Okay so apologies for the click bait title but hey, you’re reading this so totally worth it.
At this point I have to make it clear that there is no one superior training method, there are some that are more effective than others and there are certainly some things that any good training program should include. That’s what I will talking about in this post.
So let’s start at the beginning. Every session should begin with at least some mobility work, not stretching. There’s evidence to suggest that static stretching pre lifting reduces power output and can limit performance. So the focus should be on improving movement quality, stretching should be left to the end of the session.
Band activation work can also be included in your mobility routine. The point of activation work should be to “wake up” phasic muscles (fancy term for muscles that tend to become under active over time) like your butt and upper back muscles. You might be asking why this is important, it’s simple, where there are phasic muscles (become weak over time) there are also tonic muscles (become tight over time). If left unchecked this imbalance of weakness and tightness can lead to injury. So get activating!
(There’s a great article by Dean Somerset who explains the whole stretching vs mobility issue much better than I ever could in the references).
The next priority of any training session should be to increase power output, so this means it’s time to jump and throw things around like a crazy person. No seriously. Jump. On the floor, onto boxes, with two legs or on one leg. Jump. Just make sure you know how to first. If you’re in a commercial gym you may not be able to do medicine ball throws so we’ll move on to some other great power movements.
Hang Power Cleans and Hang Power Snatches:
These two exercises are fantastic for cueing powerful hip extension and speed. Why done from the hang position? It’s easier, much simpler for beginners and there’s less room for error. The Olympic lifts are not easy and there’s a lot of technique involved, for our purposes we don’t need to do the full lift from the floor.
Push Press and Plyo Push ups:
Want a better bench? Warm up by putting a heavy weight overhead as explosively as possible or push yourself off the floor and into the air as hard/fast as you can. Make those chest, shoulder and tricep muscles contract with as much force as possible and this will translate to bigger lifts.
Speed Squats or Jump Squats:
This is simple, put a bar on your back (with relatively light weight), squat down and then squat up as fast as you can, for even better power output do a little jump. Just make sure you’re strong enough to land safely, if you haven’t learned to jump and land properly yet then you should leave the jump squats for now. At this point the reason for doing these pre squat should be pretty self-explanatory.
Your only job now is to pick the right power exercise for your training session. The rules for power are simple, quality over quantity. The goal here is not to become fatigued. So 3 sets of 3 reps performed as explosively as possible would be a good place to start. The key is intent. There’s no point half-arsing this, put everything you’ve got into each rep and rest plenty between sets.
We’re finally onto the meat and potatoes of training, as the saying goes “there’s a thousand ways to skin a cat”, the same can be said for strength training. There’s still debate as to whether a percentage based or RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) based program is superior. Personally I think it depends on you as the lifter.
If knowing what numbers you need to hit before going into the session motivates you and fires you up then maybe percentage based programs are best for you. However if you prefer to adjust your training session by how you feel at the time then RPE could be the way to go. If you see 5 x 5 @85% and think “oh I don’t know if I have that in me today, I’ve hardly eaten anything and I slept like crap” this is where autoregulation (RPE) comes in really handy. But more on this another time.
The important take away for today is that as long as there is progressive overload there will be strength gains. So as long as you’re increasing the weight on the bar, the number of reps you can do with that weight or increase the number of sets you can do, you will get stronger.
I've included a great article by Eric Cressey in the references, in the article he explains what he has called the Stage System, which utilises a percentage based model but could be altered to fit in with RPE quite easily. This would be a really good place to start if you’re new to strength training, my advice if you’re a newbie is pay attention the bit about people who need more size. You shouldn’t be playing with super high percentages just yet.
How much and How often
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “how many reps or sets should I do of that? How often should I train”, unfortunately the only truly accurate answer I can give to that question is “it depends”.
Those are probably the two words that I say the most (other than “fuck sake” or “coffee”).
It totally depends on your goals. If you’re looking to build size you’re probably going to want to do some heavy (85%+) work and then mostly moderate (65-85%) for higher reps. If you’re after muscular endurance you’ll probably be hanging out in the 50-70% range, if your main goal is strength you’ll probably be staying north of 80%. Now with any goal you should always include a little bit of everything you will of course have a focus.
The only advice I can give with absolute certainty is that frequency is the magic bullet. The standard method of hitting a split routine that involves annihilating one muscle group per session might work for some but it can often take days to recover from and it may not be optimal.
We know that the most important thing when it comes to getting bigger and stronger is progressive overload, increasing volume over time. Now what if I told you that you could increase training volume per week by doing less in each session? Surely that’s an oxymoron, surely I’m a moron for even entertaining such thinking!
Hear me out, say you do 6 exercises for quads, 30 reps on each (3 sets of 10 reps for example) in one day. That’s 180 reps in one session to recover from, you may only be capable of doing this once a week. What if you only did 2 exercises for quads but you did this 4 times a week. Say you did 30 reps again on each, that’s only 60 reps per session but multiply that by the 4 sessions and you’ve gone and worked up to 240 reps for that week. Holy gods of gains! You’re doing less work per session for each muscle group but more over the course of the week. More gains that are easier to recover from between training sessions. This is why I advocate a full body or alternating lower body and upper body training approach.
You may be thinking that full body training sessions take forever and you simply don’t have the time. Again I have the solution for you, supersets and tri-sets.
Pick the right pairings and you’ll be a muscle building, fat shedding machine. Personal favourites of mine are chin ups paired with split squats, Front squats paired with single arm dumbbell rows, bench press with single leg deadlifts and deadlifts (dumbbell or trap bar) paired with one arm dumbbell shoulder press. Spice things up with tri-sets by including mobility drills, activation work, core work or maybe even speed/power work. The key is to not let it become circuit training. The goal here is strength, you do not want to be blowing out of your arse if you want to be performing at your highest level. Rest between supersets and don’t rush through it. This brings us nicely to the last part of your session.
Let’s face it, cardio sucks. Only weirdos like cardio. It’s too much like PE back in school, you’re left sweaty, uncomfortable and wishing you were somewhere else like perving over that French teacher.
No? Just me?
Moving swiftly on.
We know that steady state cardio isn’t great if you’re looking to get jacked, you want to be doing cardio that will maintain your size if not add more. So what can you do?
At the top of my list is the prowler. If you want something that will always kick your arse and leave panting like a dog in summer then grab a prowler or a sled, put some weight on it and run. The added bonus to this is because you’re sprinting with resistance you won’t lose muscle mass, you may even gain some. The rest of the examples to follow are all pretty equal so I won’t number them.
High resistance sprints on a bike. Again, lots of panting, lots of quad gains. Win win.
Circuits. Done right this will do wonders for your conditioning and pack size on your frame. The key here is to be lifting heavy enough to elicit a hypertrophy response but also doing enough reps to keep your heart rate up. The common mistake made with circuit training is thinking you should be dying the whole time. Wrong. You should be a panting, sweaty puddle on the floor by the end of your circuit not halfway through. Make sure you’re performing well with good form right until the end. If you’re not then either the weights are too heavy or you’re doing too many reps.
Kettlebell swings. Another favourite of mine. Do you need to be more explosive at the top of a deadlift? Do you not thrust like you used to? (Interpret that however you like). Are you a complete masochist? If you answered yes to any of those three questions then you need kettlebell swings in your life, or maybe male performance aid depending on how you interpreted the 2nd question.
Aaand we’re back in the room.
Kettlebell swings, great for cardio, great for your hamstrings and glutes. Start small with sets of 5-10 and build up from there. The goal should be to hit 30 reps per set. How many sets you do depends on how much you hate yourself or how much you need to be able to walk the next day.
When it comes to conditioning keep it simple stupid. Do lots of work in a short space of time and make it difficult. If you’re not in a heap on the floor by the end you didn’t work hard enough. Simple as that.
Author Bio -
Adam Roberts -
I’m a strength coach based in Liverpool, England. I have been working in the fitness industry since 2014, in both commercial and private gyms, specialising in strength training and fat loss. I have experience with training a wide range of clients from students, to young mothers - post pregnancy, to middle aged and elderly clients.