I know I’m really beginning to sound like a broken record, but I want everybody to notice something:
Training is LESSON FOUR.
The FIRST THREE LESSONS are on proper nutrition.
There’s an old adage in the fitness community: Abs are made in the kitchen.
That saying is 100% accurate. Abs are not made doing crunches. Or ab rollouts. Or planks. Or leg raises. Or weird belt-like thingies that shock your abdomen. Or from dancing along to Shaun T.
If you want people to see your abs, you must have a body fat level at or below 10%. And the only way to do that is to get rid of the fat. And the most efficient way to do that is to get your diet and nutrition in check. Don’t believe me? Take 6 bricks. Line ’em up. Put them on your bed. Put a down comforter over top of them. What do you see? Now, take off the down comforter, and instead lay a thin sheet over the bricks. Aaaaand NOW, what do you see? I think you get the point.
Which isn’t to say training doesn’t have its place. As an eighth grade teacher, I see plenty of kids who have 10% body fat or lower. My guess is very few of them have a 6-pack underneath their Hollister $40 t-shirt. And why is that? Because your abdomen muscles DO need to be developed in order for them to “pop”. Most eighth graders haven’t developed physically yet.
So, what’s the best way to develop your abs?
Squats and deadlifts.
What’s the best way to gain muscle?
Squats and deadlifts.
What’s the best way to get stronger?
Squats and deadlifts.
What’s the best way to improve your squat?
What’s the best way to improve your deadlift?
Want me to keep going?
I could literally end the lesson right there. I could tell you to squat heavy Monday, deadlift heavy Friday, and eat right and literally be finished with everything you need to know about becoming big, strong, and ripped. Seriously. That’s all there is to it. But I guess then you’d have no reason to read my blog from there on out. So I’ll expand on these ideas a bit.
First off, let’s discuss the type of exercises you should be doing to gain muscle and lose fat.
1. What equipment should I use? Every single exercise should include the barbell, unless it’s a body weight exercise. And the only body weight exercises worth your time are pull-ups and dips. The other body weight exercises can be done more effectively with a barbell. Stay away from the machines. There is not a single machine worth your time. Not one. Not the fly machine, or the shoulder press machine, or the leg press machine, or the Smith machine (ESPECIALLY not the Smith machine), or ANY MACHINE THAT IS AT YOUR GYM. PERIOD. There is one very small exception: If you cannot perform a pull-up and your gym does not have an assisted pull-up machine, the pull-down machine will need to be utilized.
Now what about dumbbells? If used correctly, dumbbells can give you great results and increase strength and muscle. But the fact of the matter is, dumbbells increase in 5 pound increments up to about 60 pounds and then make 10 pound jumps after that. At least in my gym. A 10 pound jump is actually a 20 pound jump when both dumbbells are taken into consideration. Especially on upper body exercises like bench press or shoulder press. With a barbell, you can utilize the 2.5 pound plates, enabling you to make a 5 pound jump instead of a 20 pound jump. This is a huge advantage when discussing your next key idea: progressive overloading.
2. Progressive overload. Every time you set foot in the gym, you need to worry about one thing and one thing only: Being stronger than you were the last time you walked into the gym. And that’s it. Don’t vary your sets, don’t vary your rest times, don’t vary your exercises. Don’t vary anything other then many reps you can physically muster (hopefully it’s more each time) or the weight on the bar if you achieve the desired number of reps. Choose a rep you are going to aim for on each set, let’s say 8. If you hit that 8, put 5 more pounds on the bar next time. Try to hit 8 again. If you can’t hit 8, try again next week. Once you hit 8, go up again.
Now, of course, there’s a bit more to it. You will plateau or “get stuck” at some point. But it probably won’t be until over a year or so on this system. By then you should have progressed beyond the beginners’ stage and you should be nearing intermediate stages of strength. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a 200 bench, 300 squat , and 400 deadlift. I will show you a workout template I’ve been using a little bit over a year. Using this template, I’ve gone from squatting 135 to squatting close to 300, below parallel. And I’ve gone from deadlifting 225 to 415. For starters, or for people who have never trained like this, you will make some truly astounding gains in the first year.
3. If it’s not a compound movement, don’t do it. This is the key to making those workouts 40 minutes or less. Compound movements involve at least two joints. If it involves one joint, it’s no good. There’s not enough of an ROI – Return-On-Investment. That’s why I rarely ever curl or perform tricep extensions. Only one joint is moved with both of those exercises: the elbow. Besides, I’m deadlifting as heavy as I possibly can and performing 3 sets of weighted pull-ups at my body’s maximum output. You don’t think I’m giving the guns a workout? Then you’re crazy.
Deadlifting and pull-ups take care of the biceps. Bench press takes care of the triceps. So how about the “core” you ask? What about planking and bosu ball crunches and hanging leg raises?
Squats and deadlifts. Takes care of all that. If you are squatting and deadlifting at your max capacity, there is absolutely no need to perform any sort of additional abdominal exercise. Your abs are taking quite a hit already.
Now, I’m not saying those exercises don’t have their place. If you are below 10% body fat and you want to further your ab definition, go ahead, knock yourself out. But why spend lots of time on a muscle you can’t see? Get rid of the fat first and then worry about it.
Here’s my workout, exactly. Feel free to use variations as necessary. “Max weight” means the most weight I can possibly do for that number of reps. And once you can perform 12 body weight dips or 12 body weight pull-ups, it’s time to buy a weight belt so you can add weight to your load. Congrats, if you’re there already.
M – Sumo Deadlift, 2 sets. 5 reps at max weight, 7 reps at 90% of max weight.
Pullups (weighted), 3 sets. 8 reps at max weight, 10 reps at 90% of max weight, 12 reps at 80% of max weight.
W – Bench Press, 3 sets. 8 reps at max weight, 10 reps at 90% of max weight, 12 reps at 80% of max weight.
Incline Bench Press, 3 sets. 8 reps at max weight, 10 reps at 90% of max weight, 12 reps at 80% of max weight.
F – Back Squats, 3 sets. 5 reps at max weight, 7 reps at 90% max weight, 10 reps at 80% of max weight.
Dips (weighted), 3 sets. 8 reps at max weight, 10 reps at 90% of max weight, 12 reps at 80% of max weight.
This sort of a template is called “RPT” or Reverse Pyramid Training and has been popularized by the Leangains crowd led by Martin Berkhan. You warm up properly and perform your maximum output set FIRST, and then decrease the weight for your follow up sets. This logically makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want to be the freshest when trying to perform your max weight? Be sure to rest at least 3 minutes in between each set and at least 5 minutes in between exercises. Each set is also independent of each other. If you perform your desired rep range, go up on that set, but not the others. For example, if you hit 5 reps in your first set of sumo deadlifts, but you don’t hit your set of 7, go up in the first set and stay at the same weight in the 7. And most importantly, when you’re done with the sets…………..
Get out of the gym.
If you’re following along with the nutritional plan, your body is in a calorie deficit. This workout will give you the necessary stimulus to grow, or at the very least, maintain your muscle mass while in a deficit.
And the workout never takes more than 40 minutes. Ever.
If you can’t do back squats, try front squats. If you can’t do regular deadlifts, sumo deadlifts are a great substitute. Especially for those with long legs. But NEVER, EVER, EVER substitute a machine for one of the exercises. This means the Smith machine as well. Sorry to burst your bubble. A machine gives you a smooth bar path which prevents all the stabilizing muscles from being utilized. You want to use the barbell. Period.
And don’t kid yourself if you’re squatting above parallel.
Nearly every single time I see someone load more than 225 on the barbell, they perform a quarter squat. I’m not sure about anyone else, but if I’m squatting, I want the maximum return on my investment. You know how you can get the best possible results? A full range of motion squat. All the way down and all the way up. Commonly known as ass to grass.
You may have to swallow your ego. At least I did. When I started doing squats the right way, I had to go from a 225 quarter squat to a 95 pound ass to grass squat. I felt like an idiot. But 5 pounds per week starts to add up fast. I’m at 265 pounds now. Certainly not elite, but I can count the number of people in my gym on one hand who can perform a true, below parallel squat with 265 pounds on the bar. Most lifters can’t. Because they have too much ego to put a lighter weight on the bar and start over, using progressive overload as their guide.
And you know what else? Squatting below parallel and performing heavy deadlifts will make you a man more than any other exercises on earth. It’s extremely primal and rewarding to load up a bar with 400 pounds and pick it up off the ground. Or load up 200 pounds, put it on your back, and take it for a ride. The heavy back squat is one of the most intensely terrifying exercises on this planet. I start having anxiety on the drive to the gym. But it’s a fantastic metaphor for life.
What are you going to do when faced with fear? Run away like a coward? Or stare at the man in the mirror, grit your teeth, and get under the bar?
I have yet to meet a beast in the gym who is a coward on the outside. And there’s a good reason for that.
Lifting heavy is humbling. Some days you beat the bar. Some days the bar beats you. And no matter how strong you are, you can always put more weight on the bar. There isn’t a man on this planet who has lifted for years and has never, ever failed on a lift. It’s simply not possible.
So, there it is. The fun part. The training. There’s lots of programs out there. If you’re interested, research DoggCrap, Texas Method, or 5/3/1. They are excellent programs. For you beginners out there, you can’t go wrong with Starting Strength 5×5. But if you’re in a calorie deficit, those programs are simply too taxing. They are more geared towards people trying to gain weight. You can’t go wrong with a minimalist, RPT approach to lifting.
Happy lifting, everyone!