The goal of the Muscle & Strength strength building guide is to provide you with all the tools you need to build strength as quickly as possible. You will learn about popular strength building workout structures and exercises, how to improve your bench press, squat and deadlift form, and how to maximize your nutrition and supplementation to reach your goals.
If you need help or clarifications, please feel free to post a question or comment at the end of this guide. You may also post questions in the Muscle & Strength forum.
Strength Training vs. Muscle Building for the Beginning Lifter
During the initial stages of training, there is very little difference between working out to build strength and working out to build muscle. Both goals will require a substantial addition of strength for key compound exercises such as the bench press, squats, overhead presses and rows, as well as the addition of muscle.
While experienced lifters will need to place much of their focus on lower rep training (1-5 reps per set), trainees who are just beginning their journey and looking to build strength should focus on the use of 5-10 rep sets for most compound exercises.
Definitions and Common Terms
The following is a list of common terms found in most strength building articles and workouts, along with definitions.
- Intensity – Intensity is often viewed in the context of “high intensity training.” For strength training intensity mean the percentage of your one rep max (1RM) that you are working with for a given exercise.
- Volume – Volume can constitute the number of sets per workout, the number of reps for a specific exercise at a given weight, or the total reps multiplied by the weight used.
- Periodization – Periodization involves the cycling of intensity and/or training volume through specific cycles to allow for improved recovery and continual gains.
- Overtraining – Overtraining can involve taxing a muscle, the central nervous system or joints and ligaments beyond their ability to effectively recover.
- Deload – A planned period of rest or lighter training to allow the symptoms of fatigue or overtraining to rescind while maintaining your current strength levels.
- Max Effort (ME) – Max effort refers to heavy (intense) training days in which a trainee works up to a 5, 3 or one rep max for a specific movement. ME days can be considered maximal load training days.
- Dynamic Effort (DE) – Dynamic effort training days place the focus on speed work, or performing an exercise with an approximate 50-60% of 1RM for fast/powerful repetitions. Dynamic effort sets are often single reps for the deadlift, 3 reps for bench press, and 2 for squats. DE days can be considered maximal speed training days.
- Repeitition Effort (RE) – Repetition effort training days focus on the use of higher rep sets, generally in the 6 to 12 rep range. Each set is push near, or to failure. RE days can be considered maximal force training days.
- Assistance Exercises – The function of assistance exercises is to target weaknesses and build up/strengthen key muscle groups so that the body as a unit is as strong as possible.
Natural Strength Standards and Expectations
The following strength standards were developed from definitions in “Practicial Programming” by Lon Kilgore, Mark Rippetoe and Glenn Pendlay. Five primary lifts are featured:
|Squat Strength Standards For Men|
|Bench Press Strength Standards For Men|
|Deadlift Strength Standards For Men|
|Overhead Press Strength Standards For Men|
|Power Clean Strength Standards For Men|
Strength Training Basics
Defining Your Goals
Before you pick a program and set up a solid eating plan, it’s important to define your goals. Take a minute to think about your long term goals, and write them down. Try to make goals realistic but challenging. A 400 pound bench press might be possible in 5 years, but it certainly can’t be achieved in 6 months by 99.99% of the population.
Once you have defined your long term goals, it’s time to think about short term goals. No small step is too insignificant. Think about where you want to be in a month, 6 months and a year.
And remember, the key to reaching any goal lies in maximizing your effort. Never waste a single set. Strong bodies are built “one extra rep at a time”, using small but consistent steps.
The 7 Primary Natural Strength Movements
If you are looking to build strength, the best place to start is by analyzing what the human body does well. We are built to perform certain movements and lifts with ease, utilizing multiple muscle groups and maximum leverage.
The 7 primary natural strength movements and lifts that the human body performs well are:
- Horizontal Push – Pressing/pushing a weight away from the torso. An example of a horizontal push movement is the bench press.
- Horizontal Pull – Pulling/rowing a weight towards the torso. An example of a horizontal pull movement is the bent over barbell row.
- Vertical Push – Pushing/pressing a weight overhead, away from the body. An example of a vertical push movement is the military press.
- Vertical Pull – Pulling a weight towards the torso from overhead. An example of a vertical pull movement is the pull up or lat pull down.
- Squat – Bending at the hips and knees while keeping a semi-upright torso, as if reaching for something on the ground before you. An example of a squat movement is the barbell squat.
- Lift From Ground – Lifting an object off the ground from a position of maximal leverage (bent knees and hips). An example of this movement is the barbell deadlift.
- Carry – Holding an object in one or both hands and walking and/or running. An example of a carry if a yolk or farmer’s walk.
There are many other movements the human body does well, such as jumping and shrugging, but most of these movements are derivations of the above 7 movements. What this means is that if you improve your strength on most or all of the 7 primary movements, your body will be able to perform nearly any task with power.
The Primary Strength Building Exercises
Most strength building workouts are very similar and nature, and comprised of a core group of several lifts. These lifts are all variations of the 7 primary natural movements.
- Squat and front squat.
- Bench press and close grip bench press.
- Military press and push press.
- Deadlift and Romanian deadlift.
- Barbell and dumbbell rows.
- Power cleans and Olympic lift variations.
There are also several other exercises that can be very beneficial to the novice trainee looking to rapidly build strength:
- Pull ups (palms away from body, wider grip)
- Chin ups (palms facing the body, narrow grip)
- Weighted abdominal exercises such weighted sit ups and cable crossovers
- Glute/ham raise
- Good mornings
- Side bends
- Farmer’s walk
It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list. For a complete list of quality exercises, please check out the “assistance exercise listing” that appears later in this article.
The Fastest Way for a Novice to Build Strength
It’s not uncommon for novice (beginning) lifters to fall into the trap of looking for a magic strength building workout or training system. Here’s what you need to remember: there is no magic system. The key to making rapid, consistent progress comes from following these essential rules:
- Stay Persistent – Stop making excuses and missing workouts. If you want to improve your strength you need to make it to the gym week in and week out.
- Stay Basic – Stay with a basic program. Simplicity works well. Training evolution, or complexity, is something you will need in the future – but not now. Get strong on the basics. Most popular strength building systems feature a minimalistic structure using the same effective strength building movements.
- Don’t Undereat – To maximize your efforts in the gym you must also make sure you are eating properly. Undereating, or eating too much junk food, can greater inhibit progress.
- Make a Plan – You can’t enter the gym without a goal. Plan and know when and how you will add weight to the bar. A strength building training system requires a progression plan. No workout should be random, or without a specific goal.
The Big 4 Lifts – Plus 1
At the core of most strength building programs are the barbell squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press. The power clean is also widely used.
The squat, deadlift and power clean are considered posterior chain movements. A posterior chain exercise works nearly every muscle in the back of the body, from head to toe, including the back, glutes, hips, hamstrings and more. Squats and deadlifts are considered the king of all strength building movements.
Overhead and flat bench pressing are push movements. Pushing exercises work (to varying degrees) the shoulders, chest, back and arms. A properly structured strength building approach will achieve to strike some semblance of balance between flat bench and overhead pressing so that shoulder girdle health can be maintained.
Do I Need a Belt?
Is a lifting belt needed? This is a popular, and often heated debate. While there are valid points on both sides of the argument, most experienced lifters choose to perform heavy work with the use of a lifting belt.
Here are some pros and cons to wearing a lifting belt:
- Pro – A lifting belt can help support your spine.
- Pro – A lifting belt allows many experienced strength athletes to squat and deadlift more weight, maximizing training sessions.
- Pro – A lifting belt can provide confidence.
- Con – A lifting belt can cause slight changes to your lifting form. When first using a belt, don’t rush into using it with heavy weight. Work on your form with a belt using lighter weight first.
- Con – A lifting belt that is cinched too tightly may restrict blood flow and/or cause change sin blood pressure.
The Role of the Central Nervous System
While it is the role of muscle tissue to move or lift heavy weight, the central nervous system (CNS) also plays a vital role in the process. The CNS acts in many ways like a power source – as it is awakened you will start to recruit more and more muscle fibers into play.
This is one of the reasons why a proper warmup protocol is required before heavy training. If you attempt to lift a heavy weight before “waking up the CNS”, you will be trying to move this iron using fewer muscle fibers. The result will be a great strain on the joints and connective tissue, and a greater chance of injury.
The power of the CNS can be tested following any heavy training session. After your heavy work is completed, try dropping the weight on the bar by 25% and performing a set. This set will feel unbelievably light, simply because your central nervous system is fully engaged, recruiting maximal amounts of muscle tissue.
How Often Should I Test my 1RM?
There is no urgent need to frequently test your one rep max (1RM) on exercises. Heavy lifting at the one rep max level is physically demanding and can require weeks of recovery.
Instead of frequently testing your one rep max, focus on progression of weight each workout. Push yourself on sets, using good form, and add reps and weight when possible.
Most strength training workout systems will involve some form of low rep work that requires a consistent addition of weight. Many novice programs utilize 5 rep sets and have a structured method of adding weight. You can use this heavy 5 rep set to approximate your 1RM using the calculator on Muscle & Strength:
If you do want to test your one rep max, limit the attempts to every 3-6 months, and take several training days off afterwards to allow for recovery.
How to Test your 1RM
The structure of these progression schemes are designed to help stimulate your CNS for maximum performance. Do NOT ignore them and take big jumps. Big jumps in weight do not sufficiently stimulate the CNS, and can result in a sub-par performance. Big jumps will also increase your potential for injury.
Rest. Don’t rush. Follow the recommended rest guidelines when testing your bench press max. This isn’t a sprint. If you don’t have enough time to properly test your one rep max, then wait until a day you do.
Allow your body the proper time in between heavy sets to regain its strength. Some of the reps may seem easy, and you may not need to rest 3 minutes. If this is the case, rest a minimum of 2 minutes and attempt the next rep.
Use the following progression schemes based on your approximate one rep max. Rest a minimum of 2 minutes between challenging sets, and up to 3-5 minutes between taxing attempts if need be.
Continue along until you reach a rep that is very challenging. Once you do so drop the next attempt to an additional 5-10 pounds, using your best judgment. If you fail on a rep, use your best judgment and drop down to a more manageable weight.
If you fail on a second rep, stop the workout.
100-199 Pound One Rep Max (1RM)
- Bar x 5 reps
- Bar x 5 reps
- 75 x 3 reps
- 95 x 1 rep
- 115 x 1 rep
- 135 x 1 rep
- 155 x 1 rep
- 175 x 1 rep
- 195 x 1 rep
200-299 Pound One Rep Max (1RM)
- Bar x 10 reps
- 135 x 5 reps
- 185 x 3 reps
- 205 x 1 rep
- 225 x 1 rep
- 245 x 1 rep
- 265 x 1 rep
- 285 x 1 rep
300-399 Pound One Rep Max (1RM)
- Bar x 10-15 reps
- 135 x 5 reps
- 185 x 3 reps
- 225 x 1 rep
- 275 x 1 rep
- 305 x 1 rep
- 325 x 1 rep
- 345 x 1 rep
- 365 x 1 rep
- 385 x 1 rep
Strength Training Sports
Strength training workout structures vary greatly depending on the specific goal.
- Powerlifting. Powerlifters generally train 3 to 4 days per week, structuring workouts around the bench press, squat and deadlift. In many cases an upper/lower workout split is followed, featuring 2 press style days with bench press, triceps, back and shoulder work, and 2 posterior chain days.
- Strongman. Many strongman style workouts are similar in nature to powerlifting workouts. It is not uncommon to see a pull, press and squat based workout during the week, and a weekend workout focusing on event specific training.
- Olympic Lifting. Olympic lifters are known to train up to 6 or 7 times per week, often with multiple sessions per day. Olympic training is very technique driven, and outside of back squats, the focus of a workout is on individual repetitions of Olympic lifts and variations.
- Crossfit. While not specifically a strength training sport, Crossfit trainees place a substantial amount of focus on training several Olympic lift variations. Strength endurance is also an integral part of Crossfit training.
Form 101 – A Look at the Big Lifts
Proper exercise form is essential to progress, and for staving off injury. If you’re not healthy, you can’t give your workout 100%. Sub-par form leads to sub-par performance and limits your ability to get strong.
While many trainees have good form, we all have areas that need improvement. It is wrong to believe that at some point you have excellent form and will never have to work on it again. As more and more weight gets added to the the bar, form flaws are exposed. It can safely be said that an advanced trainee works on form more, and not less than a beginning trainee.
This section will provide form advice for the following 6 exercises. The Romanian deadlift is included in this list because it is one of the most misunderstood of all strength building lifts.
Squat Form 101
It is very rare to walk into a gym and not only see someone squat, but also witness them squatting with passable form. Over the years muscle building magazines have become notorious for featuring images of poor squat form. Lifters in these pictures would generally have their knees pointed directly forward, which is about the worst possible method of performing a barbell squat.
The squat is a natural movement. Most children are able to squat, and squat well. Over the years we lose a little flexibility, and squatting becomes more difficult, but when we approach the barbell squat we should still aim to keep the squat as natural as possible.
If you are just learning the squat, the following 2 methods can help you gain an understanding of basic, and proper squat form.
The “Pick Up An Object” Method. One of the most common squatting form flaws is the tendency to squat with the knees together. This is not a natural movement, and not how the human body was meant to squat.
When we squat as a child it is often to pick something up or draw on the ground. Watch a child squat and you will notice that they do so with their knees spread apart, or open. This is how we should squat as well. Here is how to practice…
Place your feet about shoulder width apart, positioned as if you were about to jump into the air. If you look down, your toes should be angled out about 30 degrees, give or take.
Now, pretend that there is an object on the ground right before you. Squat down, attempting to pick up the object with both hands at the same time. You will notice that upon squatting your knees first bend, then open. Look closely…the angle from your hip to your knee should be nearly the same as your foot angle.
The Goblet Squat Method. The goblet squat is a fancy name for a simple exercise. It functions in a similar way as the “pick up an object” method, and will help you learn the basics of proper squatting.
First, pick up a relatively light dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it comfortably at chest level, preferably in towards your chest. Do not flare your elbows in the position; keep them pointed at approximately a 45 degrees angle, or slightly less.
Place your feet about shoulder width apart, positioned as if you were about to jump into the air. If you look down, your toes should be angled out about 30 degrees, give or take.
Keeping your eyes forward and your lower back tight, squat down until your elbows are inside of your knees. Look closely…the angle from your hip to your knee should be nearly the same as your foot angle.
Squat Form Tips
The following tips can help you dramatcally improve your squat form. It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list. For more assistance please visit the Muscle & Strength forum.
Knee/Foot Angle. At depth, the angle running down the middle of the quads to your knee must be about equal to the angle of your foot. If you squat with your knee angle inside of your foot angle, it becomes much more difficult to hit proper depth, and you will most likely lean forward as you descend and place an undue amount of strain on your lower back.
Lead with the Hips. Once at proper depth (in the hole), lead each rep by lifting the hips (glutes) up, and finish a squat rep by driving your hips forward. The hips and glutes are prime movers and incredibly strong muscles. By maximizing your use of your hips, you can put up bigger numbers and reduce the strain placed upon your knees and lower back.
Bar over Feet. From a side view, the barbell should remain over the middle of your feet while squatting. If the bar is not in this position some aspect of form is in need of improvement. Film yourself squatting from a side angle and pay close attention to bar/foot position.
Head Position. When squatting from the hole it is imperative that you maintain a good head position. You should be looking forward to slightly up. If you begin to look down as you ascend, the rest of your body will follow and you will start to lean forward.
Other Important Squat Form Tips and Information
- High Bar Squats. For high bar squats the barbell is placed upon the upper traps.
- Low Bar Squats. For low bar squats the barbell rest upon the lower traps.
- Hand Position. To find a proper hand position, start with a wide grip, squeeze your upper back together, and move your hands in as far as comfortable.
- Tight Grip. Maintain a tight grip throughout the squat.
- Elbow Position. After finding a comfortable hand placement, rotate your elbows downward and keep them there during each set.
- Hold Your Breath. Inhale as you begin the eccentric portion of the squat, and hold your breath throughout the lift.
- Check Your Feet. After unracking the bar and stepping back, glance down and check to make sure your feet are properly positioned.
- Squat Descent. When descending, move your hips backward while maintaining an upright torso position.
Deadlift Form 101
It is rare to see beginning lifters practicing proper deadlift form. Far too many trainees perform the lift at a mechanical disadvantage, trying to lift the bar with their hips up. This resembles a Romanian deadlift or stiff-leg deadlift and is hard on the lower back.
To deadlift properly, follow these guidelines:
- Feet. Position your feet about halfway under the bar. From a side view it should look like the bar is running directly through the middle of your feet. Looking down, it can be difficult to gauge if your foot position is correct, so ask another lifter for guidance or video tape your deadlift set up.
- Stance. Your feet should be at a comfortable and natural width, but not too wide. Toes can be pointed just a hair outward, but you should not deadlift pigeon-toed.
- Grab the bar. With your feet properly in place, reach down and grab the bar using either a double overhand grip or an alternating grip. An alternating grip will allow you to hold more weight.
- Sink your hips. Sink your hips until your shins touch the barbell. You want to feel like your hips are in a natural and powerful/maximal position of leverage, so you may need to raise or lower them just slightly. If you start the deadlift with your hips too high you will be at a mechanical disadvantage and will tax your lower back. Starting with your hips too low will also cause you to lose your leverage and power.
- Head. Next, you want to make sure your eyes are at least looking directly ahead. During the deadlift your body will follow your head. If you start the deadlift while looking down, there is a good chance your hips will lift up causing you to lose form and lift with your lower back. This is a very common deadlift mistake.
- Back. Make sure your back is not rounded. You do not want to start the deadlift with a rounded back.
Now that you are in a proper set up position, it’s time to perform the deadlift. Do not try pulling the bar off the floor. Though the deadlift is often called the pull, lifters who mentally focus on pulling the bar off the ground often raise their hips too high at the start of the lift. They also tend to move their heads down when pulling, which also contributes to an elevation of the hips. This causes the deadlift to be performed like a Romanian deadlift. It is a bad leverage position, and can strain the lower back.
Instead of pulling on the bar, concentrate on standing up with the bar in your hands. Standing up is a natural movement, and by keeping the deadlift as natural as possible, you will tend to keep better leverage and form throughout the lift.
Start this standing up movement with the head. Lead with the head. Think about exploding your head upward while trying to stand erect. The body will follow the head.
As the bar rises above the knees, try to thrust your hips forward. Many deadlifts fail at lockout because lifters are still “pulling” on the bar. At lockout, focus only on:
- Standing up. Again, a natural movement.
- Driving your hips. Thrust your hips forward.
Remember, the deadlift is not really a pull. Pulling objects off the ground in a bent over position is not a natural movement, but standing up is.
For more information on the deadlift, please read:
Bench Press Form 101
The bench press can be a frustrating exercise. A small percentage of lifters are naturally able to press a ton of weight, while the rest of us struggle to hit 225 pounds for reps. Is there anything you can do to improve your bench press numbers? Absolutely.
The following form tips and tricks will help.
Plant Your Feet. One of the hidden keys to a bigger bench press is leg drive. Stop shuffling your feet, and learn to plant them firmly in a position of leverage and power. Start each bench press rep by driving from the floor. If you focus on turning the bench press into a full body exercise, your pressing numbers will improve.
Squeeze The Bar. After finding your proper grip width, squeeze the bar and pretend you are trying to bend the ends of the bar inward towards your feet. This will help you keep your elbows in a better position, improve your eccentrics, and assist with keeping your upper body tight and strong.
Stop Flaring Your Arms. This is by far and away the biggest bench press mistake. Stop flaring your arms! This is horrible on the shoulders, bad form and not good for strength. It is far better to have your elbows at approximately 45 degrees from your torso. This is a good starting point, and minor form adjustments can be made from here.
Row The Bar. Row the bar? Yes, row the bar. Row the bar towards your chest. We all know that keeping a tight back is an essential aspect of good form. To help achieve a tight back, concentrate on rowing the bar towards your chest as if you were performing a barbell row or lat pull down.
Eyeball The Ceiling. After unracking the bar, keep your eyes on the ceiling. When completing each rep try to press the bar back to the same spot on the ceiling each time.
Explode. Power involves speed, and speed requires an explosive force. Stop trying to baby or power each rep up. Instead, focus on pressing the bar in an explosive manner. This will not only help complete an extra rep or two, but will also help build strength in the long run.
Practice Proper Alignment. When the bar is at chest level, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor. Also, make sure your wrists are directly over your elbows, and that your knuckles are pointing towards the ceiling. This is proper bench press alignment.
Military Press/Push Press Form
The military press and push press are two variations of the same exercise. Both movements are performed standing up, holding a barbell at shoulder level in front of the body. The military press is performed in a more strict manner, while the push press is performed more explosively, utilizing leg drive.
Many trainees wrongly avoid overhead pressing, believing it is inherently more dangerous for the shoulders. In reality, the biggest threat to shoulder health is training imbalance. In recent years it has become quite common for lifters to overwork chest pressing movements while giving little attention to heavy overhead pressing movements. This lack of balance is not good for the shoulder girdle, and can lead to consistent strains and injuries.
Do not fear overhead pressing movements. Instead, aim for a better training balance between chest presses, shoulder presses and back rows.
When performing military or push presses, use the following form tips.
Foot position. Position your feet as if you were about to jump into the air. They should be about shoulder width apart, or a hair more. Your should feel stable and balanced. If needed, you can also stagger your foot stance, placing one foot behind your body for extra balance.
Hand spacing. Place your hands in a comfortable position and lift/unrack the bar to chest level. Your forearms should be nearly perpendicular to the ground. This angle should be about the same when the bar is fully extended overhead.
Bend the knees. Perform the military press with a slight bend in the knees. This will help with stability. For the push press you want to descend into a slightly more exaggerated knee bend and then drive the weight up, starting with the legs.
Lean back. As you press, keep your chest up and lean back slightly as needed. This will help with stability and balance.
Eyes forward. Try to keep your eyes forward during the press. If you move your eyes upward you will have a tendency to lift your head up. This can compromise form and create instability.
Romanian Deadlift Form 101
The Romanian deadlift and it’s sister exercise the stiff leg deadlift are very misunderstood. Let it be known that they are not the same movement. Listed below are a few important differences between the lifts as well as some form pointers.
The Stiff Leg Deadlift. The stiff leg deadlift is performed with the knees slightly bent, but with the legs locked. You can also perform this movment as a straight leg deadlift, with legs straight and locked.
During this movement the bar is lowered naturally, hanging slightly away from the legs. Start the descent with the lower back in a tight and arched position. Downward movement should be stopped when the lower back feels as if it may round.
Romanian Deadlift. The Romanian deadlift is performed in a similar manner at the stiff leg deadlift except for one major difference. When lowering the bar, it should be kept close to the legs. Move your hips backwards as the bar travels downward, stopping the descent when your lowerback feels as if it may round.
Common Strength Training Workouts and Systems
Though strength training approaches can be very diverse, there are several extremely poplar and notable workout systems that every lifter should know something about. These programs are effective, time tested and produce results.
Starting Strength is a program designed by Mark Rippetoe. It is generally considered the program of choice for novice lifters who are in need of rapidly building strength, and adding size to their frame.
Starting Strength is usually associated with a more aggressive eating plan, as summed up by this quote from the Starting Strength Wiki:
“Make no mistake. The best weight training program will make you strong, but it won’t make you big. Weight lifting does NOT make you big. It makes you strong. Eating properly is what makes you big. If you eat a ton of calories without the weights, you get fat. Eat a ton of calories WITH your weight/strength training, and you get big, strong muscles.”
The basic Starting Strength Workout template is as follows. Workouts A and B are alternated on 3 non-consecutive days per week, generally Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
- 3×5 Squat
- 3×5 Bench Press
- 1×5 Deadlift
- 3×5 Squat
- 3×5 Press
- 5×3 Power cleans
Westside Barbell Training
The Westside Barbell strength building approach is an advanced powerlifting training system created by Louis Simmons. It is often misunderstood and misapplied, but when utilized correctly is known to build brutally strong lifters.
The basic Westside structure is:
Monday – Max Effort Squat/Deadlift
- Dynamic Bench Press
- Lats/Upper Back
Tuesday – Dynamic Effort Bench Press
- Max Effort Exercise
- Low Back
Thursday – Dynamic Effort Squat/Deadlift
- Max Effort Exercise
- Lats/Upper Back
Friday – Max Effort Bench Press
- Dynamic Squat
- Low Back
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 system is rapidly growing into one of the most popular powerlifting and strength building training routines on the planet. A healthy segment of the Muscle & Strength forum are running Wendler’s 5/3/1, and are experiencing exceptional results.
For more information on Wendler’s 531, check out the following article:
John Christy’s AB Split
John Christy was a professional athlete and strength coach who trained thousands of individuals, helping them to get both strong and big. While John’s method of training is little known, it remains one of the most effective strength building approaches for the natural trainee.
While there are several variations on John’s basic template, the following 2 day per week program is used most often in his book and writings.
Workout A – Monday
- Stiff leg deadlift
- Bench press
- Dumbbell rowing
- Barbell static grip
Workout B – Thursday
- Deadlifts (Bent-legged)
- Military press
- Barbell curls
- Close-grip bench press
- Standing calf raise
For more information on the John Christy training system please visit his website: John Christy, Real Muscle Real Strength.
Smolov Squat Building
Smolov is a very intense Russian strength building approach that has the potential to increase your squat by up to 100 pounds in a little over 3 months. It should be noted that Smolov is not a “beginner workout”, and should only be attempted by experienced lifters who have a good grasp of squat form.
Smolov is comprised of 4 phases and a taper week:
- Introductory microcycle …2 weeks. This is a preparation phase. During the first week you spend 3 days working up to heavy singles. The second week has you squatting every other day.
- Base mesocycle …4 weeks. For the first 3 weeks of this phase you will be squatting 4 times per week. On Monday you will do 4 sets of 9 reps, Wednesday is 5 sets of 7 reps, Friday is 7 sets of 5 reps and Saturday is 10 sets of 3 reps. Each week you will increase your weight, and on week 4 you will squat only once and attempt a PR.
- Switching …2 weeks. This is a deload period. It focuses on compensatory acceleration training and plyometric work.
- Intense mesocycle …4 weeks. This is the most intense phase of Smolov. You will be squatting 3 times a week, generally between 80-90% of your 1RM.
- Week 13. Attempt to set a new squat PR.
Bill Starr’s 5×5
Bill Starr is one of the most respected strength training coaches and authors on the planet. His book, “The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training For Football”, featured a 5×5 training approach that revolved around 3 primary exercises:
- Power Cleans
- Pressing – Overhead, Incline and Bench Press
The original Bill Starr program is as follows. Since the publishing of his book in 1976, a myriad of variations of this program have cropped up.
Monday – Heavy
- Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
- Bench – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set (add 10 rep sets after 8-12 weeks on program)
- Squats – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set
(Set 1 35% of target set 2 70% of target set 3 80% of target set 4 90% of target set 5 target)
Wednesday – Light
- Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
- Incline Bench – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set
- Squats – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set. Set 5 use weight from 3rd set of Monday
Friday – Medium
- Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
Overhead press – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set
Squats – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set. Set 5 use weight from 3rd set of Monday set 5 use weight 4th set of Monday
The Texas Method
The Texas Method is a popular strength building workout system that involves training 3 days per week, using a limited number of compound movements. Exercise choice is based upon goals, but the common workout structure is:
- Monday – Heavy day
- Wednesday – Recovery day
- Friday – PR day
The goal of the Texas Method is to set a 5 pound PR every week. It is a program designed for intermediate lifters.
In his article, The Texas Method, Mark Rippetoe outlines a sample plan:
Monday — Volume Day
- Squats, 5 x 5 @ 90% of 5RM
- Bench press or overhead press, 5 x 5 @ 90% 5RM
- Deadlifts, 1 x 5 @ 90% 5RM
Wednesday — Recovery Day
Squats, 2 x 5 @ 80% of Monday’s work weight
Overhead press (if you bench pressed Monday), 3 x 5 at slightly lighter load than previous 5 x 5 OHP weight, or bench press (if OHP on Monday), 3 x 5 @ 90% previous 5 x 5 weight.
Chin ups, 3 x Bodyweight
Back extensions or glute-ham raise, 5 x 10
Friday — Intensity Day
Squats, warm-up, then work up in singles or doubles to one single, new 5RM
Bench press, (if you bench pressed Monday) or overhead press (if OHP on Monday), warm-up, then work up in singles or doubles to one single, new 5RM
Power clean, 5 x 3 reps or power snatch, 6 x 2 reps *
* Rippetoe states, “Since deadlifts were done on Monday, Friday is power clean/power snatch day. The Olympic lifts are the best way to train explosiveness and athleticism under the bar, while allowing you to increase your power in a way that’s incrementally programmable.”
3 Day Powerlifting Format
3 day powerlifting workout structures are also widely used. They are generally based around the big 3 lifts…squats, deadlifts and bench press:
- Monday – Squat Day
- Wednesday – Bench Press Day
- Friday – Deadlift Day
Assistance work was structured in as needed.
Structuring a Workout
When structuring a strength building workout it is best to throw aside the muscle building notion of training bodyparts. While you will be placing some focus on strengthening important bodyparts, in general strength training focuses on training movements and not bodyparts.
Choosing a Workout Based on Experience Levels
Novice lifters. For the novice to early intermediate lifter most of a workout’s emphasis should be on improving strength on the basic lifts – squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses, etc. There is little need to train weaknesses because:
- Everything is a weakness because you are still relatively weak.
- It is hard to assess true weaknesses because you do not have enough time under the bar.
A novice lifter should focus on linear progression, or regularly adding weight to the bar. When this starts to slow, or become more challenging, it may be time to move to an intermediate style workout routine.
Starting Strength or the Bill Starr 5×5 are the perfect examples of effective novice strength training programs.
Intermediate lifters. Intermediate lifters have added a fair amount of strength to their bench press, squat and deadlift, and may need one of the following:
- Periodization. Cycling between heavy, light and medium days, as training heavy each day becomes too much for the body to handle.
- Assistance exercises. The addition of assistance exercises at this point is not necessarily to target “weak spots”, but rather to try and strengthen primary muscle groups as much as possible.
Periodization for the intermediate lifter can involve cycling between heavy, light and medium days, or cycling intensity (relative weight) over the course of weeks. The Texas Method is a good example of an intermediate program that cycles intensity during the week, while Wendler’s 531 cycles intensity of the course of 4 weeks. Both as excellent methods of building strength.
Intermediate lifters begin their journey by making consistent progress month in and month out, and end at a point where progress has dramatically stalled. It is here that they become advanced lifters.
Advanced Lifters. Advanced lifters need a more dynamic training approach. They know their bodies, know their sticking points, and train accordingly. Most advanced lifters structure their own workouts because of unique needs and demands.
An advanced lifter will know how to take the framework of a solid strength building training system, and structure it to fit their needs.
An example of an advanced strength building training system is Westside Barbell.
Understanding Intermediate and Advanced Workout Structures
After the primary lift(s) of the workout have been performed, a strength trainee will next focus upon training assistance work. The following is a list of assistance work that is often performed on a training day based upon the primary lift.
- Bench Press – Triceps, shoulders, rotator cuff pre-hab, and back.
- Squats – Hamstrings, lower back, quads, abs.
- Overhead Press – Triceps, shoulders, rotator cuff pre-hab, and back.
- Deadlift – Hamstrings, lower back, quads, abs.
Some strength training programs also incorporate direct calf and bicep work.
Assistance work will attempt to maximize strength for a given area, therefore, most of the exercises performed are challenging compound movements. Examples of frequently used assistance exercises are:
- Triceps – Board presses, close grip bench press and floor presses.
- Shoulders – Overhead presses.
- Back – Barbell rows, dumbbell rows and pull ups.
- Hamstrings – Glute/ham raise and good mornings.
- Lower Back – Good mornings, hyperextensions and pull throughs.
- Quads – Leg press and front squats.
- Abs – Weighted sit ups, cable crunches and side bends.
Adaptation and Volume
The addition of training volume should be gradual and controlled. A novice trainee does not require volume to build strength. For them, progression and persistence on the keys lifts is “the magic.”
A strength trainee must avoid “adding volume for volume’s sake.” There is a tendency in the muscle building realm to believe that more is better. More is not always better; better is better.
If you are not building strength on the basics, something is broken. Either you are not eating properly, you are lacking persistency, or you are not trying hard enough. If you can’t build strength on the basics, additional exercises and volume will merely be a distraction, and a waste of time and energy.
When volume is added, ease into things. Lower your working weight for several weeks and allow your body to adapt to the demands of the extra volume before pushing for maximum weight.
Common Progression Approaches
This section will address common progression approaches for the novice to intermediate level strength trainee. These approaches work and work well. Some are a bit more aggressive than others.
In the end it doesn’t matter which progression approach you use as long as you are adding weight to the bar over time.
Linear progression. Linear progression involves adding weight in equal steps at regular and frequent intervals. Examples of linear progression are:
- Weekly Progression. Adding 5 to 10 pounds to a specific lift every week.
- Lift Specific Progression. Adding weight to a specific lift every time you perform this lift. This may be multiple times per week, but in smaller increments.
- Goal-Driven progression. Adding weight to a specific lift when you are able to reach a “rep goal.” For example, a program may call for a rep range of 5 to 8 reps. When you can perform 8 reps for a given set, you would add weight.
Linear progression has it’s limits. It is a very effective method of building strength, but sooner or later you will no longer be able to regularly add weight to the bar. It is at this point where an intermediate style workout using a form of periodization may become useful.
Understand that bad workouts happen. Don’t give up on linear progression simply because of a bad training day. Everyone has off days. If you are unable to progression over a period of 2-4 weeks, you will need to make a change.
How to Warm Up
The process of warming up before a weight training session involves 3 different phases:
- Mild cardio – 5 to 10 minutes of non-taxing cardio.
- Stretching – Several minutes of full body and workout specific stretching.
- Working warm up sets – Prepare your body and mind for heavy lifting.
Step 1 – Mild cardio. It is not uncommon to feel stiff, tight, or sore when heading into a workout. The goal of this stage is to raise your body’s core temperature. You will get the blood flowing, and warm up your stiff joints and muscles.
Perform 5 to 10 minutes of very mild low impact cardio, such as walking on a treadmill. This warm up period should not tax your body in any way. Save your energy for the lifting session to come.
Step 2 – Mild stretching. Now that you have raised your core body temperature with mild cardio, take the time to stretch at minimum the muscle groups you are about to work out. No need to overdo it – 5 to 10 minutes of stretching is enough.
Step 3 – Working warm up sets. Most exercises require anywhere from a single working warm up set, to multiple warm up sets. Use the following guidelines when trying to determine how many warm up sets are required.
Heavy compound exercises. Heavy compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press place a great strain on the body. For these lifts it is recommended that you perform several working warm up sets.
Warm up sets should not tax the body or leave you feeling fatigued. The point of warm up sets is to prepare your mind, muscles, joints, tendons and central nervous system for the heavier sets to come.
If you fatigue a muscle during your warm up sets, you will handicap your performance during your working sets. This is not an effective method of muscle gains.
Sample warm up. What follows is a sample warm up session for the bench press. In this example, the first working set will be performed using 225 pounds.
- Warm up set 1 – Bar x 10-15 reps.
- Warm up set 2 – 135 pounds x 5-8 reps.
- Warm up set 3 – 185 x 3-5 reps.
- Warm up set 4 – 205 pounds x 1 reps.
Foam rolling is a form of massage. It involves the use of a cylindrical piece of foam that is placed upon the ground. Athletes will “roll” upon the foam to stretch a specific muscle to help relax the tissue.
There is some disagreement between coaches as to when the best time is to use the foam roller. Some prefer pre-workout, and some post-workout of off training days.
Rotator Cuff Health
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that function to stabilize the shoulder. The rotator cuff is heavily involved in maintaining shoulder stability, and a strength athlete can benefit from performing “pre-hab”, or strengtening work.
How to Avoid Training Injuries
Most training injuries are caused by one of the following:
- Training too heavy, too often.
- Training too frequently.
- Training with poor exercise form.
- Not listening to your body.
Train too heavy. “Heavy training” is a relative term. Simply stated it means performing too many reps each week above 90% of my one rep max. Prilepin’s Table, which provides rep, set and volume guidelines based on what percentage of your one rep max you are working with, recommends no more than 4-10 reps on the 90%+ range.
For most lifters, performing over 4 reps at 90%+ of your one rep max on a given week is too much. If you continue to train in this range, using a high volume of reps at 90% plus, it’s only a matter of time before you pick up a major strain or injury that prevents you from performing at your peak.
Training too frequently. Frequent training can also lead to injury. It is imperative that the strength training athlete make gradual additions to training volume and frequency. When these changes are make, allow for an adjustment period. A strength athlete can train more frequently, but the transition can often take years and not weeks.
Poor exercise form. It goes without saying that the combination of poor exercise form and heavy weight is dangerous. Never assume your form is perfect. Make efforts to constantly refine your form, and seek out more experienced lifters to help you with pointers.
Listening to your body. Always listen to your body. If you feel extremely stiff or tight, add a few more warm up sets.
In cases where the weight seems unusually heavy, use caution. When a weight feels heavy it is a sign that your central nervous system is not performing up to speed. You have two options at this time:
- Use a slightly lighter training weight for the day.
- Perform a few more single warm up sets in hopes that your CNS will “wake up”.
Information on common assistance was presented previously in this guide. This section will focus on helping you to better structure your assistance work based on weaknesses, and to provide you with quality exercise choices to address those weaknesses.
Assessing Weaknesses. What follows is a list of common sticking points and there associated weaknesses. Keep in mind that a sticking point may be the result of several weak muscle groups, so you may need to make additional adjustments if these suggestions are not working.
Bench Press Weaknesses
- Weak off the chest. If you are weak off the chest, focus on improving your back strength through rows and/or pull-ups. It may also be beneficial to perform speed work (dynamic effort), and to work on improving overall shoulder strength. Also, don’t forget to work on your leg drive.
- Weak middle. If you are weak in the middle of the press, this is most likely caused by lack of shoulder and tricep strength. Work on these areas using exercises such as close grip benches, board presses, or with the use of bands or chains.
- Weak lockout. A weak lockout is almost all about triceps strength. You will need to find creative ways to overload the lockout, such as 3, 4 or 5 board presses, and with the use of bands and chains.
- Uneven Lockout. This is a common problem, especially with beginning trainees. An uneven lockout is almost always die to lack or tricep strength. During the early stages of lifting it is often cause by a general lack of stabilizer strength. If you are an experienced lifter with an uneven bench, add a few extra reps using a single arm movement each training session.
- Trouble “Going Deep.” A good percentage of the time poor depth can be attributed to “knees in” squatting. If the angle of your knee is inside the angle of your foot, you are squatting knock-kneed and will be limiting squat depth. Poor depth can also be caused by lack of hip flexibility.
- Weak Lockout. The squat is locked out by pushing the hips forward. If you have a weak lockout you are either not concentrating on moving the hips forward to complete a rep, or your hips are a weakness. You can improve lockout strength via the use of bands or chains, or by working the hips directly with pull throughs or kettlebell swings. Speed work (dynamic effort) will also be beneficial.
- Weak In The Hole. Keep in mind that a squat is not merely a leg press with a bar on your back. Form the hole, a squat rep is initiated by bringing the hips up. If you are weak in the hole, focus on building some explosive power via the use of speed work (dynamic effort).
- Weak lockout. A weak deadlift lockout can be corrected via the use of heavy rowing, power shrugs, speed work, and through the use of bands and chains. Also remember that a deadlift lockout is driven with the hips and glutes, so remember to push your hips forward when trying to complete each rep.
- Weak Off The Floor. Many times the deadlift is treated as a leg press while holding a bar. This is wrong. The best way to initiate a deadlift rep is by leading with the head. Where the head goes the body follows. If you are an experienced lifter and this is a weak area for you, try using speed work (dynamic effort) and deficit deadlifts.
Common Assistance Training Exercises
There are certain exercises that have become assistance training essentials because of their effectiveness. These exercises include:
- Squats. Good mornings, glute ham raises, speed squats, box squats, front squats, heavy ab work, barbell hip thrust/glute bridge.
- Deadlifts. Deficit deadlifts, good mornings, speed deadlifts, rack pulls, Romanian deadlift, front squats, heavy ab work, heavy rows, power shrugs.
- Bench Press. Close grip bench press, board press, speed bench press, pause bench press, heavy rows, face pulls, overhead press, dumbbell bench press.
Olympic Exercise Variations
There are numerous Olympic lift variations that are beneficial for improving overall strength, explosive strength, and that can help with athletic performance. Popular variations include:
- Power Clean
- Hang Snatch
- Power Snatch
- High Pull
- Power Shrug
- Overhead Squat
- Snatch Grip High Pull
- Dumbbell Snatch
- Push Press
Using Bands and Chains
The popularity of the Westside Barbell system of strength training has made the use of bands and chains commonplace.
Chains can be attached to the squat, deadlift or bench press, making each lift more difficult as you reach lockout. Bands can be attached either from above or below, making a lift harder at lockout, or more difficult at the beginning of a rep.
Bands and chains are often used concurrent with speed training (dynamic effort work), but are also used with heavy weight to train weak points.
A Look at Periodization
Periodization is the planned cycling of intensity and/or volume to maximize recovery and strength gains. Periodization is rarely needed for the novice lifter, but starts to become beneficial for the intermediate lifter as he becomes stronger and stronger.
In most cases the body simply can’t continue to train with the heaviest possible weights week in and week out. Periodization allows a lifter to maintain strength, while muscular, joint and connective tissue fatigue are allowed to improve.
The following is a list of popular perdiozation approaches.
Linear periodization. Linear periodization starts with a lower intensity and higher reps schemes, and slowly transitions into the use of very heavy weight and low rep sets. It is a linear increase in intensity over time. Here is an example linear periodization from Dave Tate’s article, “The Periodization Bible”. It has been modified slightly to show all phases in a weekly progression:
- Week 1 – 5×10 @ 62% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 2 – 4×10 @ 64% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 3 – 3×10 @ 66% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 4 – 3×8 @ 68% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 5 – 3×8 @ 70% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 6 – 5×6 @ 75% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 7 – 4×6 @ 77% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 8 – 4×5 @ 79% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 9 – 4×5 @ 82% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 10 – 3×4 @ 85% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 11 – 3×4 @ 87% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 12 – 3×3 @ 89% of 1RM. 3 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 13 – 3×3 @ 91% of 1RM. 4 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 14 – 3×3 @ 93% of 1RM. 5 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 15 – 3×3 @ 95% of 1RM. 5 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 16 – 2×2 @ 97% of 1RM. 7 minutes rest between sets.
- Week 17 – 2×1 @ 99% of 1RM. 7 minutes rest between sets.
Non-linear periodization. Non-linear periodization cycles or alternates between various degrees of intensity and volume over time. Where linear progression is very structured, non-linear progression acts in a more cyclical manner. Here are several examples of non-linear progression approaches:
NLP Example 1:
- Week 1 – Low intensity, higher reps. 3 sets x 8-10 reps at 65% of 1RM.
- Week 2 – High intensity, low reps. 5 sets of 3 reps at 80% of 1RM.
NLP Example 2:
- Workout 1 – Low intensity, higher reps. 3 sets x 8-10 reps at 65% of 1RM.
- Workout 2 – Speed work (dynamic effort). 8-10 sets x 2 reps at 55% of 1RM.
- Workout 3 – High intensity, low reps. 5 sets of 3 reps at 80% of 1RM.
Block Periodization. Block periodization generally includes 3 units of gradually increasing intensity performed in weekly blocks. This blocks, or units of training are referred to as mesocycles. In strength training circles these blocks are called: accumulation, transmutation and realization.
- Accumulation – The accumulation phase focuses on lower intensity training and a high volume of work.
- Transmutation – The transmutation phase involves a decrease in volume and an increase in intensity.
- Realization – The realization is the heavy lifting period. Volume is very low and intensity is very high.
Strength training can involve the use of many specialty pieces of equipment.
- Bands and Chains. Bands and chains are used to change the difficulty of a lift at varying points.
- Box Squat. Boxes of varying heights are often utilized to help teach proper squat form, or to assist with developing explosive power from the hole.
- Belt. Lifting belts provide support during heavy lifting sessions, and when fitted properly have the potential to allow a lifter to increase his 1RM. Please note that there is a difference between most lifting belts found at department stores and the belts used by elite level strength athletes.
- Lifting Shoes. For deadlifts you want a show with very little sole. The close you are to the floor, the better. For this reason it is common for strength athletes to wear Chuck Taylor’s or deadlift slippers. Squat shows may feature a raised sole, but this sole should be stable and ncompressible.
- Boards. Boards are used for bench press and variations to train varying ranges of the press. Board presses typically range from a single board to a 5-board press.
- Knee Wraps. Knee wraps serve several functions. They provide support to the knee area, as well as keeping the knee joint and connective tissue warm. Knee wraps can also provide some spring from the hole when properly fitted, and have the potential to add 30 to 50 pounds to a squat max.
- Wrist Wraps. Wrist wraps provide stability, support and warmth to the wrist area, and are very beneficial when performing flat bench or overhead presses.
- Knee/Elbow Sleeves. Knee and elbow sleeves act in a different way than wraps. They provide some support, but not enough to raise a lifter’s one rep max. Many strength athletes use them to help keep the knees and elbows warm.
- “Suits”. Squat, deadlift and bench press suits, also known as “gear”, provide support, rebound and assistance. Lifting suits are used in powerlifting, and can allow an athlete to add hundreds of pounds to his one rep max total.
- Lifting Straps. Lifting straps are tethered to the wrists and wrapped around a barbell or dumbbell to provide grip support. Straps not only allow an athlete to move heavier weights, but they also allow the lift to be performed more safely.
Training at Home
Training Without Spotters
In very few situations is it appropriate to train without spotters, or without the use of racks and spotting pins. It is in your best interest to train in a gym setting. Before you enter a contract, make sure the gym has at least one rack with static or adjustable pins that can catch a barbell should you fail on a squat or bench press rep.
Many younger lifters make the mistake of training the bench press alone. If there is no one on the gym that can provide you with a safe spot, move an bench into a squatting rack and adjust the pins so that they can “catch” the barbell at a safe level should you fail.
Take time to practice failing on both the bench press with an empty bar. Make sure that you can easily slide from under the bar or out of the rack.
Never attempt training alone on a new rack or at a new gym without first testing pin depth.
Common Strongman Exercises and Events
In recent years strongman competitions have grown in popularity. Competitors are featured on the cover of major magazines, and nearly every local festival seems to feature a strongman contest.
If you take an interest in strongman, the following 6 exercises should be practiced on a regular basis.
Object Pull. One of the signature strongman events is the heavy pull. Competitors attempt to pull a truck, train or similar object either by pulling on a rope, or while strapped to the object. This event can be mimicked in several ways. For example, you may choose to push or pull a car in an empty parking lot.
Yoke Walk. The yoke walk is usually a timed event in which the competitors place a farbricated metal “yoke” on the there upper back (much like when squatting), and walk as quickly as possible.
Log Clean and Press. The log clean and ppress is another signature strongman event. Competitors power clean a log off the ground, generally resting it upon there knees in an intermediary position. From here they attempt to move the log to their upper chest, finally pressing it overhead.
Atlas Stones. The Atlas stone even requires a competitor to lift increasingly heavier round stones and place them upon a platform. Platform height may vary. This is usually a timed event.
Object Carry. The object carry challenges a competitor to lift and transport some kind of an odd, heavy object.
Farmer’s Walk. Another common strongman event, the farmers carry involves lifting and moving two objects (one in each hand) for either maximum distance, or for a defined distance as a timed event.
Nutrition and Supplementation
The importance of food and a solid eating plan or approach can’t be understated. Hard training much be backed by quality nutrition and proper intake. Without the proper nutrients or calories, you will limit your body’s ability to repair and strength muscle and connection tissue.
Weak eating creates a weak athlete. Strong, structure eating helps to maximize strength gains.
Strength Building Nutritional Basics
To maximize performance you need to monitor your food intake just as much, if not more so, than your training. It is not good enough to “just eat healthy.” While healthy eating is a good thing, a muscle building eating plan has specific requirements that must be met:
- Calories. You must be eating a consistent amount of daily calories. This intake should be substantial enough to allow the body to build muscle. Undereating is one of the major contributors to lack of gains.
- Protein. You must be monitoring your protein intake. Increasing your daily protein intake while on a resistance training program helps to increase lean muscle mass. The human body is in a constant state of “protein turnover.” Muscle tissue is continuously being repaired and replaced. To maximize this repair, you must maintain a protein positive nitrogen balance.
- Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates play two key roles in muscle building. The first is energy. Your body needs maximum energy to perform at maximum level. Second, insulin spike post workout. Insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the human body and drives nutrients from the bloodstream into muscle cells. When you finish your workout your muscles are desperately trying to repair and rebuild and are crying out for energy and nutrients. This is the only time when simple carbohydrates will benefit you for muscle building.
- Healthy Fats. A low fat diet is not a healthy diet. The body requires healthy fats for a myriad of reasons. Undereating healthy fats can compromise sleep, lower cardiovascular function, slow recovery and increase the likelihood of overtraining. You must be monitoring your fat intake to some degree so that you are certain it is at a productive level.
How Many Calories do You Need?
To help you determine your daily calorie requirement, you will first need to calculate your BMR, or basal metabolic rate. The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is a excellent tool for working out how many calories your body needs on a daily basis depending on the amount and intensity of the exercise you do. This tool works on a proven formula and is very accurate. The calculator uses two formulas to calculate your body’s daily calorie requirements.
Understand that your BMR is merely a guideline. You will need to make adjustments if you are losing weight, gaining weight too rapidly, or if you find you are not recovery quickly or adding strength.
Strength training is not the same as muscle building. While you will need to add some muscle over time to maximize your efforts, especially if you begin with less than perfect genetics, there is no off season and bulking cycles.
How much you eat is up to you and your goals. If you are trying to gain strength for a sport but not gain much weight, it is best to eat using what bodybuilders refer to as a “lean bulk” method. If you need to rapidly gain strength and size, there are several aggressive eating places notated below.
When it comes to raw strength, size is an important variable. Heavier athletes lift more than lighter athletes. If you doubt this, research reputable natural powerlifting records.
As a beginner rapid size gain can help maximize strength gains…IF you are training hard. If your training isn’t 100%, then extra calories are just a fast track to fat gains.
Experienced lifters will rarely benefit from radio weight gain. Building strength is an extended process. If you are an experienced athlete attempting to add 20 pounds of bodyweight, do so in a controlled manner.
Clean Bulk. A tight bulk is generally recommended for individuals who consider themselves to be at an average, or healthy weight. Use the following formula to determine your daily calorie needs for a tight bulk:
Aggressive Eating. If you consider yourself underweight, or a hardgainer, it will be beneficial to eat more aggressively. Use the following formula to determine your daily calorie needs for an aggressive bulk:
Underweight individuals may need to add more than 500 calories to their BMR calculation if they find they are not gaining weight. If this is the case, add an additional 300 calories per day and monitor your weight for the next month.
Remember that all calculations are only starting points. If you are training hard and aren’t seeing results, add more calories to your daily eating plan. It is best to bump caloric intake by no more than 300 calories at a time.
For more great information on strength and muscle building nutrition check out the following articles:
How Much Protein do You Need?
There are many other protein recommendations and formulas used in the weight training realm. Instead of relying on ratios or on grams per pound of bodyweight, it is easier to use this simple guideline:
- Men – Eat 35 to 40 grams of protein every 2.5 to 3 hours.
- Women – Eat 20 to 25 grams of protein every 2.5 to 3 hours.
Using this method, the least amount of protein men would eat on a daily basis would be 175 grams, and the most 240 grams. In general, 180 to 200 grams is sufficient for most natural lifters – unless you are 6’6″ and pencil thin.
Please don’t panic at the site of 240 grams of protein. It is at the high end of the spectrum, and may only be required by hardgainers with a fast metabolism. But it is surely not needed for most of us.
Determining Fat Intake
Fat intake should comprise about 20-30% of your daily calories. The more daily calories you need, the closer this percentage should be to 30. Again, fat contains 9 calories per gram, compared to protein and carbohydrates which contain 4 calories per gram, making fats more calorie dense.
If you need more calories, the easiest way to eat more is by increasing your daily fat intake.
Determining Carbohydrate Intake
Determining daily carbohydrate intake is rather simple. Since you have already calculated your BMR, you only need to subtract the calories derived from fat and protein intake to arrive at how many calories you need from carbohydrates.
Divide this number by 4 to arrive at the number of carbohydrate grams you need per day. For example:
- Step 1 – BMR. You calculate that your daily calorie requirement to build muscle is 3000 calories.
- Step 2 – Protein. You structure an eating plan based around 180 grams of protein, which works out to a total of 720 calories.
- Step 3 – Fat. You structure an eating plan with 25% of your daily calories coming from healthy fats. This is 750 calories, or 83.33 grams of fat.
- Step 4 – Carbohydrates – Subtract the 750 calories from fat and 720 calories from protein to arrive at 1530 calories needed from carbohydrates. This works out to 382.5 grams per day.
How to Structure a Meal Plan
A strength training meal plan does not have to be complicated. The easiest way to approach eating is to structure your eating around breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between meals, or later in the evening, you will add snacks. These snacks will allow you to intake more protein and nutrients, helping you to recover and grow.
An effective meal plan will look something like this:
Here are some “rules” to better help you structure your meal plan:
- Frequent Protein – You want to eat a minimum of 30 grams of protein every 2.5 to 3 hours. For snack meals, protein feedings can be as simple as a whey shake, string cheese, eggs or a tin of tuna.
- Carbohydrate Timing – While it is ok to have carbs at every meal, focus on eating a larger amount of carbohydrates for breakfast, and during your post-workout meal.
- Healthy Fats – Don’t forget your healthy fats. Milk, cheese, nuts, almonds, butter and olive oil are great choices.
- Fruits & Veggies – Eat your fruits and veggies. A banana or apple along with a protein shake makes for a very convenient snack. You can also increase your veggie intake with a nice spinach salad, adding in veggies of choice (peppers, onions and more!)
- Variety – Eat a variety of protein foods, grain-based carbs, fruits, veggies and foods containing healthy fats. Everything you eat has a different amino acid and vitamin and mineral profile, and eating a variety of foods helps you to cover all bases.
Post-Workout Nutrition. You could argue that post-workout nutrition is the most important meal of the day. After a heavy and intense weight training session, your body is depleted of many vital nutrients including protein, glycogen (sugars used for energy), amino acids, and important vitamins and minerals. It’s absolutely essential that replace these nutrients as soon as possible to prevent catabolism (muscle breakdown) and promote anabolism (muscle repair and regrowth) and protein synthesis.
Additionally, to replace lost muscle glycogen and spike insulin, you can add fast digesting carbohydrates. Good examples of these are dextrose and waxy maize starch. Around 70g of carbohydrates is need for an adequate insulin spike.
Meals Per Day. How many meals per day is optimal for muscle strength and growth? This can be a hotly debated topic. Here are some points to remember when structuring your meal plan:
- Frequent feeding works. While eating more infrequently might work for you, eating every 2.5 to 3 hours has been a staple in lifting for decades, and for a good reason…it works and works well.
- Less frequent feeding. If you are only able to eat 3 to 4 meals per day, space these meals apart as much as possible, and make sure you are reaching a calorie and macronutrient intake level that can help you add strength and muscle. It may also be beneficial to supplement with BCAAs in between meals.
Is Paleo Eating a Viable option?
Paleo eating focuses on the consumption of foods that were prevalent prior to the first agricultural revolution – the Neolithic Revolution. It was during this time (approx. 10,000 years ago) that man moved from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a settlement-based agricultural lifestyle. The Paleo Diet emphasizes that for most of human history, man did not consume foods such as refined sugars and grains and high glycemic carbohydrates.
Paleo is a very viable option for the strength training athlete. It allows you to eat freely and to satiety without much fear of excessive fat gain, while encouraging only the consumption of non/lightly processed foods.
Common Bulking Approaches for the Underweight and “Weak” Trainee
This section will look at several fairly common strength training bulking approaches. Each of these are meant to assist a small and weak athlete with putting on weight and strength as quickly as possible.
GOMAD. Gomad stands for a “gallon of milk a day.” This is usually whole milk, and it consumed in addition to an athletes 3 square meals per day.
Plus 1000. Coach John Christy has this advice when it comes to building rapid strength and size:
“It takes a lot of effort to eat enough to gain, which is one main reason, most trainees’ fail – they won’t work at it. Eat 1000 more calories per day than you eat now and you will gain muscle (as long as the training is stimulating).”
Mark Rippetoe. Mark Rippetoe is a respected strength coach and the author of Starting Strength. Here are some of his quotes regarding strength building and food intake:
“Milk is quite literally better than steroids for a novice lifter to grow on, and no supplement produces the same effect.”
“It is because over thirty years of direct observation has demonstrated to me that when trainees drink one gallon of milk added to their regular diet and train in a progressive linear fashion, they gain significant muscular bodyweight, and those that do not drink their milk, even in the presence of progressive linear training, fail to do this. They also fail to continue progressive linear training for the same length of time, because this is facilitated by the steady weight gain. I understand that you’re asking me if I have controlled for other factors such as failure to do the program correctly, and the answer is yes, of course I have, because I am not a complete idiot. Those that will not do the program are not being considered when I make these remarks, because that would be too …obvious a hole in my analysis. The difference in the milk drinkers is that THEY GET BIGGER THAN THE ONES WHO WON’T DRINK THE …MILK. Please tell me that you understand this now.”
“You guys that worry about eating clean are actually merely bodybuilders looking for justification for your obsession with abs. You cannot get big and strong on 3000 kcal/day. And you cannot eat 7000/day and eat perfectly “clean”.”
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the different products on the market. This section will cover the different types of muscle building supplements, what they do, and how you can use them to help you reach your goals faster.
While supplements are not essential to build muscle, they can help you achieve your goals faster. Intense training needs to be backed up with solid nutrition, and it’s often just not practical to get the nutrition you need, when you need it, from food alone. To realize your full muscle building potential you need a good diet and supplement plan.
Top Selling Supplements
Protein. Protein is essential for building muscle. Without it, you simply will not grow. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of muscle tissue. Protein powders and protein bars are convenient and provide high quality protein.
There are two different types of protein powders available, whey protein and casein protein. Whey protein and casein protein should be used in different ways:
- Whey protein. Whey protein is perfect for those looking to build muscle. It’s very fast ingesting, has an awesome amino acid profile, is low in fat and has a very high boiavailability (BV) score. Whey protein is ideal for whenever you need to get quality protein into your body fast, like straight after your workout or when you wake up in the morning.
- Casein protein. Casein protein is digested very slowly, between 2 and 7 hours. This means casein protein is used when you don’t need protein right away. Casein is great to use before bed because the longest time your body goes without protein is during the night while you are sleeping. Casein is also an ingredient in many meal replacement products.
Creatine. Creatine is another awesome supplement for gaining muscle mass. It is naturally occurring in the body, and found in minute quantities in some foods like red meat. It’s safe and very effective for anybody, especially if you’ve never used it before.
Creatine increases ATP (the main energy source muscles use for explosive power) availability so that you can perform more reps and sets and lift more weight, helping you to build muscle more quickly.
Weight Gainers. Weight gain products are great for helping you get the nutritional requirements and calories needed for muscle growth. To build muscle, you need to be consuming more calories that you expend every day. Some people need more calories than others. Some “hard gainers” need a huge amount of calories to grow.
Generally, weight gainers range from about 400 to 1,200 calories per serving. They’re made up of whey protein, complex carbohydrates and fats. Many people who lead a busy lifestyle use weight gainers to drink between meals to keep their calorie count up.
Multivitamins. It may not seem like the most obvious muscle building supplement, but a good multi-vitamin play an important role in muscle growth and general health. If you are deficient in even one vitamin or mineral, your gains can really be hampered.
A good multi-vitamin is a must for the best gains in muscle mass, not to mention good health. People who are working out need more vitamins than the average person, so your supermarket brands won’t cut it.
Glutamine. L-Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid found in muscle tissue. It helps prevent muscle wasting (catabolism) and improves recovery. The better and quicker you recovery, the sooner and harder you can hit it in the gym! Glutamine is also the primary fuel source for the immune system, so it can help prevent common illness. This means less chance you’ll have to take time off your workout.
Glutamine is safe to take year-round. Glutamine should not be taken at the same time as creatine because they compete for receptors to be absorbed. Glutamine is often taken pre-workout and in your before bed protein shake.
Nitric Oxide Enhancer. Nitric Oxide is a free form gas that is produced in the body and is used by the body to communicate with other cells in the body. The fact that nitric oxide increases blood flow should make it of interest to lifters, as increased blood flow will serve to deliver more nutrients to muscles, thus helping muscles become larger when subject to stress. People are noticing huge increases in muscle pumps while using this product.
Many top nitric oxide products are also blended with energy enhancers to form a complete pre-workout drink.
Natural Testosterone Booster. As men age testosterone levels decrease. Raising your testosterone helps you to gain muscle, enhance your mood, maintain a healthy libido, and more. Testosterone boosters often include popular ingredients such as ZMA, Tribulus, and much more.
BCAAs & Amino Acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Bodybuilders can especially benefit from supplementing amino acids because they aid in repair, growth, and development of muscle tissue. Among the most beneficial and effective supplements in any sports nutrition program are branched chain amino acids. These are the essential aminos leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
This section contributed by Gabe Wells of Bigger, Faster, Stronger of Texas.
The importance of conditioning within the realm of strength training is very imperative if you are to have a long and satisfying career. What conditioning does for the body; in a nutshell, is allow the body a chance to increase recovery time and work capacity. There are many more benefits to name; just these are the two important ones.
- Sled Dragging: Dragging a sled forwards, backwards or sideways.
- Interval Running: Running sprints (20yd-100yds, half speed-full speed).
- Interval Running Uphill: Sprints going uphill, remember to walk back down otherwise you risk injury.
- Prowler Push: The ultimate in conditioning.
- Sledgehammer Swings: Find a sledgehammer and find a tire, swing away. Few hundred reps and your lungs will be screaming.
- Tire Flipping: A staple in strongman and football programs.
- Farmer’s Walk: Another Strongman staple. Buy a set of farmer’s handles or grab the heaviest DBs and stroll for about 50-100 foot trips. Unbelievable grip builder and lung burner.
Sandbags, Kettle Bells, Truck/Car pushes are all weapons that you can add to your arsenal. The combinations are endless and you should experiment with all. There are many, many other forms of conditioning so remember to research.
One important rule to remember: allow yourself time for recovery between sets and training days.
Some advocate conditioning everyday. This may not be the best approach. Allow yourself time to recover between trainign sessions or you may risk a slowing of results. Start with 2-3 days per week and work your way from there.