by Bret Contreras T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Compete in anything and train with professionals for increased growth and training discipline.
- Master resistance training that doesn’t involve a barbell. Experiment with how your programming is organized and periodized.
- Try increasing the amount of times you squat per week and experiment with deadlifting frequency.
- Try thinking of assistance lifts as main lifts and vice versa. Then see which movements your body responds to most.
You Have to Work to Know What Works
Most lifters float aimlessly in and out of gyms without a plan, goal, or strategy.
Most haven’t experimented nearly enough with their training in order to have the slightest clue as to what works best for them. They stick to the same routine year round without much progress.
There’s no universal best training system for everyone. We’re all different in terms of anatomy, physiology, and psychology. We must constantly strive to hone in on methods and strategies that work best for our unique bodies.
The only way to learn this is through experimentation over time. It’s impossible to know what works best for you if you don’t put in the work.
Here’s a list of things that every lifter should try sometime during his or her lifting career.
At some point in time, sack up and compete in something, whether it’s physique or strength related. This process will teach you lessons that you’ll carry with you for years to come.
Your options are endless. For physique-related competitions you can do bodybuilding, men’s physique, women’s physique, women’s figure, women’s fitness, and women’s bikini.
For strength competitions you can do Olympic weightlifting, strongman and strong woman, CrossFit, and powerlifting. In powerlifting alone, you’ll find full meets, push-pull, bench-only, and deadlift-only competitions.
Compete in multiple arenas to expand your horizons. Olympic lifting will build your quads, teach you how to keep an arch, how to bottom-out a squat, and maximize your overhead prowess.
Powerlifting will help you learn the precise stance widths, foot flares, grip widths, and styles that optimize your squat, bench press, and deadlift strength.
Strongman will build your erectors, improve your grip strength, and explode your strength endurance.
Bodybuilding will teach you how to minimize body fat, tease out maximum muscle growth in every head of every muscle, and eat according to your goals. Competing forces you to buckle down and make magic happen.
2. Train With Pros Christian Thibaudeau
Train alongside professionals if you can. There’s so much to learn from competitive athletes, and most tend to be generous with their knowledge, especially when they see you working hard in the gym.
Find out where the serious lifters train and sign up. There’s probably a gym nearby that specializes in powerlifting, bodybuilding, weightlifting, or strongman training. Do your homework and get after it.
3. Master Multiple Forms of Resistance
We all love the barbell. If you’re a lifter, that’s expected. But take time to master dumbbells, machines, resistance bands, kettlebells, sleds, weighted vests, suspension systems, specialty barbells, cable columns, and more.
Exercises are tools, and a good carpenter possesses a large toolbox. Granted, you’ll use your hammer more frequently than your Allen wrenches or chisel, but these tools serve extremely valuable purposes when the time is right.
4. Tinker With Programming
Different training strategies maximize unique variables. Here are four popular methods:
High Volume Training (HVT) maximizes volume per body part and is generally centered on body-part split training.
High Frequency Training (HFT) maximizes frequency per exercise or body part. It’s generally centered on full body training.
High Intensity Training (HIT) maximizes effort and usually involves performing one set to failure via full body training.
Escalating Density Training (EDT) maximizes density and generally involves upper/lower splits.
Give each of these systems a go at some point in time. You’ll learn from each system and incorporate aspects of each into your training over the years.
The best progress is made when the various styles are blended together in training. For example, if you’ve been doing HVT for several years, a 3-month stint of HIT will be very beneficial for you. If you’ve never done HFT, you have some unclaimed gains waiting for you.
Experiment with each of these routines at some point:
Body part split routines contain high volume with natural fluctuations in CNS demand throughout the week. For example, leg day is brutal, but shoulder day is a walk in the park.
Total body training allows for more practice per lift and higher metabolic demand.
Push-pull and upper-lower splits are beneficial for strength athletes.
You’ll never figure out which style works best for you if you don’t give each of them an honest try. There are several ways to organize your training and it’s worth your time to experiment with periodization.
Linear periodization has worked very well for numerous powerlifters over the past several decades.
The Westside Method utilizes the conjugated method.
Daily undulating periodization has seen a surge in popularity over the past few years thanks to proponents such as Mike Zourdos.
Block periodization has helped numerous athletes increase their strength and power.
Westside, 5/3/1, Starting Strength, The Texas Method, Sheiko, Smolov… All tried and true and worth performing during your lifting career.
5. Do 20-Rep Squats
All the old-timers have put their time in with 20-rep squats. The protocol is legendary, and it’s important that you do your time.
You’ll learn to bust out 20 reps with what you would previously do for 10 reps by refusing to rack the bar and “breathing” in between reps. You’ll add weight to the bar and inches onto your quads, and you’ll never curse another normal set of squats or deadlifts again.
6. Give Instinctive Training a Whirl
Use pure instinctive training during breaks in between planned periods of training. It’s not coasting without direction; it’s paying attention to your body’s cues and training based on how you feel rather than what’s scheduled.
Let’s say you just competed in a powerlifting meet, and your next meet isn’t for 7 more months. Following the first meet, you may wish to avoid any specific programming for 3 months before getting serious again about your powerlifting training.
Alternating between deliberate periods of training and unplanned periods of training is liberating and rejuvenating.
Go to the gym with an open mind, listen to your body, and bust out 3-5 exercises for 10-15 total sets each time you work out.
You don’t have to adhere to a seven-day calendar; if you want to train every other day, go for it. If you want to train 3 days on and 2 days off, this is fine as well.
Maybe one day you do back squats, kettlebell swings, push-ups, and inverted rows. Maybe the next day you do block pulls, glute ham raises, and military presses. Maybe the following day you do close-grip bench press, hip thrusts, chin-ups, and ab wheel rollouts.
You may just decide to hit back squats 6 straight workouts in a row. Blend together low reps, medium reps, and high reps with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
You get the picture. You can easily maintain or even gain strength and set PRs during these periods of instinctive training.
7. Find Your Ideal Squat Frequency
There’s an optimal squat frequency that builds your squat best, but you need to learn this through trial and error.
Spend two months doing each of the following: squat once per week, squat twice per week, squat three times per week, and squat four times per week. Stick to 3-5 work sets per training session.
Pay close attention to your strength levels and how your body responds so you can determine your ideal training frequency.
If your anatomy is well-suited to handle squats, then I suspect that 3-4 sessions per week is ideal for you. But if your hips, knees, or low back feel beaten up from squatting, 1-2 sessions per week will be more beneficial in the long run.
8. Find Your Ideal Deadlift Strategy
There’s also an optimal deadlift strategy that builds your deadlift best, but figuring this out requires experimentation.
Take a few weeks and do this: Deadlift heavy once every other week, deadlift heavy once per week, deadlift heavy twice per week, deadlift heavy once per week and lighter for speed another day per week, deadlift three times per week with moderate volume and effort, and try avoiding the deadlift altogether.
Some lifters do best through specificity, while others see better results with variety and focusing on assistance lifts.
Experiment to find what works best for you, but also know that what works best for you right now might not be what works best two years from now. This is what makes weight training so much fun (or so frustrating, depending on how you look at it).
9. Do Bilateral-Only Training and Unilateral-Only Training
You might think single-limb exercises won’t deliver the same results as their bilateral counterparts. But can you really say this with confidence?
Experiment. First take measurements around your chest, arms, and thighs. Then spend three months performing only bilateral exercises. Note any changes in measurements and increases in strength, and pay close attention to the way your body feels.
Then, deload for a week and jump into unilateral-only training for three months.
Perform only walking or reverse lunges with a barbell or dumbbells, Bulgarian split squats, step-ups, single leg RDLs, single leg hip thrusts, single leg back extensions, one-arm dumbbell bench press, one-arm dumbbell incline press, one-arm dumbbell shoulder press, one-arm lat pulldowns, and dumbbell one-arm rows.
Note any changes in measurements and increases in strength, and pay close attention to the way your body feels.
This is the only way you’ll truly know the answer to the bilateral versus unilateral debate as it pertains to your body. You’ll learn a lot in the process, your single-limb strength will rise dramatically, and you’ll never label walking barbell lunges as a “sissy” exercise ever again.
10. Treat Assistance Lifts like Main Lifts
Reverse your strategy with main lifts and assistance lifts for several months. You have an entire life of training ahead of you. It’s not going to kill you if you put squats, deadlifts, and bench press on the back burner for a while. It might even be beneficial for you.
For 3-4 months, select a few exercises that are commonly labeled “assistance lifts.” Perhaps you choose dumbbell chest supported rows, close-grip incline presses, barbell hip thrusts, barbell Bulgarian split squats, and weighted glute ham raises.
Perform each of these exercises twice per week, one time for 3 sets of 5-8 reps, and another time for 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Try to move up in weight over time just as you would your main lifts. Do them first in your training session so they receive the best training effect.
Afterward, perform your squats, deads, and bench variations with less focus, similar to how you currently treat your assistance lifts.
Pay close attention to the effects. Your body might respond so well to assistance lifts that you might start considering them main lifts.
Ten Bonus Ideas
- Perform strict three-second pause reps only on your main lifts.
- Perform three exercises only three times a week with varying rep ranges (daily undulated periodization).
- Omit all overhead work and see if it 1) negatively impacts your delt hypertrophy, or 2) positively impacts your shoulder health.
- Omit all arm training and see if it negatively impacts your arm growth.
- Omit all core stability training and see if it 1) negatively impacts the aesthetics of your midsection, or 2) negatively impacts your squat and deadlift strength.
- Perform Nordic ham curls four or five days per week at the beginning of your session to get your hamstring strength up to par.
- Add in two grip training sessions per week and see if it positively impacts your deadlift and back training performance.
- Perform two sets of lateral band walks and two sets of band or barbell hip thrusts prior to your squatting sessions. See if it positively impacts the way your hips feel when you squat.
- Utilize blood flow restriction training (BFR) for your biceps and triceps two sessions per week and see if it positively impacts your arm hypertrophy.
- Train like an athlete. Gradually add sprint, plyo, agility, and conditioning work into your workouts.