The best bodies in the world were built with these basics at the core.
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 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.
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.
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.
For the first six months of your barbell lifting career the modifications to your routine may run along this linear progression continuum:
‘Big 3’ Routine → ‘Big 3’ Modified → The A/B split → Three-Day Split
When you can no longer progress you will need to move onto something a little more complicated, but don’t worry, I have you covered.
When you can no longer keep adding weights to your lifts after changing your routine in the way described above, you will have to add in elements of “periodization.” This is simply the process of organizing training into different periods, which you will often hear referred to as “training blocks.”
Periodization encompasses the manipulation of a wide range of training variables, most commonly: volume, intensity (of load and effort), frequency, rep range, exercise selection, exercise order and rest intervals.
You have two options at this point, you can choose to have a routine more focussed on the barbells
This sounds complicated, it can be complicated, and it is complicated when it comes to elite-level lifters, but I have simplified it for you. Just use this detailed set of progression rules in combination with one of these two sample training routines:
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.)
I had coach Greg Nuckols explain this concept more fully in this guest article.
When bulking the difference in your routine will be the amount of volume you can handle. You will have an energy surplus and so recovery capacity will be higher. 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. If you switch from a bulk to a cut then the reduction of training volume made in a similar way is a good idea.
All of the routines mentioned above will work for a cut. You may add volume to them for a bulk.
If you are in calorie deficit circumstances and strength gains are no longer forthcoming, though you could pursue further strength gains by introducing more complicated programming elements like periodization, often it just needs to be accepted that further progression will need to wait until the cut ends. – 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.
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.
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.
Therefore, someone who starts off at a high body-fat percentage, and stalls out at the end of the linear progression training continuum, may benefit from moving from their novice routine and using some periodization principles, such as those discussed by Greg in his article. “You probably won’t have any issues increasing training volume, though the maximal amount you can handle would be less. It just means you have to monitor recovery more closely.”
What is the cut off point for this? – It comes down to the individual. “When you’re dealing with biology, you have to accept a little chaos and ambiguity,” says Greg. A little experimentation with this purposefully lower weight, higher volume method, as long as protein intake is sufficient and the calorie deficit within recommended limits, will be fine for preserving muscle mass even if it doesn’t eventually lead to the desired strength increases.
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)
Key point: experienced trainees shouldn’t panic if their lifts go down a little.
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 :p|
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 as always. – Andy.
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