In my last entry I stressed the importance of 'hard gainers' prioritizing strength gains (for reps) on the squat, press, dip, row and deadlift movements - to the point of practically disregarding everything else. After all, how can you be 'big' and 'strong' if you can't handle decent weights in these movement? You can't. In this entry I'll lay out some example routines and general advice to put this into practice.
Hard gainers have limited recovery abilities and tolerance to exercise. How can you prove that to yourself (assuming you're a hard gainer)? Simple. Are you getting stronger? Most hard gainers simply do not make week-to-week and day-to-day progress (as measured by performance improvements in the gym) if they train on anything other than what would be considered a low volume by the majority of the popular bodybuilding press. If you aren't getting stronger then you aren't gaining muscle - it's as simple as that. Of course, there are special circumstances when this rule may appear twisted a little - such as beginners who make quick disproportionate strength gains due to neural adaptations or advanced trainees who can focus preferentially for times on hypertrophy or strength - but in the long-term and in the big picture if you are not getting stronger for reps then you are not getting appreciably bigger. Burn this into your subconscious.
So, let's put these two mantras into practice - concentration on the basics and getting stronger for reps. The hard gainer routine will be...
Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press
Deadlift (may be done every second week or omitted by those with tempermental backs)
Alternatively, the trainee can neglect forearm and neck work and train just twice a week...
Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press
Deadlift (optionally every second week)
On Variation 1 training is done three days per week (for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday), on Variation 2 training is twice per week (for example, Monday and Friday).
Trainees are given Incline Presses instead of Bench Presses because the majority of hard gainers do not recruit the chest properly and overtrain easily on Bench Presses (which require a certain upper body structure to prosper from - one that most hard gainers aren't blessed with). Experimentation with bench angle to find the 'sweet spot' that feels best is required by all trainees, with the recommended angle in the 15 to 40 degree range.
Trainees are offered the choice of performing either Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press. This is because Behind-the-neck Presses bother the shoulder joints and rotator cuffs in many individuals. Others, however, have flexible joint capsules that allow serious training on the Behind-the-neck Press. If you haven't got enough training experience to make this judgement for yourself start with Seated DB Presses. If you suspect you have the necessary joint flexibility to do Behind-the-neck Presses productively then start them very lightly, cautiously, with very strict form and build up the weights slowly over a period of several months. Which is better? If you can do Behind-the-neck Presses safely then, in my opinion, they are the best. If you can't, then Seated DB Presses are a very close second. In the early days of Olympic Weightlifting some of the world's most impressive delts were built with Seated DB Presses, so don't underestimate them merely because I slightly favour the behind-the-neck barbell version for those who are productively capable of it.
Squats and Deadlifts are placed later or last in these programs because if you trained your best on either of these exercises early in the workout you'd be too tired to devote enough effort to the other exercises afterwards. Leave these lifts for last and you can get up for a good effort at the end of your sessions without holding back and saving energy for what's to come later.
V-bar Dips are Dips done on bars that intersect at a 90 degree angle (the two bars forming a "V"). This forces your elbows out from your sides and turns the exercise into one of the most productive chest exercises ever devised. If your gym doesn't have proper "V" bars (which it probably doesn't) then lay an Olympic bar across the stop bars in a power rack or Squat rack and make your own "V". Don't worry that the Olympic bar rests on top of the other bars, making it a little higher - alternate your sets from side to side and you'll be fine. Grip the bars wide, but not so wide that you stress your front delts heavily. Likewise, if your grip is too narrow on the bars you'll train the triceps hard (and possibly overstress your elbows). Find a comfortable grip width that lets your recruit your pecs the hardest. You'll know it when you find it.
If you lack the strength to do strict-form Pull-ups for at least 5 reps, then do Pulldowns. However, Pulldowns do not recruit the back muscles as effectively as Pull-ups (verified by MRI analyses), so as soon as you build the strength to do Pull-ups properly switch over to them.
Forearm work can be Wrist Curls and Reverse Grip Wrist Curls or Reverse Grip Preacher Curls. Alternatively, grip work with a gripper, timed holds or pinch work can be done. Neck Work can be done by lying on a bench and placing a weight on your forehead and/or with a head harness. There's nothing worse than a man with developed shoulders and a puny neck, hence the direct neck work in this course. Forearm work is included for those people with spindly forearms that don't grow well from just gripping the bar while doing other lifts.
Perform all of your exercises strictly, with little momentum and a controlled cadence. Master perfect form if you want to progress in the long term. Take liberties with form and you'll either hit a plateau fast or you'll get injured. You can't progress properly if you use weights so heavy that you have to cheat to get the reps. Train strictly and build your strength honestly.
SETS & REPS
You'll notice I didn't prescibe exact sets and reps. That's because many different rep schemes work, but none of them work indefinitely. Generally, you shouldn't do more than three work sets per exercise and you can't do less than one - 99% of your training will fall within that range. You can do the popular 5x5, with two sets as warm-ups and three with the same working weight (ala Reg Park - the 'father' of 5x5) or build up to just one max set of 5 (ala Bill Starr - who popularized 5x5 in the U.S.). Either way is fine. Also, an effective alternative that I often favour myself is to perform 4x5 (working up to one top set of 5) and then 1x8-10 as a lighter back-off set. Arnold Scwarzenegger preferred to perform 5 sets of 8,8,6,6,6 reps, with the first two sets of 8 reps being warm-ups and the last three sets of 6 reps heavy. You can use the same weight for all three work sets or drop the weight on each set as you tire (though be aware that this is more taxing and will generally lead to a plateau quicker).
Other productive approaches can be performing two heavy sets of 6-10 reps for each exercise or working up to one all-out set of 8-12 reps to failure. Crunches, Calf Raises, forearm work and neck work should be done for 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps for each exercise. As long as you're getting stronger each week then your training is working and ignore all advice to do anything otherwise. Only seek change if you fail, for several sessions, to improve your performance in the gym (either by lifting more weight or performing more reps with the same weight). Otherwise, keep doing what you're doing.
You don't have to train to failure all the time to make gains. In fact, training to failure on low-rep sets (about 6 reps or less), in particular, dramatically increases your likelihood of staling and overtraining. Your work sets should be 'hard', but not necessarily to the point where you can't move the bar. When you're using maximum poundages you should end the set when you don't think you could perform another full rep, but you shouldn't actually attempt that rep very often (occasionally may be okay). If you do deliberately train to failure only do it on one set per exercise and try to make sure you get at least 8 full reps before you reach the failure point.
You simply must regularly get stronger on these exercises. But it is not realistic to think that you can continue adding 5 pounds (the minimum weight increment in most gyms) to the bar or performing an extra rep on your all-out sets each week (one extra rep represents about a 3% strength increase in sets in the 1-12 rep range). Unless you are a beginner or are in a growth spurt, this is not a sustainable rate of progress over the long term. After your initial rate of progress slows down the solution is to conservatively add reps to your sets or get smaller weight plates that allow you to increase the weight on the bar by a pound or two a week. I recommend the fractional plates by Iron Woody, http://www.ironwoodyfitness.com/, but there are others as well. It doesn't matter how you get the extra 1-2 pounds on the bar as long as you do it - I've even used the weight bands that women use in aerobics class to fractionally increase the training load.
The beauty of fractional plates is that by adding a small dose of iron to the bar you are almost assured that you'll get all of your planned reps (if you've been eating and resting properly). Just one additional pound a week on your Overhead Press will be a 52-pound increase over the course of a year - believe me, you will see that on your shoulders.
Along with simply adding a little iron to the bar each session while keeping the reps the same (i.e. single 'linear' progression), the traditional standard 'double progression' works well for most hard gainers in need of more muscle and strength. Particularly if you don't have access to fractional weight plates, gradually increasing reps and then increasing weight when a certain rep count is reached (i.e. double progression) is a classic muscle builder. For example, you could start by performing 3 sets of 8 reps with a certain weight and then, each week, add reps to at least one set until you are finally doing 3 sets of 12 reps. At that point, add about 10% more weight to the bar and start over at 3 sets of 8 reps again. If you added just one rep to one set per week the progression would go like this...
Week 1 - 3x8
Week 2 - 2x8, 1x9
Week 3 - 1x8, 2x9
Week 4 - 3x9
Week 5 - 2x9, 1x10
Week 6 - 1x9, 2x10
Week 7 - 3x10
Week 8 - 2x10, 1x11
Week 9 - 1x10, 2x11
Week 10 - 3x11
Week 11 - 2x11, 1x12
Week 12 - 1x11, 2x12
Week 13 - 3x12
Week 14 - add 10% more weight and do 3x8
Week 15 - 2x8, 1x9
Eventually, as your strength improves, even this seemingly conservative rate of progression will prove to be too much and single progression - adding just a pound or two a week and keeping the rep count the same - will be necessary. At the very advanced stages more sophisticated methods of progression may be needed, but the 'simple' methods listed above can take most genetically typical trainess to at least striking distance of their genetic potentials. Below is an example of single progression with Reg Park's 5x5 system.
Week 1 - 60 lbs x 5, 80 lbs x 5, 3 x 100 x 5
Week 2 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 101 x 5
Week 3 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 102 x 5
Week 4 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 103 x 5
Week 5 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 104 x 5
Week 6 - 65 x 5, 85 x 5, 3 x 105 x 5
As you advance further, even this rate of progress will slow, perhaps to something like...
Week 1 - 60 lbs x 5, 80 lbs x 5, 3 x 100 x 5
Week 2 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 101 x 5
Week 3 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 2 x 102 x 5, 1 x 102 x 4
Week 4 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 102 x 5
Week 5 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 103 x 5
Week 6 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 2 x 104 x 5, 1 x 104 x 4
Week 7 - 60 x 5, 80 x 5, 3 x 104 x 5
It's important to note here that the sets of 4 reps weren't planned by the lifter - in these cases he simply didn't think he could get the fifth rep so he didn't try. It's generally better for a lifter not to attempt a rep he doesn't think he could get - keep it 'in the tank' instead and get it next week. Trying to force your body to progress faster than it's capable of won't produce faster gains - it will produce a premature plateau. Speaking of plateaus...
Eventually you'll hit a plateau on any set/rep or progression scheme and you'll need to get progress going again by switching to a different set/rep or progression scheme. At that time, make the change to a different rep count (and maybe set number) and build up progressively again, starting light and adding weight in a gradual, planned fashion. But always remember your goal is to chase better performances - this is the secret to ultimate training success.
For example, if you've been doing 5x5 for a few months, try changing to a double progression 3x8-12 scheme. When that stalls try 2x8-12. When that stalls try just 1x8-12 to failure along with fractional plates. By that time you're ready for another go at 5x5 or perhaps Arnold's 8,8,6,6,6. These are just examples - learn to listen to your body, always chase performance increases at a sustainable rate, but don't get poundage greedy or you'll hit a wall.
DIET & NUTRITION
Unless you are a rank beginner (in which case you should not be thinking about this routine and should be doing my beginner's routine instead: http://www.weightrainer.net/training/beginners.html), you cannot gain any appreciable amount of muscle while losing fat. Sorry, that's just the way it is. To build muscle your body needs a calorie and protein surplus. There are a host of biochemical reasons why this is so, but suffice it to say that if you plan on gaining muscle and getting stronger you're going to have to feed your body the protein it needs to build muscle and the energy (calories) it needs to convert this protein into muscle tissue. No, you cannot effectively 'trick' your body into using its own fat for energy to make muscle out of the protein you eat. You need sufficient quantities of both - protein and calories - in the diet to build muscle.
Aim for about 1 gram of protein and at least 20 calories for each pound of your lean body mass. For a typical guy weighing 175 pounds at the healthy average of 15% body fat, that's about 150 grams of protein and 3000 kcals a day. If he had a very active life or fast metabolism he'd need more calories than this to gain muscle optimally.
Unprocessed dietary fats of any type are not unhealthy when consumed in balance with each other. Processed oils (i.e. hydrogenated, etc) and fats are all unhealthy to one degree or another, as is consuming too much of any one type of oil or fat. In addition, the body's testosterone production is maximum when dietary fats (particularly saturates and monounsaturates) are about 30-35% of the day's total calories. With that said, the take-home message is simple - don't needlessly avoid dietary fat when trying to build muscle. Similarly, all testosterone in your body is made from cholesterol and modern research has virtually exonerated dietary cholesterol of increasing the risk of heart disease (again, the oxidized cholesterol found in processed foods may not be as healthy) - so don't eliminate cholesterol containing foods such as eggs and liver from your diet if you're trying to build muscle without the assistance of steroids.
Carbohydrates are required for providing the fuel necessary for high energy muscular contractions (i.e. ATP replenishment). Don't eliminate carbs from your diet and expect to maintain your strength and training energy. In addition, the insulin released in response to dietary carbs has anabolic/anti-catabolic effects necessary to maximize muscle growth.
Processed foods - sugars, fried foods, processed fats, processed meats, etc - are all unhealthful crap and they can't be counted as optimally healthy components of a muscle building diet. You can indulge yourself from time to time, but don't make a habit of it.
Where is all this going? Simple. Eat lots of proteins, unprocessed fats and carbohydrates and avoid processed junk foods. Foods such as meats, milk, eggs, liver, vegetables and fruits have a rich history of supporting muscle growth - they should make up the bulk of your diet. As far as nutrient proportions for building up goes, 40-50% carbohydrates, 20-25% protein and 30-35% fats is about right (a few percent either way isn't likely to make any difference).
99.9% of the bodybuilding supplements on the market are completely unsupported by unbiased scientific research and real-world experience and are designed by businessmen to get your money. They know that 99.9% of aspiring bodybuilders are naive, ignorant of real nutrition, but also desperate to 'get big'. The people working at the local gyms who try to sell you that crap are either concerned only with profit or are deluded fools themselves. The supplement industry is a dirty sham and most of the people involved with it should be criminally prosecuted. This is coming from extensive education on nutrition and biochemistry as well as 20 years in the gym. I can't make it any clearer than that.
The only supplements worth your money at this point are a good multi-vitamin/mineral tablet and protein powder. Whey protein is okay but digests too quickly to produce lasting muscle gains. Milk & egg based protein powders are superior but are somewhat out of vogue these days. Given the choice, always go for the milk & egg. "Micellar" casein is essentially the supplement industry trying to re-brand milk protein as something modern and scientific - it's unecessarily high-priced because of this. Milk protein in itself is good, but the 'scientific' spin they're now putting on it is simply to generate sales and allow them to jack up the price.
Protein powder can help you get your protein intake up to the 1 gram per pound of body weight (or, more accurately, lean body mass) that has been shown time and time again to be the optimal amount for muscle gains. But protein powder is no better than good protein foods - milk, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, etc - it's simply more convenient sometimes.
Creatine causes temporary strength gains and allows for the performance of a rep or few extra via increased water retention (better leverage) and by providing a source for ATP replenishment in the muscles. It's not a bogus supplement, but it won't make or break you either.
Practically all other supplements are rip-offs (the energy 'shots' are just caffeine with a few B-vitamins and amino acids added, a coffee and a few liver tablets contain as much 'active' ingredients as any of them). The supplement companies know this, I know it, and now you know it too.
NO ISOLATION WORK
No, you don't need special work for your side delts, biceps, triceps, etc, at this time. Overhead Presses will build your delts as big as they'll ever be; Rows and Pull-ups will build your biceps to the point where you may never need to do Curls; Dips and all forms of Presses train the triceps. Until you've built enough muscle that you wouldn't look out of place on a bodybuilding contest stage then focus only on getting stronger for reps on the basic exercises. When you're that big you can focus on any weak point that you perceive yourself as having. Until you're that big then don't waste your precious recuperation energy on anything other than big weights on the big exercises - if you do, you won't build much of anything.
HARD LUCK CASES
Some hard gainers grow faster on even less work than I've prescribed above. Even easy gainers I know have made rapid gains on very abbreviated routines. If you've tried the routine suggested above, made good gains at first but then plateaued, then a further reduction in volume and increased focus on just a few high-dividend movements may be the solution. Think of the following as 'specialization' routines in that you specialize on only the biggest bang-for-the-buck lifts. Train twice a week.
Incline Press or V-bar Dip
Deadlift (may be done every second week by those with tempermental backs)
Incline Press or V-bar Dip
Deadlift, Row or Pull-Up
For those who have very tempermental backs that can't tolerate Deadlifting, Rows may be substituted for Deadlifts. Those who cannot tolerate even Rows (and there are people in this boat) should substitute Pull-Ups. This advice holds for people with 'glass' backs in any of the above routines. If you do have a bothersome back, don't let it get you down - even Reg Park battled with a 'finicky' lower back throughout his training career.
These are my hard gainer prescriptions. Some of them may be pretty radical compared to what the muscle magazines dole out, but these routines come from what works for real people with normal genetics and without the massive doses of every conceivable anabolic drug available that the typical pro bodybuilder takes. Remember, 'weak' and 'big' do not go together. Don't delude yourself into thinking that you can build an impressive body waving little dumbbells around and using every useless machine in the gym (most of which were designed and built by people who apparently have no practical knowledge of training whatsoever, by the way).
I make no claim that these routines are the only way for a drug-free hard gainer to train. Nor do I mean to imply that these routines should be followed exclusively, forever. But for hard gainers these routines are some of the best that my 20 years of real experience has come up with. When you understand that for the drug-free individual, strength for reps is paramount, and that for hard gainers a low total training volume is usually the only way to develop it, then the path becomes clear.