by Clay Hyght, DC T-Nation
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
– Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist
Welcome to part two of my 11 Principles of Effective Bodybuilding Training Programs. If you haven’t read Part 1, make sure to check it out.
Before we get into principles 6 through 11, let me explain how and why I came up with them.
I derived these principles, over time, so that I don’t fool myself into straying off the proven path to training success by chasing the next shiny object that catches my eye in hopes that it may hold the key to quick and easy progress.
I’ve found there simply is no route to quick and easy progress in bodybuilding, but there is a route to steady, predictable progress, and it’s outlined by these 11 principles.
Adopt them as your own, or use them as a guide by which to create your own. Either way…use them! Otherwise you’re likely to fool yourself into trying every training tactic under the sun, only to find out you haven’t gone anywhere. But if you’re guided by principles, your efforts won’t be in vain.
6. Do an Endurance/Volumization Exercise for Each Body Part
While those who like to feel the burn and maximize the pump tend to neglect heavy, low-rep sets, those who like to lift heavy tend to neglect the higher rep-range.
Doing sets of more than 10 or 12 reps is great for increasing endurance, but you probably don’t care. But you do care about the visual effects that occur as a result of doing higher rep sets.
Training in this higher rep range obviously prolongs the Time Under Tension (TUT), and it’s this longer TUT that stimulates hypertrophy very well.
Since this hypertrophy resulting from high-rep sets isn’t primarily coming from an increase in the size of the contractile component of the muscle (i.e., actin & myosin filaments), it’s often called non-functional hypertrophy…a term I don’t care for as it’s very misleading.
When we’re talking specifically about enlargement of a muscle by means other than muscle fibers, I prefer to use the term volumization. Whether you prefer the term non-functional hypertrophy or volumization, we’re talking about an increase in the cross-sectional area of a muscle via an increase in size and/or number of mitochondria, capillaries, enlargement of the sarcoplasmic reticulum, etc.
Generally speaking, doing sets of about 12-20 reps is perfect for stimulating muscle volumization. The cosmetic result tends to be rounder, fuller-looking muscles.
So keep in mind, when your goal is larger muscles, you want to enlarge ALL components of the muscle. Failing to do so is like leaving money on the table.
7. Implement Compound and Isolation Exercises
When I was an undergrad student in exercise science, I made a point to track down the professor most known for his knowledge of resistance training. Once in his office, I proceeded to ask him my single most burning question regarding resistance training for hypertrophy: “Which is better for size, compound exercises or isolation exercises? For example, are squats or leg extensions better for quad growth?”
His answer surprised me. “Neither one is necessarily better,” he said. “Each has pros and cons. It’s best to stimulate the muscle in a variety of ways. You’ll likely get more overall hypertrophy doing some of each rather than either compound or isolation exercises exclusively.”
At first I was quite disappointed, to say the least, but the lesson soon sank in… true answers are not as black and white as we’d like for them to be.
When it comes to bodybuilding training, it’s imperative that we not use compound exercises only. Sure, compound multi-joint exercises offer the most bang-for-the-buck in terms of gaining functional, usable strength, but that’s not our goal. It’s a neat side effect of pursuing our goal.
Isolation exercises might not be as ‘functional’ in terms of real world applicability, but they put a laser-like focus on the target muscle, ensuring that it’s the recipient of the training stress.
For example, barbell squats are great, but your lower back might give out before your quads. And that’s going to compromise the training stimulus your quads receive.
That’s where leg extensions come in. When you take a set of leg extensions to failure, you KNOW that the quads did all the work!
Instead of thinking with an “either/or” mentality, embrace the fact that neither compound nor isolation exercises are inherently superior…they’re just different.
8. Choose Exercises that Address Your Weakness
When training to improve the appearance of your physique, it’s extremely important to keep symmetry and aesthetics in mind.
Too often we bodybuilders get caught up in progressing via ‘working harder,’ as in lifting more weight or the same weight for more reps. Sometimes we even try to do both at once (a recipe for stagnation, by the way). Let’s keep in mind that ‘improvement’ in terms of bodybuilding doesn’t just come from increases in performance, but also – and primarily for competitive bodybuilders – via an improvement in appearance.
And I’m here to tell ya’, improving a lagging body part is one of the most surefire ways to quickly and dramatically improve the appearance of your physique.
Consider thinking of yourself as an artist and that you’re creating something artistically beautiful with your physique. I’ve found that mindset to work well in this regard.
Admittedly, however, this comes natural to me when coaching others, but not so much when training myself. I suppose that supports Alwyn Cosgrove’s observation that, “He who coaches himself has an idiot for a client.”
Your best bet is to have someone with an eye for physiques assess your strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t do that, take pics of yourself and critique them as if you were critiquing someone else’s physique. Cover your head on the photo if you need to, but be as objective as possible.
Then put each body part in one of three categories: dominant, balanced, or underdeveloped. Then – and this is critical – use that information when designing your training program, making sure to choose exercises that specifically address your weaknesses.
If a body part is lagging in size, choose a precise exercise that will target that area, forcing it to do the brunt of the work and become taxed to exhaustion by the end of the set. Note that this will often NOT be a compound exercise, as they tend to distribute the training stress and subsequent adaption to multiple body parts.
For example, if your weakness is back width, you need to focus on exercises that specifically target the inferolateral aspect of the lats. Dumbbell pullovers and straight-arm cable pulldowns are examples of exercises that would fit the bill.
Also, note that a cosmetic weakness can also be an overpowering body part, and it’s just as crucial that it’s addressed by choosing appropriate exercises…ones that will not cause hypertrophy in that area. (Of course your set/rep scheme comes into play here, too.)
So if you have tree-trunk-sized quads, I wouldn’t do hack squats or leg extensions. And if you do barbell squats, consider doing them with a wider stance, thus shifting some of the stress away onto the glutes, hams, and adductors, thus away from the quads.
Just make sure to be methodical about your exercise selection. It’ll go a long way in creating a visually appealing physique.
9. Do the Most Important Exercise First
This principle piggybacks the previous one. After all, if you choose the right exercise but do it at the wrong time, the effect may essentially be nullified.
Let’s say you’ve chosen unilateral dumbbell rows to address lat thickness and width. If you do them near the end of your back workout, you’re not going to be able to use as much weight and/or do as many reps as you would if you placed them first in your workout, due to both neurological and muscular fatigue.
By the way, implementing both creatine and beta-alanine is a sound approach to minimizing fatigue from anaerobic training (i.e., weight training), with the former being especially effective with heavy, low-rep sets and the latter for moderate weight, higher-rep stuff.
Performing an exercise first enables maximal motor unit recruitment, or the number of muscle fibers that get stimulated. And remember, only the fibers that get stimulated can grow.
So don’t waste your most important exercise by doing it when you’re fatigued. Do it first so you can reap maximum benefits…milking that bad boy for all it’s worth!
10. Reps and Rest are Inversely Proportional
Many training principles are somewhat intuitive, almost common sense. But the fact that reps and rest are inversely proportional isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s often counterintuitive.
Let’s say you’ve done an all-out set of 3 reps on the barbell bench press.
As you begin to rest, letting your heart rate and breathing return to normal, you’ll find that it doesn’t take very long for those two components to return to normal. After all, you didn’t even really feel a burn in your chest or triceps with such a brief TUT. In about 60 seconds you feel ready to knock out another set.
On the other hand, let’s say you’ve just put the bar down on a tough set of 15 reps on barbell squats. It’ll likely take at least 2 full minutes, if not more, before you feel like you’re ready to go at it again with equal intensity.
The strange fact is, our perception of recovery isn’t quite accurate. Although both BPM’s (beats per minute and breaths per minute) are somewhat important, there’s something cellular going on that we can’t feel, per se.
When you reach fatigue – as in momentary concentric failure – on a heavy, low-rep set, it’s due primarily to depletion of the ATP-CP fuel system as well as nervous system fatigue. And it takes 2-3 minutes to allow those two components to replenish to the point where you can perform another set with equal intensity.
When doing high-tension, low-rep sets to stimulate protein synthesis, it’s very important that the performance on each set it maximized by getting as many reps as possible with a given weight.
You want to avoid having to reduce the weight to duplicate the performance of your previous set because it’s tension in the muscle that serves as the primary stimulus toward strength gains, and ultimately more actin and myosin filaments (a.k.a. larger muscles).
Yet, if you based your rest periods on how you felt, you’d likely go again in about one minute, because three reps on the bench press just doesn’t feel all that taxing.
Performance, per-se, on higher-rep sets with longer TUT isn’t so critical. That’s because it’s not tension that serves as the primary stressor during these sets, it’s metabolic fatigue.
This type of training stimulus is different than tension as a stimulus. Metabolic fatigue doesn’t so much lead to new actin & myosin filaments. Instead, it leads to hypertrophy of other structures (i.e. sarcoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria, capillaries, etc.).
Quite contrary to low-rep sets, higher-rep sets shouldn’t necessarily be fully recovered from. In fact, starting the next set before you’re quite ‘ready’ is a great way to enhance the metabolic stimulus received from the set.
So on heavy, low-rep sets, rest long enough to be able to lift maximum weight again on the next set, as it’s the weight and the tension that it causes within the muscle that is the nectar for new muscle growth.
On higher-rep sets, don’t rest very long so that you intentionally compromise your performance, thus forcing the metabolic stress that will lead to hypertrophy of the cellular components of the muscle cell.
11. Keep in Mind Intensity and Volume Are Inversely Proportional
I’ve intentionally saved this principle for last, as I feel it’s the most critical. The fact is, if you don’t adhere to this principle, it doesn’t matter what else you do…you will not make progress. I know all too well as it’s this principle I’ve struggled with most.
Let’s first get on the same page regarding intensity and volume.
Intensity as applies here is essentially how close to all-out you take a given set. If you do a given weight for as many reps as you possibly can – even if your life depended on it – then you’ve reached 100% intensity.
By volume we’re talking about the number of exercises, sets, and reps performed in a given workout. FYI, I don’t subscribe to the notion that 5 sets of 5 reps is the same stress on the body as one set of 25. In my experience, it’s how many taxing or challenging sets that we do that largely determines the stress.
So when I say volume, I’m primarily referring to the number of work sets done in a given workout. In other words, the number of sets done to the point of fatigue.
To what extent you reach fatigue on a set is how the intensity of that set is determined.
Let’s say you can curl 100 pounds, 10 times…and that’s your true 10RM (repetition maximum). Doing an all-out set of 10, in this case, is extremely taxing to the body. Sure, it’s taxing to the muscles, but it’s taxing in a sneaky way to the nervous system.
So the more all-out work sets you perform within a workout, the less overall sets you should do. Otherwise you simply won’t be able to recover in a reasonable time frame.
However, if you did a set of 100 pounds x 9 reps, this isn’t nearly as taxing to the nervous system, and not quite as taxing to the muscles themselves. Therefore, you could do 3 sets of 9 with reasonable assurance you’re not overdoing it.
But if you were to do 3 sets of 10 with your 10RM (100 pounds), you’re talking about a seriously taxing stimulus to both the muscles and the nervous system…even though it seems like ‘just one more rep.’
You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t train long and hard.
To illustrate, let’s contrast the training styles of former Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, with another former Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler.
Dorian was known for doing very few sets, in fact, just one work set per exercise. His training was high-intensity in nature, but low in volume.
Jay Cutler was on the other extreme. He’s known for doing lots of exercises per body part, lots of sets per exercise, and for training each body part about every 5 days as opposed to every 7 days like Dorian.
If you watch Jay train, you’d surely say it’s intense. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice that he doesn’t take any sets to failure. He often comes quite close, yet he’s still got one, maybe two reps left in him if he really pushed it.
Here’s where we (surely it’s not just me in this boat) often go wrong…we try to train with balls-to-the-wall intensity like Dorian, yet we try to implement high volume training like Jay…all at the same time! And THAT, my friend, will not work.
Please trust me on this one, as I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many, many times.
Or you can be stubborn like I’ve been and say, “Screw that, I can do more…I’ll do one more rep on the next set…and then I’ll do one more set, too! That way I’ll give the muscle no choice but to grow!”
Lest we forget, the muscle does have another option other than growing…and it’s called not growing.
The mentally challenging part of this principle is that you actually can do a lot of sets and take ’em ALL to failure…and you’ll leave the gym drained, but feeling like you had an incredible workout.
The problem is, even when your muscles recover and aren’t sore any more, your nervous system is still in ICU from the high-intensity/high-volume beating you gave it a few days ago. So even though it’s time for your next workout, and you feel like you’re ready, you may not be.
If you’re like most T-Men, it can be tough to make yourself terminate a set knowing you’ve still got more in you, and it’s hard to not do another set when you know you can. But sometimes you just have to leave well enough alone.
This, my friend, takes us full circle, back to point number 1 – train each body part once per week. Doing so gives you at least some room-for-error in terms of ensuring adequate recuperation.
Yet it’s still critically important you keep volume and intensity inversely proportional.
The best rule-of-thumb I’ve found is this: take only the last set of each exercise to failure.
Doing that, along with limiting the sets and exercises as we’ve discussed, is a good balance between intensity and volume.
But, if you’re ever feeling crazy and wanna know what overtraining really feels like, go ahead and train all-out on each set and do a Cutler-like high volume program. You’ll know within a few weeks exactly what it feels like to be overtrained.
On the other hand, if you’re more interested in making steady, ongoing progress, then keep in mind that…it’s better to train smart than to train hard.
Remember to use these 11 principles like a good recipe. You can follow it as-is to cook up something great, or you can add a dash of this or takeaway a pinch of that to make it your own. Either way, at least you’re not starting from scratch.
If these principles end up helping you half as much as they have me, then we’ll both be happy! Take care.