Unless you’re an aspiring bodybuilder, or elite-level athlete, there’s no need to complicate your strength training regimen. And although I’m reluctant to say it, there’s no need to do strength training more than 3 times a week for any longer than 45 minutes.
The key, in both cases, is maximizing your time in the gym, and committing to the movements and training variables that matter.
1. Favor Free-Weight & Multi-Joint Movements (Bend, Hinge, Press, Pull)
There are times when machine training and isolation work is warranted. But not as long as your waist measurement is 2x your biceps measurement!
In all seriousness, free weight exercises (think dumbbell press) and multi-joint movements (think squat) are going to give you a much bigger bang for your buck, because they recruit more muscle fibers. Resulting in a greater stress response, higher secretion of muscle building hormones (testosterone, etc), and greater adaptations in future strength and performance.
For example, research presented at the 8th International Conference on Strength Training in Norway (2012) compared 6 sets of 8-10 reps in the squat versus the leg press, and found 50% higher testosterone levels, and 3 times the growth hormone for the squatters.
Moreover, these “functional” movements tend to develop a more well-rounded physique that’s less prone to injury. Not only because the stabilizer muscles are recruited to support the prime movers, and the muscles learn to fire (and function) together, but because free weights permit a full range of motion. Familiarizing the musculature with extended ranges that may or may not be encountered in every day life.
And, in my opinion, reducing the need to become a yogi and downward dog your muscle (and manhood) away.
2. Superset Non-Competing Muscle Groups (Upper & Lower)
Enter any commercial gym and you’ll come across a guy or girl sitting at a machine between sets. Which is obviously a major pet peeve for the serious gym rat; especially if it’s the machine they want to use.
However, I don’t think you should get mad at these people, I think you should feel sorry for them. As they came to the gym to sit at a machine, when they’d probably be better off at home doing bodyweight squats, and they’ve been on this planet for 20-40+ years, yet somehow never heard of a superset!
Simply put, a superset is using the 1-3 minutes you’re resting between sets to go perform another exercise that works non-competing muscle groups. Giving you the ability to do twice as much work in the same amount of time, or the same amount of work in half the time. And giving you FAR BETTER results in muscle gain, fat loss, and even strength.
Especially when it’s an upper-lower superset!
Which I’m a big fan of the general population, and the busy executive. Who, along with being in desperate need of a hormonal and neurological boost (from the big compound leg movements), doesn’t necessarily have the time or commitment level to warrant executing “just a leg day.”
For instance, research from 1994 in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology divided 30 young women into 2 groups:
- Upper-lower combined training 2 times per week
- Upper-lower split training 4 times per week
And despite only completing half the strength training sessions, the whole body group had better increases in muscle mass for the trunk (3.4 vs. 2.7%) and legs (4.9% vs. 1.7%), and total muscle mass overall (4.1 vs. 2.6%).
Similarly, in a 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research – that compared total-body training (upper & lower) 3 times per week with upper-lower split training 4 times per week (2 upper, 2 lower) – researchers found greater increases in muscle mass with the total body routine (3.1% vs. 1.5%), even though both groups performed 72 sets per week for 8-12 repetitions with weights corresponding to 50-80% of their 1 rep max.
3. Be Strict With Rest & Tempo (TUT)
When it comes to rest periods between exercises or between supersets, there’s 2 ends of the piss-off spectrum. The first being, people that don’t rest enough because they think exercise is all about “getting fatigued” and “burning calories.” And the second being, people that rest too much, take a million selfies and ruin other people’s workouts (with small talk).
Both groups set themselves up for lack luster results. Whether we’re talking about the skinny fat muscular endurance body for the under-rester, or the far-from ripped 1-rep maxer that looks exactly the same as he did 5 years ago. Since, like it or not, your strength training goal has a corresponding rest period to meet a specific goal, and if you consistently mess it up, you’re no longer heading towards it.
Likewise, each training goal has a specific Time Under Tension (TUT). So if you’re consistently messing up your Tempo – speed at which you perform the repetitions – you won’t achieve the desired result.
|Training Goal||Optimal TUT (seconds)||Optimal Rest (seconds)|
Here’s an example to help you calculate your TUT for a given set. Keeping in mind that the eccentric portion (when the prime mover is stretching or lengthening) should be performed slower, and contraction performed explosively, to maximize strength and muscle building.
Flat Dumbbell Press – 4 sets – 8-10 reps – 4010 tempo
- 4010 Tempo = 4 seconds down, no pause, 1 second up, no pause
- TUT low range = 8 reps x (4+0+1+0) = 40 seconds
- TUT high range = 10 reps x (4+0+1+0) = 50 seconds
4. More Reps For Muscle; More Sets For Strength
As I said at the beginning, you don’t have to a be a rocket scientist to write a good program (for a pencil pusher). The trick is using the proper training variables and ensuring that they’re followed.
For strength pursuits, we want less metabolic stress, and more mechanical tension, so the total TUT to build strength is lower. Meaning, faster tempos, lower rep ranges, or a combination of the two.
And conversely, when pursuing muscle, we want more metabolic stress and less mechanical tension, so total TUT is higher. Meaning, slower tempos, higher rep ranges, or a combination of the two.
5. If you’re going to run, run fast!
I won’t elaborate on this topic, as you can read about it at any one of the links below. But I will say that you’re wasting your time, and ruining your physique with steady-state cardio. So take charge and sprint, or at least get off the damn hamster wheel!
Coach Charles R. Poliquin
Black A, et al. 2012. Hormonal Response to Free Eight and Machine Weight Resistance Exercise. Eighth International Conference on Strength Training. Norway: Oslo.
Calder AW, et al. 1994. Comparison of whole and split weight training routines in young women. Can J Appl Physiol 19(2):185-99.
Benton MJ, et al. 2011. Short-term effects of resistance training frequency on body composition and strength in middle-aged women. J Strength Cond Res 25(11):3142-9.