When it comes to choosing a routine, what works best is what suits you, what you can keep to, and something that plays to your genetics. But what does the last one mean?
Experience is one thing that is vital in choosing a routine that really works for you. Like in just about everything else, you’ll often make mistakes before you get it right. You build yourself up better every time you break yourself down – the same principles behind muscle gain. And while this all may sound philosophical.. that’s not my deal.
When you start out training, you’ll probably look to a high-intensity, high-volume routine – you’ll work out hard, and you’ll work out often. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re just starting out, because you get the benefit of being completely unaccustomed to lifting; you could do practically any form of weight training, and still benefit – it’s a phenomenon we call ‘beginner gains’. Not only will almost anything make you grow, you’re likely grow much more than a highly-trained individual would in the same space of time, as well. When you’re no longer a beginner though, things can change.
There are, I believe, more beneficial styles of training to really make best use of your time as a beginner – but I don’t want to cover those today (because I’ve already written a guide here).
Today, I really want to share a lesson that took me a long time to learn, so that maybe you’ll make use of it. The lesson? Less can sometimes be more. You may think that’s something you learnt long ago, but don’t be so sure.
I’m a naturally competitive guy, and I hate it when someone is out-lifting me. It doesn’t matter if they were born a 7ft giant, with a sixpack and arms like a girder – it will irk me if he lifts more. My natural response to seeing someone pull a 200kg loaded bar off the floor, is to instantly accept that person as a nemesis – and train harder.
When I was newer to training I would give in to that response, and throw everything I had into every minute of every workout. But the Rocky-method never came through for me, I either gained at snails pace or just stayed where I was, while the 7ft giant (he’s metaphorical) was consistently getting stronger doing the exact same thing.
The natural response to this is: where am I going wrong? And the first thing that came into my head was: it’s the way I’m training. Clearly I needed a superior training regime to the other guy. So I trawled the internet, trying different exercises/reps/sets, breathing rates, building isometrics into my routine, and trying the next ‘best workout’. Still getting nowhere.
It took me a long time to finally come to terms with the fact not all men are created equal: that some people are better positioned, genetically, and they can afford to spend 5/6 days in the gym giving it all they’ve got and still make super-gains. I cannot. When I came to that understanding, everything else fell into place. Now I realised that I had been right – I needed a superior routine. But it had to be tailored to my strengths, not the other guy’s.
It’s the same as when two people wear an identical suit – its always going to look better on one of them. If the other guy wants to out class his rival, he’s going to have to buy a different one that is more suited to his look (excuse the pun). Armed with this idea, I went to work… on the computer.
I knew I couldn’t just out-train my nemesis, so I adopted a different approach – under-training him. I came across the idea of high-intensity, low-frequency training – and adjusted my routine to something like this:
Day 1/7 – A
Bench – 3 sets of 8
Incline-bench – 2 sets of 8
Deadlift/Bent-over row – 3 sets of 6-8
Weighted-chin ups – 2 sets of 6-8
Close-grip bench – 3 sets 8-10
Day 4/10 – B
Squat – 3 sets of 8
Leg-extension – 2 sets of 8-10
Leg-curls – 3 sets of 8
Overhead/Military press – 3 sets of 8-10
Weighted-chins – 2 sets of 10-12
Training every 3 days, working in a 10 day cycle. Giving 100% every set, with weights at my rep-max’s for that rep range. Rests varied around 2-3 minutes.
It was like a magic formula for me, and my strength gains were like beginner gains again.
That routine probably looks, and it is, pretty sparse. But it was just the right amount for me. Clearly, I had been over-training before (read about over-training here), and this routine allowed me to optimally recover before each session. Giving me far superior muscle and strength gains than when I had trained 5 times a week.
Do I recommend this high-intensity, low-volume approach for everyone? No.
This article is called ‘play to your genetics’, and thats what I think you should do. If you train with friends in an intense, frequent routine – and they all seem to be gaining faster than you, but you know your diet is in order – then consider switching to something less frequent. Or reduce the intensity (that way you can still go with your friends, just do less exercises).
Some of you will be able to train intensely, and often – take Arnold Schwarzenegger for example: the man often trained for 5 hours or more a day, 6 days a week – and he clearly wasn’t over-training (although he was on steroids for some of it). But that’s the extreme end of the scale, no-one should expect to be able to do that.
If you think your routine is working for you, I’m not asking you to change it.. I’m just offering an alternative for us less genetically gifted (in this aspect).
As far as routines go, the one above works wonders for me – and might for you as well. Otherwise there are plenty of programs out there like ‘Starting Strength’ that are fantastic – and can be tailored to your personal needs.