The best bodies in the world were built with these basics at the core.
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are multiple ways to go about achieving the same shredded look with resistance training. This is why there may appear to be too much conflicting training information available on the internet. My goal is not to add to it, but to simplify it in the guides on the site.
There are fundamental principles that training programs must follow if they are going to be effective. I don’t want you to waste years of your life, as I did, before finding out what really works. This article covers those principles, and explains the reasons behind the training recommendations made on this site.
In short, we will focus on a training style with a bias towards progressive strength gains in the main compound movements. I believe this is the fastest way to get stronger, bigger, and change your physique, with the least risk of spinning your wheels (i.e. putting in effort without results).
If you are new to training then this will be the best training year of your life as your potential for growth is the greatest. Do not waste this opportunity, and do not suffer fools that try to steer you off the path toward ineffective routines.
If you have been training a while and haven’t seen the progress you thought you would, a renewed focus on the basics will probably benefit you greatly. It’s not too late to start now, but it would be silly to continue doing what you are doing and expect a different result.
1. Progressive Overload Must Occur
An effective training routine must follow The Principle of Progressive Overload. This means that it must plan for and allow us to consistently add reps, or weight to the bar over time to drive physical adaptations and change.
There are many ways that we can achieve this but I feel that barbell exercises are best – they are one of the easiest tools for allowing incremental loading, they are toughest to cheat on (and cheat ourselves out of a good training effect on), and the easiest to gauge our progress with.
Simple barbell training routines do not make for a new or sexy article in a magazine, which is why you don’t generally see them in there. This is not because they aren’t effective, the best bodies in the world have been built with these basics.
2. We Must Always Strive To Use Good Form
Training with good form is critically important. If we do not do so, then we not only reduce the training effect, but set ourselves up for injury somewhere in the future.
Furthermore, using the same good form for all reps, through a full range of motion at all times, is the only way we’re able to objectively gauge our progress and thus assess if we need to make changes.
Work Done = Force x Distance
A common mistake you see people making is adding weight but shortening the range of motion. You’ve probably seen this also – a guy will bench a weight they can’t handle but do very short reps. If they do that, they have no way to know whether they truly progressed or whether the bar just travelled a shorter distance (thus making the exercise easier). The same is true of many exercises.
Making a small investment in getting your form right will pay big dividends in the future. Here are my suggestions:
- Hire a coach, if you can
- Getting a coach to check your form is a great idea in theory, but easier said than done in practice. Unfortunately 90%+ of staff in commercial gyms will not know how to teach these barbell moves properly, though they’ll think they can, which means you won’t know whether you’re being taught correctly or not.
- If you can get to a proper powerlifting gym (a serious gym), do that, as the people there will be able to show you how to lift.
- If you can’t get to a serious gym then self-teaching may be the only viable option. Many people are self-taught, myself included. Here are the resources you need:
- Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength.
- Mark Rippetoe’s Youtube video lectures.
- Type any exercise you’re looking for into Youtube along with any of the following names and you can be sure it’ll be good: Eric Cressey / Tony Gentilcore / Bret Contreras / Jordan Syatt
- Suggestion: Film yourself from the same angle and then check your form by comparing.
Form is something that you will work on for months and even years. So don’t get an ego about it, stay humble, have the mindset of practice, and you can’t help but get stronger and grow.
3. Rep Ranges & Exercise Selection
You will see in the sample routines covered on this site that there are a low number of exercises included. When you use the big compound movements you hit multiple muscle groups at once, which is why it’s possible to create an effective routine out of so few exercises.
You’ll also see that the primary set-rep pattern used is 5×5 – meaning five sets of five reps. This is not because 5×5 is a magic set-rep pattern (there isn’t one) it’s just a convenient way to initially set up our training to allow us to focus on progressive overload in our key exercises.
It is touted that higher rep ranges (8-12) are better for hypertrophy, and lower rep ranges (1-5) are better for strength. While this is true at the extremes, it misses the bigger picture entirely.By far the most important thing is that we have an objective base from which to judge the efficacy of our training. – Are we stronger, or not? If we were to artificially compare a 3×8-10 routine with a 5×5 routine using the same exercises, given that total training volume is roughly equal, they are going to produce very similar results in terms of hypertrophy with the latter giving more strength adaptations. If executed well of course.
But that’s the problem – when people go with higher-rep routines they usually come along with a greater variety of exercise selection. Which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, if it weren’t for the fact that people tend to lose sight of the principle of progressive overload when they are given many isolation exercises instead of a few compound movements that hit all the same muscle groups anyway.
For this reason I am in favour of the 5×5 style for the compound movements for novice trainees as it provides a very easy and tangible way of measuring progress, as well as a simple base from which to start adding training volume when it becomes necessary. You might consider the guides on this site then to have a strength focus, which is a fair comment, but a very positive thing whether you wish to be jacked or strong as you’ll achieve both.
4. Strength vs Size Is A False DichotomyA good friend and colleague of mine, Greg Nuckols, explains this one well:
“Gaining size (muscle mass) versus gaining strength is really a false dichotomy for most people; they’re two sides to the same coin.
Now, if you’re brand new to lifting, you’ll probably gain strength (weight on the bar) much faster than you gain muscle mass initially. That’s a simple matter of your nervous system learning the movement and figuring out how to effectively use the muscle you currently have (plus a little extra you build) to move the load.
Once you’ve learned a movement, though, there’s only one way to keep those strength numbers ticking up: Those muscles have to grow.
On the other hand, if you’re training primarily to gain mass, those muscle gains will be slow in coming unless you apply progressive overload (increasing training volume, intensity, or both). And, by doing so, you’ll get stronger. Then, with that increased strength, you can load the muscles even heavier, create more tension, and grow bigger yet.
To get stronger (unless you’re a complete beginner), you need to get bigger, and to get bigger you need get stronger. Training for one without the other doesn’t really make sense for most people.
In some fringe cases it may be possible and necessary. For instance, if you’re an elite powerlifter weighing very close to the top of your weight class, then you may need to train in a manner to eek the last possible neural improvements out of the movements without gaining muscle mass that would push you into the next weight class. If you’re a bodybuilder with a long injury history and not much more room for growth in the first place, then avoiding the heavier training that drives strength gains in favor of lighter, more voluminous training may be prudent.
For everyone else, get stronger to get bigger and get bigger to get stronger.”
5. Volume and Frequency Need to be Appropriate for Your Training Level and Goal
We can achieve a great amount by training just 3 days a week for an hour. But that doesn’t mean this is all you will need, forever.
- A novice needs less overall training volume to bring about change than an advanced lifter.
- Less training volume is required to maintain muscle mass than what is required to force adaptations and growth when seeking to gain muscle mass. This is especially relevant when dieting.
I suggest that you do the minimum you can to keep progressing at a sustainable rate, because that way it’s easier to add in volume later when it becomes necessary.
The pros train 5+ days a week because they need to do so to be able to get the amount of volume in that is required to still make gains. The theory on this is covered in a later section, but for now, just don’t make the mistake of being that skinny guy down the gym, copying the advanced guys, without realising that it simply isn’t appropriate for you right now.A rough guide: → Recovering fine but failing to make progressions with strength? – Increase your training volume (by adding in more reps or sets). Add in a training day if necessary to achieve this. → Struggling to recover? – Decrease training volume, or split your workouts up further.
<—- Beginner — Intermediate — Advanced —->
Cutting: 3 days — 3 days — 3-4 days
Bulking: 3 days — 3-4 days — 4-6 days
6. Adequate Recovery Is As Important As The Training ItselfTraining provides the stimulus and stress telling your body to adapt. Recovery allows the adaptations to take place. Thus, in order to make the most of your training efforts:
- Eat well.
- Sleep well.
- Do your best to minimise stress in your life.
7. Learn How To Program Your Own Training
The most important thing for the novice trainee is that you get on a good strength training program then stick to it. There’s not really any point in you arguing the minor differences between good, tried and proven strength routines. Nor do you really have a base from which to judge them independently. Just start something.
Read this next: Which Training Program Is For Me? →
The most important thing for the intermediate and advanced trainee becomes not what program you follow (for you must have followed a good one or you wouldn’t be intermediate or advanced), but how you tweak it so that you keep advancing with your training. This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle and where people get stuck.
You’ve been spending 4-8 hours a week going to the gym for years, it’s worth investing a few hours to make sure that you’re getting the most out of it, right?
Do either of these next: Watch the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid video series by my co-author Eric or if you prefer a written version consider getting our book. →
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.