This article ties together the threads that link the training program suggestions on this site. It shows you the big picture: what routine is going to be most suitable for yourself and when, what to expect, and suggestions on when it’s suitable to modify things to chase progress. We start off by filling in the broad strokes that will apply to most, then we discuss some caveats. Take what is relevant to you now and ignore the rest, bookmark it then come back later.
The Training Program You Choose Should Depend on Your Training Level
The training program you choose will depend on your level of training advancement. This is best defined by your recovery ability, not how much you can actually lift.
We are all individuals. Someone that can squat 1.5x bodyweight might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another may need several days to recover. If we were to make recommendations on training frequency and volume based on relative strength, they would be appropriate for some, but woefully inappropriate for others. So, we’ll use recovery capacity to help us decide training program choice.
‘Recovery capacity’ may sound like a rather abstract concept, but a simple way to think about it is how complicated you need to make your training in order to progress.
- Can you add weight or reps to your main exercises at nearly every training session? Excellent, this is called linear progression, it’s the simplest way to do things and you’ll make the fastest progress this way while you can still use it.
- Do you need to alternate training intensities and volume, and split your training into blocks in order to still make progress? This is known as periodization. It comes in many forms but what we’ll discuss on this site for now, will be linear periodization. (The rest can be found in my book)
To make the fastest gains:
1. Keep Exercise Variety Low, Initially
For reasons discussed in The Core Principles of Effective Training, I recommend a focus on the main compound exercises during this time in a lifter’s career. As practice is important for the learning of proper technique, we will use a high frequency and low variety of exercises to start with.
You will limit your long-term strength gains by loading heavy early on with shitty form. You want to ingrain the movements such that your body will naturally move in certain ways without you actively thinking about it.
If you take up many different exercises right from the start, you will have many different movements to ingrain and this will often slow down the learning process of each exercise.
Focus on learning the correct form with a limited number of exercises, you will develop your ability to keep proper lifting form under heavy load, and this will enable you to train safely and more effectively.
2. Use Linear Progression While You Can
When you can increase the weight lifted (or the number of reps performed) from session to session, this is called linear progression. If you can use linear progression for the majority of your exercises then I would consider you to be a novice trainee.
Don’t let the word ‘novice’ bruise your ego. If you can use linear progression then you should use linear progression as this is the fastest way to make progress. Don’t try an intermediate progression model (linear periodization) too early.
How to Choose a Program to Start With
For the beginner, I would suggest that you start with The Big 3 Routine. This will have you performing the squat, bench press and deadlift every training session.
As you gain more proficiency you will need to change things in order to recover sufficiently between sessions and to keep progressing linearly. Usually, a small reduction in the number of sets of deadlifts performed each session is sufficient for a first modification. From there, splitting up your training so that you have more time between training the same compound exercises will give you enough time to recover while still progressing linearly. I have this covered in the article.
If you are proficient with the compound lifts, I would suggest you start with either,
The former is slightly more skewed towards aesthetics and the latter more towards strength, but don’t worry about the difference, just choose based on your preferences on how you would like to train. (See ‘Size vs strength is a false dichotomy,’ here)
If you have a considerable amount of lifting experience, consider one of the following as your start point:
The Difference Between Cutting and Bulking
Training volume needs to be sufficient to drive adaptations, but not so high that you fail to recover and grow.
The difference between cutting or bulking is the amount of volume you can handle. You can more volume when bulking; less when cutting. So, as you switch from a cut to a bulk the addition of more sets to your current exercises or adding exercises (possibly one or two compound movements per session and an accessory movement or two), is a good idea.
When you switch to a cut, if you find yourself failing to recover, reducing sets or the number of exercises performed is a good idea.
This all depends on your personal needs, which depends on what you are currently adapted to. So it’s not possible to say that a routine is for cutting or bulking, because what might be an appropriate volume level while cutting for one person might be too much for another. Thus, I suggest you start with the training program templates above and the adjust from there as per your needs.
How much progress can be made while cutting?
While an obese and a lean person may both be in calorie deficit circumstances, their energy availability is different. Fatter individuals have a larger pantry to dip into (their fat stores) when the food on the table isn’t enough, leaner individuals don’t. This blurs the lines of what is possible during a calorie deficit because the energy available for recovery is different.
On average, for someone let’s say cutting from 20% body fat to a stage shredded 5%, they’ll make progress during the first 1/3 of the cut, work to maintain their progress during the middle third, and then probably regress a little in the last 1/3 as they get below 9% body fat. Now, as the vast majority of clients aren’t destined for the stage, regressions don’t typically happen to any significant extent at all. They usually make progress until they get down to around 13–14% body fat, after which point the training is often mainly about maintaining what they have.
But this is just averages, and there aren’t any average cases.
- It’s rare that people are equally experienced in all lifts, some will progress better than others. The bench tends to be one that suffers, but that’s the combination of people generally having more experience here, as well as the loss of fat from the back and chest meaning the bar has to travel further. Any new lift will expect good progress, but that won’t necessarily relate to muscle mass gain while base competency with the movement pattern is gained.
- Some people are coming back to training from a period of time off so they make great progress.
- Some people tell themselves they won’t make any progress in a deficit and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (the mind has a powerful effect on the body).
- Some people have life stress come up that hampers how well they respond to the training.
- Lastly, different people are just different. I’ve seen some guys make progress throughout the entirety of a cut. I’ve seen some people just get stuck without explanation. (Though in these latter cases I’m fairly convinced it’s just a lack of belief in themselves that holds them back – poor gym environment, etc. I try to weed these people out in the application process though and just tell them straight – get your arse to a proper gym – which means I rarely see this issue anymore.)
Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.
If you are in calorie deficit circumstances and , If you have progressed from using linear progression to linear periodization* and the strength gains are no longer forthcoming, often it just needs to be accepted that further progression will need to wait until the cut ends. (*If you haven’t, do that.)
The blockage to progress is the calorie deficit. Your goal in this situation is to maintain your training adaptations for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake. A rough way to gauge this is to strive to maintain your strength in the main compound movements. However…
Don’t forget about the mechanical disadvantage to being leaner
The mechanical disadvantage of being leaner needs to be taken into account when comparing lifting stats.
Take your right arm, reach under your left armpit and grab the fat on your back at chest level. When chasing a fat loss goal it is important to remember that this fat will be burned off too, as will the fat on your arms and legs. When ripped you may look bigger due to the increased definition, but the chest and limb measurements will go down.
I’ve said that past a certain level of leanness the goal of simply maintaining strength as you cut is a good one, as that is a proxy for muscle retention. However it is important to note that there is a mechanical disadvantage of being leaner, so in fact, a drop in the lifting stats to a certain degree is to be expected and shouldn’t be confused with muscle loss.
The easiest way to visualize this effect is with the bench press, the leaner you are, the further the bar has to travel, thus more ‘work’ has to be done for the same load. (Recall your high school physics class: work = force x distance)
- A 5–10% drop is not uncommon (depending on just how much weight is lost).
- The pressing movements are usually affected more than the deadlift and the squat, and how much the latter is affected depends on limb length ratios.
- This also means that for a guy that has dropped, say, 25lbs, maintenance of lifts can be indicative of muscle mass gain.
Key point: experienced trainees shouldn’t panic if their lifts go down a little.
Strength Numbers Do NOT Determine When You Need To Change Your Routine
As covered at the start of the article, strength numbers don’t determine what routine you should use, nor do they determine when you need to change your routine.
You’ll see a lot of strength numbers thrown around on the internet as to whether you can consider yourself a novice, intermediate, advanced or elite trainee. These are just milestones, and they should not be confused as determining points for when you should switch up your training program.
How far you can progress with a novice routine comes down to the individual. Some people will progress on a linear routine and squat past 500lbs before they need to change things up, others will stall at 200lbs. Once you have the controllable elements in your favor (good sleep, low stress, high quality of diet, great gym environment, etc.) it’s largely down to luck (age and genetics). Make the most of what you have, don’t worry about others.
What strength numbers relative to body weight can offer however is a rough way of determining how likely you are to be happy with your physique when you get down to a shredded state at your current strength level. This is because strength stats of strength focused trainees are going to be highly correlated with muscle mass.
If we are going by Martin Berkhan’s strength standards, my guess on how happy most people will be is summarized in the following table:
(per Berkhan’s strength standards)
|Happiness scale when shredded|
|Intermediate||:/ or 🙂|
|Advanced||🙂 or 😀|
|Highly advanced||😀 or 😛|
Happiness should not be confused with satisfaction. It is very rare that anyone is satisfied, we merely set the bar higher for ourselves when we reach our sets of goals.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.
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