TRAINING FOR PERFORMANCE IS DIFFERENT THAN TRAINING FOR APPEARANCE
When I was a competitive athlete and stunt/acrobatics performer, my training programs were structured much differently than they are now. Back in those days I was concerned with speed, power, and agility. I worked with strength and conditioning coaches to maximize my performance. There was a lot of Olympic lifts, sprints, change-of-direction drills, etc. I was strong, fast, quick, and could perform at a high-level, but I didn’t look that great. I definitely wasn’t ripped.
These days I work as a fitness model and compete as a natural bodybuilder. My programs have changed because my goals have changed. I am less concerned with speed and agility and more concerned with physical appearance. I perform less dynamic exercises geared towards sports performance and more basic bodybuilding exercises geared towards muscular development. Although I am less “athletic” in the sports world, I’ve been ripped at 4% body fat.
I know you could care less about what I’m doing, so lets get back to YOU. What is your top training priority? This summer, do you want to be able to run fast on the beach, or do you want to be able to look good on the beach? Its important to understand that those goals are different, and thus, those training programs should be different. Sure there is overlap, but its best to prioritize one over the other in order to optimize your results.
THE RIGHT COACH
You see, I make my living as a trainer and nutrition consultant, and part of my job is making sure clients are working with the right person. As I transition into fitness writing, I hope to continue to uphold that same level of integrity. If your goal is to rehab an injury, run faster/further, or prepare for a sport, you’re probably in the wrong place. This article is NOT about that. There are other coaches with more experience and expertise in those fields that can better guide you towards your performance-based goals. How’s that for honesty in an industry where everyone claims to know everything about everything?
But since you are a reading an article about “building the body of your dreams” I’m assuming your primary focus, right now at this moment, is on body composition transformation. If you want to build muscle, blast off body fat, and turn heads at the beach, then this article IS for you. I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, but I do know how to get in shape, and how to get other people in shape — naturally.
So for all of you who want to build the body of your dreams, here are the barebones training strategies geared towards physique enhancement.
THE 5 BAREBONES TRAINING STRATEGIES
1. Emphasize Strength Training
When people start focusing on dropping body fat, they immediately think about cardiovascular exercise, “I’ll jump on the treadmill or bike and start burning fat.” While cardio is an important part of any fat loss plan, it’s not the most important part.
Getting lean is NOT about how many calories you burn in a training session (1 hour), its about how many calories you burn over the course of a day (the other 23 hours). Weight training will help you build lean muscle mass, boost your metabolism, burn more calories at rest, and ultimately drop body fat.
Lifting weights is what allows you to build muscle and shape your body. Guys, you’re not going to build a big chest and big arms by running. And girls, what do you think looks better in a bikini, soft and flabby “elliptical legs”, or shapely and tight “lunge and squat legs”?
Let your diet take care of burning off most of your body fat, cardio can be supplemental. Use weight training as a means to shape your body and build/maintain muscle while you’re leaning up.
The bottom line: Strength train 3-5 times a week.
2. Focus on the Basic Exercises
Things have gotten crazy in the fitness industry. How do I know that? Somehow in today’s industry it has become bad, or at the very least outdated/uninformed advice, to tell people to work hard on the basic exercises if they want to get in shape. That’s just crazy to me.
Listen up, if you want fluff, go somewhere else. If you want the truth, here it is — the basics are the basics for a reason — they work. You don’t need to do some crazy circus-act exercise — i.e. balancing on one foot on a Bosu ball while doing a twisting one arm squat/curl/thrust — to get in shape. Next time you see that nonsense going on in the gym look at the trainer who is prescribing it. Are they in shape?
Its not about doing new, fancy, or innovative exercises, its about doing EFFECTIVE exercises. Nothing is more effective at shaping your body than basic bodybuilding exercises.
The human body is a lever system. The biceps pull on the forearm and flexes the arm at the elbow joint. All you need to do is add some resistance to the end of that lever to overload the muscle and cause growth. In other words, throw a dumbbell onto the end of a natural movement pattern and you got yourself a body-changing exercise.
The bottom line: Focus on squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, dips, and the numerous variations of free weight presses and rows.
3. Pump Up (the Right) Volume
Arnold vs. Mentzer, Volume vs. HIT, Traditional Set Schemes vs. Max-ot, the debate probably will never end about the right amount of volume and intensity for muscular development. Those with superior muscle building genetics and a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers may get great results on abbreviated training routines, but the rest of us mere mortals need a certain amount of volume to grow.
Doing a few sets of one exercise is not enough to fully tap into and exhaust the muscle fibers of a particular body part. With these types of high intensity routines you are probably doing more for nervous system adaptation than muscular adaptation. That’s why guys get a lot stronger, but not necessarily a lot bigger on these programs. It takes multiple sets of multiple exercises from various angles to fully overload and develop each muscle group.
Research has also shown that testosterone and growth hormone release (two highly anabolic, fat burning hormones) are higher in workouts involving multiple sets of multiple exercises. Too many signs, along with research and anecdotal evidence from bodybuilders around the world, point to a moderate-to-high amount of volume as the best way to go for physique development.
The bottom line: perform 2-3 sets of 2-3 exercises for small muscle groups; perform 2-3 sets of 3-5 exercises for large muscle groups.
4. The Right Rep Range
Here’s what science tells us about the primary adaptive response to specific rep ranges:
- 1-5 reps primarily results in strength development
- 6-12 reps primarily results in muscular size development/hypertrophy
- 13+ reps primarily results in muscular endurance
Applying this to the real world, most of your sets should land in the 6-12 rep range. Why? Well you care more about building your body than making it strong or fatigue-resistant, right? Again, performance is different than appearance.
There are benefits to the other rep ranges. 1-5 reps gets you used to working with heavier loads and trains the nervous system to be more efficient at recruiting fast twitch motor units. 13+ reps increases blood flow and nutrient delivery to the working muscles. But if your goal is physique development, 6-12 reps should be the corner stone of your training routine.
5. Use Good Form
You see guys and girls who are gung-ho about changing their physiques slinging weights around all of the time. They do all kinds of body contortions to get 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. Your muscles don’t know the difference between 50lbs and 500lbs, they only know if the workload they’ve been given has forced each and every muscle fiber to fire to exhaustion. Cheating, using momentum, etc. reduces tension and workload on the target muscle and allows it to shift to the other muscles or joints.
To get your beach bod, you gotta use good form. Tempo prescriptions (made famous 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). A good example is when the bar touches the chest at the bottom of a bench press. Most people bounce, rebound, use momentum, and do everything else EXCEPT force the pecs to power the bar up. 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.
There you have it. These are the basic guidelines for appearance-based training. I promise if your program incorporates these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to getting that body of your dreams.