“For me, life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.” Arnold Schwarzenegger
I’d like to begin this article by giving you a little background about me. I am a natural bodybuilder with 16 years of training experience and a great physique to boot. I also have 9 years of personal training experience and am certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I am also plant based and I have experience bodybuilding on an omnivorous diet as well as a plant based one. The reason I tell you all of this is because, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I never take advice about training from someone that doesn’t have the physique to back it up. For this reason I am including recent candid shots of my physique as proof that I know what I’m doing and it has worked very well for me. If you’ve been training for three or more years and are looking to take your physique to the next level naturally, this article is for you. If you’re a beginner, perhaps you could pick up a few tips as well, but this article is geared mostly towards the advanced lifter as for the sake of saving time, I won’t be covering the basics here. There are many aspects of training, including frequency, intensity, sets, reps, splits, and mind muscle connection. We’ll be delving into each aspect and lightly touching on the science of things, however you can easily read scientific articles on each aspect of training, I’d like to focus more on what has actually yielded real life results for myself and my clients. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.
Let’s discuss training frequency first. There are many different schools of thought regarding frequency, ranging from high frequency high volume, to low frequency low volume, to everything in between. I have tried them all, beginning with a standard three working sets of three exercises as a beginner, and gradually increasing volume, eventually adopting a high volume style. After training this way for years, out of curiosity I switched over to high intensity training, trying it with a very low frequency due to extreme soreness, and gradually increasing frequency. Through all of these training protocols my physique looked great, so there’s no doubt that they all work if you do, but by far, my physique has always looked the most muscular when training with a high volume, high frequency routine. There are many things I attribute to this, but I believe the main factor is that with a high volume routine, you’re able to hit each muscle from so many angles, and get more contractions. You are also able to master movements more quickly, since you get so much practice performing them. There are some drawbacks though, as high volume is more time consuming and you have to eat more food to grow due to increased caloric expenditure. That being said though, in my experience, nothing is going to give your physique a more polished and 3D look than high volume training, performed properly, along with adequate rest and sound nutrition. However, keep in mind that muscle protein synthesis is elevated for only 48 to 72 hours after training, so be sure to train any lagging body parts twice a week, once with a full workout, and once with a feeder workout. Perform the feeder workout 48 to 72 hours after your main workout. Ideally, this will keep muscle protein synthesis elevated at all times in those lagging muscles. A feeder workout is just a shortened workout with a focus on getting a good pump, as opposed to lifting heavy weight, or training to failure. Keep this in mind and never train to failure in a feeder workout. In general I’d say high volume workouts are only for the truly dedicated, since they take a greater time commitment.
The next thing we’ll discuss is training splits. There are quite a few different training splits, the basic full body training three days a week, upper, lower split where upper body is trained one day, lower the next, usually followed by a rest day, and repeated. Push, pull, legs, where you perform all push movements on one day, pull the next, then legs, usually followed by a rest day, and what is now called bro splits, where you train less of the body on a given day but with more volume, such as back and biceps. When performing a split such as this, each muscle gets trained less frequently, sometimes only once a week, and for this reason bro splits have been deemed ineffective, unless you are on steroids. This is simply not true, as myself and many of the people I know have used this kind of split and gotten great results. For those who just want to stay fit or are limited on time, high intensity training performed once or twice per week, with a full body or upper lower split, would give you the most bang for your buck. However, for those of us who want to actualize our full potential in the gym, more effort is required. But just what split is most effective? A split that allows you to hit each muscle group with high volume on a frequent basis. Remember that high volume is crucial if you want to bring out those subtle nuances in the muscles that bodybuilders possess.
The amount of sets of a given exercise can vary greatly from one, to as many as ten. However, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this range and do around three to four sets per exercise. I have gone as low as one set a la Mike Mentzer, and as high as eight a la Vince Gironda. Both have worked to an extent, but I’ve found that generally three to four sets works best for me. This is because it allows me to do a wide variety of exercises and get a good amount of work from each of them. I also do 1 to 3 warm up sets of each exercise, usually the 3 warm up sets are done on the compound movements, with 1 to 2 being done on isolation movements. I’ll do anywhere from 10 to 20 reps on these sets and never take them to failure. That is why I consider them warm up sets, they are not intense enough to count as working sets. This equates to a very high amount of volume being done for each muscle group, which creates a bodybuilder look to the physique. What do I mean by a bodybuilder look? Do you know how some guys are big and muscular, but other guys are not only big and muscular, it also looks like someone blew air into their muscles? That roundness is attained by, among other things, a very high amount of volume. In conclusion, a high amount of concentrated work equates to a high amount of muscle. This obviously isn’t for beginners and it isn’t totally black and white, but generally speaking, may be used as a rule of thumb. Now as for the high intensity philosophy, one set is all that is required. Basically, after warming up, you would do one all out set, the repetitions would be slowed down to about 2 to 4 seconds on the concentric and eccentric portions in order to achieve greater time under tension, aiming for about a minute or slightly longer. Each consecutive workout you have to beat your previous workout by increasing the weight or reps, however you should always strive to beat your previous best with any training style. Two of my favorite techniques are drop sets and super sets. They are a great way to take your workout to the next level and are easily applied. For drop sets, simply pick a weight you can do a certain number of reps with, then perform those reps and immediately drop the weight by around thirty percent or more. You can also do a double drop set, which is the same, but you drop the weight a second time. Sometimes I’ll even do triple drop sets. What a pump! My favorite thing about drop sets is that you can use heavy, moderate, and light weights, all in the same set. This effectively hits the type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers and also pushes the body to the limit, forcing it to adapt as long as adequate calories and protein are being consumed. Supersets are performing two exercises back to back with little to no rest in between. This can be done for opposing bodyparts like chest and back, or for the same bodypart. Supersets are a great way to save time, and amp up your workouts as well. As I said before though, all training styles that I’ve utilized have worked to some extent, but the best results have always come from high volume training. So, the take away here is, generally speaking, high volume works best for building muscle, however, there are exceptions to this. Like for me my calves respond best to high intensity lower volume workouts. My forearms respond best when taken beyond failure, so remember to pay attention to your body. Most muscles have a preference, but some grow no matter what. Those are your strong points. Your weak points are muscles that don’t grow unless you figure out specifically what they respond to, which can be an arduous process. Keep in mind that genetics do play a large part here, but combined with passion, a great work ethic, and patient consistency, incredible things can be achieved. I didn’t do high volume training for at least my first 3 years of lifting. I stuck to 3 sets of 3 to 4 exercises on each body part, always aiming to beat my previous workouts in weight or reps. In conclusion, get to know your body. What are your strong and weak points? What does it take for your weak points to grow? It may take years to figure this out, so fall in love with the process. Also, generally speaking, more work is more effective for building muscle if your body can handle it and it must be high quality work.
When it comes to reps, there are two main variables to consider. The amount of reps, and the quality of reps or the way in which reps are performed. First, let’s discuss the amount of reps. There are many different rep ranges for bodybuilding, but most fall somewhere in the 6 to 12 rep range. This is due to the fact that when you go below 6 reps time under tension usually isn’t sufficient for muscle growth, and when you go above 12 reps, the stimulus is usually so light that you don’t hit the deeper thicker type 2 muscle fibers. Your body also calls on your aerobic systems when performing very high reps, as opposed to your anaerobic systems which are responsible for muscle growth. Generally it is believed that lower reps, 4 to 6 or even 1 to 3 are predominantly for building strength, while reps in the 6 to 10 or 8 to 12 range are best for muscle size. Having utilized almost every rep scheme out there I’ve learned a few things. One, they all work to some extent to increase muscle size and strength, and two, a wide variety of rep ranges is most effective when it comes to building size and strength. Pyramid sets are a very effective way to achieve this, since you start off lighter and gradually go up in weight. I find it most effective to start with 12 to 20 reps for one or two sets. Then increase the weight so I can barely complete 10 reps, increasing it again on each successive set so that I can only get 8, 6, and sometimes only 5 reps. The last set is usually a drop set, meaning I do a heavy weight for as many reps as I can, let’s say 5 reps. Then I’ll do around 30 to 50 percent less weight and complete as many reps as I can with no rest. This gives me a ridiculous pump which stimulates sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (basically a size increase in the muscles caused by increased glycogen storage), however, I’m also using very heavy weight, which causes myofibrillar hypertrophy (a size increase in the muscles caused by increasing the size of myofibrils). This gives me the best of both worlds, and keeps the muscles guessing which means they will continue to respond. It also keeps things fresh mentally, which keeps me from burning out due to only doing one type of training. Another effective technique for utilizing both sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy is to do one heavy, lower (4-6) rep day based around compound movements and a separate, lighter, higher (8-12) rep day based around isolation movements. In order for this to be effective though, you need to be training that body part twice a week. In conclusion, a variety of rep ranges is most effective for building muscle as it allows you to take advantage of all avenues of growth.
How Reps Are Performed
The other major factor concerning reps is how they are performed. There are many different ways to perform reps, however there is one major difference between how a bodybuilder performs a rep and how a weightlifter performs a rep. When a weightlifter performs an exercise, their primary goal is to lift and lower the weight, whereas when a bodybuilder performs a rep, the primary goal is to contract the muscle. It is for this reason that I believe as bodybuilders we should squeeze the muscle being worked as hard as we can on every rep. This will recruit more muscle fibers and result in increased separation between the muscles which will make them pop more. We should also perform burns, partials, rest-pause reps, and isometric contractions. The reason being is that these techniques will not only keep training exciting, they are also crucial to achieving maximum muscularity due to the fact that they increase intensity. Another variable is the speed in which the reps are performed. There is the standard half to one second concentric and eccentric, speed reps which are reps performed quickly in a rhythmic fashion, explosive concentric and slower eccentric, negatives which generally are done with a heavier weight and a 7 second eccentric, and then generally slower reps. I have experimented with reps as slow as a true 4 second concentric and 4 second eccentric. If you’re in tune with your body, you will feel how each exercise feels best, and that could change from day to day. For instance, one day you may feel pullups best in a quick rhythmic fashion, and the next you may want to do them slowly. Always rememver that variety will keep the body guessing, and there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each style and they will all stimulate growth in their own unique ways.
Now let’s talk about rest periods. Almost everyone I’ve ever witnessed training, has rested for too long between sets. This is detrimental to the success of a training program, because it lowers intensity, and allows some blood to escape the muscles being worked. In other words, you lose some of your pump. To maximize sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, we want to create and maintain a maximum pump throughout the course of our workouts. Most people don’t do this intentionally, they talk, or look at their phones, or stare off into space and don’t realize that two or sometimes even five or more minutes have passed. In order to prevent this, it is best to watch a clock or timer between sets. Having a workout partner can also help with this, since their sets will usually take thirty to sixty seconds to complete, giving us just enough time to rest, get set, and begin our next set. There are different rest period recommendations for different goals, but the general rule for building muscle is to rest for one to three minutes. I believe three minutes is too long. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when it can be useful, such as when one is going heavy on compound lifts. Keep in mind though, that this type of training is mainly for increasing strength and not as effective at increasing muscle mass. So, just how long should a bodybuilder rest? I believe thirty to ninety seconds is perfect, and I would never recommend resting longer than two minutes. Unless your primary goal is strength. Keep in mind that that two minute rest would be on a very select few heavy compound movements, such as squats and deadlifts.
One of the most crucial factors determining the success or failure of a lifting program is intensity. I’d even go as far as to say that the reason most people don’t achieve or maintain the results they desire from an exercise program is due to a lack of intensity, or a lack of sustained intensity. You see, if you really want to create mindblowing changes to your body, you must reach and sustain a certain level of intensity throughout the course of your workouts. This means don’t go hard and focus for twenty minutes, only to get distracted and rest for three minutes straight. Intensity can be increased and maintained via incorporating the methods that I’ve already discussed in this article. Brief, consistent rest periods are one of the best ways to achieve this. One thing is for sure though, if your workouts are lacking in intensity, you will be lacking in results.
Mind Muscle Connection
Although it is an intangible, the mind muscle connection is one of the most important tools for the advanced bodybuilder. But what exactly is a mind muscle connection? It’s as simple as it sounds really, the connection between the mind and the muscles. A great mind musle connection will allow an experience bodybuiler to exhaust and even cramp a muscle even without using weight! If you can’t do this with a certain muscle, you should work on strengthening your mind muscle connection there. Like with most things, there are many different ways to achieve this, but there are a few that aren’t talked about often enough. One way is by performing isometrics, simply flex a muscle as hard as you can, and hold it for a predetermined amount of time, let’s say ten seconds, then relax. Repeat again for a total of three to four sets. Also using light weight and concentrating fully, focusing on the contraction, and using isolation movements are good ways to strengthen that all important mind muscle connection.Once you develop a strong enough mind muscle connection you’ll be able to sculpt a muscle more or less to your will. You’ll be able to focus your mind on a specific part of a muscle, and contract it harder, which will take your physique to the next level.
Bodybuilding at it’s core is truly an art form. Our bodies are the canvas, the weights are our paint brushes. We are all unique and different things will work for each of us, which is why it is important to always keep an open mind. There are literally infinite aspects to training. It is simple, yet complex. It is art, yet it is also hard work. I encourage you to always learn, expand, and evolve, and your physique will always do the same. I hope this article has served you well. Now go make some gains:) With all my love,