The Best Damn Strength Plan For Natural Lifters

by Christian Thibaudeau

Maximum Strength That's All You

If you're a natural lifter doing the workouts of drugged lifters, you're going to be disappointed. Build maximal strength the natural way. Here's how.

No Juice? No Problem.

We covered a lot of ground in The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters. And even though lifters reported strength gains across the board for these two programs, muscle growth was the main focus.

But what about maximal strength? That’s what THIS plan is all about (size being the second objective). We’ll dive into the details in just a bit, but first, let’s recap a few essentials.

What All Natural Lifters Should Know

If you’re a natural lifter you’ve probably tried many advanced training programs and noticed that pretty much nothing came out of it. Here are a few reasons why that may have happened:

1. The Main Enemy of Natural Lifters is Excessive Cortisol.

This is especially true if it’s chronically elevated. Cortisol can greatly limit muscle growth by increasing protein/muscle breakdown and decreasing protein synthesis. It can also slow growth by increasing myostatin activation.

Myostatin is the gene that limits how much muscle you can build. The more activated it is, the less muscle your body will allow you to carry. This means, excess cortisol limits your muscle growth potential.

2. Training Volume is What Triggers Cortisol Release the Most.

Cortisol’s main function during physical activity is the mobilization of stored energy to fuel the session. The more fuel you need, the more cortisol you’ll release. And of course you’ll need more fuel when volume is higher. The moral of the story? Natural lifters can’t do as much volume as enhanced lifters and expect to grow optimally.

3. Natural Lifters can’t Artificially Increase Protein Synthesis.

They don’t have the benefit of anabolic drugs, so their bodies rely almost exclusively on the training session (and nutrition) to trigger protein synthesis. Under normal circumstances, protein synthesis is elevated in a trained muscle for up to 24 hours after a workout. But after that, it comes back down to normal levels.

If a natural lifter trains a muscle only once per week, muscle growth will be fairly slow because the period where protein synthesis is significantly elevated in a muscle is short. A natural lifter will get more muscle growth training a muscle twice per week and even more if he or she can hit a muscle three times in the week.

4. Volume and Frequency are Inversely Related.

The more frequently you train, the less volume you should do at each workout… that is, if you want to build muscle or strength. So the basic principles for natural lifters are:

  • Train each muscle frequently, ideally 3 times per week to trigger protein synthesis more often.
  • Keep volume low to allow for the greater frequency.
  • Since the number of work sets will be low, push them extremely hard.
  • Make use of several different training methods to stimulate growth via several different mechanisms.

With all this in mind, let’s dive into the plan.

Weekly Schedule

There are six workouts per week, since this is a high frequency, low-volume approach. Each workout will include one heavy lift:

  • Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Deadlift
  • Military Press
  • Row or Chin-Up

Three of these workouts (the squat, bench press, and military press workouts) will include one heavy assistance lift followed by three lower-stress exercises trained for hypertrophy (muscle growth).

For the three other workouts (the deadlift, row, and chin-up focused sessions) there’s no heavy assistance exercise, but instead three or four lower-stress exercises.

The weekly schedule looks like this:

Monday – Push/Squat

  • Squat (heavy)
  • Squat assistance exercise (heavy)
  • Pecs lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Triceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Delts lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Tuesday – Pull

  • Row (heavy)
  • Hamstrings lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Lat lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Mid-back/traps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Biceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Wednesday – Push/Bench Press

  • Bench press (heavy)
  • Bench press assistance (heavy)
  • Quads lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Delts lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Triceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Thursday – Pull/Deadlift

  • Deadlift (heavy)
  • Lats lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Mid-back/traps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Biceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Friday - Push/Military Press

  • Military press (heavy)
  • Military press assistance (heavy)
  • Pecs lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Quads lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Triceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Saturday – Pull/Chin-up

  • Chin-up (heavy)
  • Hamstrings lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Lats lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Mid-back/traps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)
  • Biceps lower-stress exercise (hypertrophy)

Sunday – Off

The Exercise Categories

This plan contains three exercise categories:

  1. The Heavy-Focus Lifts: Squat, row, bench press, deadlift, military press, chin-up. These will be trained with the heavier methods.
  2. The Assistance Work: Squat assistance, bench assistance, military press assistance. These will be trained with a fairly heavy method, but not as heavy as with the first category.
  3. The Hypertrophy Work: This requires lighter methods focusing on stimulating muscle growth.

Each category will use several methods, listed below.

Heavy Focus Lift Methods

Heavy Max Reps Set With Given Percentage

With this method I take a page from Jim Wendler’s book. You’ll use a given percentage of your technically correct (good form) 1RM. After warming up, you’ll do one set where you do as many reps as you can.

You do not reach failure though. You stop when you know that you probably can’t complete the next rep. The program uses a 3-week wave where the load increases by 2.5% every week. Then we go back down and work our way up again for 3 weeks:

  • Week 1: 85%
  • Week 2: 87.5%
  • Week 3: 90%
  • Week 4: 87.5%
  • Week 5: 90%
  • Week 6: 92.5%
  • Week 7: 90%
  • Week 8: 92.5%
  • Week 9: 95%
  • Week 10: 92.5%
  • Week 11: 95%
  • Week 12: 97.5%

Note: If after 12 weeks you decide to continue with this approach, re-test your 1RM and start a new cycle with the adjusted numbers.

Strength-Skill Work

This refers to doing a higher amount of non-maximal work. It’s mostly done to improve your neurological efficiency. The key here is to make sure every rep is perfect. You’ll do several work sets with a fairly heavy weight (82.5% to 87.5%) but always several reps short of failure. To make the sets effective, focus on perfect technique and try to accelerate as much as possible during the concentric (lifting) portion.

We also use a 3-week wave where the load is fixed, but the volume changes. After a wave we increase the weight but come back down volume-wise:

  • Week 1: 82.5% 5 x 2
  • Week 2: 82.5% 5 x 3
  • Week 3: 82.5% 5 x 4
  • Week 4: 85% 5 x 2
  • Week 5: 85% 5 x 3
  • Week 6: 85% 5 x 4
  • Week 7: 87.5% 5 x 2
  • Week 8: 87.5% 5 x 3
  • Week 9: 87.5% 5 x 4
  • Week 10: 90% 5 x 2
  • Week 11: 90% 5 x 3
  • Week 12: 90% 5 x 4

Note: Again, if after 12 weeks you decide to continue with this approach you’d re-test your 1RM and start a new cycle with the adjusted numbers.

When calculating the load on the chin-up you must include bodyweight in the calculation. If you weigh 200 pounds and your maximum is the addition of 45 pounds, the weight lifted is 245 pounds. If you need to use 82.5% it means 202 pounds, so you’d need to attach a 2.5-pound plate to your waist. If you don’t include your bodyweight you’d calculate 82.5% of 45 pounds and it would come up to 37 pounds, which would be way too heavy for the prescribed volume.

Rest/Pause Assistance Work

Your work sets will require a weight that you can lift for 4 to 6 reps. You’ll complete as many technically correct reps as you can with that weight. Your goal will then be to double that number of reps. To do that you take short rest periods.

For example, let’s say that you get 5 reps in the initial bout. This means you want to do 10 total reps for your set. After your 5 reps, you’ll rest for 15 seconds. Then you might get an extra 3 reps. This means you’ll need to get 2 more reps. Rest another 15 seconds and then you’ll be capable of getting the last 2 reps.

Here’s Anthony Campbell demonstrating the rest/pause method:

Hypertrophy Methods

Mtor Sets

Here the key is how you perform each rep. Accentuating the eccentric (negative) and loaded stretching are the contraction types that increase mTor activation the most. So with this method you’ll do as follows:

  • Lower the weight over a 5-second count while tensing/flexing the target muscle as hard as possible at all times.
  • Hold the full stretch position for 2 seconds per rep.
  • Do 6-8 reps like this, and on the last rep hold the stretch position for as long as you can tolerate. Again, you only do one set of this special technique/method.

Here’s what it looks like in action:

“Heavy” Myo Reps

For maximum muscle fiber fatigue, use the myo rep method developed by Borge Fagerly. It’s a form of rest/pause. You reach failure or close to it, then do as many micro-sets of 3 reps as possible with around 20 seconds of rest.

When you can only get 2 reps on a micro-set, stop. The initial set can use any number of reps from 6 to 20, but with this program we’ll use a weight that you can get 6-8 reps with.

Start by doing as many reps as you can with that weight, then rest 20 seconds and do 3 more reps. Rest 20 seconds and do 3 more reps. Continue doing that until you can only get 2 additional reps. If you can get more than 5 micro-sets you likely faked yourself in that original set and didn’t go close enough to failure.

The Workouts

Now that we have the training split and the training methods we’ll use, let’s put it together in a weekly plan:

Monday – Push/Squat

  • A. Squat
  • 2-4 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 max-rep set with the given percentage (see earlier in the article for the progression)

  • B. Zercher Squat
  • 2-3 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 rest/pause set with a starting weight of 4-6 reps

  • C. Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Do 1-3 warm-up sets of 6-8 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

  • D. Rope Triceps Pressdown
  • 1-2 warm-up sets (6-8 reps)
  • 1 Myo-reps set starting with a weight you could do for 6-8 reps

  • E. Lateral Raise
  • 1-2 warm-up sets (6-8 reps)
  • 1 Myo-reps set

Tuesday – Pull

  • A. Pendlay Row
  • 2-3 warm-up sets (3 reps)
  • Strength-skill work: 5 work sets with the load and reps prescribed in the progression

  • B. Romanian Deadlift
  • 1-3 warm-up sets (5 reps)
  • 1 mTOR set

  • C. Straight-Arm Pulldown
  • 1-2 warm-up sets (6-8 reps)
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • D. Bent Over Lateral Raise
  • 1-2 warm-up sets for 6-8 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps

  • E. Incline Dumbbell Curl
  • 1-2 warm-up sets for 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

Wednesday – Push/Bench Press

  • A. Bench Press
  • 2-4 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 max reps set with the given percentage

  • B. Close-Grip Floor Press
  • 2-3 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 rest/pause set with a starting weight of 4-6 reps

  • C. Machine Hack Squat (or goblet squat with heels elevated)
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

  • D. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

  • E. French Press (overhead EZ-bar triceps extension)
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

Thursday – Pull/Deadlift

  • A. Deadlift
  • 2-3 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • Strength-skill work: 5 work sets

  • B. Chest-Supported T-bar Row
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • C. Face Pull
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

  • D. Barbell Curl
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

Friday – Push/Military Press

  • A. Military Press
  • 2-4 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 max reps set with the given percentage

  • B. High Incline Bench Press (60 degrees)
  • 2-3 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • 1 rest/pause set with a starting weight of 4-6 reps

  • C. Pec Deck Machine (or cable cross-over or dumbbell flyes)
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 6-8 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • D. Leg Press
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 6-8 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • E. JM Press
  • 1-3 warm-up sets for 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

Saturday – Pull/Chin-Up

  • A. Chin-Up
  • 2-3 warm-up sets of 3 reps
  • Strength-skill work: 5 work sets

  • B. Leg Curl
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 6-8 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • C. Lat Pulldown Pronated
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of 6-8 reps
  • 1 Myo-reps set

  • D. Dumbbell Shrug
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

  • E. Incline Dumbbell Hammer Curl
  • 1-3 warm-up sets of 5 reps
  • 1 mTOR set

Sunday – Off

Effort Level

The best program performed 80% effort will give you less results than a basic program done at 100%. This is the most important thing you need to remember. So to get amazing results, you need to apply the proper level of intensity.

Except for the strength-skill portion of the workout, the volume of work is low: you only perform one work set of each exercise. Since you can’t use volume to stimulate gains, you need to milk every set for everything it’s worth. If you fail to take the work sets to the required point, you won’t grow and increase your strength as fast as you could.

The principle of this is to do short but brutally hard sessions. If you do “short” but not “brutal” don’t expect much in the way of gains!

Here’s where you need to take each exercise:

Max Reps Strength Lifts

(Squat, Bench Press, Military Press)

The work set on these should be around a 9/10 on the perceived effort scale. This means that you should do as many technically correct reps as you can. When you stop your set you must be pretty darn sure that if you would’ve tried one more rep, you would have either failed or used bad technique. But as long as you’re reasonably sure that you can get the next rep, do it.

Strength-skill Lifts

(Rowing, Deadlift, Chin-Up)

These are the only exercises where you don’t push close to your limit. Do more sets to get the work done. See it more as “strength practice” than all-out lifting. But to make these effective at increasing strength and size, control the eccentric by lowering slowly for about 2-3 seconds. Try to accelerate as much as possible on the concentric, lifting phase.

Rest/Pause Lifts

(Zercher Squat, Close-Grip Floor Press, High Incline Bench Press)

The same rule applies as for the max reps strength lifts – take the set to the point where you know you can’t get another full rep, then rest for 20 seconds before resuming the set to get more reps in.

For everything else (mTOR sets and myo-reps) you must reach the point of muscle failure, where you fail to complete a rep.

Q & A

Here are some questions that are bound to pop up:

I can’t train 6 days a week. Can I still do the program?

If you can train 4 or 5 days a week, you can do the program. In that case, simply roll through the 6 training days in order. It will just take you more than a week to complete one “training week.”

If you can only train 3 days a week this isn’t the best plan for you since it’s based on a high frequency of work.

Can I do this program when trying to cut?

Just so that we’re on the same page, trying to “cut” means eating a caloric deficit in an effort to lose body fat. My answer would be “yes, but…”

To get the most out of a strength or size plan you should ideally consume at least a small caloric surplus. This is important, especially if you’re natural. You can still add size and strength if you’re eating at a maintenance level, but the gains will be slower.

But what about eating a caloric deficit? For developing size, it’s not ideal. Under the right circumstances you can add some muscle while in a slight caloric deficit but even in the best case scenario your capacity to build muscle will be impaired if you don’t get enough nutrients.

But what about strength? Since strength is gained both by increasing muscle size and neurological efficiency, it’s a bit easier to increase strength than to gain size while in a caloric deficit. That said, your strength gains will still be a lot slower than if you were consuming a caloric surplus.

Why? First because you won’t be able to build as much muscle. If you build less muscle your strength potential doesn’t increase as much.

Second, when you reduce carbs (which you normally do to get a deficit) you’ll store less water inside the muscles, which decreases your leverage. Dehydration or a reduction in water retention can decrease strength significantly even if the muscle mass stays the same. That’s why powerlifters “bloat up” on purpose before a meet.

Finally, when you consume fewer carbs it’s possible to lower your CNS efficiency since the nervous system runs primarily on glucose.

So I’d strongly recommend that you do this program while consuming at least a slight caloric surplus if you want to maximize your gains.

Now, if you decide to lower your body fat you still have to train. And since your capacity to recover and adapt to training decreases whenever you try to “cut,” no program will ever yield maximum results when trying to get lean. In that regard, this program is as good as any when on a cutting phase.

In fact, due to the low volume, you reduce the potential overtraining/under-recovering that’s more likely to occur when you reduce your food intake. So, yes you can do this program when trying to get lean, but don’t expect the same gains as if you were doing it while eating a surplus.

Can I add cardio?

Same answer as the question about doing this program while trying to lose fat: Yes, but…

Adding a moderate round of cardio (steady state or short intervals) should not make the program ineffective. Key word: moderate. So if you jog 60-90 minutes per day, there’s a good chance you won’t be progressing as fast as you would if you simply did the program.

Doing 30 minutes of steady state work or 12-15 minutes of intervals 2-3 times per week is fine. But understand that, just like with a caloric deficit, it might slow down your gains slightly.

Can I add work for abs and/or calves?

You can. I personally train abs with a blitz approach which works well with the structure of this workout.

Train abs everyday for 3 weeks, then not at all for 3 weeks. Then go back to training them every day for 3 weeks and then no abs work for the last 3 weeks. I normally recommend doing 3 sets of a superset that includes one loaded and one unloaded ab exercise. Example:

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Seated Cable Crunch 3 8-12
B Swiss Ball Crunch 3 8-12 1 min.

Calf work can be added up to 3 days a week at the end of the push days. The best method to use is the mTOR reps method. Do 2 warm-up sets then one all-out mTOR set. You can do them seated, standing, or donkey style.

Can I repeat the program once I’m done with a 12 week cycle?

Yes. Just retest your max on the 6 “big lifts” to plan the weights for the next cycle. If you decide to start a new cycle, change the hypertrophy exercises, even the heavy assistance lifts. Keep the main lifts the same though.

Another option would be to do 3-6 weeks of either “The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters” or part 2 before going back to another strength phase.

Foolproof Plan

This style of training, if you train at the intensity level required, is guaranteed to add significant strength and size on anyone. It’s foolproof and might change your training paradigm forever. If you’re tired of spinning your wheels on “traditional” plans, this might be the answer you’ve been looking for.