1. Prioritise and distribute the training volumes
Spherical muscles pump proportionally in a vacuum, while in life some muscle groups overtake others lag behind. That’s why you have to choose which muscles you want to specialize in during a certain training period and which ones you want to put on the back burner, giving a supporting load only.
Everything is of course individual and you will need to work out your training volume by trial and error. To start with I suggest 9 work sets per week for ‘supported’ groups and 15 for ‘developed’ ones. You’ll work in such way for six weeks, and after that you will evaluate results and rearrange if necessary.
How do you know that the volume is optimal? Like this:
For “supported” muscles: if you work with the same weights (without losing strength) for a month and a half you are doing great. And if you get stronger on ‘supporting’ volume, it can be reduced a little (in order to spend more efforts on the lagging groups).
For ‘developing’ muscles: working weights should be gradually increased. For example, at the beginning of the period you were bench-pressing 90 kg in 3 approaches of 12 reps, at the end – 100 kg on the same protocol. If there is no progress you are either under-working or over-working (and not recovering well).
2. Reduce the number of junk reps
Parts of the workout are ‘necessary but useless’, such as the warm-up and first reps of the main reps. These are important and necessary, but they do not encourage strength and mass growth in the same way that the final work reps do.
Try to find the optimal number of warm-up sets for each exercise. For example, a leg press or a barbell squat do not require the same number of warm-ups as a barbell squat. This, by the way, is one of the important advantages of training machines (if you do not have much time to work out). Warm-up also depends on the repetition range of workout sets. For weights of 15 reps you need to warm-up less than for weights of 5 reps.
The number of ’empty’ work reps is also related to intensity, since the biggest effect (training stimulus that starts adaptation processes) comes in the last several reps (3 or so).
For example, at two load levels, the number of junk reps can vary greatly:
- Intensity 85%: work approach of 6 reps (3 “useless” reps)
- Intensity 75%: 10 repetitions (7 “useless” repetitions)
- Although there’s an inverse proportion with the warm-up – the smaller the working range, the more you need to warm up, and vice versa. Experiment and find out what works best for you personally.
3. Prefer the perfect technique
Suppose you can bench press two 50kg dumbbells in 3 rounds of 10 repetitions. But just a little – you wriggle your body all over the bench, the amplitude shortens subtly, and your belayer unwittingly helps in the last reps with encouraging shouts.
This is what you get:
- Warm up set 1 – 20 kg x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm up set 2 – 30 kg x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm up set 3 – 40 kg x10 (10 junk reps)
- Work set 1 – 50 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work set 2 – 50 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
- Working set 3 – 50 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
- And here’s what would happen if I persuaded you to stop at 40kg – but with perfect technique, without the help of a spotter, with a very slow lowering and a pause at the bottom point:
- Warm-up set 1 – 20kg x10 (10 junk reps)
- Warm up set 2 – 30 kg x10 (10 junk reps)
- Work set 1 – 40 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work set 2 – 40 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
- Work set 3 – 40 kg x10 (7 junk reps)
This set enables you to get rid of unnecessary warm-up sets and perform super high quality work reps, which gives you more strength and mass in the long run. Not to mention reducing the risk of injury, which can interrupt your workouts and lead to ‘rolling back’.
4 Choose the best exercises
“Best” by a combination of a number of factors – both general and individual:
- Better exercises that you personally can perform effectively and safely. If the bench press hurts your shoulders and your pecs can’t feel it, it’s better to pick something else.
It is better to choose exercises, which load more muscle groups. It’s clear that ‘small’ arm flexion is necessary to pump up the biceps, but usually more massive people prefer ‘big’ exercises – squats, pulls, presses.
- And better exercises where there are more working weights. Yes, an arm curl with 40 kg is a better triceps workout, but a 140 kg squat gives more benefits to the body as a whole.
- Exercises with greater amplitude are better. Bench press is better than floor press, and deadlift from the floor is better than deadlift from plinths (from racks). But keep in mind that full-amplitude exercises require perfect technique because they are more traumatic and fatiguing, while shortened variants are relatively safer and you can lift more weight
- Better exercises on a stable surface than ‘unstable’ ones.
5. Track recovery by progression
Recovery is difficult to gauge, but there’s a great practical gauge: you’re progressing. For example, last week you did a 20kg barbell in 4 sets of 5 repetitions, and in the fifth set you only did four repetitions, but this week you did a quality 5×5. Regular increase of work weights or number of reps is an objective indicator that there is enough rest between workouts. If there is no progress, there is something wrong – no matter how hard (by your own feeling) you have been working out.
If the programme worked for some time, but then it started to stagnate, you need to analyse the parameters of training and rest, and not to continue training on it in the hope of an unexpected breakthrough. We do not go to the gym just to sweat and burn nerves, but to train for real results.
6. Match your split to your workout.
And of course, to get the most out of your workout, you’ll need to select the workout split that’s best for you.
Different people find (and like) lots of different combinations suited to each workout, whether it’s a full-body workout or a muscle-group split, alternating between bench presses and pull-downs, etc.
Find the variant in which you can maximise your performance and recovery time, and enjoy your workouts.