The Layer System

Build Strength and Size With One Exercise A Day

Build muscle and get brutally strong using only one exercise per day. Get the complete 8-week training program here.

The layer system is one of the most effective programs for rapid gains in strength and size. You focus on only one exercise per workout, but you do a lot of volume for that lift using different training methods done in succession. The order of the methods improves the efficacy of the one after it.

You LAYER the methods – one after another – to create a greater training effect than simply using them all haphazardly. This progression of layers creates muscular and neuromuscular activity that promotes maximum gains.

The 5 Layers

You’ll do five layers each training day. Complete one layer before moving on to the next. We’ll use the bench press to show how each method looks.

1. Activation & Potentiation

Do 4 sets of 6 seconds, max effort isolation

The first layer is overcoming isometrics. The purpose is to turn on the nervous system while creating as little fatigue as possible. You’ll be pushing or pulling as hard as humanly possible against the safety pins in the power rack. Do this for 6 seconds of max effort and 4 sets. Take 60 seconds of rest between sets. Use only one position for the overcoming isometric and select a position where you can produce a very high level of force.

Bar Positions Guidelines:

  • Bench Press: 2" above an elbow angle of 90 degrees
  • Squat: Knee at 100 degrees
  • Incline Bench Press: 2" above an elbow angle of 90 degrees
  • Snatch-Grip High Pull: bar just above navel
  • Preacher Curl: elbow at about 100 degrees

For the curl you don’t need to use the power rack. Simply load the barbell with too much weight for you to lift it, let it rest on the support, adjust the preacher bench so that when you grab the bar your elbows are at 100 degrees, and then try to curl the weight off of the support for 6 seconds.

2. Max Strength & Further Potentiation

Do 5-7 sets of 2 reps until you reach your 2RM

This layer is a ramp. You’re ramping up the weight and neural activation on every set. Take 5-7 sets to reach your 2RM. Start with roughly 60-70% of your max and perform only sets of 2 reps, adding weight until you reach the maximum you can lift for 2 reps with perfect form.

Every rep should be the same. No sloppy reps even with the lighter weights. And don’t do more than 2 reps; the goal is activation with as little fatigue as possible. Don’t rush between sets but keep the tempo fairly rapid. Ideally take 2 minutes or less between sets.

3. Mechanical Stress

Do 3 sets of 4-6 reps at 90% of 2RM

This layer is a cluster, which is the most effective method for stimulating growth via mechanical stress. Your objective is to place a lot of mechanical stress on the muscle fibers causing a degradation that will stimulate the “repair and grow” process.

A cluster set is a set of 4 to 6 reps. Rest 10-12 seconds between reps, resetting the bar so that you don’t have to hold it. Use 90% of what you reached on your 2RM ramp and do 3 cluster sets of 4 to 6 reps.

After the first set, if you reached 6 reps you can increase the weight for the next set. But if you didn’t reach 4, or if the fourth rep was almost impossible to do, lower the weight. After the second set do the same process. If you did 4 or 5 solid reps in a cluster, stick to the same weight for the next set. Rest up to 3 minutes between clusters.

4. Slow Eccentrics

Do 3 sets of 6-8 slow eccentric reps at 70% of your 2 RM

This layer contains a slow eccentric phase to maximize mTOR activation. Do 3 sets using 70% of the 2RM ramp and shoot for 6-8 reps. Perform them with a 4-5 second eccentric (lowering) phase. Do the full range of motion and accelerate the weight on the way up. Use the same weight for all 3 sets unless you can’t reach 6 reps, then lower it slightly. If you reach 8 reps easily, then instead of adding more weight, do the lowering phase even slower. Rest 90 seconds between sets.

5. Growth Factor Release

Do 1-2 sets of mid-range reps using 50% of your 2 RM

This final layer increases growth factor hormones through constant tension. Do 1-2 sets of constant tension lifting. Only perform the middle portion of the movement. For example, in the bench press go from about 2 inches from the chest up to 1-2 inches short of lockout. Never stop during the movement. As soon as you reach one end of the range, move in the other direction. The movement should be kept fairly slow, 2-3 seconds in both directions.

Use 50% of the 2RM ramp and do work until you can’t do it under the conditions mentioned above (if you have to pause or lock out the weight, the set is over). The goal is to be under constant tension for 45-75 seconds.

The Exercises to Use

  1. Bench Press
  2. Squat
  3. Incline Bench Press *
  4. Snatch-Grip High Pull From Blocks / Kaworski Shrugs * *
  5. Preacher Curl

* The incline bench press is actually more effective than the military press to develop the delts. The recruitment of the deltoid is about the same but you use more weight. You also get the benefit of more pec stimulation.

* * You can’t do a snatch-grip high pull with a slow eccentric or constant tension. So you’ll do the high pulls for the ramp (layer 2) and clusters (layer 3) but the Karwoski shrug for the last two layers. The Karwoski shrug is a cross between a shrug and an upright row: pull the bar as if doing an upright row but only until it goes above your navel, focusing on squeezing the traps.

Do these over 4 to 5 training days. The biceps exercise can be done on the high pull day or on a fifth training day, your choice. This program is based on the big lifts. If you find that the lats/back are understimulated it would be fine to add back work (regular lifting style) either at the end of one of the training days or on its own.

Training Split Options

Option 1 – 4 Days a Week

  • Day 1: Bench press / lat work (optional)
  • Day 2: Squat
  • Day 3: OFF
  • Day 4: Incline bench press
  • Day 5: OFF
  • Day 6: Snatch-grip high pull / biceps
  • Day 7: OFF

Option 2 – 5 Days a Week

  • Day 1: Bench press
  • Day 2: Squat
  • Day 3: OFF
  • Day 4: Incline bench press
  • Day 5: Snatch-grip high pull
  • Day 6: Biceps / lat work
  • Day 7: OFF

Option 3 – 6 Days a Week

  • Day 1: Bench press
  • Day 2: Squat
  • Day 3: Lat work
  • Day 4: Incline bench press
  • Day 5: Snatch-grip high pull
  • Day 6: Biceps
  • Day 7: OFF

How Long Can I Use the Layer System?

You can use the layer system for 6-8 weeks while making continuous gains. After 8 weeks take a deload week if you wish to continue with the program, or switch to another program for 4-6 weeks, then get back to the layer system.

What Supplements Work Best With the Layer System?

To maximize the effects of the layer system, use the following:

Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon): Pumps critical nutrients into muscle that stimulate protein synthesis, reduce catabolism, buffer lactate, delay fatigue, and provide sustained energy.

Metabolic Drive (on Amazon): Contains whey protein isolate for fast-acting essential amino acids and micellar casein for sustaining protein synthesis and building muscle.

Can I Add Other Exercises?

Go through a three-week cycle before adding more exercises. The layer system is very effective by itself. It looks simple on paper, but these 16 sets have a high stress level. The specific order of the layers make these 16 sets much more effective, and more demanding, than simply doing 16 regular sets.

If you add more lifting, limit it to isolation work for the muscles involved in the lift trained that day. If you trained the bench press, limit yourself to a small amount of isolation for the triceps, chest, or delts. Don’t exceed two total additional isolation exercises per workout. Do 3 sets of 6-8 reps each.

Can I Add Ab Work and Metcon?

There are two types of work you can add at the end of a session:

  1. Abdominal work: Do 3-4 supersets of one weighted and one unweighted ab exercise 3 times a week.
  2. Loaded carries: Farmer’s walk, overhead carries, Prowler pushing or sled dragging can be added at the end of your workout. These will help you build even more muscle while helping you drop some fat and strengthening your core. Use a carry that goes well with the movement trained that day. For example:
  • Snatch-Grip High Pull: Farmer’s Walk
  • Squat: Prowler Pushing or Sled Dragging
  • Preacher Curl: Zercher Carry
  • Incline Press And Bench Press: Overhead Walk

If you want to use the carries to help increase strength and size, go with heavy carries for 100 to 150 feet, 4-5 sets with ample rest between sets. If you want to use the carries to drop fat or to prevent fat accumulation while consuming a high amount of calories, go with moderate weights for max distance over one minute and use short rest periods (60-90 seconds). Do 3-4 sets.

The Science: How Does the Layer System Work?

1. Increased Muscle Fiber Recruitment & Fatigue

When you do a lot of work on one exercise, it leads to a greater recruitment of muscle fibers as well as more fatigue of those recruited fibers.

People think that doing a lot of exercises for one muscle group is the best way to recruit more, and different, fibers. In reality, you can recruit just as many different fibers by doing a lot of work on the same movement pattern. Why? Because when you do a lot of volume you fatigue the fibers more by repeating the same exercise over and over. When the fibers have been fatigued too much to do the job, the body will call on different fibers. You get muscle fiber fatigue and muscle fiber variety.

Dr. Zatsiorsky pointed out: “A muscle fiber that is not fatigued is not trained.” This means that the number of fibers you recruit isn’t a guarantee of maximum growth. You need to fatigue those fibers, and doing more sets of fewer exercises works better than doing fewer sets of more exercises.

2. Faster Neural Adaptations

The layer system has a high neural component. By focusing only on one lift per day you also facilitate the development of neural efficiency – the less variety you have in a session, the faster the motor learning for the task being done.

Faster neural adaptations mean two things:

  1. You’ll gain strength on the lifts at a faster rate. That’s because of a faster development of the initial neural adaptations.
  2. You’ll start to build muscle at a rapid pace because your body will always look for the less expensive way to adapt to a training stress. Building (then fuelling) additional muscle mass is a very expensive adaptation method. The body will start to add muscle at a rapid pace only when it’s the only solution it has to be able to adapt to the stress imposed. If it can rely on neural adaptations instead of building muscle, it will. The faster you can max out the rapid neural gains, the sooner your body will be forced to build muscle. That’s what the layer system does.

3. The Nervous System Is Amped Up

Every time you contract a muscle two things happen – one thing that increases performance and another which decreases it. First you activate the nervous system – you turn it on. That’s why you can’t just walk in the gym, load the barbell up with your squat 1RM and do it. You need several sets to get the nervous system ready.

When you produce force, you amp up the nervous system. The more force you must produce, the more you amp it up. This is called “post-tetanic potentiation.” The result is that everything you do after that will be more effective because that potentiation increases muscle fiber recruitment and rate coding/firing rate. The more fibers you recruit and the faster they’re firing, the more force you can produce and the more growth you can stimulate.

The second thing that happens is fatigue. You expend energy and fatigue the muscle fibers. This obviously decreases your performance potential. The more reps or the more work you do, the more fatigue you create. With the layer system you use methods to potentiate the nervous system as much as possible while causing as little fatigue as possible. This way when you get to the muscle-building layers, your level of performance and muscle fiber recruitment is drastically enhanced, leading to more strength and size gains.

4. Muscle Growth Is Stimulated Three Ways

There are three main ways of stimulating muscle growth. The layer system uses each one:

  1. Placing a mechanical stress on the muscle fibers. This leads to a degradation of these fibers. That micro-trauma creates a biochemical response that initiates a “repair and grow” adaptation process. This results in thicker and stronger muscle fibers. It’s most effectively accomplished with heavy weights and plenty of volume.
  2. Activating mTOR. The more you turn on mTOR, the greater the protein synthesis (muscle building) response to training. Several things can increase mTOR: ingesting a high-calorie meal and leucine. When it comes to training, an emphasis on the eccentric phase of the movement and loaded stretching activates mTOR.
  3. Stimulating the release of growth factors. When a muscle is contracting, blood can’t flow inside the muscle easily. When a muscle is kept contracted for a fairly long period of time while under load it’ll become deprived of oxygen because blood can’t deliver it to the muscles. Waste products, like lactate, will accumulate. These two things can both lead to the release of growth factors like growth hormone and IGF-1. Doing sets where the muscles are kept under constant tension will stimulate this anabolic response. Slower eccentric tempo leads to a significantly greater release of growth hormone.