By Coach Scott Abel Generation Iron
Everything you need to know about program design for physique development.
After four decades as an expert in all things fitness and body transformation-related, it’s amazing to me that the same illusions and inconsistencies exist today as existed decades ago.
The fact is that even many “experts” don’t have a handle on proper, precise and effective program design for muscle development. There is far too much “spill over” of strength experts, who come to the game with their own paradigm and training biases. I can tell you, this “strength bias” in program design, with respect to muscle development, may be the very thing holding you back from the gains you are seeking.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to put on muscle mass, but what about balanced and aesthetic muscle mass? “Mass with class,” if you will? Who talks about this these days, when talking about how to gain mass? Well, I do! Here are a couple picture of me illustrating “mass with class” of balanced physique from back in the day.
What few of today’s experts I talk to seem to understand are the major differences between “strategy” and “tactics” when it comes to program design and implementation.
Strategy is all about program design. It has to do with how many days per week the program is written for, the amount of volume of sets and reps; it has to do with formulating how many times per week a bodypart will be targeted, or if you are going to focus on “bodypart” training at all. Strategy has to do with how workout rotations will be used. For example, the “linear periodization schemes” used to develop strength have absolutely no place in program design strategy for gaining muscle mass and balanced muscle development.
By contrast, Tactical elements are all about program implementation: what equipment tools will you use: barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, as well as what application tactics you will use like supersets, extended sets, strip sets, training to failure or not training to failure, and so on. These are all “tactical” elements of program implementation and they speak directly about the “trainee” specifically.
These are BASIC (very basic) elements of program-design.
When you talk about the “Fundamentals” of program design, there are two elements to it, buried in the word itself. First, the fundamentals of program design and implementation must always emphasize the “fun” element. This part is up to you the trainee.
In addition to that, there is also “da mental” element of program design, strategy and tactical implementation. And this one is all about the expert who designs the program.
For example I have around 700 program-design templates. 700! Why? Because one size does not fit all! Anyone who has read even a little of my work will be familiar with this “Abelism”:
“A proper and effective workout is MORE THAN a collection of exercises, and a proper and effective program is MORE THAN a collection of workouts.”
If you do not fully understand and embrace that reality, you won’t get very far with your physique goals. Only the most genetically elite get away with ignorance not holding them back from making progress.
So, with that in mind, let’s discuss a few important elements of program-design STRATEGY AND STRUCTURE, especially when the goal is gaining muscle mass and balanced physique lines (as in “mass with class”).
What Rippetoe refers to as “sets across” I refer to as “weight constants.” Things like 3-5 sets of 5 reps, 8 sets of 8 reps, 10 sets of 10 reps with the weight staying constant for all sets. This is one basic but effective program design strategy. I have one program that goes from 12 sets of 12 reps during the first week of the program, all the way down to 5 sets of 5 reps by the fourth week. NOTE: When using “weight constants” in programs designed for physique development, going below 5 reps takes you into strength training and load-centric concerns (lifting more weight) and further away from dense muscle development focus.
Weight constants as a strategy is of course best assigned to the major compound lifts, like bent rows, deadlifts, squats, presses, incline presses etc. And just because weight constant is a basic design strategy – do not overlook it. It is one of most effective design strategies you can implement – if you know what you are doing. And this is because it creates very effective “neuromuscular efficiency.” And I will explain that to you this way:
Understanding Neuromuscular Efficiency
My problem with most newbie experts in this industry is that their understanding of adaptations to exercise is myopic and limited to “musculoskeletal” concerns only. But the truth is neurophysiology goes much deeper in explaining muscle fiber recruitment and adaptive response to training stimuli. So, for example, when it comes to weight-constants and why they are so effective, it’s because weight constants enhance neuromuscular efficiency.
Let me explain this with an analogy:
Neuromuscular efficiency is a lot like understanding a highway system. Let’s say you live in a town and getting across the city every day for work has always been a pain in the ass. You have to drive slowly through residential neighborhoods, and there are stop signs and traffic lights to contend with. And all of this slows you down and slows down your transit time.
Now imagine some city planners and engineers get together and they come up with this idea of this thing called “a freeway.” So they build this four-lane transit system that doesn’t go through neighborhoods and doesn’t have stop signs and traffic lights. What happens?
Lo and behold your daily jaunt across the city is now “more efficient,” and it has fewer obstacles.
Well the neuromuscular efficiency created by using “weight constants” for multiple sets works the same way.
It establishes and enhances neuromuscular efficiency by creating unencumbered “patterns” to and from working muscles – just like 4-lane highways create unemcumbered “patterns” to and from various parts of the city.
So when it comes to neuromuscular efficiency, there is a hell of a lot more to building a physique than just lifting “heavy” weights.
Multiple Work Sets
In terms of training for leanness and balanced muscular development and the metabolic optimization that goes with that, then multiple work sets are ESSENTIAL.
The goal in the early years of training should be to expand work capacity for more “volume” and not better 1 rep max strength.
The research is quite clear on this.
The simple truth is that multiple work sets cause the body to adapt to larger volumes of work, and it does this by increasing strength-density—the ability to exert force not for maximum weight, but for the duration of the whole workout. This is what creates muscle size and density, what we formally refer to as “muscle maturity.”
When we add varying rep ranges (aka “surfing the strength curve”) as any intelligent bodybuilder will do, this will in turn produce and induce the specific kind of “strength-density” necessary to acquire increased muscle mass and density.
Furthermore, as brilliant researcher David Behm pointed out, “Larger muscles may generally rely more on recruitment for increases in force output.” This speaks directly to my points above regarding the importance of creating neurological efficiency and neurological patterning to teach the body more efficient recruitment for force production. (This is even more essential for the demographic group of trainees I refer to as the hardgainer demographic.)
But at the same time this higher volume approach to training for size and development usually negates pure max load strength. Training for muscle development is more about strength density than it is about max 1 repetition “how much can you bench?” concerns. Training for both size and strength at the same time is a mistake for most trainees, and only the most genetically advantaged get away with it.
People need to stop thinking that what this industry’s genetic superfreaks do for training (usually under the influences of a vast array of polypharmacy as well) is the right training for them. For far too long the traditional bias in this industry has said, “Train for strength and development will come.” But for the vast majority of you out there this is patently untrue!
The real truth is about strength density is, “If you train for development, strength will come.” But it’s a different kind of strength, not a how much can you squat or bench one time kind of thing.
Make no mistake here. Multiple work sets are essential to growth and development. Just know that people claiming one work set is enough to induce growth are usually people under the influence of pharmaceuticals. And that is fine if that is your thing. But the research doesn’t bear out the “heavy duty” myth. In fact, you study the history of this industry you’ll realize that “heavy duty” was born out of a marketing tactic from the very beginning.
The Existing Myth of Heavy Duty (Howdy Duty) Training
In contrast to the necessity of multiple work sets, the outdated mythology of “Heavy Duty” training is that one single work set, if done at high enough intensity, is enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Oh, if only it were true.
This “theory” has no real-world validity whatsoever. It was a media creation from Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer and the like. It is not now, nor has it ever been, associated with solid principles involved with muscle adaptations to stress, and more importantly, the “neurological efficiency” I have been explaining throughout this manifesto.
There are actually several problems with this ‘one work set heavy duty’ idea.
First of all, research is clear that most trainees cannot even come close to generating “max workload capacity” in this way, and hardgainers are even less likely to be able to do so. This is a (neural) adaptation to training stimulus that can take years to develop. Some people can never create enough nervous system “intention” to workout at max levels, which is not the same as training with maximum loads. (Max level training, and training with maxium loads, are often confused together in the iron-world.)
Moreover, it takes multiple work sets to “teach” the body to work at higher and higher levels of intensity. It is this “accumulated stress” of multiple work sets that induces the adaptive response. Once again this is about strength-density, not max load strength.
One work set is simply not enough to induce an adaptive response resulting in muscle growth and quality development. One work set conditions the body to adapt to one work set. There is no “progression” in muscle cell hypertrophy. Although over time you may be able to “lift more” this wouldn’t necessarily lead to muscle growth and quality development.
Training for growth and quality development (what some call “lean mass”) is not just about “force production.” It is also about the training context within which that force is generated and sustained.
Simply put, one single work set at high intensity is NOT the best way to build and progress neurological efficiency and force production capacity. This is especially true if your nervous system is not well-adapted to high intensity training from pervious athletic experience. You simply cannot produce enough adaptive stress in one low-volume, high load set to make a muscle adapt to that set by “growing.”
The absolute most common training error out there is confusing pure strength training with training for mass building and balanced physique development, or mass with class. And this is where the “specificity” principle is so relevant.
To quote Behm’s research again:
Maximum strength training methods with their high intensity resistance but low volume of work not elicit substantial muscle hypertrophy. Therefore, a higher volume of work (greater than 6 reps with multiple sets) is needed to ensure a critical concentration of intracellular amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis and adaptive response. (p. 271)
And just so you don’t think that is a standalone conclusion, if you look up this research you’ll see that following this statement Behm cites other sources as well whose research shares the same conclusions. (Or you can also find this research in my book, The Abel Approach.)
The Case of Dorian Yates
Supporters of this Heavy Duty nonsense often refer to the great Dorian Yates and his endorsement of it.
First off, there is no question Dorian was a fantastic Mr. Olympia. I was in attendance at a few of his CLEAR victories. He was a champion.
In arguing his support for “heavy duty, one work set” training, Dorian was quoted as using his own analogy. He said, “It’s like hammering a nail into a wall. If one stroke of the hammer does it, why would you keep hammering the nail?”
As logical as this analogy seems on the surface, it doesn’t speak to neurological efficiency and work capacity at all. To explain why Dorian’s analogy is incomplete, I’ll use the same analogy he did. Let’s say the head of the hammer you are using represents nervous system “intention” and “neurological efficiency.” Well, if that hammer head is made of styrofoam instead of steel, you are going to have to hit that nail repeatedly in order to hammer it into the wall (read: multiple work sets).
Moreover, this doesn’t begin to address the number of times you miss the nail. Dorian’s metaphor is incomplete. You can see why multiple work sets are necessary to induce the desired adaptive response.
Most of the arguments mentioned yesterday are strategic considerations for program design for gaining muscle mass and quality “muscle maturity.” To complete this “manifesto” it’s also necessary to at least begin to address some tactical considerations regarding program application as well.
First and foremost, exercise selection and sequence become important considerations when training for size and development because isolation exercises (as you get in bodypart training) can cause tendonitis in quick order. Human joints were not designed to be subject to movement stress of the kind where all the shock, force, tension, and compression are exclusively centered on one joint.
Knowing how to structure and sequence exercises and workouts, as well as reps schemes, goes a long way to preventing chronic tendonitis issues, adhesions, limited range of motion around a joint, scar tissue, joint inflammation and the like.
Understanding ranges and planes of motion of muscle function around a joint is important for tactical implementation of exercise selection and sequences, and also for implementing proper exercise techniques so you learn to “train the muscle, not the movement.”
For instance I witness in the gym all the time the example of “plane of motion overkill.”
A trainee is doing a biceps workout for example. He or she does barbell preacher curls, then does one arm preacher curls, then moves on to the preacher curl machine. This is a poor use of gym time. After that first exercise the redundancy of that plane of motion won’t create any more adaptation, yet the risk of overuse conditions and injuries increases with each new exercise because of that repeated same motion.
I witness this kind of thing over and over again in my observations observing other people workout. Angles of contraction of any muscle have been shown to be “as important” as training intensity when it comes to fiber recruitment and adaptive hypertrophy response.
Another common tactical error in applying otherwise reasonable programs, is trying to lift heavier than what you are actually capable of. This is a workout destroyer and a saboteur of good programs in general!
Learn to leave your ego at the door and don’t be a “weight worshipper.”
Ambition is great; self-delusion is not!
Do not lift more than you are capable of in good form. Too much weight on the bar is just as useless as not enough weight on the bar. Mentally mature and advanced trainees follow the program, not their egos.
So What’s the Lesson Here?
Stronger doesn’t always mean more weight on the bar and progress doesn’t mean that either!
When training for muscle development and mass with class, you should seldom require a spotter for an exercise you are doing. Even a newbie at the gym can spot something “off” with one guy supposedly bench pressing and the whole time his “spotter” has his hands on the bar and looks like he himself is doing an upright row! (Grow up!)
Another workout destroyer is lifting outside of your prescribed rep ranges. If, for example, an exercise in your program calls for 3 sets of 10-15 reps let’s say, and you choose a weight where you are only squeezing out 5 reps on these sets… then you aren’t adhering to the program then, are you?
This is destroys great programs. Many trainees ruin great programs by not being true to them. And when your goal is physique development, gaining muscle mass and achieving that muscle maturity look of “mass with class,” then don’t be so carried away with how much you lift; instead, how you lift is far more important.
A carpenter isn’t enamored with his screwdriver, he focuses on how well he uses that tool to get the job done. Moving the loaded bar from point A to point B isn’t necessarily the goal – creating an adaptive stimulus and response from the proper execution of repetitions and sets – that is the goal.
It’s not always about lifting “more.” It is always about lifting “better.”
To understand that is to employ a basic “tactic” of workout application that will never fail you. Yes, it seems like common sense to say so – but look around the gym and you will witness practically every day as I do – that common sense ain’t so common!
The other consideration when training for a balanced mature physique is the question as to whether to increase weight on working sets or not.
Although linear load increases may be expected week to week in programs designed solely to increase load-strength (max lifts), this is not the case in programs designed for enhancing muscle development. Whether the load you use during work sets increases or not is really incidental to the overall process.
What is far more important in programs designed for development is to choose a weight that is effective in challenging your performance within the reps indicated.
This is a workout to workout consideration based on your own subjective experience. It is not an absolute. Training for development is about connecting to feeling the muscles working – not measuring how much you lift.
In terms of varying training tactics within a program, there are other factors to consider as well here. Age of current trainee is a factor, current level of experience and training background is a factor. Current level of development is a factor, as is gender. These are all vital considerations that are “assessment tools” used for assigning the right program to the right person at the right time. This is true of both training “strategy” (program design) and how it is carried out by the trainee (its tactical implementation).
Finally, training “hardcore” doesn’t mean training to pound your body or training to incapacitation. Pro athletes in any sport “train” to perform better, not to incapacitate their bodies. You need to do the same. Train your body to perform better next time you workout. That is how you “progress.”
And there you have it! The above article series is the “manifesto” for program design for gaining muscle growth and quality mass with class. The number one consideration in all of this – is neuromuscular efficiency. But I suspect that, as usual: some of you will get it; some of you will not.