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.
If you are new to training, 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.
Though it sounds so simple and obvious, people screw this up all the time.
When you train, many different factors influence each other and cause the resultant adaptations of the body. The experiences of trainees in gyms around the world for the last century, when combined with research over the last few decades has enabled us to establish a fairly clear order of importance as to what will and won’t give you the most from your training efforts.
When you see seemingly conflicting advice – which exercises to do, how heavy to go, how many sets to perform, whether to train to failure, lifting explosively or slowly to ‘feel the burn’ etc. – you need to decide how important these factors are, and how they will affect the other aspects of your training. By looking at these things through the lens of a pyramid of importance and overall picture, you’ll save yourself unnecessary confusion.
When starting out at the gym you will be tempted to see how heavy you can lift, or try every single exercise and piece of equipment in sight. These are both mistakes. Learning how to perform the exercises properly needs to be your priority.
In the next few paragraphs we’re going to detail the technical reasons for this, but basically, the reason you want to follow this advice is because you will limit your long-term strength gains by loading heavy early on with shitty form. Only by becoming a skilled lifter will you truly be able to lift impressive weights, and skilled lifters treat exercises as skills to master.
You want to ingrain the movements such that your body will naturally move in certain ways without you actively thinking about it. By learning the exercises first, instead of picking up some random weight and exercises haphazardly, you will develop your ability to keep proper lifting form under heavy load, and this will enable you to train safely and more effectively.
When you haven’t learned how to perform the exercises, your ability to reproduce the same movement is limited. This means that when lifting heavy loads, you will more likely place stress in the wrong places, and not only will you miss out on the training effects that you are after, you will also risk injury.
If you take up many different exercises right from the start, you will have many different movements to ingrain. This will often slow down the learning process of each exercise. Resist the temptation to do everything. Limit the number of exercises you start with. Focus on learning the correct form.
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.
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 favor 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.
“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 to 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.” – Greg Nuckols.
As you continue to train, your strength will increase and muscle mass will follow. You will also increase the amount of training you can do. For example, you might be shattered after squatting 3 sets of 5 in your first workout, but in a few months, you might find yourself squatting for 5 sets of 10 with no issue. This is something often referred to as work capacity.
Doing more work generally translates to greater training effects, so improving your work capacity is a good thing. However as stated above, learning proper technique is essential when just starting out. And it’s important to realize that when your work capacity is limited, your ability to practice the proper form of your exercises is also limited. Thus, it is important to limit the number of exercises and choose the ones that are actually conducive to your progress at this stage.
Also, it is important for everyone across the board, not just beginners, to take into account their work capacity when deciding on exercises to incorporate in their routine.
The more advanced you are, the greater your work capacity will tend to be. But there’s a great deal of individual variability. Genetics, nutrition, sleep and stress all play a role in determining the amount of work you can handle.
So, if adding an extra exercise means doing three extra sets, that’s an increase in the amount of work you do. If you can handle that and make some additional gains, then great. If you have plateaued on your program as an intermediate trainee, and you have some room left for additional work, it might make sense to do that.
On the other hand, even if you have a long history of training, if you’ve had to take a break from training for a while you may find your work capacity is lower than it previously was when you finally get back to the gym. In this situation, it might make sense to do away with an exercise or two for the time being.
You can’t get bigger and stronger forever. We all have a genetic limit we were born with. However, when you’re just starting out you are far away from your own genetic limit and you have a lot of potential for progress. And when you have a lot of potential for progress, it’s actually fairly easy to make progress.
What this means is that there’s no need to be worried at this stage about not being able to do a lot of volume, or ‘missing out’ on an exercise you perhaps read in a magazine and are keen to try. All you need to do is learn how to perform the exercises that you’ve chosen properly, and get on with them. You will naturally gain strength, muscle and work capacity along the way.
This graph is a quick reproduction of what is presented in Mark Rippetoe’s Practical Programming for Strength Training. This shows that, as you continue training and gain strength, the complexity of the programming you will need to make further progress increases. You should also notice that when you are starting out, you have a lot of room for progress and you will be able to make progress on a simple program.
Training 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:
Don’t neglect any of these areas or it will hold you back.
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. I’d recommend you read this. The small investment will pay huge dividends.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.
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