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For the past couple of years the amount of time I can commit to training has been severely curtailed. My business life literally runs from about 8:15 A.M. to 9 P.M. (or later) six days per week. I have thus been relegated to primarily training on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings (I will sometimes get in late mini-workouts in my basement).
As you may know I am a huge advocate of Louie Simmons’ Westside training methodologies (www.westside-barbell.com). The Westside program when properly adhered to calls for at least four training days per week. Mini workouts to add additional volume (especially for weak points) are also indicated and can be done on otherwise “off” days. Following this protocol is optimal, but not viable due to work and other life considerations for many individuals interested in increasing their absolute size, strength, or both.
I don’t promote excuses or weakness. Many people who claim they can only find the time to train once or twice per week simply lack the will to do what must be done. With that said, there are some people who truly cannot devote more time to their training and yet want to see results. For those of you who are in this category, take heart, it CAN be done. In fact, it has been done at the highest level. I remember reading some time ago that one of the greatest strength athletes in history, Jon Cole, trained twice per week at his peak. Jon set powerlifting records that stood for 40 years!
If Jon did it, so can YOU. Well, not set records that stand for 40 years, but get darn big and strong training only twice per week. The key is the right mix of intensity, volume, and exercise selection.
For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on a blend of size and strength. What follows will provide you the information you need to train twice per week and add both lean muscle mass and strength.
Total Body Sessions
When your training time is limited to two sessions per week it is imperative that you hit all of the major muscle groups each session. Training the total body in one session requires a low volume of work by body part. As the target reader of this article has a severely curtailed amount of training time, the length of a given session is necessarily short. Even if one had more time, sessions much in excess of an hour have been shown to produce diminishing returns (hormonal and other considerations being the presumed culprits). The good news is that despite what you may have read and heard, given a proper level of intensity and mix of rep schemes etc. the actual amount of volume required to add size and strength is much less than commonly accepted.
Prescribed volume for the vast majority of trainees on a twice per week system is 2-5 working sets by body part/group. Working sets are defined as post-warm-up work. See below for more specific recommendations:
Chest – 3-5 sets
Upper back – 3-5 sets
Whole body movements such as squats and deadlifts – 2-5 sets
Accessory work – 2-4 sets
Each of the above sets should be taken to near concentric failure (concentric failure defined as the inability to complete a rep). Rep counts should be varied targeting absolute strength with reps in the 1-3 range, and then following up with higher repetitions to promote growth of the contractile myofibrils and conditioning/thickening of the connective tissues. Here is a sample chest workout to illustrate this concept:
* Only working sets will be noted. The set and rep scheme will be presented in this fashion – 4 x 3/3/12/12 – this indicates four working sets of 3 reps for the first and second sets to be followed by 12 reps each for the third and fourth sets.
Floor Press: 3 x 1/5/12
Incline Press: 2 x 8/15
In the case above the floor press is the primary movement of the day. After an appropriate (specific to the individual) warm-up the first working set is a training one rep maximum/near maximum (max) attempt. A training one rep max attempt by definition involves very little psychological stimulation. In other words, the lifter doesn’t get “crazy” for the attempt. He or she simply concentrates and handles a very heavy load in a calm state. Training singles should consist primarily of such attempts as excessively psyched max attempts are very draining in general, to the nervous system in particular, and can quickly lead to training stagnation.
A heavy training single is very important to, if not optimal for, the building of maximal strength. The ability to move a near maximal load for one repetition requires neural optimization relative to the specific movement pattern and loading. While multiple repetitions can and do build absolute strength (up to a point), only heavy single attempts can optimally stimulate the adaptation required to maximize absolute strength. This is the S.A.I.D. (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle in practice. Human physical adaptation is highly specific and the neural coordination required to move a maximal load through a specific movement pattern can only be peaked with single repetition practice (yes, repeated for emphasis…).
Absolute strength is a combination of neural optimization and the force production capacity of the contractile myofibrils (actin and myosin – the contractile components of skeletal muscle). Maximal individual demonstrable strength is thus achieved via a combination of contractile hypertrophy and neural adaptation. This is the reason for the combination of both heavy singles and moderate and higher repetitions. Moderate reps (4-8 or so) target both maximal strength and hypertrophy while higher reps stimulate what is commonly referred to as non-contractile hypertrophy (hypertrophy of the non-contractile elements of muscle fibers) and the maintenance/hypertrophy of the very important connective tissues. The importance of the repetition blend cannot be overemphasized.
To clarify the force production capacity statement, the contractile components of the muscles cells are known as the aforementioned myofibrils actin and myosin. Individually speaking, the larger the myofibrils the greater the force production capacity, but greater capacity does not automatically equate to greater expressed strength. A automotive analogy is appropriate to illustrate the concept. With an automobile engine and transmission the transmission is required to take the force production capacity of the engine and translate it to the wheels so the car will move. In the body the nervous system is loosely analogous to the automobile transmission and the myofibrils to the engine. The myofibrils need to have the capacity for high force production and the nervous system must orchestrate everything in one of life’s most beautiful symphonies, the symphony of physical expression.
Want the laymen’s translation? If you want to be really strong make your muscles big and practice heavy singles…
Varying Movements and Intensity
Followers of Westside know that exercise variety is one of the cornerstones of the program. Maximum Effort movements are varied weekly by cycling through 3-4 primary movements. Twice per week trainees should approach things a bit differently. The reduced volume dictated by the program changes the paradigm such that repetition of the same movement is beneficial, at least for a longer period of time than with a standard Westside protocol.
Westside switches Max Effort (ME) movements weekly because Louie Simmons’ research led him to the conclusion that it is optimal for the vast majority of those practicing his program. The higher the level the athlete, the less frequently a one rep max attempt can be made for the same movement. In practice, Louie observed that for most of his athletes the same movement one rep max cannot be repeated for more than 2-3 weeks before stagnation occurs. Weekly rotation proved to be superior as it permitted the most consistent progress with a minimization of injuries from overuse as an added benefit.
This brings us back to some specific verbiage I used earlier in this article. I noted the use of the training one rep max/near max. The reason for the inclusion of the “near max” terminology is that with my program the prescribed one rep max attempts differ from those practiced at Westside in that majority of them are lower in intensity. With my program instead of only one max effort weekly for either a bench or squat variation there are two such attempts. The performance of two very heavy singles per week dictates a reduction in intensity when compared to a true training one rep max. In practice I have found that doing so leads to more consistent progress.
Not to confuse the issue, but my program also relies on a degree of autoregulation. Performing two near max singles per week by body part weekly can overwhelm even those with above average recovery ability, so I encourage practitioners of my program to monitor their progress and make adjustments as needed. When I feel that my body is getting too beat up with heavy singles, and or stagnation sets in, I will switch to a higher rep scheme. In most cases only a week or two of less intense work is needed to right the ship.
A Sample Week of Training
Rack pulls (from about 2″ off the floor): 1/5
Floor press: 1/5
Giant Set (3 rounds)*:
Original Nautilus pullover: one arm at a time – 12 reps
Close grip pulldown: 10
Machine chest press: 15-20
Machine lateral raise: 10
* No rest is taken between exercises. The trainee moves as quickly as possible from one exercise to the next.
Leg press: 15-20/15-20 – these are done using a rest pause style. Reps are continuous until fatigue demands a break and then the load is held at lockout just long enough to take a few deep breaths and to allow the burn to subside. A few more reps are then done until fatigue again demands a brief break. This is repeated 2-3 times per “set” until the target rep count is hit.
Overhead cable crunches: 20/20
Box squat with various bars: 1/5 (I will normally switch bars every 3rd-4th week)
Bench press with pause: 1/5
Giant Set (3 rounds):
Seated cable rows with the two handed rope attachment: 10
Seated machine chest press: 10
Machine lateral raise: 10
Seated Nautilus shoulder press: 10
Leg curl: 12/12/12
Triceps pushdowns: 1 set performed in a rest pause fashion for 15-25 reps. Choose a load which allows for 10-12 strict, unbroken reps.
Overhead cable crunches: 20/20
You can get bigger and stronger training twice per week. Is it ideal? No, but if your schedule truly precludes a more expansive training regimen a twice per week program can and will be effective if properly executed.
No excuses, you can get bigger and stronger no matter what your life schedule looks like.
Author Chris Mason is the owner of AtLarge Nutrition, LLC and an accomplished author in the fitness genre. He has written for numerous websites and magazines.
Sequence Your Training for Optimal Results
by Chris Mason
With the recent massive increase in the popularity of training multiple fitness components simultaneously (CrossFit being the driving force of this movement) the topic of exercise sequencing for optimal results has become particularly poignant.
Physical fitness and performance are comprised of many different specific attributes. For example, strength has many forms all of which contribute to the body’s ability to move through space. Strength can be viewed as a spectrum ranging from starting strength (the ability to produce maximal force in the first 30 milliseconds of movement), to explosive strength (the ability to very quickly, albeit not quite as quickly as starting strength, generate a high degree of force), to maximal strength (the ability to volitionally produce the highest force possible). Muscular endurance, the ability to produce relatively low levels of force for prolonged periods, also has a strata with things like speed endurance and strength endurance.
Each attribute above and more must be trained in order to excel physically across a broad spectrum of performance markers. In short, you must get good at a lot of stuff to be a well-rounded athlete. The decathlete has historically best exemplified the all-around athlete, but the best of the best CrossFitters now equally well personify one.
As training time is limited for most athletes those that seek to be all-around machines must organize their training to permit optimized adaptation to all physical traits which are being worked. If all, or multiple attributes are to be trained in a single session the order should be as follows:
1) Technique or skill work
2) Speed work
3) Strength work
3) Endurance work of all forms with speed endurance work being done first to be followed by lower intensity prolonged exercise
Following the order prescribed above will allow for maximized results within the confines of training multiple attributes in a single session. A similar order should be followed when training will target multiple attributes via individual sessions over the course of several days. Care must be taken in those situations to permit recovery of the nervous system after endurance work prior to the next skill, speed, and or strength session. Either a day or two of rest or active rest are recommended.
A Special Note about the Nervous System and Performance
Technique or skill work for athletics are generally understood to be essentially wholly a function of the nervous system. What is perhaps less generally well known is that strength and speed work are also almost exclusively the domain of the nervous system. They may be less known in the scientific sense, but we can all empirically appreciate it as each of us have tried, at one point or another, to perform a high intensity activity when already fatigued from a lower intensity effort and know the sense of a lack of coordination and explosiveness which are manifest at such times.
In a simplified nutshell, lower intensity prolonged activities exert a negative effect on the nervous system in the short and mid-term. They reduce coordination, increase reaction time, and increase the chance of injury when higher intensity activities succeed them prior to complete recovery.
There is a paucity of scientific explanation for the specific causes of this central nervous system fatigue (central fatigue). One generally agreed upon factor is an increase of serotonin (5-HT) in the brain. This is thought to occur due to an increase in brain levels of free tryptophan (f-TRP) which is an amino acid precursor for 5-HT production.
During prolonged exercise f-TRP transport across the blood brain barrier increases due to two main causes. One has to do with tryptophan and albumin. Tryptophan (TRP) binds to albumin in the blood. During endurance exercise, blood borne fatty acid levels increase. Fatty acids displace TRP from binding to albumin thus increasing f-TRP.
The other main cause relates to branched chain amino acids (BCAA). F-TRP (i.e. unbound TRP) competes with the BCAA for transport to the brain thus a decrease in circulating BCAA will result is more f-TRP being able to pass to the brain. Prolonged exercise decreases circulating BCAA as the skeletal muscles take them up and oxidize them for energy.
While the science as to the specific physiologic cause(s) of central fatigue is scant, there is no lack of scientific and empirical evidence verifying the existence of central fatigue as a result of prolonged endurance exercise. There is also no lack of scientific and empirical data verifying the proper sequencing of exercise for specific adaptations. Take care to properly sequence your training and you will permit the best results possible.
Chris Mason is the owner of AtLarge Nutrition, LLC and an accomplished author in the fitness genre. He has written for numerous websites and magazines to include The CrossFit Journal and Iron Man Magazine.
Intensity vs. Volume for Hypertrophy (includes a 4 day split routine)
by Chris Mason
My last article addressed how to get bigger legs in 30 days using a form of double pre-exhaustion with a very high intensity of effort and low volume. I addressed how hypertrophy can benefit strength athletes from bodybuilders to weightlifters with some detail, but I did not directly touch on the topic of intensity vs. volume as it relates to hypertrophy.
Intensity vs. volume has been a topic of hot debate over the years with the two extremes of the spectrum being commonly represented on one end by the HIT (High Intensity Training) one set to failure popularized by the legendary Arthur Jones (the man who invented Nautilus® training equipment), his protege Ellington Darden PhD, and bodybuilding icon Mike Mentzer. The other end of the spectrum has the GVT (German Volume Training) proponents and the system coined Intensity or Insanity championed by bodybuilder John Defendis (he learned it from another bodybuilding legend named Steve Michalik) which promoted up to 60 or more sets per body part per session (clearly the high volume champion)!
The one immutable physiologic fact is that intensity and volume are inversely related when it comes to strength training. Intensity can be defined in this case by either the classic weightlifting definition which relates it to the percentage load used compared to the trainee’s one rep max, or by how close to concentric failure (when you cannot complete a rep) one comes during their post-warm-up sets. The higher the intensity of the session, the less volume which can be benefited from.
Many, many trainees confuse tolerating a given high volume routine with truly benefitting from it. Some trainees can adapt to a volume load such that they don’t show the classic symptoms of overtraining, but that does not mean they are training in such a fashion as to elicit, and more importantly, to permit supercompensation which results in improved size, strength, or both.
Don’t be a dummy, dummy! If you are not consistently progressing, assuming you are not near your genetic potential for size, strength, or both, you are NOT training properly, and as most serious trainees are not lacking in the effort department (i.e. intensity) chances are very good you are training with excessive volume and literally preventing the outcome you seek!
Now, as anyone who has been around the iron game for any length of time knows, there can be a pretty large variance in the amount of volume which works for a given trainee. There are two main reasons. First, individual genetic makeup provides for variance. Some people can simply handle more high intensity volume than others. Second, intensity, as has already been stated, is a variable that can make a huge difference. There is a marked difference in terms of recovery from training done at 100% intensity (as a percentage of one’s 1RM), or to failure with repetitions, than training done at 70-80% intensity, or stopping two or more reps short of failure. In the end, I believe this is a primary source of the confusion that persists in the bodybuilding (hypertrophy specific) world as to what volume of training is best.
So, what is the answer, what is the optimal volume and intensity for training for hypertrophy? In terms of actual results the answer is somewhat equivocal, but when you take into account time (the actual amount of time spent training) the answer becomes much clearer.
Over the years I have trained myself and many, many others both in person and remotely. What I have found to work best for the vast majority when hypertrophy is the primary goal is 4-6 working sets (I define work sets as post-warm-up sets) of 8-12 reps taken to, or within 1 rep of failure for larger body parts, or muscle groups, and 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps for smaller muscles, or muscle groups. So, nutshell, high intensity with moderate volume is the most effective means of eliciting maximal hypertrophy. Sure, variants of this formula work, but as noted in the previous paragraph, when you consider time spent in the gym, the formula I have set forth is the most “cost effective” I have found. Increased volume, generally speaking, does not translate to significantly better results (and often leads to overtraining), and less volume nets less results.
Earlier in this article I mentioned bodybuilding legend Mike Mentzer. Mike, after his competitive bodybuilding days, and before his death, promoted less and less volume. What is interesting is that at his competitive best he did not train with one set to failure. He used multiple working sets to failure and was able to achieve what is arguably one of the finest physiques ever displayed sporting a very rare combination of shape, symmetry, and sheer mass. I think Mike’s move towards extremely low volume was based on both a diseased mind (I understand he was considered to have some mental health concerns) and the need/compulsion for progression that is basic to human nature. People, especially high achievers, always feel compelled to improve things. This basic attribute of humanity is simultaneously a driver of achievement and a foible.
I mention Mike again because the following routine, which I have found to be VERY effective, is based off of a contest training regimen which Mike employed at his peak. To be clear, Mike was one to grow into his shows, so the pre-contest routines he used were potent at stimulating hypertrophy.
Monday & Thursday:
Superset (perform 3 supersets):
Incline dumbbell flye x 10 reps
Flat barbell bench press x 10 reps
Giant set (perform 2 giant sets):
Leg extension x 12 reps
Leg curl x 12 reps
Full squat x 12 reps
Rest 3-5 minutes then (not part of the giant set):
Leg Press – 1 x 15 reps
Calf raise – 2 x 20 reps
Overhead cable ab crunch – 2 x 12 reps
Tuesday & Friday:
Wide grip chins – 2 x failure
Superset (perform 2 supersets):
Dumbbell pullover x 10 reps
T-bar row x 8 reps
Superset (perform 2 supersets)
Dumbbell lateral raise x 12 reps
Seated dumbbell press x 10 reps
Superset (perform 2 supersets)
Barbell curl x 10 reps
Dumbbell rollback x 12 reps
Donkey calf raise – 2 x 15 reps
Overhead cable ab crunch – 2 x 15 reps
* Each of the above sets is a working set. Warm-up as needed prior to their performance.
Follow the above routine for three months. After three months take at least ten days off totally from training and then begin a new training regimen based upon your goal(s).
Nutrition and Supplementation
This is a training article, but some mention should be made of both nutrition and supplementation to support your intense hypertrophy focused training. In terms of nutrition the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle applies. The key points to remember: You should try to minimize consumption of processed foods, consume sufficient protein (1g per pound of body weight is more than sufficient), consume sufficient calories to support potential growth (this is the most often missed component), and have some sense of nutrient timing surrounding your training (be sure to consume some protein and quickly absorbed carbs immediately after training).
The concept of sufficient calories is a bit amorphous, so let me be more specific. For younger men, and those with a fast metabolism, sufficient caloric intake to fuel growth ranges from roughly 17-25 calories per pound of body weight. For older trainees, and those with slower metabolisms, the range is more along the lines of 14-18 calories per pound. The only way to know what is best for you is to experiment, but the ranges noted are good starting points.
In terms of supplementation, and keeping one’s budget in mind, I recommend the following:
http://atlargenutrition.com/product/pre-workout/ – take one serving about 40 minutes prior to training
http://atlargenutrition.com/product/nitrean/ – 1.5 scoops mixed in water or milk post-workout