All a newbie has to do is keep adding weight to the bar… at first. But if he wants to graduate to badass, he’ll need these five tools.
- Don’t just focus on setting new 1RMs. Volume is crucial too. Strive to set new 8RM records as well.
- Increase your training frequency. Break your weekly workload into smaller chunks and you’ll recover better and be able to do more total work.
- For maximum growth, you need tension and stress. So while adding more and more weight to the bar increases muscular tension, increasing training density leads to greater metabolic stress.
- For three weeks, only perform exercises you’ve never done before.
For anyone interested in getting bigger, stronger, or just more badass in general, the concept of progressive overload must be embraced. The simple act of adding weight to the bar each workout is a valid approach whenever you can pull it off. For newbies, that strategy usually works very well.
But the time will come when it stops working. And when that day comes, you’re no longer a beginner and you’ll need new tools to stay on the path to progress. Like these:
If you had to build a pile of sand that reached 24 inches in height, you’d keep pouring sand on the pile. Of course, the width of the pile would increase much more rapidly than its height.
If you’re not patient, you’ll give up thinking that you’re not making any progress. But if you persist, you’ll eventually build that pile up to a full 24 inches, even if it ends up being several feet wide in the process.
As a beginning lifter, just adding weight to the bar is enough to build up that pile. The “sand” tends to stack vertically rather than disperse horizontally. But the more experienced you become, the more sand you have to use to get that pile to rise up.
The “sand” in our case is volume. Don’t just focus on 1RMs and 3RMs, also seek to break higher rep records in your core exercises.
Even if your goal is maximum strength, you should document and break a variety of rep records. Now, a new 3RM record will mean more than a new 8RM record, but they all lead to progress in the long haul.
Increasing your training frequency is really just a sneaky way to increase your volume. But, since it’s the easiest way to increase your volume, it warrants your attention.
By breaking up your weekly workload into more manageable chunks, you’ll recover better and therefore be able to do more total work. Interestingly enough, even if you don’t do more total work, you’ll still end up bigger and stronger.
Recently, Greg Nuckols reported on an experiment conducted on a group of 16 raw powerlifters, who, like most lifters, typically trained three times a week.
The lifters were divided into two groups. One continued to train as usual, and the other group doubled the frequency of their squat, bench press, and deadlift sessions while keeping all other parameters exactly the same.
After 15 weeks, the high frequency group improved all three lifts by an average of 10%, as opposed to 5% in the control group. In addition to these impressive strength improvements, the researchers also measured increases in muscle mass of the vastus lateralis and the quadriceps as a whole.
While we’re on the subject of higher training frequency, I’d also like to posit the notion of higher “intra-workout” frequencies – splitting up your sets into smaller chunks. So for example, your typical 3 sets of 8 can be split up into 6 sets of 4.
Even if you’re not sold on this idea, there’s really no downside – you’re not doing more work and it doesn’t take more time. In fact, all it really does is make your sessions easier.
It’s simply a real world fatigue-management strategy that works for pretty much everyone, irrespective of their goals.
Training density is simply the work/rest ratio of your training sessions. Although density is an important parameter in training, it’s more or less totally ignored by most lifters.
Perhaps paradoxically, increasing density is the exact opposite of fatigue management – it’s finding harder ways to do work, not easier. But just like water that follows multiple unlikely paths in order to reach the earth, the more advanced you become, the more oblique your approach needs to be as well.
While muscular tension is indeed a critical mechanism for muscle growth, so too is metabolic stress. For maximum size gains, your training should provoke both mechanisms.
So, while adding more and more weight to the bar certainly increases muscular tension, increasing training density leads to greater metabolic stress. In short, perform a maximum amount of work in a minimal amount of time.
This is a more nuanced definition of progression, but important nonetheless, especially for more advanced athletes.
Quality can refer to a number of things including technical proficiency, using fewer “creature comforts” (such as supportive gear, favorite music, etc.), using slower tempos, and/or deliberately training under adverse conditions, such as when tired, hungry, or taking fewer warm-ups than what you’d prefer.
Any numbers you post under such conditions represents an increased “margin,” because under normal conditions you’d no doubt do even better.
Essentially, improving quality refers to doing something even “better” than usual:
- Normally, a 405-pound deadlift requires several warm-up sets. If you can get to the point where you can do it with no warm-up sets, that’s “better.”
- A 550-pound squat is certainly good, but if you can do it with a very slow descent followed by a long pause at the bottom, it’s “better.”
- A set of 20 kipping pull-ups with straps may be “good,” but 20 strict pull-ups with no straps is “better.”
- A 315-pound touch-and-go bench with your ass 8 inches off the bench might be “good,” but a strict 315-pound bench with a 2-second pause and your butt glued to the bench is “better.”
- A 225-pound barbell snatch where you take a step or two on the recovery is “good,” but a snatch where you recover while remaining in your catch stance is “better.”
- A 185-pound military press that hurts your shoulders might be “good,” but a 185-pound press that doesn’t hurt is certainly “better.”
The bottom line: Seek perfection in your habits and in your movement skills. As your habits and skills improve, so to, in turn, will your results.
I know a group of discus and hammer throwers who are so obsessed about setting new personal records every workout that they sometimes resort to inventing new drills on the spot, just so that anything they do with that drill will be a new PR.
Now as silly as that sounds, when you dig a little deeper, it’s really not a bad idea for several reasons:
If nothing else, hitting a new PR, even if you had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get it, is uplifting. And it’s also invigorating to do something new, something to break up the monotony. This jolt of enthusiasm tends to bleed over into the rest of your training as well.
An important stimulus to hypertrophy is novelty. As a quick personal example, I did a few moderately heavy sets of trap bar deadlifts a few days ago (something I hadn’t done in a long time), and believe it or not, I’m sore as hell from that, even though I’ve been performing conventional deads every week for years! Just that small change in body positioning was all it took.
Try this simple challenge: For three weeks, only perform exercises you’ve never done before. You’ll be quite surprised at what you’ll learn about yourself.
Most of us recognize the importance of shoring up our weaknesses, but not all of us are really sure what those weaknesses really are.
But by instituting new drills and methods into your training, you stand a better chance of accidentally discovering a weakness. It’s like when you lose your car keys – the more places you look, the closer you are to finding them.