Add Strength to Your Program

blog franco deadlift Most of us want to get bigger and stronger at the same time. But most guys or gals that follow a bodybuilding-style program aren’t building much strength.

So today I’m going to outline a workout you can put in your current bodybuilding program that will fill in the much-needed gaps.

That’s important because if you increase your full-body strength you’ll be able to lift heavier loads in your bodybuilding workouts. This, in turn, will make it easier to build muscle in your other workouts.

Maximal Strength

There are many types of strength, so when I talk about strength-training I always make it clear to my audience what type of strength I’m talking about. In most cases, I’m referring to maximal strength: your ability to lift the heaviest load possible for 1-3 reps.

The master of maximal strength, Pavel Tsatsouline, and I have had many discussions on the best way to build it. Russian weightlifters – known as Olympic lifters to us in the states – spend most of their training cycle in the 80-85% of one-rep max (1RM) training zone. That fact will be surprising to many since it’s typically best to train with heavier loads than 85% of 1RM if you’re far from your maximal strength potential.

For example, if you can’t deadlift twice your body weight without lifting gear you’re pretty far from what your body is capable of pulling. In other words, I would define a guy that can do a raw, double-body weight deadlift with an unmixed grip as a solid, intermediate lifter. For him, training in the Russian’s 80-85% of 1RM zone might be sufficient.

But I doubt it.

Why? Because those Russian weightlifters train with a very high frequency (they typically bench press six times per week – yikes)! Furthermore, lifting is their job. Indeed, they’ve spent decades building up to that training frequency, their nutrition and recovery modalities are spot on, and they have little else to worry about.

Most of us don’t have the time and energy to do what the Russian weightlifters do. Therefore, the other option that’s been battle-tested for eons is to cycle loads that around 90% of 1RM into your program.

The following protocol is for people that have been primarily training with sub maximal loads (85% of 1RM or less) and want to quickly boost their maximal strength while still maintaining their current training program.

How to Make it Work: do the following the workout one day per week in place of one of your bodybuilding-style workouts.

Duration: 12 weeks (you can go longer if you feel the need).

Workout Circuit: I favor full-body circuits for maximal strength training because they allow for more rest before repeating an exercise while still staying efficient with your time. There’s no need to sit around for 3-5 minutes between sets when you could be working another body part.

Here’s the structure of the workout you’ll do once per week (remove one full-body bodybuilding workout from your current program):

1A Upper body pull
Rest 1 minute
1B Upper body push
Rest 1 minute
1C Stir the pot for 6 alternating reps, or Swiss ball side plank for 20 seconds each side
Rest 30 seconds
1D Deadlift, squat or lunge variation
Rest 90 seconds, repeat 1A-1D for 3 rounds

Workout Explanation: there are hundreds of different exercises you can use to fill in the above circuit, and that’s a good thing because you must manage fatigue. Lifting 90% of 1RM for the same exercise – even if it’s only once per week – can beat you up pretty fast.

Therefore, every two weeks choose a new exercise for each category. For example, weeks 1-2 you might do a one-arm dumbbell row for your upper body pull; then weeks 3-4 you’ll do a pull-up. Or you might use the Romanian deadlift for your “lower” body exercise during weeks 1-2 and then switch to a reverse lunge for weeks 3-4. You get the idea.

Training Parameters: each workout will start the same way. First, you’ll go through the entire circuit 2-3 times with loads that rate as 5-6 on a scale of 1-10. This will turn on your nervous system and prepare your joints. Then you’ll perform three rounds (work sets) of either 3, 2 or 1 reps per set, based on the week, with the heaviest loads you can manage that day.

Don’t worry about getting the loads perfect for the work sets. It’ll probably take you one round of the work set after the warm-up sets to get a feel for your strength that day. Try to ramp up your training loads for the two rounds that follow.

Here are the set/rep guidelines for the 12-week phase:

Weeks 1-2: 3 sets of 3 reps (except side plank if you use it)
Weeks 3-4: 3 sets of 2 reps
Weeks 5-6: 3 sets of 1 rep
Weeks 7-8: 3 sets of 3 reps
Weeks 9-10: 3 sets of 2 reps
Weeks 11-12: 3 sets of 1 rep

Again, you’ll do this workout once per week in addition to your other sub maximal training workouts. The point is to develop full-body strength while still keeping your current bodybuilding-style program in place.

How to Boost Your Squat, Deadlift or Lunge

You’ll notice in the circuit listed earlier that before you do any squat, deadlift or lunge variation you’ll always do the stir the pot or side plank with a leg lift exercise. The reason is because those are two of the best core exercises to increase spinal stability: an important element for boosting your full-body strength while protecting your spine.

The following video shows the stir the pot exercise. You’ll do 6 slow reps, alternating the direction with each rep, making the biggest circles possible:

This video shows the Swiss Ball side plank. The instability from the ball makes this exercise more challenging and effective:

Now you have a simple way to add strength to any bodybuilding program!

And if you’re not building muscle as fast as you’d like, check out my latest muscle-building system HFT2 by clicking on the banner below:

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Unique Biceps Builder

blog maltese Ever wonder how those rings gymnasts build such incredible biceps? One word: maltese. That exercise is, without a doubt, the most powerful biceps builder on the planet.

I know plenty of guys that have been doing curls, heavy rows and pull-ups for 10 years or more. However, most of them don’t have biceps development that turns heads. The reason is because the biceps also need to be intensely challenged while stretched.

This is where the maltese comes in. When gymnasts spend years building up the position shown in the pic above, they’re challenging the biceps to fire when the elbow joint is hyperextended. And when you combine that with the intense anterior deltoid activation, you create a unique stimulus to the biceps that it rarely encounters with traditional resistance exercises.

Now, one logical solution would be to perform an incline dumbbell curl since it fully stretches the biceps when the incline is low enough. But that exercise can create more problems than it solves: namely, bicipital tendonitis that’s felt in the anterior shoulder.

It’s clear that the maltese from rings is an exercise that virtually no one except for Olympic gymnasts will ever be able to pull off. So in order to create a similar effect I have clients use a version of the planche shown in the video below…

Key Points for the Biceps Planche

  • First, start slowly and don’t push beyond your capabilities!
  • Start with the hips high, hands at the 4 and 8 o’clock positions.
  • Shift into the furthest forward position your strength allows and hold there.
  • Keep the elbow joint hyperextended throughout, especially at the end position.
  • Keep the chin tucked throughout the movement.

Training Parameters

Perform 5 sets of a 5-second hold with 2 minutes rest between each set. Start with two sessions per week in addition to your current biceps training.

The biceps planche exercise is a great way to challenge the biceps to fire with the elbow hyperextended. In addition, you’ll build strength in the anterior shoulder and abs so it becomes much more than just a biceps exercise.

Once you master the biceps planche it’s time to move on to the next progression that’s included in my latest muscle-building system HFT2.

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Full-Body Training for Mass Rules

blog full bodyThe best trigger for muscle growth across your entire body is a full-body workout. The combination of an upper-body pull, push and squat/deadlift/lunge is a powerful stimulus to upregulate the anabolic hormones and ramp up protein synthesis.

I’ve written extensively about full-body training over the years, and I keep experimenting with ways to make it better. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years that you can do to make full-body training your go-to strategy for fast muscle gains:

1. Perform 4 Workouts per Week
Since most programs have you train a muscle group 2-3 times per week, my definition of High Frequency Training (HFT) is to train 4 or more times per week. With full-body training I’ve found that 4 workouts per week hits the sweet spot.

The key, of course, is recovery. When you train 4 days per week it doesn’t allow you to always have a full day off between each workout. The most effective schedule I’ve used is 2-on, 1-off, 1-on, 1-off, 1-on and 1-off (e.g., Mon/Tue/Thur/Sat).

So that means the first two workouts that are back-to-back must complement each other. Put another way: the first two workouts need to be drastically different from each other to avoid overtraining. You can’t lift heavy both of those days, and trying to lift heavy a day after you performed high reps isn’t good, either. Here’s a sample set/rep combination that’s works well for the first two workouts:

Day 1 (Monday): 5 sets of 5 reps (5×5) for an upper-body pull, push and squat/deadlift/lunge. A chin-up/dip/deadlift circuit fits perfectly here. As a general rule, Day 1 will consist of 6 or fewer reps per set.

Day 2 (Tuesday): 4×12 for a different variation of the upper-body pull, push and squat/deadlift/lunge. Now we must use different movement patterns compared to Day 1, so a good example for Day 2 is: inverted row/shoulder press/reverse lunge. This day I typically have the sets range from 10-15 reps.

Day 3 (Thursday): Now we’re up to the third workout of the week. It’s been 48 hours since the last workout that consisted of higher rep sets with lighter loads. So on this day you can train heavy to create a different stimulus. Anywhere from 5-10 sets of 3-6 reps is ideal. Three examples are 10×3, 8×4 or 6×6. If you’re someone that prefers to stick to a few compound movements, this day can consist of the same exercises as Day 1.

Day 4 (Saturday): On this day I’ll use all sorts of combinations. Many people want this to be their toughest workout of the week since they typically have extra time to train on Saturday and can sleep late and lie around (naps!) on Sunday. Some examples for Day 4: repeat the Day 2 workout but increase the number of circuits (sets), train Olympic lifts, or create an full-body circuit of the sled push/pull-up/dip after completing 6-8 sets of an Olympic lift heavy deadlift/front squat variation that’s different than you did on Day 1.

2. Arrange Targeted Training Correctly
I’m a huge proponent of full-body workouts for the “core” of your program, but it’s not necessary to train everything all the time. There are times when you’ll want to target a certain muscle group such as the calves, biceps or chest. The fastest way to build a muscle group is to train it more frequently.

For the targeted training workouts, start with any exercise you like for the muscle you’re trying to build (e.g., dumbbell biceps curl). Then choose a load that allows around 12 reps for your first set. Perform 50 total reps per day, regardless of how many sets it takes (you can do 25 reps in the morning and 25 reps in the evening).

Each day add one rep to the total and continue for 4-6 weeks (take a full day off from the targeted training each week). It’s best to do these targeted workouts at least 6 hours before or after your full-body training.

That’s how I approached targeted training in my original HFT system. But now I use even more effective muscle-building strategies to target underdeveloped muscles in half the time.

If you’d like to learn more ways to create full-body workouts with targeted training plans that only take 5-10 minutes per day, check out my latest system, HFT2 that’s 25% off until midnight July 1…

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3-1 ISC for New Growth

We all have a stubborn muscle group that won’t respond to any of the typical bodybuilding methods. Your biceps have been underdeveloped for years, even though you’ve tried everything from heavy weight training to high-rep sets to failure. But no matter what you do, you just can’t get the damn things to grow.

I’m not surprised.

For 18 years it’s been my passion to help people add new mass to their most underdeveloped muscles. As a professional trainer, I’m well aware of all the mainstream bodybuilding approaches, and I’ve also learned that virtually none of them work for someone with average genetics.

blog biceps pic

This is also the reason why subpar athletes make the best coaches. Genetically gifted athletes like Bo Jackson were born with all the physical tools to take them to the highest level of performance. Bo, in particular, is a guy that didn’t even need to practice – that’s much natural athleticism he was born with.

But the guys who had to sweat, bleed and cuss their way to top also had to learn all the tricks of the trade. Those hard-knock lessons through relentless experimentation are what make them such effective coaches.

Most professional bodybuilders are at the opposite end of that spectrum. Sure, they work very hard but it doesn’t take much of a stimulus for them to grow any muscle group. In other words, most training methods don’t work for you but almost everything works for them.

Throughout all my years of training, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about stubborn muscle groups. Here’s a brief overview:

1. Virtually every muscle group requires a unique approach: When I first started training I discovered effective ways to build mass in the quadriceps. But when I applied those same training parameters to the biceps, nothing happened. Each muscle requires a specific set of training parameters.

2. You must spare the joints: You don’t need to add more sets or reps to a workout in order to trigger growth in an undeveloped muscle. If that were the case, 50 sets of curls would result in noticeable gains the next day. There’s a limit to how much growth you can stimulate in any given workout. If you train beyond that threshold you’re creating excessive fatigue and overloading the recovery system.

More importantly, adding a bunch of extra sets to your workout for a specific muscle group will wear down your joints. To stimulate new muscle growth, you must train it more frequently – that’s true. But the only way to pull off that trick is by overloading the muscle more than the joint it crosses.

3. Stimulate the largest motor units when they’re fresh: The science of motor unit recruitment is pretty well understood. If you start a set without fatigue, you have the ability to immediately recruit the largest motor units that have the most potential for growth.

However, the typical bodybuilding approach doesn’t follow the science. Those sets start out slow and easy and only become difficult at the very end. The neuroscience research shows that the largest motor units with the most growth potential only come into play when you can achieve the highest levels of force – at the beginning of a set.

So when a client comes to me to add new mass to an undeveloped muscle group, I keep those three points in mind.

In 2012 I released the High Frequency Training (HFT) system, based on all the research and data I’d accumulated. The approach was pretty straightforward: you would choose an exercise such as the pull-up and do a total number of reps per say (e.g., 50) regardless of how many sets it took. Then you would add a rep to that total each day and continue for 6-8 weeks.

That approach works well for most muscle groups, but it does little for muscles such as the biceps. Since the original HFT came out I’ve accumulated a ton of data and feedback from the people that followed the program. This info was paired with the constant experimentation I was doing with my own clients.

I had to find unique ways to add mass to my clients because all of the typical methods didn’t work. That’s why they hired me in the first place.

Now I have new, novel ways to stimulate growth in any muscle group, no matter how stubborn it is. One of my most effective methods is an iso-squeeze countdown that I outlined a few weeks ago. However, that countdown method needs to be modified, based on the muscle that’s being targeted.

Let’s take the biceps, for example. If you apply the same iso-squeeze countdown parameters to the biceps as you do for the quadriceps, you won’t experience any gains. The biceps will only get bigger with high-tension exercises that overload the largest motor units. That’s why gymnasts who do the rings have incredible biceps and collegiate rowers don’t.

In order to build bigger biceps I use three unique training strategies. One of those three is the 3-1 Iso-Squeeze Countdown, but it only works for certain moves that target the biceps a specific way. I’ve had great success with the narrow, overhand grip inverted row to add mass to the biceps and often underdeveloped brachialis.

Here’s a sample from my newest muscle-building system, HFT2…

If you’re interested in learning about my latest, battle-tested approach for targeting growth to a specific muscle, or across the entire body, check out HFT2 by clicking the banner below…

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Squeeze and Countdown for Muscle Growth

jon pushupIn my blog last week I mentioned that I’ll be covering some of the ways HFT2 – coming June 24 – will be better than the original HFT system I created in 2012. So today I’m going to briefly describe one of the most popular muscle growth triggers I’ve been experimenting with over the last year.

When it comes to building muscle, isometrics have gotten a bad rap. But they will definitely add muscle when you do them correctly and at the right time. If you haven’t experienced appreciable muscle-building results from isometrics it’s probably due to one or two reasons.

First, you did them when you were already fatigued, such as the end of a set. This drastically limits the number of motor units you can recruit – especially the largest motor units. Second, you probably added them on top of what you’re already doing in your workouts. But there’s only so much growth you can trigger in one workout – and it’s not much – so adding more volume to a single workout is rarely going to work.

So why are isometric contractions good for hypertrophy? There are three reasons:

1. It produces the highest levels of muscle tension: To stimulate the most growth, you need the highest levels of muscle tension. If you were involved in a scientific lab study that measured your maximum strength, the scientists would most likely have you perform a maximal isometric contraction against an immovable object in order to see how much force your muscle could produce.

Scientists use isometric tests in studies because they know it’s the best way to measure a maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). Put another way, a MVC is measure of your highest level of muscle tension. Importantly, the highest levels of tension coincide with the highest levels of motor unit recruitment. More tension equates to a stronger growth stimulus.

2. Increases cortico-motor excitability more than regular reps do: Your brain has a motor cortex region that correlates with each area of your body, known as a homunculus. Your hands and face represent a big portion of that homunculus, but many of the muscles you’re trying to build represent only a small region. This means it’s tougher to fully engage certain muscles because your brain doesn’t devote much space to it – unless you practice tensing that muscle frequently.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 1.51.27 PM

One reason why beginners rarely feel their glutes firing is because the area of the motor cortex devoted to the glutes (hip) is very small. Chris Powers, Ph.D., has performed more lab research on the glutes than anyone I know. In the first few weeks of his protocol he has clients perform long-duration isometric holds for the glutes because his research has shown that it improves the brain’s ability to turn on the glutes, and improve cortico-motor excitability, better than regular contractions do.

In order to grow a muscle group, you must be able to achieve the highest level of tension in that muscle. Intense isometric contractions are an excellent way to develop the neural link between your brain and the muscles being trained. Enhancing this descending neural drive is crucial for hypertrophy.

3. Less stressful to the joints: The point of High Frequency Training (HFT) is pretty obvious – train a muscle more often to make it grow faster. However, if you double or triple your training frequency with typically barbell and dumbbell exercises you quickly run into a wall that’s built of fatigue and joint strain.

Think of the bench press. When you perform a full range of motion rep, it puts much more stress on the connective tissue of the shoulder joints, mainly at the bottom of the movement. Adding more bench press sessions to your current routine can literally be a pain.

This is where isometrics fit in perfectly. When you follow the techniques I lay out in HFT2, you’ll maximally stimulate the pecs without putting excess strain on the shoulder joints. It’s taken me years to figure of the best ways to stimulate muscles more often without wearing the joints down.

Other times, however, a terrific way to stimulate growth is with body weight exercises that combine isometric “squeezes” with full range of motion reps. Here’s a quick preview of one technique in HFT2 that shows what I’m talking about.

You’ll notice that the longest squeeze (5s in the above video) is performed at the beginning of the set when the muscles aren’t fatigued. Subsequent isometric squeezes shorten in duration as the set proceeds to coincide with the escalating level of muscle fatigue.

These type of sets became very popular with my clients for two reasons. First, if you perform each squeeze with 100% effort, you only need one set to stimulate growth. Second, since most of the exercises that use the squeeze-countdown are body weight moves, you can do them anywhere. And a key to success with HFT2 is having the luxury of triggering muscle growth anywhere, anytime.

Add the squeeze-countdown push-up technique into your current training schedule, either on a day you don’t train the chest or at least 6 hours away from your chest training workout. Start with 3 times per week, spread out as evenly as possible (e.g., M-W-F) and add a fourth session the following week. This, in addition to your current routine, should double or triple your training frequency for the pecs.

And that’s how you make them grow!

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Single-leg squat/One-arm push-up Combo

On June 24, the much-anticipated follow-up to my original High Frequency Training (HFT) program will be released. So over the course of the next month, I wanted to give you all a general overview of some of the programming strategies that make HFT2 much more powerful than the original.

One exercise combination that has become particularly popular with my clients since the original HFT is the single-leg squat paired with the one-arm push-up. There are two reasons why.

1. You can do it anywhere: Since neither exercise requires additional load so you can do it anywhere: home, hotel or at the park with your kids. I didn’t include a one-arm push-up in the first HFT, and the way I recommend most people perform a single-leg squat is different in HFT2.

2. It’s an effective muscle builder: Not all body weight exercises are challenging enough to stimulate visible growth, but the one-arm push-up and certain versions of the single-leg squat definitely are. The one-arm push-up not only adds mass to your triceps, deltoids and chest, but it is also an excellent anti-rotation core strengthening exercise. The single-leg squat will build up your glutes and lateral aspect of your quads to develop that awesome outer thigh sweep. Continue reading