PART TWO OF TWO
If you’re just joining us on our strength training series, please check out the first part here. As we mentioned in the previous part, the point of strength training is to lift heavier and heavier loads. That forces your muscles to grow, so that they can handle the increasing burden. When your muscles grow, your body becomes more efficient at burning fat. Your body begins to look more taut, you fit your clothes better, and your health improves.
The best way to approach strength training is to think of it by the week. Within the span of a week, you would have trained every major muscle group – chest, back, upper/lower legs and glutes, shoulders, arms, and core. Each week, you’ll be hitting each muscle group with 60 – 75 heavy repetitions. As you go through the following weeks, your goal is to be lifting more and more weight every week, while keeping the same rep range, and keeping a strict, good form.
You’ll find that the rep ranges are low in the following guide. Keeping the rep range low allows you to move more weight, and make full use of the 60 – 75 repetitions you can do a week.
Some fitness magazines tout the “muscle confusion” method, claiming that your muscles need to be caught unawares before they decide to grow. Otherwise, they’ll get used to what you’re doing, and simply plateau. This “confusion”, be it actual science or bro-science, is incorporated in strength training – in the form of an increased load every time you hit 8 reps. The simple need to lift a heavier burden is a reason good as any for your muscles to grow. If you overload correctly, they will definitely grow.
“Strength training isn’t rocket science,” said Einstein. No, really.
The following is an example of a weekly routine, assuming you hit the gym 4 days a week. Remember the rule: once you hit 8 reps on any set, increase the weight on the next set by 5 – 10 lbs. If you do 6 reps in the first set, but only 4 in the second, lower the weight next time. If you hit 7 reps in the second, try for 8 next week at the same weight. The minimum you should do is 6 reps on any set.
Day 1 – Legs
Think of your legs as three parts: the quadriceps (quads) at the front of your thighs, the hamstrings behind the quads, and the calves. For some people, calves are hard to grow. You can throw in another 2 sets of calf movements on another day, if you wish. I suggest doing so on the day you train your back, after the major movements.
Back Squats – 3 sets – 8 reps (24 reps total)
Leg Press – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Hamstring Curls – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Seated Calf Raises – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Total reps for legs muscle group: 72
Day 2 – Chest
Think of your chest as upper and lower chest. A developed lower chest provides volume and “projection”; the upper chest gives you a masculine, square look.
Flat Bench Press – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Incline Bench Press – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Decline Bench Press – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Chest Dips – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Total reps for chest muscle group: 64
Day 3 – Back
The back is really part of a chain of many muscles, known as the posterior chain. Specifically, training the back involves mainly the muscles between the neck and the hip. Think of it as upper back (base of the neck down to the shoulder blades), the lats (flanking your upper back for a V-tapered look), and the lower back (mainly the lower section of the muscles keeping your spine in place, erectors spinae).
Deadlifts* – 3 sets – 6 reps (18 reps total)
Seated Cable Row – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Lat Cable Pulldown – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Bent-over Barbell Row – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Total reps for back muscle group: 66
*Even for a seasoned weightlifter, keeping a strict form when performing the deadlift can become difficult after the 6th rep, especially when the load is heavy. I recommend keeping the rep range between 4 – 6.
Day 4 – Shoulders / Arms
Since the shoulders and arms are stimulated indirectly when you exercise the major muscle groups above, you’ll find that the repetitions stipulated for them are lower. Think of your shoulders in three parts: the front, the side, and the back.
Developed together, they give you the round “cap” look and broaden your frame.There’s also the traps, which extend from the base of your neck to the shoulders. Think of your arms as biceps and triceps. The former gives you the desirable “Popeye the Sailor man” flex, the latter is what actually gives the upper arm most of its bulk.
Overhead Barbell Press – 3 sets – 8 reps (24 reps total)
Lateral Raises – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Face Pulls – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Tricep Pushdowns – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Barbell Curls – 2 sets – 8 reps (16 reps total)
Total reps for shoulder muscle group: 56
Total reps for arms muscle group: 32
What about resting?
The recommended rest interval is between 2 to 3 minutes, and no longer than 5 minutes, in between sets. You want to be sufficiently rested to give your best for the next set, but you also want to maintain intensity in your workout. To give your system a chance to recover fully, take a week-long break from lifting weights every 8 weeks.
If you’re only just starting out at the gym, your first week may be a trial-and-error period. You’ll need that time to figure out how strong you are, and what weight to use for each exercise, so that you get in that 6–8 rep range. You will also need time to learn and practice strict form for each exercise.
What about my abs?
The core refers to the muscles around your trunk (between the chest and your hips). The core also contains everyone’s dream muscle group: the abs. Let’s be clear – no matter how hard you train your abs, they will not show until you’ve lost the layer of fat that conceals them.
Most people will not be able to hit 60 weighted reps on the core area in one sitting. It is prudent to split your core workout into two days, with at least one day in between. Here is a list of some weighted core movements you can consider:
Decline crunches with medicine ball
Hanging / Incline leg raises with dumbbell
Cable crunches (kneeling)
In case you have no idea what these listed exercises entail, there are plenty of good online resources that demonstrate the movements, and what form is demanded. My preferred sites are exrx.com, and bodybuilding.com.
How often should you visit the gym? Truthfully, only you can answer that question. How much time are you able, and then willing, to devote to building a better physique? The general consensus favors splitting your routine – devote one day to each muscle group. People who prefer not to travel to the gym daily can merge muscle groups.
There are some strategies to keep in mind while doing so. Prioritize larger muscle groups (back, legs) early in the week, in case you end up missing gym days as the week goes on. Try not to put “connected” muscle groups back to back. Working out your back activates your posterior chain, meaning your hamstrings and glutes get a workout too. Diving into a leg workout right after, or even the day after, might compromise the amount of weight you can lift.
Remember, the point always is to try and hit the iron as heavily as possible. Last but not least, if you’re lifting heavy, which you should be doing – limit your workout to 90 minutes, once a day. If you’re there longer, you may be doing too many reps, or squeezing too many muscle groups into one day.
Here are some examples of day splits:
3-day Push/Pull Split: Back + Biceps + Core, Chest + Triceps + Core, Legs + Shoulders
4-day Split: Chest + Core, Legs, Back, Shoulders + Arms
5-day Split: Chest, Legs, Shoulders, Back, Arms + Core
Which should I use, free weights or machines?
For those unaware, free weights refer to dumbbells and barbells. Machines keep you in a stable position, which you may feel more secure in, but they are not as effective as free weights in training your stabilizer muscles. Those are the little, less seen muscles which, if trained well, will help you lift heavier weights in the future. Always choose free weights.
I shall conclude by leaving you with the tips you should always remember:
Progressively overloading your muscles is the best way to gain muscle mass.
Choose compound exercises that allow you to increase the weights safely.
Stay between 2 – 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps per exercise; 60 – 75 reps total per muscle group per week. Your last rep on each set should always be a struggle.
Once you can do more than 8 reps on any exercise, it’s time to raise the load.
Rest between sets, for at least 2 minutes, and no more than 5 minutes.
For your abs to be visible, you need to reduce your body fat percentage to 6% – 9%. That requires a dedicated diet along with a smart strength training routine.
Take a week-long break from lifting weights every 8 weeks.
You will feel fabulous. Yes. It’s his promise to you.
Once you’ve internalized these tips, you’ll be free to create a strength training plan that fits your lifestyle and your goals. Tune out the next fitness fad you see on fitness magazines. You know the fundamentals now! For those just starting out, you’ll be seeing “beginner gains” very soon. For those who frequent the gym already, try out this strength training method of doing heavy, low-rep sets. You may be surprised to find that you’re stronger than you think you are – and at the gains you make. Get at it, guys!