Training Frequency, Set Totals and Recovery
Anyone who's ever read any of my articles knows how much I talk about recovery. In my mind, this is the single most ignored and overlooked aspect of bodybuilding. It always amazes me that so many lifters – largely newer ones but advanced ones as well - just don't understand that you can't grow training 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. You only grow in between workouts, when you are recovering. Training is catabolic – it breaks down muscle tissue. To grow, you have to give that muscle tissue time to repair. This just can't happen in one day. Needless to say, if you get nothing else out of this series, understand that your body must have time to recover before you hit the gym again. So, you might ask, how often do I train? It's pretty standard to train each muscle once per week. Steroid users can certainly get by with more of everything but if you’re natural, older, and/or have limited time or a physical job, once per week is the way to go.
Here are some general guidelines for set totals:
This assumes you’re hitting each muscle once per week.
Large muscle groups – legs, back chest - 8-10 total sets per workout
Small muscle groups – deltoids – 6-8 sets, arms – 4-6 sets, calves – 4 sets
Abs – really, hit them every workout for 3-4 sets.
These totals are general guidelines, if you are young with not much in the way of obligations, you can hit the top end of these set totals. If you are older, or you lead a busy, active life, I would stay at the lower end. Also, even though I do advocate once per week training, if you want to experiment with twice per week training, keep set totals low to promote recovery. With me, I'm using 3 recovery days on a simple push/pull split as an experiment. One key to remember, if you have a scheduled training day and you still feel sore, or unusually drained, you need more time off – taken a day or two. It doesn't seem like the right thing to do, I know – you feel like you aren't “hardcore” but it is absolutely the best thing you can do to promote muscle growth. Again, remember – it's not how often you train that leads to growth, it's how well you recover. This could be repeated a thousand times and still it will be overlooked.
Rep Performance: the Importance of the Rep
How do you perform your reps? Are you paying attention to this aspect of your training or, do you just heave it up there and then just let it fall? The rep is the most basic aspect of training yet everything you do hinges on how well you do your reps.
Here are some common rep styles used in bodybuilding and how to perform them:
Explosive up/slow down – an explosive concentric (or, raising the weight) portion of the rep is good for strength. Slow and controlled on the eccentric (or, lowering) takes advantage of negative emphasis. This rep style is popular with those athletes trying to develop explosive power. It’s also popular with bodybuilders because it brings more muscle fibers into play and the more fibers you can recruit in a given set, the more potential for growth.
Slow and controlled up, pause and squeeze, slow and controlled down, full and complete range of motion – here you are performing a controlled rep with no jerking, there’s no momentum involved. At the top you pause and squeeze the muscle hard and slowly lower the weight. This style is best suited on such movements as tricep pressdowns or any exercise where you get tension at the top of the movement. This type of rep style allows you to work the muscle through its entire functional range of motion. This is a common “bodybuilding” method of rep performance.
Controlled up and down with no pausing, like a piston – this approach allows for a continual tension on the muscle, there's no relief at all until you end the set. This is a variation of the above method and does require controlling the speed to keep the muscles, rather than momentum, doing all the work.
Full Body and Split Routines
Full body routines were common back in the 40’s and 50’s. The idea here is to train your entire body in one workout, always using a Mon-Wed-Fri setup. Anyone that’s read my articles knows that, for the most part, I don’t really buy into the traditional full body approach. While I understand the functional aspects of training the entire body in one session, my problem is more with the advanced full body’s you see out there and the total lack of recovery time. I have seen full body routines that have you doing near 90 sets – yes, 90 sets!-in one workout, only to come back after just one rest day to train again. Are you out of your mind? Even cutting that set total in half, there is no way you can come back after just one day of recovery and do it again. Worse yet, how can you still train hard on set 44, 64 or 89? It just ain’t gonna happen!
Having said that, I do advocate two fundamental full body routines: the 20 rep squat and an abbreviated twice per week routine. In fact, the 20 rep is one of the best routines you can do. The second full body routine picks 3-4 key compound movements for 3 sets each for workout #1, then changes them for workout #2. I advocate a Sun.-Thurs. (or whatever two days’ work for you) setup for better recovery. Here’s the thing with recovery – you want at least 2 days between workouts, 3 is better still but if you need more, by all means take them, even if it means breaking out of the conventional 7 day week time frame.
Here are two examples of these routines:
The 20 rep squat, Routine #1
Monday and Thursday
Squats - 2 warm up sets of 10-12 reps
Using your 10 rep max, perform 20 reps no matter what. This is a very mental exercise, you have to go in ready to conquer what will be the hardest exercise you have ever done. Do not quit, even if there’s a World War going on around you – keep squatting until you hit 20!
Pullovers – 1 set of 8-10 reps
Rest 5 minutes.
Bent rows – 1 warm up set of 10 reps
3 sets of 6-8 reps, failing in this range. Drop weight as needed each set but your first set is your heaviest set.
Bench Press-3 sets of 6-8 reps as with bent rows.
That’s it, that’s the routine. If you do your squats right, you should be a pile of Jell-O lying on the floor at the end. If not, put some real weight on the bar the next time. With this routine you want to add 5-10 lbs. each workout. This should be done for 4 weeks.
This is done Mon.-Thurs. or whatever two days’ work for you, separated by at least 2 full rest days, more if needed, even if that means breaking out of a 7 day week.
Squats – 2 warm up sets of 10 reps, 3 working sets using your 4 rep max for 8 reps. Drop weight as needed but your first set is your heaviest. You may find 3 sets to be too much, do as many as you can.
Bench press – as above
Power Bent rows – as above
Overhead press – as above
Deadlifts/ rotate with Power cleans – as with squats
Incline press – as above
Chins – 25 reps, use rest pause if needed.
Arnold press – as with squats
Use this routine for 3 weeks. Add weight, no matter how little, each workout. Rep performance – I tend to prefer explosive up and slow down, using a 2-0-3 tempo. Tempo, or rep speed, is defined like this: 2 seconds up, no pause, 3 seconds down. On squats, I like continuous tension with the same tempo.
The above routines are, to my mind, the best uses of a full body approach and, in fact, will lead into the split routine concept presented below.
I advocate a 3 day, push/pull/legs split routine. This type of split allows a logical, functional grouping of muscles, fits most lifestyles, allows room to adjust when life gets in the way and provides 4 full days for complete recovery. The single drawback to this approach is that on chest, delt and tricep day you’re doing more work than on the other two days, which can impact your ability to train hard.
Anabolic surge routine:
This next routine represents an idea I’ve been experimenting with. This type of approach is nothing new but it is my take on what has become a popular fundamental routine design. As I indicated in part 1, this type of routine design really covers pretty much all training concepts that will produce extreme muscle growth. Strength, basic bodybuilding style sets in term of the reps used or rep range, extended set techniques that take you past failure, which also uses rep range and TUT, not to mention that the use of extended set techniques and compound exercises promotes ultimate intensity of effort – important for GH release - and maximum hormonal manipulation. Finally, the rotation of some of the exercises, intensity techniques and rep styles promotes variety, a huge key to muscle growth because the consistent changes keep your body from establishing homeostasis. What is homeostasis? It can be defined as the ability of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. This is why you adjust to any routine so quickly. So the key is to consistently change what you expose your muscles to. Having said that, it’s important to keep a core strength base – you should be trying to increase the weight used for as long as you can, until you hit your strength limits. From there, you should still work with compound movements and heavy weight.
Here’s how this routine will be setup:
2 strength sets
3 bodybuilding sets
1 intensity set
Now, it’s been said that you adjust to a new routine in as little as 3 weeks, so after 3 weeks, we are going to change some of the exercises, rep performance and the intensity techniques used. This rotational element promotes variety, a key to muscle growth.
Squats – 2-3 warmup sets for 10-12 reps, easy weight
3 sets of 4-6 reps, failing in that range, add weight when you can beat 6 reps for two workouts in a row. Use explosive rep performance
Squats – drop weight and do 3 sets of 8 reps with rep # 8 difficult or near impossible to complete. On these sets, you don’t have to go to failure, just close to it. When 8 reps becomes easy for 2 workouts in a row, add weight. Use continuous tension style rep performance.
Leg extensions –Using a weight you can get 8 reps with, do 1 long extended set using the drop set technique – you go till failure, pull a plate off, and go to failure, pull a plate, etc. for about 5-6 drops. Use a full range, pause and squeeze rep style.
Standing calf raises – 3 sets of 6 reps, failing at 6. 1 set of 25 reps using a weight you can only get 10 reps with. Rest pause to 25, hold and squeeze at the top for a 3 count.
Ab work – your choice
On your 4th set, drop weight and go for as many reps as you can get, but at least 25. Use rest pause to get there.
Chest, delts, triceps
Bench press – same as squats
Flys – 3 drop sets of 8 reps each
Overhead press – same as squats, except as follows: 2 strength sets, 2 sets of 8
Side/rear laterals – superset drop sets – 4 drops of 8-10 reps each per superset.
EZ ext/pullover/press – same as overhead presses
Pressdowns – 1 set of as many reps as you can do with your usual 8 rep weight – hold at the bottom for a 5 count and use rest pause to get past 8.
Bent rows – same as squats/ rotate with power cleans – one 3 week use rows, the next use cleans.
Chins – rest pause to 30 reps. If you can do 30, try for 50.
EZ curls – same as EZ ext/pullover/press
Incline Dumbbell curls – 3 drop sets of 8-10 reps per drop, failing at that range for each drop.
Abs work - your choice
This routine will be worked as written for 3 weeks, and then you will change the secondary exercises, some of the techniques and go to incline presses from bench press, as follows:
As in the above routine, except change your stance to “sumo” style, do an explosive up, slow down rep style.
Leg extensions –using a weight you can only get 8 reps with, do 1 long set of 1 and ½ reps, adding in static holds – hold for a 3 count at the top of each half rep and use rest pause to get to you rep target of 16. Use a continuous tension rep style.
Seated calf raises – same as standing raises above, except hold at the top of each rep for a 6 count.
Abs work - your choice
Chest, delta, triceps
Incline press – same as bench press, use a continuous tension rep style.
Incline flys – 4 drop set of 6-8 reps per drop, failing at that range. Hold the stretch on each rep for a 4 count. Slow and controlled on these.
Overhead press – same as in routine #1, use a continuous tension rep style.
Arnold press – 5 drop set, aim for 8 reps each set, fail in that range, explosive up, slow down.
Close grip bench press – same as routine #1 on the EZ ext/ pullover/press, use an explosive up, slow down rep style.
Pressdowns with a rope handle – 1 set of 21’s, as you pull down, twist out and squeeze on each rep, hold the squeeze for a 3 count.
Ab work - your choice
Deadlift – same as squats, use a normal deadlift stance. Slow and controlled rep style, concentrating on form.
I-arm dumbbell rows superset with lat pulldowns – 1 set for as many reps as you can get with a weight you normally use for 8 reps. On rows, rest pause to 16 reps. Use a continuous tension rep style. On pulldowns, use static holds at the bottom for a 3 count, and resist the weight on the way back up – this phase of the rep should take 5-6 seconds to complete.
EZ curls triple drop triset using two EZs and a EZ cable attachment – 2 sets of as many reps as you can get starting with a 6 rep weight. When you hit failure, rest pause another 3-4 reps, drop to the next weight and do the same, drop to the EZ cable and do the same but do these as you did the pulldowns – static holds for a 3 count and a slow return to the starting position. Do 2 sets if you can. Use an explosive up, slow down rep style unless otherwise noted.
Ab work – your choice
Now, above I said this is my take on the more recently popular routine design concepts that seem to keep popping up. I advocate the use of each of the 3 routines presented as follows: 4 weeks on the 20 rep squat ( 4 weeks to help build squat strength) , followed by 3 weeks on the second full body - really challenge yourself with the weight used, go beyond what you normally use for 4 reps - followed by the 3 day split routines. This is the Anabolic Surge program. Here’s why I set it up this way: the 20 rep is so good but so overlooked that I feel it’s a great starting point for some really nice gains. I’m going to be 56 this year and my most recent use of this program added 8 pounds to my frame – that’s 8 pounds of lean mass at 56!. The next routine takes a different approach but uses a similar concept – you’re challenging yourself with the weight and using rest pause to hit 8 reps, so really it’s one more step in intensity and heavy weights, setting you up for what’s to come. Finally, after lying ground work on simple full body’s – and giving yourself improved recovery time and a break so your body can “de-adjust” if you’ve been doing the normal 5- 6-7 day split routines – you come back not being used to splits which sets you up for fresh gains, you step into a controlled split setup design to open the flood gates with numerous training tactics – but if you can man through 20 reps and handle big weights for double the reps, you can take the next step and handle these. Now, how do we cycle this program? Well, you actually have 4 routines here – I suggest after you complete all 4, take a few extra recovery days and start the cycle over. If you feel over-trained at any time, take a few extra rest days – recovery, again, is one of the critical keys to growth.
In the part 3, we’ll discuss nutrition and part 4 will detail supplements and offer some excellent stack ideas.
Thanks for reading, Jim Brewster
Visit my website: jbfitnesssolutions.monnfruit.com