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5 Things Natural Lifters Can Learn From Pros Article

In today’s article, coach Thibaudeau writes under header 3 that 3 sets (one moderately difficult set, a fairly difficult one, and then a really difficult one) per body part is all you need if you train each muscle group 3 - 4 times a week.
But then under header 4, 8 to 14 sets is described as “the proper amount for maximal results”.
I guess my question is, do all the sets count the same? Because my assumption was that only the really hard sets were counted in Brad Schoenfeld’s general recommendation of about 10 sets per muscle group and per week.
So, could you Christian please clear up my confusion? Thank you.

3 sets 3-4 times a week is 9-12 work sets, which is between 8-14 total sets per week (per muscle).

That’s how I read it anyway.

Exactly… “warm-ups” don’t really count toward volume but “progressively harder sets”, meaning sets still being done with a decently challenging weight do count.

Thank you. I just checked Schoenfeld’s blog and he says 10 sets to or near failure. I suppose with a higher frequency that would be too much?

10 sets can be divided many ways during the week. If you hit every muscle 3x per week, using 1 set to failure (or beyond) and 1 set that is fairly challenging and do 2 exercises per muscle group, that is 12 sets per week. Right in the correct zone.

If you do one all-out set and 2 reasonably demanding sets prior to that on 1 exercises per muscle, 3x per week that is 9 work sets per week, still adequate.

I see. Merci beaucoup, Christian!

If you do compound exercises only for both chest and shoulders, using the second scheme that would be 18 sets of presses, is that bordering on excessive?

Can you describe what a full body workout 4 times a week would look like? It would seem that recovery would be tough in that scenario.

I needed a new program, this is perfect. Can’t wait to try it.

3 times a week for example would be, for me (please correct if wrong)

day 1 flat bench
day 2 flyes or variation
day 3 incline db press

day 1 behind neck bb overhead press
day 2 lateral raises or variation
day 3 db press

day 1 squats ( I guess I can do 6 sets here? 3 for quads, 3 for hamstrings)

day 2 Leg extensions
day 3 Leg press or lunges, short steps

day 2 stiff legged deadlifts
day 3 glute-ham raise machine

Back, Biceps, Triceps, Abs… also hit 3 days a week. Calves optional.

I think this is simply one of the best and most important articles written.

There is indeed a huge difference on training effect gained from various programs when geared versus when not. I think CT’s mentioning of the need for increased frequency (within reason!) and lowered volume (sometimes VERY lowered volume) for natural lifters simply cannot be overstated.

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Thanks man, it means a lot coming from you!

Yeah people think that drugs simply enhance the response to training. It’s not as simple as that, performance-enhancing drugs change the human physiology in such a way that the role of training becomes different for an enhanced lifter vs. a natural one. I’ve coached both types of individuals and they are two different animals.

Here are some key points that need to be repeated:

  1. Building muscle is all about protein synthesis. And specifically having the highest rate of protein synthesis possible for the longest period possible.

  2. PED-users have an enhanced level of protein synthesis 24/7 because that’s one of the main effects of steroids (the effect of growth hormone on protein synthesis is debatable). Even if they don’t trigger a high level of protein synthesis through training it doesn’t matter, they will still progress. A natural trainee’s normal state is homeostasis: protein synthesis and protein breakdown is pretty much equal. He needs to stimulate protein synthesis (through mTor activation mostly) with the training session itself. In simpler words the natural trainee is dependent on the training session to stimulate protein synthesis, the enhanced lifter is not. That doesn’t mean that the training session is not important for the enhanced lifter, it means that even if some things are done toi create more breakdown (too much volume) or if you do not maximize protein synthesis with the session they will still gain fine.

  3. Cortisol is devastating for natural trainees. First it oppose protein synthesis by increasing protein breakdown but it also has an impact on the expression of the myostatin gene, which limits the amount of muscle you can carry. Cortisol can also inhibit mTor activation via an increase in AMPK. This means that cortisol not only increase protein breakdown, it can actually stop (or decrease) protein synthesis.

  4. The role of cortisol during training is to mobilize energy stores to give your body fuel for muscle action. Simply put the more fuel you need during your training, the more cortisol you will produce. Now it is fairly easy to understand that the more training volume you do the more fuel you will need to mobilize and thus the more cortisol you will release. That’s why excessive volume is the no.1 problem for natural lifters. Doing a high volume per session will actually stop a natural trainee’s gains.

  5. An enhanced lifter is somewhat protected against the negative impact of cortisol. First because the anabolics greatly increase protein synthesis 24/7, which will more than counterbalance for the increase in cortisol (within reason). Second because steroids and cortisol share the same second messenger at the cellular level. So the more anabolic hormones you have in your body, the harder it is for the cortisol to do its job. I still think that enhanced lifters would benefit from a lower volume of work (e.g. look at Dorian) but they will not suffer as much as naturals from a high volume of work.

  6. Enhanced lifters can gain a lot of muscle from doing higher rep stuff, drop sets, etc. Basically doing plenty of work with lighter weights. It’s because they do not need to trigger protein synthesis with the workout itself… but doing very high rep work will drive more blood into the muscles, and if that blood is loaded with amino acids when they are training they are then supplying their muscles (that already have an enhanced level of protein synthesis) with the nutrients to take advantage of their high rate of protein synthesis. Enhanced lifters do not need fairly heavy work as much as natural lifters do. And since many steroids then to make the muscles proportionally stronger than the tendons, focusing too much on heavy lifting might be a mistake for them.

  7. I’m not saying that light pump training doesn’t work for natural lifters. Hypertrophy can be stimulated with light weights if you go to failure. The problem is what happens in the body when very high reps with light weights are done. YES you will eventually get maximum muscle fiber recruitment as you build fatigue during the set. But if it takes you 15 or 20 reps to get there instead of 6 to 8 then you are spending twice as much glycogen to achieve the same effect … remember what I said earlier: the more energy (glycogen) you need to mobilize, the more cortisol release you will get! That’s why super high rep work is not ideal for natural lifters, especially if you do many sets.

  8. I want to point out that there was one study (Mitchel study that I quoted in my article on training to failure) that found equal hypertrophy with doing reps to failure with 30% (so likely about 30-40 reps) and 80% (likely 6-8 reps). It might seem to contradict what I just said about cortisol release due to higher volume. But that study used only one exercise and it was the leg extension. Why more fuel was mobilized with the higher reps, since the overall workload was so low (only one exercise) then it is doubtful that the cortisol release was significant enough to have a negative impact. The same results would likely not have been true with an actual training program.

  9. If a natural is to do lighter pump work he should make sure to consume carbs PRE (and during) workout. This makes glucose readily available for fuel. If glucose is readily available for fuel you do not need to mobilize as much of it. If you don’t need to mobilize as much stored glycogen you will not need to release as much cortisol.

  10. Since a natural trainee needs to rely on the actual training session to trigger protein synthesis, and considering that protein synthesis remains elevated for 24-36 hours in a muscle after you trained it, it should be logical that a natural trainee needs to train each muscle more often. Otherwise protein synthesis in a muscle will not be elevated long enough over the course of a week to get maximum growth. A problem that the enhanced lifter doesn’t have because protein synthesis is elevated 24/7 for him.


CT does this fall in line with what you’re recommending? I’ve been trying to use these ideas In my training

I’ve found that my body responds well to training every other day, I have more energy for training and seem to get leaner

I use two workouts
A:upper body push
B:legs, back

One compound lift for each muscle ramping up in sets of 6-8 with the last set being an all out set using either rest pauses, drop sets etc

Then one isolation movement per muscle 1 or 2 all out sets using intensity methods.

Progression wise, I aim to break rep prs (or total reps done) in the compound lifts. For the isolation I start with one all out set, then progress to two, then 3, then drop back down to one.

I just wanted to say that you have 1 training day that is way more stressful and has more volume than the other trainings day.

CT, thanks so much for additional info with your presentation of those 10 points! Especially the info regarding the impact of higher rep work on cortisol.

I have always found it interesting from the fact that weight training tends to DECREASE the testosterone measurements in natural lifters when compared to before they began the training regimen. I always wondered “what the heck?” because so much had been made of the fact that many studies showed exercise (primarily weight training…and primarily the big lifts) increased acute testosterone levels.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? The testosterone stimulation from a good hard (but not TOO hard…meaning within ones recuperative ability) set of squats is basically nullified by…too many sets of that movement afterwards.

The point I’m getting from all this is one should train a movement heavy (for oneself; heavy is so relative) for the LEAST amount of volume required for stimulation, then STOP. Allow the body to supercompensate (this takes time…more time that many think) then you must hit it again to keep acruing the supercompensation. The natural trainer must do this as OFTEN as their individual recuperation can handle because unlike 24/7 with PEDs, the supercompensation for naturals is a much much smaller window. The problem of de-supercompensation (I know that isn’t a word) with too much time between stimulation is also a real problem for naturals unlike enhanced trainers.

Like I said, really really good stuff. Thank you for helping me stimulate my own thinking better here. It’s articles like these that really help me get out of some mental ruts with regards to breaking out of traditional thinking that really need a second look.

Very accurate!

A weight that allows 6 to 8 (but no more) reps is adequately heavy. This is about 80% for most people and it has been show that full (recruitable) fiber recruitment occurs pretty much at a relative load of 80%.

80% relative to your CURRENT capacity… that’s why even if you use a light load you can eventually recruit the fast twitch fibers: fatigue makes you weaker and the weight thus become heavier in proportion to your capacity of the moment.

So if you start at around 80% there are no “wasted reps”… reps that are suboptimal in stimulating growth because of incomplete fiber recruitment. Basically if you are starting with a light weight… something like 60% the first 5-10 reps are basically only used to create fatigue so that you can move on to the money reps. But you are wasting glycogen to get where you could be from the start had you started with around 80%.

After much critical analysis on my work and using my updated understanding of muscle building I believe that for the natural trainee the optimal way to train is pretty much like Dorian Yates but hitting each muscle twice per week.

First–fantastic post and article and I agree completely with Buffd.

Second–Question: how do you feel this cortisol question affects extreme fat loss (i.e. women’s figure/physique/male BB) prep phase for natural athletes? I know the subject of the article and post was muscle growth, but I am curious about your opinion on the flip side.

In other words for natural guys–and I’m especially curious about you answer for natural females given that they have been said to have a higher metabolic adaptability and a higher tolerance for volume in workouts–what do they have to do deep into a prep diet close to show OR plateau busting in a prep diet different from enhanced in your view? Besides the obvious of course

Dude, that is such a good question and a hard one at that.

A friend of mine who prep a lot of girls came to me with this problem… one of his figure girls still has a lot of fat to lose but nothing is moving. The girl is a former Crossfit girl with a tendency for doing WAAAYYYY too much work (4-5 hours of training daily). I actually see this in many crossfit girls who are natural. They do too much work and as a result constantly have elevated cortisol levels which can actually hurt fat loss over time (maybe because the body becomes desensitized to it and stop releasing stored fat?).

A friend of my wife is a good crossfit athletes who went to regional 3x. She is a training machine; routinely trained 4 hours+ per day at her peak, could run a marathon any day of the week and clean 225lbs afterwards. To raise money she even did a 10 000 reps workout (something like 1000 burpees, 1000 wall ball, 1000 thrusters, 1000 box jumps over, 1000 KB swings, and 1000 of 5 other things… crazy workout, lasted about 9 hours) but despite her workload she wasn’t ripped at all during that time. She started working as a police officer, stopped competing and trains a lot less but she now looks leaner and better.

A figure girl I’m preparing myself had a similar problem. She was stuck at the same level of leanness for about 2 months despite doing a lot of work…she started to progress again when I drastically decreased her “glycogen-reliant” work… meaning that I decreased her lifting volume (increased the frequency), decreased the amount of glycogen-depleting conditioning work and slightly increased low intensity cardio.

In some cases it is almost hopeless because of the metabolic damage done, but most cases can be solved. I would recommend:

  • lowering lifting volume and increasing intensity (1 set to failure and beyond after 2 preparation sets per exercise)

  • increasing frequency (basically train like Dorian but hit each muscle twice per week)

  • Reduce glycogen depleting conditioning work (the most I will do is one tabata exercise)

  • Slightly increase low intensity cardio BUT NEVER do the cardio after the workout, even if it is after as a second session; always do cardio before the strength work, ideally as a separate session. Doing cardio after weights will raise AMPK which will inhibit mTor resulting is less protein synthesis… doesn’t matter much if you are enhanced, but for naturals it will make a big difference.

  • If possible, fragment the energy systems work into 2 sessions… it is best to do 2 x 35 minutes with one tabata than 1 x 75 minutes with one tabata… hormonally speaking… of course not everybody can segment training like that as the ideal format would be something like: 7AM - 35 min moderate cardio … Noon - 1 tabata exercise + 35 min moderate cardio … 4-5PM lifting session. But you worst case scenario you could do 2 sessions: 1 tabata exercise + 35 min of cardio in the morning and 35 min of cardio + weights in the afternoon.

  • I recommend using cortisol lowering supplements; rhodiola in the morning, glycine (5-10g) and phosphatidylserine (400-800mg) after each workout (cardio or weights)


Christian–Thanks! I try to ask really hard questions because they tend to be the most interesting to think about and answer. Thanks for the reply!

Second–Really looking forward to your SWIS presentation, since I currently work with a few olympic lifters and love the sport.

Third–The cortisol and women question has been eating at me for over a year now–which is why it came to mind to ask. I have tons of thoughts floating around my head on the subject and really glad you took the time to answer. I think about this a lot.

A few further questions if you don’t mind indulging on your day of rest:

  • Have you found that rhodiola ever inhibits fat loss in certain people? I know the research suggests it helps but I have had a couple athletes where dropping it out made an immediate difference in terms of both scale weight and leanness (it was the only change made at the time)…or could be water weight. Some others where it helped. I put this in the “cannot prove it but saw it” category, but they looked leaner.

  • I know phosphatidylserine is great, and I have played with it in the past myself–the hang up for me personally as well as recommending it is that I have yet to find a cost effective phosphatidylserine supplement–everything I see is something like 100 mg per capsule and the bottle goes empty inside a week during intense training, do you have a specific one you like?

  • It’s funny you mention the fragmented energy work, because when it’s possible that is my very favorite schedule for fat loss. For cardio one of my favorite sources is sled pull circuits (row, forward drag, backward, etc), similar to what you did with Daryl Gee and others–I prefer it to moderate cardio (depends on what a person’s definition of “moderate” is though I suppose). Have you found the same with women or do you prefer the incline walking/moderate steady cardio?

  • Why only 2x a week instead of 3x a week as you have also recently suggested elsewhere (upper/lower split 6x a week)? Not a “gotcha” question. It could be part of the “stimulus junky” mentality, but 6x weekly training seems to sit well with the women I know as well as work well. I am a frequency person myself as well so I know I do have a bias.

When Anthony Ditillo and Mariusz Pudzianowski ate all that candy, were they really super-glycogen loading?

Is this why they could handle such big work loads?

Actually I changed my presentation to loaded stretching for muscle growth and performance improvements. But we can discuss olympic lifiting training during my off time

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