What to do After the Diet – Avoid the Post Diet Binge

In the spring of 2006, I began my most successful dieting effort to date, and over the course of 12 weeks I would accomplish the impossible. Beyond the usual insanity accompanying a restricted carbohydrate intake, I was at the same time fighting the symptoms of an undiagnosed case of hypothyroidism that would go undetected until March 2010. I felt like the mashed avocado in my chicken salad–green and a little fuzzy–so let’s just say this diet was a little difficult.

However, my efforts paid off. I finished my diet in a supplement-induced haze that had me shaking so badly I could barely keep my coffee inside its mug. I had cut down to a manorexic 7% body fat, sporting nicely etched abs and 5-mm caliper readings.

On “D-Day,” as I called it, I took my shirt off at a friend’s lakefront party and proceeded to lay waste to an assortment of barbecued goodies. Shortly thereafter, I would move on to the requisite snack fare of the ‘ito’ food group – Cheetos, Tostitos, Doritos – and revel in all its flavored orange wonder.

I woke the next morning famished, and after a few minutes spent admiring my newfound vascularity, I started in on Chinese leftovers. Somewhere around my second helping of General Tso’s chicken, I realized that I had lost all hope of dietary control. I’d been perfect for weeks on end and then, overnight, I had unleashed some gastronomical monstrosity that left me binging for days.

I recovered in the subsequent week through a hasty ‘re-dieting’ effort, but my success was short-lived. The next weekend I was right back at the proverbial cookie jar, setting a pattern that would repeat itself for weeks to come.

I know I’m not the only one who has had this happen: a wildly successful dieting effort unravels after an innocuous dietary diversion. How much potential progress do we sap by not having a plan? Even here, as in war, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and it’s no easy effort to manage the demands of your body. Make no mistake; you are at war with your body and with food and with your environment at the end of a diet, and you’ll need to muster everything you’ve got to fight the siren’s call of starchy carbohydrates.

But fear not. In the next few thousand words, you’ll learn how to make the leap from the despair of dietary restriction back into the realm of normalcy. After numerous successful client experiences and subsequent dieting forays of my own, I have learned a thing or two about “sticking the diet landing.” Here are six guidelines to help craft your post-diet program. Just keep some wet-naps handy to deal with those orange Cheetos stains.

1. Track your calories to help manage post-diet weight gain.

First, let’s address the myth that dieting is somehow ‘natural.’ It’s not. In fact, it’s perhaps the most unnatural thing we could do from an evolutionary standpoint. We are, after all, talking about self-induced starvation. When calories are suppressed, the body makes no distinction between what’s volitional and what’s incidental. While you’re dreaming of a waxed chest and a bronzed six-pack, your body is making every effort to get food back into you. It doesn’t care that you’re dieting for a Hawaiian vacation, your body cares that you’re starving.

This explains why most people fail at long-term weight loss. Dr. Traci Mann, an associate professor of psychology, published research in 2007 showing that amongst the general population, dieting is a future predictor of weight gain. Mann concluded that “most [dieters] would have been better off not going on the diet at all. Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.”

So how does one avoid becoming another rebound diet statistic? By having a plan. When returning to normal eating, prepare for a drastic increase in your scale weight to the tune of 20 pounds or even more. Just remember, it’s water, not fat, and if you can manage your hunger, your weight will balance out shortly.

Keeping track of calories can help you make heads or tails of what’s water gain and what’s fat gain. If you’re eating 500 calories above what you were eating previously, there’s simply no way you will be gaining that much fat. Keep a food log for the first weeks after your diet target date. Your sanity will thank you and you’ll be less likely to say “screw it” and embark on some self-deprecating binge.

2. Eat more, but not too much more.

Going from a 2000 calorie diet to 4000 calorie diet isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do, in spite of what common bodybuilder canon might say. I know the temptation is there and can be justified if you cruise the internet long enough. You’ll find some contest prep guru encouraging you to down pizzas to optimize the ‘anabolic rebound.’ This works great if you have some drugs to help you along the way, but for us mere mortals it’s best to leave this strategy to the pros

Start slowly by adding an additional 500 daily calories to the diet each week. This will get you to a maintenance intake within a reasonable time frame while giving your body a chance to catch up with the increase in calories. The best way, though by no means the only way, to add calories back in would be to begin by focusing your surplus around your workouts.

The partitioning advantages of workout nutrition are well documented. When discussing his personal growth as a nutritionist and bodybuilder, Men’s Health Weight-Loss Coach and WannaBeBig contributor Alan Aragon, M.S. waxed philosophical on nutrient timing in his 2008 interview with Lyle McDonald. “Basically, I had no nutrient timing,” says Aragon, “I just trained as hard as I could, and ate when it was convenient. Talk about taking one step forward and one step back. If you can remember as recently as ten years ago, it was all about post-workout nutrition. Improvements in size and strength really didn’t exponentiate for me until I grasped the ‘sandwich your training bout with protein and carbs’ concept.”

As one of the foremost authorities on sports nutrition, Aragon further suggests that the energetic demands of the body should be met with proximal nutritional considerations.

In lay terms, you can eat more when you exercise, and you should eat that food as close to the workout bout as practical. Adding in more calories before your workout will help fuel your weight training or cardio sessions. Adding in more calories after your workout will take advantage of the inherent partitioning advantages of exercise and help to spur recovery and refill glycogen while providing a convenient calorie sink so you can enjoy all those treats you’ve foregone for the past months. Furthermore, you’ll end up with more muscle and less body fat than when you started your diet if you take advantage of these nutrient timing principles.

3. Increase your training volume to offset the extra food you’ll be eating.

Most people think training is work that needs to be done in the gym, so they fail to consider all of the metabolic churn they can get by taking care of errands and day-to-day needs. Low-intensity cardio burns more absolute calories than high-intensity for the simple reason that low-intensity cardio can be sustained for a longer duration. Extrapolated out, you can net quite a lot of caloric turnover by just walking around all day.

If you want to get really sexy with your non-exercise activity, try getting up from your chair as often as practical. The unspectacular act of standing up generates a huge spike in metabolism, and if done enough times throughout the day, can be more calorically costly than a 45 minute cardio session. Those of you with metabolic monitors like the BodyBugg or GoWear Fit can verify this unexpected fact for yourselves.

Under dieting conditions, most people unconsciously reduce how much they move in a day. By virtue of being tired, folks are less likely to mill about or twitch off calories. Combined with a suppressed metabolic rate, this tends to make end-stage fat loss particularly difficult. The precisely opposite phenomenon occurs when someone increases calories and comes out of a diet. The person will unconsciously move more.

Be careful though; appetite tends to outpace activity, so this by no means gives you a free pass to eat ad libidum. Elevated cortisol at the end of a diet means you’ll have your hands full trying to manage your hunger. That’s why it’s a good idea to add cardio in if you weren’t doing it already, or to up your cardio if you have been doing it. In particular, relaxing activities like yoga can help curb spikes in appetite through a reduction of cortisol levels.

Epel et al. found that women who secreted more cortisol during and after novel stressors chose to consume more foods high in sugar and fat. It has been long thought that cortisol influences food consumption by binding to receptors in the brain. Therefore, it’s best to avoid cortisol-provoking cardio like HIIT that can make a bad problem worse and to instead focus on relaxing activities that reduce cortisol, like walking, easy cycling, yoga, or pilates.

Is this you the day after you have achieved your diet goal?

4. Cycle off thermogenics and other diet-specific supplements.

If you’ve been using an aggressive fat loss supplement or thermogenic to aid your dieting efforts (or maybe visiting Starbucks multiple times per day), it’s time to start lowering down your doses. Long-term thermogenic use has its downsides.  People who go for years without tapering off their EC stacks increase their susceptibility to a psychotic episode. In a 2000 study by Jacobs et al that reviewed the long-term effects of ephedrine on mental health, he and his team discovered a strong correlation between EC use and psychiatric disturbances and manic-like symptoms. It’s best to keep doses low when using any thermogenic because the costs can rapidly outweigh the benefits.

As with any drug, don’t go cold turkey. It’s best to reduce your intake in a sane manner until you’re down to a non-diet dosing. Excessive stimulant consumption (at least in the short-term) can inhibit the body’s ability to replenish muscle glycogen. Why mess with your body’s want to preferentially store incoming carbs in the muscle by continuing a thermogenic protocol?

5. Don’t go crazy with the free meals and turn them into free days or free weeks.

It’s ridiculous to think that when coming off a diet you’ll be able to go right back to cover model-friendly eating. The human mind is powerful and able to rationalize some astonishing acts of nutritional debauchery, so stay vigilant. You should, however, allow yourself some flexibility in the few days after your diet. You’ve earned it.

What’s more important is what happens in the weeks that follow. It’s easy to take that sense of entitlement at the end of a successful cutting phase too far and find yourself in an “off-season” bulk leading you from 5% to 20% body fat. The best way to prevent such catastrophes is to limit the number of off-diet meals you consume following your splurge.

Let’s define free meals in this context. Free meals are any meals that break your diet either in composition or in caloric load. By planning your nutrition post-diet, you’ll be able to focus your efforts on rebuilding strength and making gains in the gym without waffling between the “should I bulk/should I cut?” questions. Limit the free meals to one or two a week and you should be able to stay right in your target caloric range.

6. Stay accountable by measuring progress.

Keep up with your diligent weigh-ins, caliper sessions, and mirror checks. Avoid the temptation to hop into sweat pants or break out your fat jeans after the diet is over. If you stay accountable during your trip back up to maintenance calories, you’re less likely to throw caution to the wind and in the end, you can reap the benefits of your dieting efforts that merit a leaner and muscular physique.

My favorite method of assessing progress is to have clients pick a pair of skinny jeans or pants that flatter their physique. If they start pushing the seams, then they know they need to rein in the calories or increase activity levels. As simple as it sounds, the act of monitoring body composition through any method is linked to long-term diet success. In a review by Wing and Phelan published in the July 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers found that of those who successfully maintained a weight-loss exceeding 10% of their pre-diet weight for more than a year, all used some form of progress charting.

If it worked for them, it will work for you.


So there you go: six easy to apply tips to help you the next time you’re setting up a diet. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the technical know-how can’t replace the experience of actually coming off a diet. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, you should work on setting physique goals in advance. If you know where you want to be one year from now, you can break that long-term goal into multiple short-term goals. That way, when you come off your diet, you can begin your pursuit of lean-mass toward a three-month checkpoint with defined target metrics rather than founder in a post-diet malaise of pizza.

Goals focus the mind, so be sure to set ambitious ones. With defined aspirations, your unconscious self will begin making the necessary changes to get you to that next level.

One final note: this piece is written without knowing what kind of diet you, the reader, might be following. Based on the available research, if you’re male, you can speedily diet yourself into the 12-15% body fat range without affecting hormones too much. However, this article is aimed at the person who is looking to break into the single digits and keep going. The slower you can diet into single digits, the better off you’ll be in the long run. When I say slow, I mean maybe two-pounds-per-month slow.

Crashing off the weight in the lower body fat ranges wreaks havoc with hormone levels and only serves to set up a binge down the road. My most successful diets have barely felt like diets at all. The weight creeps off week after week and I hardly notice the deficit.  I don’t obsess about the end of the diet, nor do I really feel like I am on one – I incorporate refeeds multiple times per week and maneuver into a beach-ready physique without much strain. I get to eat the foods I love on a regular basis, which means I can go out and not become a social pariah.

As crazy as it sounds, body composition isn’t everything, and mental health is just as important as physical health. Keep these principles in mind and you’ll prevent the yo-yo dieting effect that has become so common in our society.

Written by Ryan Zielonka

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – What to do After the Diet discussion thread.

About Ryan Zielonka

Ryan Zielonka is a writer, a researcher, and a public speaker.

Ryan struggled with obesity in his adolescent and teen years and decided in his freshman year of college to exercise with regularity. As a result he lost 16 inches from his waistline and discarded his size 44 jeans for a size 28. Ever since, the world of exercise science and nutritional biochemistry has never ceased to capture his imagination.

Ryan is a regular contributing editor and columnist for Wannabebig and his work has been published in T-Muscle and the Alan Aragon Research Review, and you can find him blogging on anything that strikes his fancy at www.ryanzielonka.com.

Unilateral Hypertrophy – Killing it One Leg at a Time – Part 1

Note: You can read part 2 of this article here.

If you’re trying to build a set of massive, indestructible legs, then there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the old mantra that “squats are king”.  Moreover, you’ve probably been told that squats don’t even count unless you squat deep enough to leave a little brown star on the floor when you come up.

Unfortunately, it is not only incorrect to suggest that deep squats are the only way to get a huge set of wheels, but it can also be a recipe for disaster for some trainees.

The truth is that squats are not necessarily the optimal path for all people and forcing your body to squat when it simply isn’t prepared for this activity is like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole–it just doesn’t work.

Now, before the hate mail starts to pour in telling me that I probably wear pink nail polish, let me be clear that I’m not saying that I’m anti-squat by any means.  When done properly, a deep squat will allow the lumbar spine to stay in a neutral position throughout the movement and the training effect can be incredible.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people I’ve trained (including many advanced trainees) did not have the hip mobility to move into a deep squat without compensating with lumbar spine motion.  In this case, the pelvis will “tuck under” at the bottom of the movement, causing the lumbar spine to flex under load.  According to Dr. Stuart McGill, one of North America’s leading back specialists, this is an extremely dangerous position.  Unless you want your back to snap, crackle, and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies, you’d better make some modifications soon.

The good news is that single leg training variations can drive hypertrophy and performance improvements while you work on the mobility required for a perfect squat.  Once you’ve nailed the squat or if you’ve already got it down cold, you can use the single leg movements to supplement your squat training for additional muscle growth.

The Benefits of Single Leg Training

1. Less risk of spinal compression

It goes without saying that if you’re moving any kind of respectable weight on your squats that you’re going to place the spine under a large compressive load.  Even if you’re not flexing your spine and your form is spot-on, the repeated high loads can sometimes lead to a less commonly recognized injury called an end plate fracture.  Put simply, instead of the discs in your spine becoming herniated (i.e., popping out the back), the ends of your vertebrae can fracture, causing a loss of disc height and compression of nerves exiting the spinal cord.  This is often associated with a “popping” sound that trainees typically remember hearing just before they hit the floor.  As a bonus, your x-ray will often show a loss of disc height, which your doctor will often call degenerative disc disease when it most certainly is not.

Single leg movements can decrease the compressive load on the spine because less weight is needed to train each leg individually.  Even if you’re squatting regularly, periodically rotating squats out of your workout to deload the spine is a good idea.

2. Increased stabilizer function

Generally speaking, bilateral lifts such as squats allow the lifter to move big weights and by doing so, they target the primary movers such as the quads.  They also allow us to grunt, sweat, and clang large plates together!

By reducing the base of support with single leg training, we are better able to emphasize the stabilizer muscles that are less frequently trained.  In many single leg variations, the gluteus medius (whose weakness has a role in knee pain) is heavily recruited to stabilize the femur in the hip joint.  While this may sound less sexy than smashing through your squat PR, training these muscles serves to prevent future injury that could keep us on the sidelines while hard earned leg mass withers away.

3. Greater emphasis on the glutes

To be honest, if you’re a dude, I don’t really care what your glutes look like.  But my wife assures me that women, like men, notice these types of things.  Moreover, if you know how women operate, they talk.  Unless you want to be known to your lady and her friends as flatty flat pants you’d better get to work.

Single leg movements have an uncanny ability to involve the glutes to a high degree, so putting a few of these in your workout is almost assured to give you some muscle soreness the next day.  Training the glutes can also have a profound effect on posture, preventing the dreaded anterior pelvic tilt by helping the pelvis to tilt posteriorly.

With a few weeks of hard work, your posture will finally begin to improve, and your ass will finally stop looking like someone poured pancake batter down the back of your legs.

4. Tax the adductors.

If you’ve got a bodybuilding mindset and your primary goal is to grow some huge quads, it is likely that you’re a narrow stance squatter.  However, squatting in this position often neglects the adductors on the inside of the legs, which could easily account for some extra leg width if they were more developed.  The good news is that while the primary job of the adductors is to pull the legs together, they also have some role in flexion and extension of the thigh, depending on their position.  More specifically, the adductors get hit hard in movements like walking lunges.

If you’re more interested in powerlifting, you already know that wide-stance squats and sumo deadlifts place a high degree of emphasis on your posterior chain.  However, the adductors also contribute to these movements, and by training them using a different pattern, you’ll be able to contribute to their overall size and strength.  With a little work on these exercises, the carryover to your big movements will result in some additional pounds on your total.

5. Hammer the core

One thing about squats that makes us able to use such large loads is that the weight is evenly distributed.  If you’ve ever accidentally put more weight on one end of the bar than the other you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

With single leg movements, you can offset the load by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in only one hand while performing the movements.  By doing this you not only tax the hip stabilizers (as mentioned earlier), but you force your core to work to prevent you from falling over and embarrassing yourself.  While isolated core training is great, integrating core training into your actual exercise programming can add extra core work to your session and provide more “real life” loading situations.

The Movements

With all of the explanations of why you should do single leg variations behind us, let’s look ahead at some of the best single leg progressions you can do to improve leg size and performance.

1.  Split Squat

Step into a long lunge position and maintain a tall spine.  Lower the body so that the back knee reaches a spot approximately one inch from the floor and drive through the front heel back to the start position.  It is important for this movement that you focus on moving the center of gravity up and down and not forwards and backwards.  In other words, the knee on the front leg should not be shooting out over the toes.

This movement can be loaded with a barbell, but I tend to prefer dumbbell variations at first because the balance can be tricky.

Split Squat – Starting Position

Split Squat – Finishing Position

2.  Rear Foot-Elevated Split Squat  (a.k.a., The Bulgarian Squat)

To take the difficulty up a level, place top of your rear foot on a bench behind you and perform the movement in a manner similar to the split squat mentioned above.  Although this position may feel awkward for some, I always recommend that you start with the top of the rear foot on the bench because this will become necessary as the weight increases.  Despite the relatively small change in position, this progression is significantly more difficult than a standard split squat.

Aside from being a more difficult movement, this exercise is more demanding in terms of flexibility of the rectus femoris at the rear hip.  Make sure to keep the abs tight to make sure that the pelvis doesn’t get pulled out of neutral position.

The Bulgarian Squat – Starting Position

The Bulgarian Squat – Finishing Position

3.  Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat

This progression is very similar to the previous movement except that in this one you’ll elevate the front foot on a plate or low box in addition to the rear foot elevation.  In doing this, you’ll dramatically increase the range of motion that you’ll need to work through, and this will make the whole exercise much harder.  Again, keep the abs tight while you perform this variation.

Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat – Starting Position

Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat – Finishing Position

4.  Walking Lunges

I love this exercise because Ronnie Coleman did it in a parking lot and he’s huge.  Since pro bodybuilders are all natural and their success has nothing at all to do with genetics, I just copy their exercises.  Just kidding.  I love walking lunges because they have both an accelerative component and a declarative component and tax the stabilizers of the hips and core in so many ways.

If you really want to take this movement up a notch, try performing it with a heavy dumbbell on only one side or two lighter dumbbells held overhead to make the whole body work.  Aside from the muscle building elements, walking lunges are also great for conditioning.

5.  Single Leg-Supported Squat

If you’ve never done a full range single-legged squat, you may find this movement to be one of the most humbling you’ve done in a while.  Simply hold on to a squat rack, Smith machine (it does have a use), or the cute girl next to you at the gym for balance and crank out a set of these.  Your back foot must remain flat on the ground so that the heel does not rise up, and you should avoid bouncing at the bottom of the movement.  Bouncing allows you to use the elastic component of the muscle and takes away from the muscle-producing contractions you should be using.

Single Leg-Supported Squat – Starting Position

Single Leg-Supported Squat – Finishing Position

6.  Single-Leg Squat to a Bench

At this point you might be wondering why on earth I’d go from a full range single-legged squat to a partial range movement.  However, I must emphasize that there is a distinct difference between a supported movement in which you get to hold on to something and one where you don’t.  Squatting down to a bench with no support will engage the hip stabilizers to a high degree, and if you’re unable to do this, you’ll never be able to progress to an unsupported version of the full-range exercise.

To do this exercise, stand in front of a bench or box and lower your body in a controlled manner until you land gently.  Pause for one second and then drive through the planted leg to stand up.  Make sure not to rock your body to assist.  Generally speaking, many people find it helps to hold light weights out in front to counterbalance this movement.  If the exercise is too hard, find a higher bench.  If it is too easy, add weight or find a lower bench.

Single-Leg Squat to a Bench – Starting Position

Single-Leg Squat to a Bench – Finishing Position

7.  Full Range Single-Leg Squat (a.k.a., Pistols)

This time you’ll be doing exactly the same movement as above except that you’ll have absolutely nothing to stop you from falling over and looking like a fool.  I’d suggest practicing this one at home first.

To do a pistol, the best advice I can give is to become very proficient at an extremely low box height (using the exercise above) before you even try it.  Hold a weight out in front of you and move slowly as you descend to the bottom.  At this point you’ll want to assure that you’ve got your balance before you attempt to stand up.  Once you can do this, you’ll have mastered the most difficult of the single leg progressions.

Full Range Single-Leg Squat – Starting Position

Full Range Single-Leg Squat – Finishing Position


All in all, single leg variations can be a substitute for squats when a trainee does not yet have adequate hip mobility to perform a squat (many of you) and as extremely valuable supplemental exercises when you are able to squat with good form (the rest of you).

The benefits are numerous, and I’m sad to say it took me so long into my career to really see the value of incorporating such a powerful set of tools into my training arsenal.  In putting this material out there for you, I’m hoping you won’t make the same mistake.

Get out there on one leg and kill it!

Written by Mark Young

Note: You can read part 2 of this article here.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Unilateral Hypertrophy – Killing it One Leg at a Time discussion thread

About Mark Young

Mark Young is an exercise and nutrition consultant from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

In 2000 Mark completed a degree in Kinesiology and a minor in Psychology from McMaster University.  He later followed that with graduate research in both biomechanics and exercise physiology under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Phillips.

Rather than blathering on any further about his credentials and clientele, he would prefer you check out his website at www.markyoungtrainingsystems.com and check out the content for yourself.

The Best Exercises are the ones You’re not Doing

The premise of many scientific studies is often to compare two training programs or two exercises in order to find out which one is “best”.

However, scientific studies are of short-term duration, with rare exceptions. These short duration studies are in contrast to “real life”, where our involvement in training is (hopefully) long-term and measured in years.

In order to make long-term progress, we must consider the principle of accommodation.  As we use even the best program, we adapt to that program and therefore it becomes less and less efficient in stimulating gains in strength and mass.

As they say in the trenches, “The best program is the one you are not using at the moment.

As a strength coach, I never look for the “best” program or the “best” exercise. Having only one tool (exercise or program) is not enough! I need multiple extremely effective programs and exercises that can stimulate athletes/lifters bodies to move towards certain goals.

The saying above may easily be changed to: “The best EXERCISE is the one you are not using at the moment.
However, I must give you a word of warning: Variation in exercises must be applied with a purpose. Just “mixing it up” will very likely be a waste of time. We must give the body time (reps, sets, and workouts) to adapt to a stimulus and only THEN do we change the stimulus. A key characteristic of a successful macro cycle is a carefully planned sequence of exercises specific to your level of training and your goals.

In selecting exercises for your program, a powerful strategy is to include exercises that accomplish multiple goals. The exercises shown in this article are chosen with that principle in mind.

The five exercises:

  • include exercises that engage more muscle at the same time
  • activate the same muscles in ways different than you are used to (different planes of motion)
  • bring up a weak link that holds you back

Or, plain and simple, are probably more fun and challenging than what you’re currently doing. 

1: Two Hands Anyhow.

About 100 years ago, old time strongman Arthur Saxon performed this drill with 465 pounds (210 kg) using a barbell and a kettle bell.

Benefit: Exceptional core strength, predominantly in the frontal plane (your internal obliques and quadratus lumborum)) and, to some extent, in the transverse plane (also the obliques). Additionally, the Two Hands Anyhow strengthens all heads of the deltoid as well as the rotator cuff muscles and teaches outstanding body awareness.

Requirement: Perfect hip flexibility in flexion, spinal flexibility in extension and rotation, and no back problems whatsoever. Here is a simple but important test to help you determine whether you are ready for the Two Hands Anyhow:

Position yourself with your back against a wall and your heels the distance of your own feet away from the wall. The goal is to flatten your entire spine against the wall, from the bottom of your neck down to your tailbone. If you cannot pass this test, you will overload your shoulder joint in attempting the bent press.

Execution: Pick up a kettle bell and position your feet at a 45-degree angle with the distance between your heels equal to the distance between your shoulder joints. Keep the elbow as close to the ribcage and pelvis as possible as you rotate and bend from the hips, NOT THE BACK. Focus on “getting under” the weight, rather than pressing it up. While supporting the weight over your head, bend or squat down to pick up a dumbbell (or a kettle bell) that you then curl and press.

Program example: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.

In a longer training cycle, the Two Hands Anyhow may be a natural progression from the windmill or a pure bent press.

Video: Two Hands Anyhow

2: One-arm Barbell lifts

The “second exercise” is not one exercise only; ALL of our big lifts can be performed in the one-arm barbell fashion. What Arthur Saxon was for the bent press, German strongman Hermann Goerner was for the one-arm deadlift, and his record of 727 pounds is awe-inspiring.

Benefit: If you have ever tried any of the one-arm barbell lifts, you know that the bar tends to tilt like a see-saw, partly because it is very difficult to perfectly balance it and partly because the strength of each of your fingers may vary throughout the lift. To complete the lifts, this tilt must be stabilized, an effort that requires so-called “ulnar” and “radial” flexion strength. Furthermore, the asymmetrical loading affects your entire core, challenging you to stabilize during rotation (deadlifts, row, bench press) or side flexion (side press, bend press).

Do you see how doing one-arm barbell lifts is a way to train stabilization with “manly” exercises AND groove your motor patterns for the two-hand lifts?

Requirement: These exercises have no special requirements beyond their two-hand counterparts

Execution: In the one-arm fashion, you can perform a barbell deadlift, barbell snatch, barbell bench press, barbell side press, barbell bend press or barbell bent over row. The key to these one-arm barbell exercises is to grip the bar symmetrically; if you don’t, the bar will start tilting almost immediately.

Program example: Use a 5RM load and alternate 1 rep with your left with 1 rep with your right hand for 5 minutes straight.

In a longer training cycle, the one-arm barbell lifts (unless performance in these lifts is your key goal) may have their place in the early phases for increasing grip and core strength that will allow you to use higher poundage in later mass or strength cycles.

The video below shows a one-arm bent over row with a metal support post for some high rep grip work.

Video: One-Arm Bent Over Row

3: Harness Sled Drag

If you want to excel in any activity that involves horizontal projection of your body (sprinting, soccer, etc.), this exercise should be your main lower body exercise.

Squat, deadlifts and Olympic lifts are amazing exercises. They recruit the hip extensors, knee extensors, and plantar flexors. However, in these “big lifts”, the accentuated force region occurs at the bottom of the lifts and the action force is directed downwards. When you are sprinting, the accentuated force region is much closer to a position with zero hip and knee flexion and the action force is directed backward.

Muscles fire 100% specifically to all characteristics of a given movement. Thus, to improve sprinting, look for an exercise with an action force directed backward.

Benefit: The Harness Sled Drag strengthens hip and knee extensors, hamstrings, calves, and core. Harness Sled Dragging is a great way to maintain and improve leg strength if you cannot load your back. As mentioned in the introduction above, the sled drag should be your main leg exercise if your goal is to project your body horizontally.

Requirements: Basic range of motion in your hip joint, no foot or Achilles tendon issues.

Execution: Load up a dragging sled. Put on a harness and attach the sled. Start by performing walking lunges for distance. The harness keeps your hands free, so you can CARRY something while you lunge (any sufficiently heavy object will do).

You can get your harness here

Program example: 5-10 x 40 yards

In a longer training cycle, sled dragging could be preceded by step-ups and followed by horizontal bounding.

Harness Sled Drag with a Tire in place of a Sled 

4: Loaded Glute Bridge in the Knee Extension Machine.

Glute Bridges have been around for ages, both in the loaded and unloaded versions. I must admit, I see little use for the knee extension machine except for athletes who kick or competitive bodybuilders. I have also seen physiotherapists rehab supra patellar tendon pain using eccentric accentuated knee extensions.

Benefit: Loaded Glute Bridges strengthen your glutes at near full hip extension. The pad does not dig into your thighs the way a bar would. Glute Bridges in the knee extension machine is easy to set as a finishing exercise, and the loaded Glute Bridge is also a great exercise to strengthen your hip extension for running (if running is your goal, you will experience the greatest benefits by performing the exercise one leg at a time).

Requirement: Don’t be too tall or you won’t fit into the machine!

Execution: Set the pad in the knee extension machine at a relatively low position (15-20 degrees below parallel). Position yourself with your back against the edge of the seat of the machine and the top of your thighs against the pad. Raise your hips as high as possible and hold for a count of two.

Program Example: 1 set of 30 as a finisher after any leg workout.

In longer training cycles, the loaded Glute Bridge could follow an unloaded Glute Bridge.

Recently, Bret Contreras has done a great job researching a large number of glute exercises. Learn more at www.thegluteguy.com

Video: Loaded Glute Bridge in the Knee Extension Machine

5: Strongman Swing

I originally learned of this great exercise from an article by Jeff Martone, who learned it from weightlifting legend Mark Berry. You can check the article out here.

Benefit:  Strengthens hip and knee extensors. This great movement challenges the core in all three cardinal planes and builds shoulder stability in the sagittal plane.

Requirements: Perfect form in your squat and deadlift patterns, normal range of motion of your thoracic spine (extension) and shoulder (flexion).

Execution: Grab a dumbbell. The exercise begins with a single-hand dumbbell swing. During the concentric phase, the dumbbell is kept close to the body as you dip down to catch it in an overhead squat. Stand up. Lower the weight and repeat.

Program Example: Use a 10 RM load. Perform sets of 5 reps with each hand with no rest in between. Perform 2 minute intervals in this fashion with 40-60 seconds of rest between each interval repetition.
In a long-term cycle, the strongman swing could follow a regular dumbbell or kettle bell swing and/or an overhead squat.

Video: Strongman Swing

Wrap Up

You now have five powerful exercises to try, but remember, to make them work for you, they must be optimally placed in your long-term cycle.

As you can see, great lifters from the past have inspired some of these exercises. I believe that the future of strength training combines the wisdom from the past with the best from today’s scientists, coaches, and lifters. We have yet to see the best performances.

Written by Karsten Jensen

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Best Exercises are the ones You’re not Doing discussion thread.

About Karsten Jensen

As a Strength and Conditioning Expert Karsten Jensen has helped World Class and Olympic Athletes and coaches from 13 different sports since 1993, including seven years with the Danish National Elite Sports Institution. He believes in the unlimited potential of the human being and shares his viewpoints as an international speaker, author of several books and educator with Certified Professional Trainers Network.

He currently works as a high performance trainer at the University of Toronto and also shares “Insider Principles of World Class Strength and Conditioning Methods” through his website www.yestostrength.com. He holds a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology as well as several other certifications.

Karsten’s newest book “The Flexible Periodization Method” – How to Create Super Individualized Long Term Training Programs for any client/athlete is available may 15th.

Implementing Chaos Training for Performance and Muscle Gains

Would you agree that most sports are chaotic in nature?

Would you go so far as to say many events in life are chaotic and unpredictable?

On another note, would you like to look like you can cause chaos because of your muscular build?

The answer to all of the above is probably “yes”, except if you want to stay skinny, weak and slow!

I can talk about chaos because I’ve experienced it on both sides of the hardwood, on the basketball court playing throughout college and the pros, and now as a strength and conditioning coach training athletes (remember, if you have a body, then you’re an athlete!) to utilize strength, power, speed, agility, and conditioning in chaotic situations.

So what is this “chaos theory” and how does it relate to physical training?

When I saw athletes starting to put on slabs of muscle with the chaos training methods, I started implementing them with people who were solely interested in muscle/hypertrophy gains. I’ve never been one to turn down two for the price of one, and if I can get both muscle and performance from the same training method? I like it…put it in the bag!

As Edward Lorenz suggested back in the 1960s, chaos theory is at work when a small random change is introduced into a system, under certain conditions, and causes a ripple effect that can overwhelm and change the long-term behavior of the system.

The chaos philosophy as it applies to our physical training concept is:  “A reactive means by which potential cumulative improvements in strength, reactivity, kinetic coordination and cognitive response can be attained and produced by non-linear, random stimuli in a progressive training environment…” (Smith, 2007)

Huh? That sounds complicated. Simply put, we will add implements or modify exercises to make them nonlinear and unpredictable (because the stimulus can be random), but we will put them into a progressive program so that we can measure our results.

Think about it…in most gyms or weight rooms, the majority of strength training methods by which most lifters, athletes, and coaches develop strength and speed are limited to stationary movement patterns that are linear (and most of all, predictable in nature). Think of the squat, deadlift, bench press, clean and jerk, and many other traditional exercises that have a set pattern.

All of these are not only great exercises but are essential to any strength training program as they are the main means of developing maximal force and power. My point is that the additions of specific exercises that address adaptations required to execute random movements will complement the foundational strength strategies that most everyone already uses.

It’s important to realize that chaos training is a supplemental system that creates adaptations but is not used for maximal effort expression because of the level of instability in the exercises. Therefore, we will not use chaos training exercises for the heaviest lifts!

The Old Skool Hulk knew how to cause Chaos – he just couldn’t find a decent barber shop

Applications for chaos training

Applications for chaos training are very widely dispersed and can be added to many different aspects of training to yield a variety of benefits:

Mental heightened visual abilities, more intuitive movements, ability to anticipate situations, improved cognitive abilities, etc.
Reactive Force Production improved rapid reactions, ability to absorb forces regardless of movement and duration, decreased time required to re-establish stance for next movement, etc.
Coordination of Movement efficient and fast motor unit recruitment, efficient kinetic coordination, etc.
Strength Adaptations build-up of foundational strength derived from regular linear movements, improved ability to return to athletic position after chaotic action, better reactive strength potential in greater variety of movements, etc


Chaos training exercises are not hard to create, and they can be categorized by difficulty and functionality. Depending on what tools you have available, you will have a range of possibilities with which to implement chaos methods. Even if you go to a commercial gym, there are many exercises and variables that you can add to your training.

Let’s look at some of the categories and how some regular exercises can be modified into chaos exercises (variations are endless):

Unilateral training one-hand clean & press, one-hand/one-leg clean and press, etc
Bipolar training two separate movements on each side of the body, e.g., farmer’s walk/ press combo
Instability sand training, barefoot training, etc.
Tempo modifying rep speeds, rest periods
Athlete modifications kneeling KB snatch, sandbag shouldering, even sport specific movements such as shooting a basketball, etc.
Loaded movements endless variations, e.g., overhead KB walks with sled drag, sandbag/farmer’s walk combo, etc.
Adding random forces to the body or using a tool while executing movements in most cases, we want to randomly counter the plane of motion in which the movement is being performed, e.g., band-resisted tire flips, agility ladder drills, jumps, hops, runs, etc.
Cognitive training stimulus before/during skill or strength training exercise, e.g., calling out color cones with agility work, answering math equations during clean and presses, etc.
Odd object training sandbags, kettlebells, kegs, slosh pipes, stones, etc.
Shock exercises kettlebell catch and toss, sandbag multidirectional catches/throws, etc.


Depending on your goals, you can manipulate and combine these suggestions to create exercises that will benefit you and your training. These exercises can be placed in almost any part of your program: warm ups, strength circuits, supplemental and accessory strength training, rehab, GPP, etc.

However, there is also another aspect of chaos training that we haven’t addressed yet, and that is the concept of randomizing the training routines. This is different from the previous concept of adding supplemental exercises that are chaotic into a structured program. Using the concept of randomization, we will randomly switch up the workouts, exercises, tempos, loads and reps schemes, and other variables.

Even though the training is random, it does include a limited measure of standardization so that we can track progress and have a method of measurement. If your lifts are going up, if you are getting in more reps or getting more work done in a certain amount of time, then you will build muscle and bring up your performance levels. Even within chaos there must be a measure of progress.

I know what the next question will be: How can we incorporate these concepts into a current training program whether our goal is performance training or putting on some serious slabs of muscle?

It’s important to realize that there is no one way to use this method of training. You can implement chaos training into any method or program, whether your goal is sports performance or muscle building. Whichever method or approach you take, there is a place for the chaos exercises or methodology.

CONCEPT 1 – Adding nonlinear, random stimuli supplemental exercises

To reiterate, fixed exercises with linear movements are still going to be the bread-and-butter of your maximum effort, limit strength, and strength speed training. Heavy box squats, front squats, trap bar deadlifts, bench press, etc., all require a high level of stabilization, not to mention high loads and intensities. This is the primary reason for choosing chaos exercises as supplemental to the existing program.

In the chart below are examples of how you can replace regular linear exercises with chaos exercises. Sometimes the chaos exercises may fall into multiple categories (for example, many chaos exercises have a huge demand on the core, so the exercise may be a hip dominant one as well as a horizontal pull, etc.).

Movement Pattern
Traditional Linear Exercises Replace with Chaos Exercises (some examples)
Quad Dominant Forward DB Lunge, Front Squat, Step-Up, etc. Band Squats, Partner Bodyweight Lunges, Sandbag Lunges, Chain OH Lunges, Odd Object Front Squats (sandbag, KB, offset DBs, etc.), etc.
Hip Dominant Glute Ham Raise, Back Extensions, Deadlift variations, etc. Offset Dumbbell Swings, Fulcrum Deadlifts, Cradle Human Lifts, Sandbag Good Mornings, Band Deadlifts, etc.
Vertical Pull Chin/Pull Ups, Lat Pulldowns, etc. Chaos Pull/Chin Up variation, Rope Pull Ups, etc….
Vertical Push Military press variations, Pike Push Ups, Arnold Press, etc. Fulcrum Military Press, Band Press variations, Crazy Bells Military Press, etc.
Horizontal Pull 1 Arm DB Row, Bent-over Row, Cable Rows, etc. Fulcrum Rows, Chaos Band Bent-over Row, Rope Bodyweight Rows, Chaos Bodyweight Rows, etc.
Horizontal Push Bench Press, DB Bench, Push Ups, etc. Ripper Push Ups, Crazy Bell Bench Press (you can use plates),
Core Planks, Bridges, Med Ball Slams, Back Extensions, etc. Elevated Core Rows, Back Extension + Row, Core GHR Presses, Rocky Rippers, etc.


Just to be clear, in the above chart, you would exchange one of the traditional exercises with a chaos exercise in the same movement pattern. You aren’t looking to exchange ALL of the exercises in your program with chaos exercises, but rather just 1-3.

If you’re a more visual person, here’s an example of this exchange in an upper body day training session where we replace a number of traditional exercises with chaos training exercises.

Upper Body Traditional Program Upper Body Chaos Training Program
1). Bench Press – 4 x 6 1). Bench Press – 4 x 6
2A). DB Alt. Incline Bench – 3 x 8 2A). DB Alt. Incline Bench – 3 x 8
2B). Lat Pulldowns – 3 x 8 2B). Chaos Pull Ups – 3 x 8
3A). DB Military Press – 3 x 12 3A). Fulcrum Press – 3 x 12/each
3B). 1 Arm Rows – 3 x 12/each side 3B). 1 Arm Rows – 3 x 12/each
4). Plank Hold – 3 x 30 sec. 4). Chaos Bridge + Row – 3 x 10/each


Remember, regardless of your goals, you can implement chaos exercises into any program, whether your goal is building muscle or improving performance. To make continuous progress, you should still cycle your training:

  • Change chaos exercises every 2-4 weeks
  • Return to traditional training every 4-8 weeks (this is a good way to see your progress in a traditional training program)

Use chaos training as a tool, or should I say, a secret weapon and switch between traditional training and chaos training. In this way, you can make constant progress and bust through plateaus to build thick, dense, and hard muscle that gives you the show as well as the go.

CONCEPT 2 –  Randomization of training routines

Rather than including chaos exercises in an established program, this method alters the stimulus from workout to workout in a random pattern.

In altering the program frequently, there is always the question of how to track the data that will determine whether there is progress in the training. To address this concern, we need a benchmark for comparison that can be used to determine the cost or benefit of current and future protocols.

This means that there needs to be something consistent at some point in the workout that acts as a marker of progress. I feel that the most logical point in the training session to include marker exercises is at the beginning (after dynamic warm ups and warm up sets for the exercise).

An example would be to always start the training session with bench press on one day and start with front squats on another day. The rest of the training session can be completely random from there on, but those would be your markers. You can change the marker exercises to whatever you would like to track for a given period of time.

This type of training methodology operates on the principle that a person will adapt to the program by developing better performance as well as larger/stronger muscles, but does not want to adapt to the set and rep schemes, tempos, etc. of the exercise that act to stimulate gains.

The table below lists different variables that can be manipulated within a program along with some examples of how to change each one of the variables.

Training Variables Examples
Sets 2, 5, 10,… etc
Reps 1, 2, 3,… 50 +, forced reps, drop sets etc.
Tempo Slow negatives, explosive, pause, etc.
Load 1 RM, 8 RM, 25 RM, etc.
ROM (range of motion) Partials, beyond range of motion, ½ reps, lockouts, etc.
Rest Intervals 10 sec, 30 sec, 60 sec., rest pause (15 sec), etc.
Exercises Olympic lifts, power lifts, bodybuilding, strongman, kettlebells, etc.
Isometrics Against pins, heavier weight, static holds, etc.
Accommodating Resistance Bands, chains, etc.


The possibilities really are endless and your imagination is the only limit to implementing these methods in your training.

As in the previous concept, I would advise that you change back to a traditional training program every 4 – 8 weeks.

My goal here is not to give you a program, but rather to give you ideas for how you can implement a chaos training aspect into your own program. Just remember that you need to have a marker for your progress built into the training session so that you can track whether to change things up or not.

Wrap Up

The truth is that we all get too attached to programs and do not challenge ourselves enough through training, which is one of the reasons that we do not see the progress that we strive for.

Implementing chaos training methods will not only challenge you, but it will also give you a concept that you can constantly implement with endless variations that you can use to build new stacks of dense functional muscle.

Written by Luka Hocevar

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Build More Muscle and Improve Performance with Chaos Training discussion thread

About Luka Hocevar

Luka Hocevar is a highly sought after strength and conditioning specialist and RKC Instructor based out of Seattle, WA where he trains athletes from high school, college, and professional ranks, not to mention regular people that want to perform like athletes.

Luka is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS – FZS) and a certified fitness trainer (ISSA – CFT). He is also a Russian kettlebell instructor (RKC) with close to a decade of experience with kettlebell training.

Luka is owner of Hocevar Performance and the The Body Project gym based in Slovenia Europe where he also played four years of professional basketball.

You can find his thoughts, tips and training methods at Hocevar Performance and you can email him at luka@hocevarperformance.com


Smith, James. Chaos Training, The Diesel Crew, LLC. 2006.

Cardio 101 – Exploring Steady State, Complexes & High-Intensity Interval Training

Everyone hates cardio.

Well some people have embraced it – first as a necessary evil to reach a specific fat loss goal, then eventually as an OCD-driven compulsion, afraid that they are going to reach “lifted out of the side of the bedroom by a crane” levels of obesity if they miss two cardio sessions in a row.

Okay, perhaps I am exaggerating. The truth is, that MOST of us aren’t cardio fans, but do see the usefulness of it.

I listened in once as two friends of mine had an interesting debate on cardio. Both were exercise phys students, one coming from the endurance sport world and the other a competitive powerlifter. The 158-pound triathlete said, “I want to be functional. With all due respect, at 262-pounds you could not run if you had to.

My other friend grinned and said, “At 262-pounds, I never NEED to run from anything.

I suspect that most of us nod our heads in agreement but also understand that, for longevity’s sake, we sometimes need to lean out and step up onto the treadmill, bike or elliptical.

Skim through any issue of Powerlifting USA and you see practically an ongoing-obituary column (many from cardio-vascular disease) and a recent trend for top powerlifters to enlist bodybuilding coaches like Justin Harris, John Berardi or Shelby Starnes to cut away excess weight. The combo of good diet and fat burning cardio has them looking better, lifting strong in lighter weight classes and hopefully living longer.

The Devil, broken down into 3

With cardio, we have three major styles: steady-state, anaerobic complexes and high-intensity interval training (HIIT):

Steady-State Cardio

Once considered the king of aerobic fat-burners, steady-state cardio (long, slow sessions geared towards keeping your heart rate within a particular fat-burning zone) has fallen from its lofty perch in recent years. Why? Quite simply, its ability to preferentially burn bodyfat stores (in contrast to stored glycogen or aminos) just has not been shown to reliably work. It does little to affect EPOC (Excessive Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) which has a much bigger effect on fat burning long after the workout ends.

When is it used? It is good for the first two weeks of the program for those that are “aerobically-deconditioned.” Go for 30 minutes at fast walking pace. Use breathing as your barometer of pace. The old rule “walk at a pace that allows you to converse,” is good advice.

Metabolic Training Complexes

These are the current king of lean muscle cardio protocols, which is why you see them used to get Hollywood stars (like the cast of “300”) into action hero shape. Metabolic Training is short and intense and, best of all, is not done on a treadmill or stepper.

This involves the performance four or more bodyweight or weight training exercises in giant-set fashion. This is similar to the GPP/Core Series I have recommended in previous articles as a pre-workout warm-up, except you will be using heavier weights.

Kettlebells (see Kettlebells for the Uninitiated) are particularly well-suited to this type of training since they allow for fast lifts (KB Snatches, Swings or Squat Thrusts) that don’t require years of biomechanics training with an Olympic coach. Rep speed dramatically impacts the effect on your metabolism. Doing snatches with a pair of 45-pound kettlebells moves a lot of weight from floor to overhead at a fast pace. Try one minute of these and they will get you sucking air hard.

KettleBells – A good choice for Complexes

To setup a metabolic training complex, choose a handful of compound exercises that work a majority of the prime movers of the body in one series.

For example:

1) Push-ups
2) Burpees
3) Dumbbell Clean-and-Press
4) V-up Leg Raises
5) Under-grip Chins

Move directly from one exercise to the other (no rest) and do three to four of these series with a 60-90 second rest period between them (no rest between exercises).

When doing these for metabolic conditioning, I recommend 6-10 reps (you can go higher in reps with some exercises that rely on bodyweight, such as chins, push-ups). You can also mix sprints or jump-roping between each exercise for variety.

Metabolic training complexes tend to be best for days off, particularly the second day of a two-day gym break. They may be too intense for a first thing in the morning workout following a low carb day.

For a more in-depth article on Complexes, check out Complexes for Fat Loss.

HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is the bodybuilder’s choice for fat- burning. It involves periods of sprints (60-90 seconds) interspersed with recovery periods of 60-180 seconds in which you just walk at a fast pace.

If you are like me, you will enjoy the fact that, while steady-state cardio doesn’t seem to cause you to breathe hard or break a sweat until 6-7 minutes into the workout, the first sprint of a HIIT session while get you further into the sweat zone than you ever get in a steady-state session. Twenty minutes is plenty of time to get it done with HIIT. As you progress, increase your speeds in both the sprint and recovery phases, increase sprint times, and reduce recovery periods.

The beauty of HIIT is that it is “front loaded.” By that, I mean that you have the advantage of reaching a metabolically stimulating state faster. I find with steady state cardio it seems to take eight to ten minutes for me to even feel a significant increase in my core temperature or respiratory rate. With high-intensity interval training, I am gasping for air after my first sprint interval.

For those new to HIIT, we want to give you some basic progressions to break into it gradually. While lifters have the natural tendency to rush everything, there is something to be said for working your way patiently through the levels. You may be able to jump into Level Five on your first day, through sheer force of will, but the speed of your sprint and moderate phases will be slower than they would be if you had let yourself build conditioning.

Also, why do more than you require if you are enhancing your conditioning and burning fat with a cardio session of lower intensity and duration? It’s like swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer.

Keep in mind that, although we use the term “sprint,” HIIT Cardio does not need to be done through jogging (on a track, trails or treadmill). You can just as effectively perform it on an elliptical, bike, Airdyne, rower, stepmill or whatever cardio device you prefer.

High-Intensity Interval Training – Basic Progressions

The Warm-up period is a gradual increase in rate to warm-up to the moderate jog.

Moderate varies widely depending on your conditioning. At Levels One through Three, this is the fastest walk possible without breaking into a jog. At levels Four and Five, it is a slow jog done at whatever pace allows you to recover from your sprint.

High is full-on, gasping-for-air sprinting, whether one a track, treadmill, bike or elliptical.

The Cool down is a self-explanatory two-minute period to reduce your heart rate slightly and ease back into the non-jogging world.

These are just examples, and you can adapt as needed. Once you reach whatever level you choose to end up, you can continue to intensify things by increasing the speed of you sprint and moderate periods. The best way to do this is to make a goal of increasing the distance covered in the time allotted, even if just by a tenth of a mile.

Consider doing your cardio outside – you may even run into a chick like this!

Putting it all into Practice

The best strategy is to cycle different cardio styles into your week, two or three HIIT sessions with a couple longer, steady-state sessions with perhaps a session of anaerobic complexes with the prowler/kettlebell/bodyweight exercises on the weekend for variety.

As far as timing of your sessions, the important part is that you do them. In a perfect world, you would do steady-state after your strength training to take advantage of the depleted glycogen levels. Anaerobic complexes and HIIT sessions however, focus on creating a metabolic effect through EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption) so they should be done separate from your strength training sessions by a few hours.

Basically, steady-state cardio burns most of its caloric expenditure during the cardio. The complexes and HIIT create a metabolic demand on the body and cause an increased calorie burning effect for a number of hours after the session. Therefore, a 7:30AM weight training session followed by a 6:00PM HIIT session boosts the metabolism twice in a day (elevating it at a significant level all day).

Give these ideas a try and you may find that not only are you in better condition (both aerobically and bodyfat-wise) but the challenge may make you hate cardio a little bit less!

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Cardio 101 – Exploring Steady State, Complexes & High-Intensity Interval Training discussion thread

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.

A Gym Rat’s Guide to the One-Rep Max

Show me a person who doesn’t want to be strong and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t get off the couch very often.  The ability to move heavy objects and perform physically demanding tasks is just plain cool. When you’re strong, you don’t have to walk around thumping your chest like an idiot, people will stand up and take notice.

Since most of us don’t go around lifting cars or chopping down trees with our bare hands, the easiest place for us to demonstrate strength is in the weight room. Gyms become our stage where we act out our physical abilities.

And the greatest act of all is the one-rep max.

Once reserved for powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and dumbbass kids who wanted to show off for their friends, now trainees from all backgrounds can benefit from knowing their 1RM. Athletes and gym rats alike can test their 1RM and then program their training accordingly to meet specific goals.

But why is it important? How do we test it? Most importantly, what the hell do we do with that knowledge?

The One-Rep Max (1RM)

Just what the heck is it?

The 1RM measures the amount of force your muscles can produce in a singular maximal effort. Some folks are better suited physically for the 1RM than others. This typically has to do with genetics because every body has a certain blend of muscle fiber types, unique bone lengths, and muscle attachments.  Those having a preponderance of Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers, shorter limbs, and lower muscle attachments are better prepared to lift heavy weights.

If you’re not blessed with any of those attributes, the hurdles on your track to strength gains may be a little higher. However, there is good news: anyone can become stronger by putting forth consistent effort.

Why do I need to know my 1RM?

The 1RM is vital for continued success in the gym because it’s real and concrete. It’s not hypothetical or assumed. Once you know your 1RM, you’ll have a better idea of where you stack up against your peers. Your 1RM lets you know exactly where you stand at any specific moment in time. With your known 1RM, you can set goals, chart a course of action, and test yourself again in hopes of setting a new personal record (PR). After all, the PR is what we’re all aiming for.

So, we’re gonna do curls, right?

Nope. Big, compound, free-weight barbell movements are the ones we want to test.  We’re talking about the squat, bench press, deadlift, power clean, overhead press, and all of the variations thereof.  In other words, you might also want to test your 1RM in the front squat, box squat, board press, or rack deadlift, but  don’t bother testing your 1RM in dumbbell exercises or movements like step-ups, lunges, 1-arm dumbbell rows, or triceps extensions because you’ll most likely hurt yourself (and look stupid in the process).

Who should test for a 1RM?

Novice trainees with fewer than two years of training experience should not test their 1RMs; these folks need to focus on learning proper exercise form and developing their technique according to their individual body structures. Additionally, if you’re new to the iron game, you’ve got plenty of time to improve and your newbie gains will come so fast that your maxes will change every week.

Intermediate lifters with more than two years of training under their belts can begin thinking about testing their 1RM.  Advanced lifters should already know their maxes (if you don’t, just what the heck are you waiting for?!)

Your current state of preparedness will let you know if you’re ready to test a 1RM or not.  In other words, if you’ve taken a break from training or have spent most of your time handling weights in the 8–15 reps range, you’re not prepared.  If you typically train big compound lifts in the 5-8 rep range, then you’re getting closer.

The Psychology of the 1RM

When you hit a heavy single, it’s a different ballgame.  Not only is your mental state different, but the way you approach this event physically will be different as well.  Imagine yourself getting under a bar loaded with 135 pounds and having to squat it 10 times. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, this is just a warm-up set, so let me bang these out and work up to my heavier sets.”

Now imagine loading the same bar with 500 pounds and see what’s running through your mind!

Heavy singles require a unique mental approach in that they require increased attention, mental focus, intensity, and muscle recruitment. When you approach a max lift, you’d better be incredibly focused. If not, you’re setting yourself up for some big hurt.

Visualization before a max lift helps focus the mind on the task at hand. Repeating positive mental cues like “hips back, knees out, and chest up” can breed confidence.  Music is a great motivator. This is the time to crank up the iPod with your favorite training song and get pissed off.

(Side note: My good friend and former training partner, six-time IPF World Powerlifting Champion “Captain” Kirk Karwoksi, used to listen to AC/DC’s Back in Black while remembering the douchebag who cut him off in traffic earlier that day. By the time he approached a max attempt, he was like a caged animal.  His rage-induced frenzy transformed him into a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode into the bar.)

Raw Powerlifter Ryan Celli understands the mindset required for hitting a heavy single

(Photo courtesy of Celli’s Fitness Center)

Training for the Max Attempt

If you’ve never tested your 1RM, or if it’s been a while since you’ve trained heavy, set aside at least a month to begin working up to heavy singles.  Start hitting sets of five for a week or two, then drop to three reps for two weeks, then hit some singles the last two weeks. This doesn’t mean you’ll go to failure on each set. If your normal bench workout has been 225 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, then it’s time to start adding weight.  In your next workout, try something like this:

[sets x reps]
  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 225 x 2
  • 235 x 5
  • 245 x 5
  • 255 x 5

This approach will start bringing your body (and more importantly, your central nervous system or CNS) up to speed for heavy singles.  Maybe your next session can include more triples, such as:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 3
  • 250 x 3
  • 260 x 3
  • 270 x 3

The key on your warm-up sets is to prepare your body, CNS, and mind for the heavier weights. Don’t bother with more than five reps per set unless it’s an early warm-up set.  Performing lots of reps on your warm-up sets will only fatigue you and take away from your heavier work sets. Remember that you’re training for “Go!” and not just for show.

A third week might follow this progression:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 3
  • 255 x 3
  • 265 x 3
  • 275 x 3

And a fourth week might look like this:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 8
  • 185 x 4
  • 235 x 2
  • 255 x 2
  • 275 x 2
  • 285 x 1
  • 295 x 1

Don’t be afraid to use the little plates when working your way up.  If all you ever add is large plates, your progress will stall.  It doesn’t make you any less of a badass to use the 10s, 5s, and 2.5s.  At our training facility we’ve got .25kg plates for those times when all that’s needed is one more pound for a huge lift. Trust me, sometimes a few pounds is all you’ve got, and it’s better to increase by that couple of pounds and keep making progress than to always jump big and miss.

Time to Test!

After a couple of weeks of heavy singles, it’s time to test your 1RM.  Get a good night’s sleep the night before, make sure you’re well fed, and remove as much stress from your life as possible. When you get to the gym, warm up for a few minutes, do some dynamic mobility movements relevant to the lift you’re testing, put your mind in the right place, and get after it.

If you’re testing your squat or bench press, make sure you have competent spotters.   Warm up just enough to prepare your body for your heavier attempts.

Here’s a progression based on the previous examples:

  • Bar x 10
  • 135 x 5
  • 185 x 3
  • 225 x 2
  • 255 x 1
  • 280 x 1
  • Test!

After you make your initial attempt, assess how you feel and increase accordingly.  Be true to yourself. If possible, take video of your max lifts. Not only can video highlight breakdowns in form, but sometimes can show that perception and reality are two totally different things.  Any weight over 90 percent of your max is likely to feel heavy. However, sometimes you’ll watch the video and realize that your bar speed was lightning fast. If your initial testing weight feels good, add 5-10 pounds. Keep going until one of three things happens: you miss a weight, you grind it out and realize there’s nothing left in the tank, or your form becomes so much of a train wreck that continuing presents a health risk.

A competent spotter is a MUST for testing your 1 Rep Max

After the 1RM Test

Once you have your 1RM, take a moment to bask in the glory of your efforts.  After you come back down to earth, grab a calendar, put pen to paper, and plan your next training cycle. The first step is setting realistic goals.

If you just squatted 475 pounds for the first time, it’s very tempting to set a goal of 500-pounds as the next “big” number.  However, you’ll want to consider the timeframe for when you plan to achieve that goal. If you only give yourself four weeks, don’t expect a 25-pound increase. You’d be better off settling for 480 pounds or perhaps a little more.

I’m not suggesting that you always sandbag your efforts. I just know that small, incremental, and steady progress is superior over the long haul. When you’re feeling energetic and strong on a test day, then ride the wave and push yourself to the limit because you never know when that wave will come around again.  Otherwise, be happy with achieving the next five pounds. A PR is a PR no matter how large or small.

Periodizing Your 1RM

Some form of periodization usually works best when training to improve your 1RM.  Resist the urge to retest your lifts the following week.  Unless you have some heavenly revelation from above, your lifts won’t improve that quickly. Trust me, you’ll want to devote at least a good 8-12 weeks to hard training before you test again.

In fact, many seasoned, competitive powerlifters only compete two to three times a year. Take a page from that book and pick two to three dates per year when you plan to reassess your 1RMs.  Once you select your dates, count back to the current date. Now you have the number of weeks you have to work with.

Mapping out an annual training plan is indicative of a trainee who is transitioning into a different stage of his or her lifting career. Intermediate and advanced trainees are wise to create a roadmap toward a goal. A training plan serves as a blueprint or an outline but is not a contract.  It gives you the flexibility to adjust on the fly and make changes when necessary.

A Few Resources to Check Out

The best way to improve your 1RM is to train with percentages of your max because they provide the ability to train within specific intensity ranges. You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find that there are a myriad of templates to choose from. You can choose something as basic and linear as Bill Starr’s classic 5 x 5 system, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Method, Westside, Boris Sheiko’s system, the Bulgarian system, or use one of my personal favorites, Prilepin’s Table.

Regardless of which path you head down, recognize that strength is a journey and not a destination.  You can always add one more pound to the bar.  The 1RM affords you the opportunity to approach your training in a more calculated and focused manner with a real target in your sights: your new PR!

Written by Matthew Gary, CSCS

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – A Gym Rat’s Guide to the One-Rep Max discussion thread.

About Matthew Gary

Matt is a 15-year veteran of competitive powerlifting and his personal best lifts include a 584-pounds squat, 386-pounds bench press, and 639-pounds in the deadlift.

He has coached at the highest levels in powerlifting and founded Supreme Sports Performance & Training (SSPT), where he trains local athletes and serious trainees.

Matt has a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiological Sciences and he is recognized as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is also a Certified Personal Fitness Trainer with the International Sports Medicine Association.

Get Real

Bodybuilding magazines — pro or con?

I find that I ask myself that question often. Do the mags serve their purchasers by providing useful info, motivating stories and inspirational photos or do they erode enthusiasm, misinform readers and develop expectations that are unrealistic?

Let examine the goals of bodybuilding magazines. First off, as in any business their goal is to turn a profit. In the muscle mag industry, that entails revenue from advertising income and/or the sales and promotion of in-house products.

The early Weider magazines promoted both Weider Nutrition products and the IFBB, which they controlled. In its heyday Muscular Development was owned and served as a marketing vessel for Twinlab, just as Muscle Media 2000 operated to promote EAS. With plenty of competition on the newsstands, they need to grab the reader’s attention and the best way to do that is to promise them their deepest wish… preferably delivered quickly with next to no effort!

Publishing moguls in the mainstream like Rupert Murdoch and William Hearst have turned over huge profits based on eschewing accuracy and journalistic integrity for raw sensationalism. Bodybuilding mags have followed that trend. Despite the formulaic regularity in which they each boldly declare themselves “the truth,” they all serve to propagate a number of dangerous myths.

Grabbing just the top twelve random bodybuilding magazines off my shelf I found the following cover blurbs:

  • Be a Friggin’ Freak! Smash Your Bench Up 100 lbs.
  • Rock Hard in Three Months
  • Fast Track to Growth
  • Strong & Ripped in 6 Weeks
  • Gain 10 lbs. of Muscle this Month!
  • You Can Look Great in Just 14 Days. Here’s How!
  • Huge Arms in 8 Weeks
  • Leaner & Stronger in a Month!
  • How I Built 23-inch Arms. Lou Ferrigno Did It — Here’s How You Can Too
  • Super-size You! 23 Pounds in 12 Weeks
  • Add Ten Pounds in 60 Days
  • 6 Weeks to Bigger Pecs and Delts

While some of these may sound possible (in the right situation), most of them seem incredibly improbable.

I doubt we can all build Ferrigno-sized arms and if any training program could make someone look great in just 14 days, then it would be an immediate international sensation and I doubt anyone in the civilized world would NOT look great.

What about the Internet? Do the online communities provide a more grounded, realistic approach to lifting? This, of course, varies. On many online bodybuilding forums it appears as if everyone on there is a self-professed genetic freak with single-digit bodyfat, powerlifting champion strength, and are just biding their time before claiming their pro cards. These sites also tend to be frequented by keyboard hit men anxious to blast newcomers rather than providing a supportive encouraging environment. With notable exceptions being in the minority, random online surfing can lead to a demoralizing experience.

Football is referred to as a game of inches, with every play being a tooth-and-nail battle for territory, driving towards a first down and eventually a touchdown. Similarly, training in the gym is a battle of ounces. Each five to ten-pound strength increase, added ounce of muscle, percent reduction in bodyfat brings us closer to our ideal. It is not a six-week solution or a three-month transformation. It is the cumulative effect of YEARS of consistent hard training and proper nutrition. It is the continued effort, the nearly imperceptible, gradual progress that brings about an impressive physique or notable lifting total.

Some Real World Examples:

Recreational Bodybuilder: Ryan

Ryan has been lifting for four years, beginning his junior year of high school and continuing on in college. A voracious reader of the bodybuilding magazines, he could recite the training programs (each bodypart) of at least a dozen top pros. Naturally skinny, he packed on about twenty pounds in his first six months training at home. While he was hesitant to declare his goals, he dreamed of winning an IFBB pro card.

Encouraged by the twenty pounds he gained, Ryan got a membership at a commercial gym and, using their equipment, was able to emulate the training of his pro role models. After three months, he noticed his interest in training starting to diminish, despite having four versions of lat pulldowns to choose from. He bought a fourth month pass at the gym but only used it twice the first week. He just was not seeing the progress that he expected and he started wondering if something was wrong with him.

After an extended layoff, he came across a small listing in the yellow pages for a fitness center one town over and went to check it out. He found a dusty cinderblock walled gym. Planning to just look at the equipment, he was called over to give the owner a spot since the place was empty and ended up working in with him. The still burning embers of his passion for bodybuilding reignited, he started a solid moderate volume no-BS program that the gym owner wrote up for him.

Ryan no longer buys the magazines or follows the top names in the IFBB. Although he made the huge twenty-pound jump in his first six months, he can credit himself with thirty-five more solid pounds in the four years he has been training. He realizes that he probably will never get on a bodybuilding stage, but people sometimes ask if he has ever competed. Most importantly he loves training and the way it makes him feel. 

Beware of following the flashy training routines by the top pros

Loser No More: Catherine

Catherine has always been heavy — not morbidly obese, but as her mother always said, “naturally big-boned.” Having never really been an athletic person, she was inspired by watching “The Biggest Loser.” Seeing average, unathletic types lose 50, 70 even 120 pounds in a ten-week period made her feel like she could make some real changes in her own body.

After three weeks of haphazard dieting and doing cardio work to the point that she felt like she was going to sleepwalk right onto a treadmill, Catherine topped out the scale without losing a single pound. She realized she needed a coach like the people on the show.

Catherine lucked out; getting a sensible trainer that was nothing like the over-the-top camera preening trainers on “The Biggest Loser.” He mapped out a basic, no frills program for her. He even pulled out a Time Magazine article that showed that the show’s Season One winner had gained back almost all of his weight (weighing in at 307), and stressed the importance of fitting a realistic program into her lifestyle, since she was looking for lasting change, not a temporary solution.

Catherine realized that even though she may not change overnight she loved the way she felt after a workout. Starting her day with exercise also made her naturally eat better. She didn’t feel the need to treat herself since life was feeling pretty good. Training became a part of her routine and she forgot about the scale… until the day came that she realized her clothes were no longer fitting right.

In three months, she had lost twenty-five pounds, although she felt stronger and could see some new muscle in her arms and shoulders. She realized she was not actually “big-boned,” that was just a euphemism for “sedentary with poor eating habits.”

Over the rest of the year she gradually lost fifteen more pounds and gained a little solid muscle. She found that she could treat herself from time to time and her new body burnt it off. She was enjoying the process and, although she did set goals for herself, they were reachable objectives based on changes she could live with without feeling like she was not able to enjoy life.

Slow and Steady: Mike

For Mike, weekend flag football was more about post-game beers and male bonding than athletic excellence. The fun and games came to a screeching stop once a bad twist of his knee sent him into physical therapy.

Not wanting to lose his ability to function, Mike dedicated himself to rehab and found that he enjoyed the process. Once he was released from therapy (or rather once insurance decided to release him), he was determined to continue lifting. With no gyms in the area, he lucked out and found a group of guys online that had pulled together to create a powerlifting gym in a rented two-car garage.

The four guys training in the morning crew were glad to have some new blood and their post-workout encouragement eased him past the intimidation of the hardcore environment. At first he mostly helped spot, load plates and learn proper form. His knee felt strong enough that he was able to pull a sled and do light squats.

Helping the guys from his crew compete in a local push/pull meet showed Mike what the competitive side of powerlifting was all about. While tightening the belt for his team-mate CJ, who was going for a record deadlift, the crowd got whipped up into a frenzy.

Struggling to lockout, CJ looked like he was going to fold when, from the back of the room, a bellowing voice screamed out. A barrel-chested mountain-man with a scraggly ZZ-Top beard and crazed eyes quickly staggered up the center aisle screaming, “DO IT! DRIVE THAT SONUVA…” It was the last bit of willpower that CJ needed and he drove his hips forward to be greeted at lockout by three white lights!

The grizzled veteran with the scraggly beard was on stage lifting CJ off his feet with a congratulatory hug, even though CJ’s record pull had just beaten his own previous effort that day. Mike saw that powerlifting is all about everyone helping one another become their best. He was instantly hooked and told his crew he wanted to compete at the next local meet.

His first goal was just to not bomb out and to get a thousand –pound total. Six years later, he is closing in on an elite ranking. More important than his totals, Mike has found a lifetime passion in lifting. His work problems seem pretty miniscule after a day that kicks off with a good box squat session. He has become a leader on the team and served as a mentor to new lifters that have joined the power garage. He doesn’t miss flag football. The team of guys he battles the iron with four to six days a week are closer to him than brothers. He considers his knee injury the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Six Keys to Keeping It Real

1. Don’t judge yourself based on the superstars of bodybuilding and powerlifting you see in the magazines (or the self-professed “uncrowned kings” professing their superhuman qualities online). If you compare yourself to others, you will always find yourself lacking.

2. While it is okay to set difficult goals for yourself, make sure they can be realistically achieved. Setting the bar too high and being overly self-critical can easily lead to burn out. If you want to choose a role model, consider someone with genetics closer to your level than Flex Wheeler, Dorian Yates or Chuck Vogelpohl. A local competitor or someone impressive at your gym might make a better choice.

Choosing Flex Wheeler as a Role Model may lead to unrealistic goals and disappointment

3. Take time to look back and appreciate the progress you have made and the things you have accomplished. Often it may seem like you have been grinding your gears but if you step away and look back over your progress from the time you started (especially for those of you that have trained consistently for years), your expanded perspective may give you reason to be very proud.

4. Be patient. Rome was not build in a day and neither was a gladiator physique. Powerlifting champion Robert Wagner once told me that the key to success in powerlifting was to stick with it long enough and minimize injuries. Given time you will build a huge total.

5. Enjoy the process. Hard work and fun do not need to be mutually exclusive things. If you don’t enjoy the gym, then maybe you should be doing something else?

6. If your genetic abilities are lower than average, you might not make it as far and it may take you longer, but you can create a better physique and what you accomplish will be more rewarding because of the effort you have put in.

Accomplishments are relative. Placing in the novice class in a small local show may mean as much to someone as winning his first Olympia meant to Jay Cutler. Getting down to eight-percent bodyfat with a nice V-taper for an island vacation may be as important to someone as getting a Muscle & Fitness magazine cover might be to someone else.

Follow these basic guidelines and over the course of your lifting career (while you may not ever build 23” Ferrigno arms), you will in time build a physique that may surprise you. Either way, I promise you that the rewards of hard training are more about the changes you make on the inside than the physique you possess or the lifting trophies that you accumulate.

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Get Real discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.

An Intelligent Approach to Building a Big, Strong Chest

If you’re a lifter, I guarantee you’ve been asked The Question. It’s almost like a prerequisite to even joining a gym: “Here’s your towel, your member key, and, by the way, how much do you bench?

Although it’s often asked nonchalantly, the true intent of The Question is to find the answer to an even deeper question: How much of a man are you?

The truth is, unless you’re a powerlifter, how much you bench is irrelevant. In fact, if your goals are primarily hypertrophy and aesthetics, chasing some number on the bench may be detrimental to your progress.

Developing a full chest—one that looks like it could bench a ton—lies in proper science and proper application of training.

In this article, I will cover scientific principles, how to apply functional exercises for better neural and physical development, and also the proper methodology for building the strong, muscular chest you want!

Function and Anatomy (Don’t Worry, It’s Not Boring!)

The chest is comprised of two muscles: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. These two muscles perform two functions: one is horizontal adduction (drawing the arms toward each other) and the other is flexion of the shoulder joint (pushing the arms away from the body). This tells us that there are only two movements that activate the pectoralis major and minor, and those would be presses and flies.

The chest also functions best in the plane of motion between 0 and 45 degrees from a prone position (that translates to ‘from a flat bench to a 45-degree incline bench’.) Now I know that you’re thinking “What about decline presses?” Decline versions of presses and flies involve more than the chest as a prime mover and though they can be included (depending on the structure and leverage system of an individual), they are not necessary.

Because we know that a) the chest is most efficiently stimulated in the 0 to 45 degree plane of motion, and b) its main functions are to push away from the body and draw the arms together, the main components of your chest workout should be presses and fly movements done in a flat or incline position of no more than 45 degrees.

How to Target the Chest

Exercise selection

The most efficient way to develop the chest is to use mainly dumbbells for presses because they require you to perform both functions of the chest (drawing the arms together and pushing away from the body) for greater stimulation and overload.

As you perform presses, make sure to push the weight upward at first, and then as you get to the top of the movement, bring the dumbbells together for full contraction of the pecs.

To ensure that you maintain tension on the chest, do not go below parallel to the shoulders; this way the chest is in its fully stretched position, but you are not putting the stretch into the shoulders. A phrase coined by my mentor Scott Abel is “a muscle that is stretched with resistance will receive the most overload,” so making sure you keep tension mainly in the targeted muscle is very important.

Now this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ever use barbells for presses, but the majority of your training protocol should be geared around dumbbells and cables. Cables, tubing, dumbbells, and even machines can and should be used for fly movements.


The barbell bench press performed the traditional way – feet on the floor – is a poor choice for chest development for a majority of individuals, especially for those with bad leverages (long arms). If your goal is to just press as much weight as possible, then the traditional approach is the preferred set-up. But if you’re looking for size and full development, we need to make a few adjustments.

Start by placing your feet up on the bench. By doing this, you lose stability in your hips and knees. The joint stress transfer goes to the shoulder joint, the pectoralis major becomes the prime mover, and your chest receives the greater amount of overload, which is what we want. Now you’re ready to rock.

A quick note about dumbbell flies: I see a lot of guys going extremely wide on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift. This is wrong. A fly performed with DBs should be more of a modified press in order to avoid stress on the rotator cuff and shoulder joint in general. As you descend, drop down at the elbows, making a semi-circle. As you perform the concentric portion of the lift, straighten your arms toward the top of the motion and squeeze your chest, without letting the DBs touch in order to maintain tension.

Overall, good form is essential with any exercise to ensure that you are targeting the intended working muscle and not just letting any muscle lift the weight from point A to point B. We seek quality contractions on each and every rep so that the muscle we are targeting receives the most overload.

When just focusing on weight, most people tend to lift the weight up instead of contracting it up for maximum stimulation.

The Quality of Each Rep

One of the main goals for a bodybuilder or any athlete should be to increase one’s Training Efficiency Percentage (TEP), which is defined as the percentage of reps in a given set that forces an adaptive response. When this is increased, the intensity of the set and reps increases, as well as the stress on the targeted muscle. This causes more of an adaptive response. Therefore, you want to make sure to train intensely on every rep of every set, focusing on training the muscle and not your ego.

Lastly, overall intensity is the key to any workout. I’m not talking about doing a one-rep max; I’m talking about exertion levels. When lifters come as close to their maximum workload capacity as possible, they will get much bigger payoffs in the end.

Allen Cress looks the part and also has a 400lb bench press to his name

Functional training

Functional training is a great tool that can be used within a training protocol to stimulate the muscle in a different way than with traditional exercises. I’m going to show you one of many ways to implement this concept for better chest development (and no, it doesn’t involve wobble boards or other weird stuff) .

The basis of functional training is to train movements and not specific muscles. If applied correctly, functional exercises can fit into a program to induce more hypertrophy, which is what all bodybuilders and most regular individuals want. It also enhances balance and proprioception, which lead to better overall development.

Traditional training can cause severe muscle imbalances, arthritic joints, and a narrower range of motion over time due to training in a single plane of motion. Build-up of scar tissue, adhesions, and inflammation can also occur, leading to diminishing or no returns. Functional training can be used as a hybrid approach to correcting these problems and/or preventing them from happening in the first place. Functional exercises target the muscle differently, without adding any external resistance or load, so the recovery time is much shorter.

For example, medicine ball (MB) crossover pushups are a great functional exercise for the chest. The range and plane of motion involved in this exercise stimulates the chest neurally as well as physically.  Activation potential, fiber recruitment, and rate of force production (explosiveness) within a working muscle or movement are extremely important to anyone looking for better development.

These movements should be placed on a separate day from your traditional chest day, such as an addition to leg exercises on leg day. One other benefit to placing them on leg day is the increase in metabolic demand due to the pairing of two exercises that target two different muscle groups. The functional exercises will not interfere with the leg recovery, but will induce greater oxygen debt, and thus helping to increase workload capacity.

Sample Hybrid Chest Workout

A single workout is not a program, and a collection of exercises is not exactly a workout or a program. What you do the day before and after a certain training day does matter and needs to be taken into account.

I design programs as part of a bigger picture and not one be-all/end-all program that will achieve all of your goals. It is a collection of programs over time with proper progression that teaches the body to handle greater intensity loads and to adapt to stress placed on the body.

That said, it’s always helpful to have a guide.

The following workouts are designed to be part of a body-part split that trains each muscle once per week and is intended for intermediate to advanced level trainees. There are three different workouts for chest. Rotate each workout from week to week, keeping them in the given sequence for a total of four repeats, which will give you three months worth of workouts.

The breakdown during the week is as follows:

Day Bodypart
Day 1 Chest
Day 2 Back
Day 3 Shoulders
Day 4 OFF
Day 5 Legs/Functional Chest
Day 6 Arms
Day 7 OFF

Workout 1

Day Sets Reps
Incline DB press 5 5
Flat DB fly (feet up) 3 8-10
Seated Hammer Strength press 3 12-15
Crossover 3 15
Flat DB press (feet up) 3 10-12

Workout 2

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB fly (feet up) 5 8-10 (2)
20-12 (2)
12-15 (1)
Incline DB press 3 8-10
Flat BB press

(no lockout, feet up)

3 12-15
Low incline fly 3 10-12
Crossovers 2-3 15-20

Workout 3

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB press (feet up) 5 6-8 (2)
8-10 (2)
10-12 (1)
Pec deck 3 10-12
One-arm DB press off stability ball 3 12 (each arm)
Incline DB press 3 10-12
Any machine press 2-3 15

Workout 3

Day Sets Reps
Flat DB press (feet up) 5 6-8 (2)
8-10 (2)
10-12 (1)
Pec deck 3 10-12
One-arm DB press off stability ball 3 12 (each arm)
Incline DB press 3 10-12
Any machine press 2-3 15

Day 4: Each exercise should be bi-plexed (supersetted) with leg exercises

Day Sets Reps
Crossover pushup off MB (see video) 1 just short of failure
Asymmetrical explosive pushup (see video) 1 just short of failure
Push up with feet on stability ball 1 just short of failure
Push up on two MBs with feet elevated 1 just short of failure
T stab pushups (see video) 1 just short of failure

Other optional functional movements include:

  • Whole body explosive pushups
  • Explosive pushup, clap hands between reps
  • Mountain man pushups
  • Pushups with hands on two stability balls

Note: Place explosive variations first in the routine

Step Outside the Box and Try Something New

You must work hard and work intelligently to get the best results. Your body adapts to the stimulation and stress you place on it, which is why it’s important to select proper exercises to suit your body’s needs and to ensure that you stimulate your body in such a way as to cause an adaptive response.

More often than not, a serious lifter’s gains can be attributed to changing something in his program, thus providing the body with a new stimulus. On the other hand, when a lifter gets stuck in a period of muscular stagnation, the first instinct is often to go back to a program that worked well in the past, rather than trying something new. This is a huge mistake! You need to step outside the box and take a chance if you ever want to take it to the next level.

So if your goal is to develop a full, round chest that just pops out of your shirt, stop being overly concerned about how much you bench and get on the right path to effective training. Give this program a try if you’ve been stuck in a canyon-sized rut for a while. Soreness and growth are guaranteed!

Written by Allen Cress

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – An Intelligent Approach to Building a Big, Strong Chest discussion thread.

About Allen Cress

Allen Cress is a multi strength sport athlete as well as a highly sought after trainer.

Allen owns Maximum Performance Training, LLC where he offers both online and one-on-one training. He has an eclectic variety of clients ranging from bodybuilders to high school, college, and professional athletes. He also works frequently with injured clients referred to him by both orthopedists and physical therapists.

Allen is sponsored by AtLarge Nutrition and you can find him on the Wannabebig Forums where he also maintains a training journal so you can see exactly how he trains, eats and supplements – Allen Cress – Contest prep 2010! Feel free to drop by and say hello!