Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rate of Drug-Free Muscle Gain

For most people muscle building is a slow process. Of course, there are those who are extremely genetically gifted and respond quickly to even the most poorly constructed and applied of programs, but most people are not in this category. Add the wild card of anabolic steroids into the mix and it isn't hard to figure out why many people have only a vague concept of what they're supposed to be accomplishing in terms of building muscle. The commercially driven mainstream media certainly doesn't help matters.

When I started training I thought I would look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in six weeks. After that I planned to stop training and just enjoy having a perfect body. Of course, as the six weeks progressed I realized that it wasn't going to happen, so I extended my training period and went in search of more "modern" training routines and bodybuilding supplements ...because what I was doing just wasn't working as quickly as I thought it should. This, combined with big promises made by the bodybuilding magazines and supplement salespeople, is how most beginners get drawn into their eventual roles as dollar donors for the multi-billion dollar supplement industry.

Pipe dreams and promises aside, if you're a typical beginner you can realistically expect to build about ten to twenty pounds of muscle in your first year of serious training. Structurally very large men may even get closer to 25 pounds under the right circumstances, while structurally very small men may max out at under 10. This is partly common sense, for one would not expect a man who's 5'6" tall with 6.5" wrists to be able to build as much muscle as a man who's 6'2" tall with 8" wrists. Of course, the commercial bodybuilding magazines and websites usually won't tell you this, but I wouldn't really expect them to. In reality, 90% of them don't seem to actually know enough about training and nutrition to even make a qualified guess anyway (sad but true).

Muscle gain, with proper training, nutrition and rest, follows an exponential decay rate that can be predicted reasonably accurately by wrist size (which is positively correlated to lean body mass in large population studies). A trainee's expected amount of muscle gain during a particular year of bodybuilding training can be approximated by the following equation:

muscle gain in one year = 0.3 × wrist2 × 0.5(no. of years training - 1)

Where "muscle gain" is expressed in pounds and "wrist" is the circumference of the wrist in inches. So, a man with 6.5" wrists could be expected to gain about 0.3×6.52×0.5(1-1) = 0.3×42.25×1 = 12.7 pounds of muscle in his first year of serious training. In his second year of training he could expect to gain another 0.3×6.52×0.5(2-1) = 6.3 pounds of muscle. A man with 8.0" wrists may gain about 0.3×8.02×0.5(1-1) = 19.2 pounds of muscle in his first year of serious training. He could gain another 0.3×8.02×0.5(2-1) = 9.6 pounds the following year.

Do keep in mind that these are merely rough approximations that do not consider the trainee's height, exact physical makeup (which would be practically impossible) or exact training, nutrition and rest habits but, for the majority of trainees, this method will provide a sufficiently accurate estimate - though there are very gifted people who may be able to slightly exceed these predictions (by a few pounds at most). There's also the case where a person has trained for awhile, but has done so sporadically or poorly. In such cases, it's more difficult to make predictions and the trainee has to examine his past to determine how much muscle he's added so far and how far he is from his ultimate potential. The closer a person is to their potential the harder the gains are to come by and, likewise, the further a person is from their potential the more likely it is that they can yet make relatively fast "beginner like" gains.

Also, yearly gains will not be spread out evenly over the course of the year. Typically, after an initial break-in period when a person learns to do the lifts properly, they make their fastest gains early in their training "careers" and muscle gain rate will slow down every month and week thereafter, although it won't be strictly linear - there will be periods of ups and downs. So if you're a beginner you'll notice some quick gains at first but that will slow down to the point where gains are generally not noticeable from week to week. If you're an intermediate you may also make a ten pound gain in a year (particularly if you're a large-structured person or haven't trained properly in the past), but it will require more dedication and persistence. If you're advanced, gains will come very slowly indeed. After 10 years of proper bodybuilding training you'll pretty much have maxed out your drug-free genetic potential in terms overall muscle mass. After 5 years of proper training you'll be somewhere around the 97% mark. In three years it would be about 88%.

Also be aware that "yo-yo" dieting and overeating can produce sudden, even seemingly miraculous, swings in body weight - both fat and lean body mass - but these changes are rarely permanent and body weight normalizes again after the person returns to their more typical diet patterns. Carb depleting and loading itself can produce fluctuations of 10 pounds of body weight in just a few days. But the vast majority of the weight lost or gained is fluid and labile proteins and the weight change does not represent a true long term change in body composition. At the end of the year, people experiencing such fluctuations will still generally fall within the bounds set by the above equation.

Interestingly, speaking on the subject of an experienced drug-free bodybuilder putting on just 6 pounds of muscle in a year, two of today's top natural bodybuilding champions, who both had almost 20 years of training experience, had this to say,

"Six pounds in a year? That's not natural!" and "I haven't put on 6 pounds of muscle in the last 10 years, let alone a year."

Friday, August 21, 2009

The History of Steroids in Bodybuilding

Periodically on the various internet bodybuilding forums someone makes a completely baseless statement about steroid use, when it started, and who was using them back in the 'old days'. When I see ignorance being masqueraded as fact I almost always feel compelled to join the discussion and refute some of the often outrageous statements being hurled about. I'm going to recap what's known about the history of anabolic steroid use in sports so I can refer people to this entry rather than go through it time and time again.

All reliable sources - publications by Terry Todd, John Fair, Randy Roach, Bill Starr, etc, as well as interviews and letters from John Ziegler, John Grimek, Bill March, etc - indicate that experimentation with testosterone for athletic purposes began in the U.S. sometime in either late 1954 or 1955. These 'trials' were short-lived, however, as the results were disappointing and testosterone use was deemed ineffective and carried the risk of harmful side-effects. A statistical analysis of Olympic-style Weightlifting performances published in the International Journal of the History of Sport concluded that Soviet athletes likely first used testosterone sometime between 1952 and 1956.

Dr. John Ziegler, physician for the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting team (i.e. the York team), described in interviews of learning about the Soviet use of testosterone injections at the 1954 World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, Austria in October of that year. Some time after returning home, Ziegler convinced York affiliated lifters John Grimek, Jim Park and Yaz Kuzahara to be test subjects and receive testosterone injections (oral testosterone was known to be clinically ineffective by that time). By Grimek's account, the results were disappointing. In a private letter, dated at the time, Grimek spoke of seeing nothing in the way of gains and quiting the injections because he felt he was actually regressing. Jim Park received only one injection which he claimed did nothing for him physically, but made him incredibly horny. It is unclear as to Kuzahara's experience but, in any case, it was not positive enough to warrant continued use and further experimentation was ceased. In light of the terrible side effects that Ziegler had heard of and witnessed Soviet users suffering, and lack of significant results in his own test subjects, no further experimentation with testosterone was tried by the York (U.S.) Weightlifting team for the duration of the 1950s.

This was not the end of Ziegler's involvement with steroids, however. Ziegler began work with CIBA Pharmaceuticals in 1955 to develop a testosterone derivative that would carry the anabolic properties of testosterone without the undesirable side effects. Preliminary results began coming in by 1956, and Dianabol was released to the U.S. prescription drug market in 1958 for use in wasting conditions. CIBA's competitor, Searle, beat them to the market, however, and introduced Nilevar, the first synthetic anabolic/androgenic steroid, to the prescription drug market in 1956 (used as a polio treatment).

In late 1959 (some claim as early as 1958, some as late as 1960) Ziegler decided to try the new Dianabol on some of the non-medal contending York lifters and enlisted Grimek to convince a few lifters to begin taking it under his (Ziegler's) supervision. Lower level or non-competitive lifters were chosen for the initial trials so as not to risk marring the performance of medal contenders at the upcoming 1960 Olympics (Dianabol was, at that time, a relatively untested drug and York chief Bob Hoffman was said to have feared trying it on his top lifters). Bill March, Tony Garcy, John Grimek, Ziegler himself and later Lou Riecke were the first Guinea Pigs, and the results were much more promising this time around.

From there, Dianabol use quickly spread to the entire York Weightlifting team. Now, up-and-coming York lifters and Strength and Health magazine writers such as Bill Starr and Tommy Suggs started letting the secret out to the bodybuilding community, and by the early-to-mid 1960s almost all high-level competitive bodybuilders were taking steroids in the weeks leading up to contests. This pre-contest cycling scheme by bodybuilders was based on the Weightlifters' practice of escalating steroid use in the weeks leading up to lifting meets - the logic being that just as the lifters wanted to be at their best (strongest) come meet day, bodybuilders wanted to peak at their biggest on the day of the contest. It didn't take long for steroid use to spill into the 'off-season' as well, as this allowed bodybuilders to build more ultimate muscle mass.

The man who would go on to become the first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott, gained 8 pounds of muscle in two months between the 1960 Mr. Los Angeles (in which he placed third), and the 1960 Mr. California (which he won, defeating the two men who had placed above him in the Mr. Los Angeles two months earlier). A year earlier he had won the Mr. Idaho weighing just 152 pounds. Larry credits Rheo Blair, and his protein powder, as being instrumental in his sudden improvement. However, considering Larry's dramatic gains from that point onward, and Blair's reported possession of Nilevar a few years earlier before he even moved to California, it is quite likely that this time in 1960 also marks Larry's first usage of steroids (something to which he admits but, to my knowledge, hasn't specified the date).

But the early 1960s did't mark the true origins of bodybuilder's regular use of steroids, however. In an early edition of his book Getting Stronger, Bill Pearl told of meeting Arthur Jones (founder of the Nautilus line of training equipment and father of the "HIT" style of training) in 1958 and learning of Nilevar from him. After a little further investigation, Pearl began a twelve-week cycle of the steroid and gained 25 pounds. At around that same time, Irvin Johnson (aka Rheo H. Blair - 'father' of the first protein powders) is said to have had Searle's Nilevar in his possession, though he isn't believed to have been widely distributing it to bodybuilders at that time.

So what can we gather from all of this? First of all, no bodybuilder or lifter was using synthetic steroids before 1956 - they didn't exist. Most likely, only the very highest level West Coast bodybuilders knew of them by 1958. From there it seems that knowledge of Nilevar and Dianabol to build muscle and strength was kept relatively in the closet until the early 1960s. After all, Hoffman did not want outside athletes to know his lifters' secrets and he was using their sudden gains via Dianabol to promote his supplement line and isometric training courses and racks. Bill Starr wrote that until he was a national calibre lifter with York in the early 1960s he had never heard of steroids. Reg Park (Mr. Universe 1951, 1958, 1965) said that the first he heard of them were in connection with rumours about East German and Soviet athletes during the 1960 Olympics, though he later heard of "steroids" being used on British POWs from Singapore in WWII as they were being nursed back to health in Australian hospitals. Chet Yorton (Mr. America 1966, Mr. Universe 1966, 1975) has said that he first heard of steroids (Nilevar) in 1964, and decided not to risk using them - Yorton went on to become one of the sports most outspoken campaigners against steroid use and founder of the first drug-tested, natural bodybuilding federation. The condition of national and world level bodybuilders appears to have taken a visible leap between 1960 to 1964.

As for testosterone itself, Paul de Kruif's 1945 book "The Male Hormone" is often cited as "proof" that bodybuilders knew of and were using testosterone in the 1940s. But even though testosterone had been identified by researchers and isolated in laboratory settings as early as the 1930s, it didn't receive FDA approval as a prescription drug until 1950 and, therefore, injectable testosterone was produced only sporadically and in small batches for research purposes, before that time. De Kruif himself made no clear connection between testosterone use and possible athletic applications, though he did briefly raise the question if it could surpass the effects of large vitamin doses in baseball players - aside from this single sentence, his arguments were purely from the perspective of using testosterone to restore the vitality and health of hypogonadal and aging men.

It has been said that John Grimek, upon reading publications such as de Kruif's, was inquiring about testosterone in the 1940s. But he would have had nothing other than a possible hunch that it could be used for athletic purposes, and no source or opportunity to experiment with it. There were, in fact, two companies in California advertising "genuine testosterone" tablets through mail order in the late 1940s, but were ordered to stop by the FDA in early-to-mid 1951 when regulations to control the distribution of controlled substances were tightened. It was well known by researchers at that time, however, that the liver effectively clears almost all orally ingested testosterone within seconds, even very large doses (clearance rate of 24.5mg/min/kg), so these tablets would have produced no effects even if they did contain crystalline testosterone. The low bioavailability of oral testosterone is precisely why injections were used in early research and why synthetic steroids were eventually developed.

It wasn't until 1954/1955 with Ziegler, that Grimek wrote of getting his first testosterone injections. It stands to reason that if even Grimek had no access to bioavailable testosterone before 1954-55 and no knowledge of other top level bodybuilders or lifters using it before then - and as editor of Strength and Health magazine and second in command at York he certainly was in a position to know - then it is very unlikely that anyone in the west was effectively using testosterone for athletic/physique purposes before late 1954/1955. Given that these early experiments were unsuccessful and brief (likely because they knew little about dosing for increased strength and muscle mass), it is most likely that the first western bodybuilders began steroid use not with testosterone itself, but with Nilevar, sometime after 1956 to 1958. From there, Dianabol enters the picture at the elite level and by 1964 even the muscle magazines, such as Iron Man, were writing about what they called the "tissue building drugs".

For a western bodybuilder or lifter to be using testosterone before late 1954/1955 he would had to have known more about the biochemistry of testosterone and it's potential athletic effects than any western sports physician - and have had access to what was then a relatively rarely used prescription drug. He would also had to have known more about how to effectively dose it than John Ziegler, who would go on to co-develop Dianabol just a few years later. Nobody in the west can say for sure exactly when the Soviets began using testosterone, but the likely date is sometime before October 1954 and possibly as early as 1952.

As mentioned, injectable testosterone was first approved for prescription as a cancer, wasting and burn treatment in the U.S. in 1950. Before that it was available for research purposes only, with the FDA tightening regulations and enforcement in the early 1950s. Ads for "genuine testosterone tablets" were placed in national newspapers by two California companies from 1946 to 1951, but the actual ingredients of these tablets were uncontrolled, cannot be verified, and due to the body's clearance rate oral testosterone would be inconsequential anyway. For a bodybuilder to be effectively using testosterone before 1950 he would not only had to have known more about the biochemistry, dosing and potential athletic applications of it than anybody else in the world (including the research scientists working with it), but also have had access to what was then an experimental drug, isolated in limited amounts for controlled research purposes, and not produced in quantity for a public or prescription market. "Snake oil" ads for testosterone tablets, even if they contained what was advertised (which in itself was vague), would not have significantly impacted blood testosterone levels due to the liver's massive testosterone clearance rate and cannot be considered a reliable source.

For these reasons it can be stated with near certainty that Steve Reeves, Clancy Ross, John Grimek, Jack Delinger, Reg Park, John Farbotnik, George Eiferman, etc - who all won major physique titles before the Soviets began using testosterone and before synthetic steroids were introduced in 1956 - were not using bioavailable testosterone or synthetic steroids at the time of their Mr. America, Mr. USA and Mr. Universe wins. Furthermore, it is unlikely that any major title winner was a steroid user before 1957-58 (Pearl won the Mr. USA and Mr. Universe titles in 1956 before his knowledge of Nilevar). Some athletes' careers from the era, such as Reg Park's, do span the introduction of steroids into bodybuilding. In Park's case, he weighed 226 lbs when he won the Mr. Britain title in 1949, 214 lbs when he won the Mr. Universe title in 1951, 215 lbs when he won it the second time in 1958, and 216 lbs when he placed 3rd in 1971 (at age 43 - he returned again in 1973 to place 2nd). If Park did jump on the steroid bandwagon when he learned of them in 1960, then they produced one pound of muscle in 11 years for him.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sets

Years ago I regularly trained legs with a friend of mine who prided himself as much as I did on how hardcore his Squat sessions were. A couple of times a week we'd meet up and push each other to the limit in the Squat rack. He was a big dude, much stronger than I was, so I'd make up for the discrepancy in weights by sheer intensity of effort. If I couldn't lift more than him then I'd make him look like a pussy some other way.

A child of this who-is-the-most-hardcore rivalry was something I dubed "The Seven Deadly Sets". Around that time the 10x10 scheme that Steve Reeves used to quickly gain weight back in the late 1940s was experiencing a sort of revival. One of the popular muscle magazines had published an interview with Reeves in which he described selecting just one basic exercise per body part and performing 10 sets of 10 reps of each. Awhile after that George Turner published an article in the same magazine presenting his version of 10x10 which he used in his gyms during the 1950s on up. Then Charles Poliquin re-worded it and presented it as "German Volume Training" - another 'secret' training program of great Eastern Bloc athletes being presented to the western world for the first time (at least if you were 17 years old and didn't know the difference).

10x10 has it's advantages. The volume of work is high, and the fatigue induced and high total workload is ideal for hypertrophy - particularly targeted at the sarcoplasmic as well as the sarcomeric varieties. In addition, a high-volume workload on a basic, compound exercise such as the Squat has been shown to result in maximum training induced growth hormone release. It's short-coming, however, is that the weights simply aren't heavy enough to cause significant strength improvement and is not ideal for sarcomeric hypertrophy training. If you try to do all 10 sets with your 10-rep maximum then you'll be too exhausted to get to the end, or if you do make it you'll need too long between training sessions in order to recover fully (and therefore muscle growth will take a step backwards). 10x10 usually involves starting out with just 60% or so of your 1-rep max and increasing from there when possible.

On the other side of the spectrum was Reg Park's 5x5 approach (which has been claimed as Bill Starr's in America despite Starr first publishing his 5x5 over 20 years after Park made it famous ...and Park probably wasn't first). Park advised performing three heavy work sets of five reps with a weight you could handle for all three sets of five (the first two of the five total sets serve as warmups). This type of heavy work is ideal for promoting strength gains and sarcomeric hypertophy; it has also been shown to result in maximum exercise-induced testosterone release. It isn't likely, however, to be very efficient at promoting sarcoplasmic hypertophy or increasing growth hormone levels. For that, a higher volume is needed.

We chose 7x5-7 - seven sets of five to seven reps, from that point on referred to by us as "The Seven Deadly Sets" ...and after you do them you'll understand why.

Seven sets of five to seven reps represents something of a middle of the road approach between Reeves'/Turner's 10x10 and Park's 5x5. Seven total sets - five work sets and two warmup sets - presents enough volume to result in a strong hypertrophy stimulus, yet the weights involved are heavy enough to promote strength gains. Five- to seven-rep sets should result in substantial testosterone elevation and, particularly if the trainee choses to limit the rests between sets, a substantial growth hormone spike should be acheivable as well. It worked for us, and if set up in a properly cycled routine (you can't just train all-out on a routine like this forever) it will work for you too. ...But it isn't easy.

Here's how to do it...

The Nuts and Bolts

For the first session, take a weight that's 90% of your 5-rep maximum (5RM), or you can use your current 8-rep maximum (it should be about the same), and perform five sets of five reps with about two-minute rests between sets. Before this, perform one warmup set of five reps with 60% of your 5RM and then a set of five with 75% of your 5RM. The first session looks like this:

Set 1 (warmup) - 5 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 5 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM

Two-minute rests between sets.Most people will be able to get all five heavy sets of five reps, though if you're not accustomed at all to work volumes this high you might only get 3-4 reps on the last set or two. If you don't get all five heavy sets of five reps then use the same weights next session and try until you do. Keep doing that until you do make the last 5x5 with 90% of your 5RM. Once you achieve that (which shouldn't take long) you up the ante by going for seven sets of six reps at the next session. Like this:

Set 1 (warmup) - 6 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 6 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM

It's fairly likely that if you were pushed to get all 5x5 heavy sets during the last session you won't be able to suddenly jump to 5x6 this time. That's fine, you're not really expected to - just do what you can do. Perhaps you only get something like 6,6,5,5,4 on your heavy sets. It doesn't really matter - all that matters is that next time you improve your performance by getting at least one more rep on one of the sets that you didn't get 6 reps on last time. For example, at the next session you might get 6,6,6,5,4. That's an improvement. Keep working towards all 5x6 with 90% of your 5RM, and at that point start trying for 5x7. Eventually, you'll get to...

Set 1 (warmup) - 7 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 7 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM

At that point you'll be at least several weeks, perhaps months into the program and your strength will have increased by approximately 3%-7% (everyone's different). At your next heavy session test for a new 5RM or 8RM and then start the cycle over again the following session, warming up to 5x5 with 90% of your new 5RM (or use your new 8RM for the initial session of 5's).

What it Takes to Get The Seven Deadly Sets to Work

Obviously, this is a stressful workload - it shouldn't be attempted by beginners or anybody without at least several months experience on any lift they're considering using The Seven Deadly Sets for. This is a high-intermediate to advanced level program only.

Additionally, a workload like this requires plenty of food and rest to support it. At it's peak, 7x7 gives a total of 35 heavy reps each session. That gives quite a growth stimulus to the system. Immediately after the workout you should get in at least 30 grams of protein and 60 grams of carbs if you want to make the most of it. Then for the next 36-48 hours don't hold back your calories below maintenance levels. If you want to grow, consume at least 300 calories a day more than maintenance on the day you do 7x5-7 and on the next day as well. Get plenty of good protein and fats.

It's common sense that hard work requires sleep and rest, so I won't beat it to death here. If you want to succeed let your body recover from what you've done to it.

In any case, no matter what you do, you'll eventually need a break from this routine. Any good routine will go stale eventually and when that happens you need a change of pace. When 7x7 goes 'cold' switch to a low-volume, high-intensity style routine (but don't train past failure) for a few weeks as this type of training allows somewhat of a de-loading phase compared to a higher volume 7x7. After you go stale on 7x7 you should see a few weeks of rapid strength gains by switching to a HIT-style program as the gains stimulated by 7x7 are allowed to manifest. (I say "HIT-style" but training past failure is not recommended - do 1-2 'hard' sets per exercise, not necessarily even to failure, but certainly 'tough'.)

Training Frequency

Most high intermediate-to-advanced trainees should be able to handle 7x7 once every 5-7 days. To play it safe I tend to recommend performing it once a week for each major lift (or whatever major lift you want to use it on) with a second day of lower volume but perhaps heavier work later in the week (ideally four days after the 7x7). For instance, if you did 7x7 on Squats on Monday you might come back on Friday and work up to just one heavy set of 3-8 reps. Don't do the same rep count on this day for extended periods. Switch things around every few weeks. Perhaps for three weeks try a heavy set of five reps on the second day, trying to increase the weight each week; then switch to a set of eight or even three reps for a few weeks - always trying to improve your performance on this day but not pushing so intensely that you're worried you might miss your reps or have to seriously psyche up for the set.

One heavy set is a different type of stimulus than 7x7 - it isn't as metabolically stressful but the high-intensity/low-volume load can promote gains of it's own. Don't use intensity techniques such as forced reps, negatives, any type of beyond failure training, etc, on the second day, however - you need your nervous system to recover in time for 7x7 again a few days later. Do a "hard" set, but shy of failure, and call it done. The two approaches - 7x7 and 1x3-8 - complement each other nicely and should spur strength and size gains.

Wrap Up

The Seven Deadly Sets work well for any major barbell or dumbell exercise (though may be more suitable for barbell work). The 90% of your 5RM that you start the cycle with represents only about 80% of your 1RM, or roughly what you could handle for one all-out set of 8 reps. This is a load traditionally thought of as ideal for hypertrophy and bodybuilding type training. Yet, it is also heavy enough to promote regular strength gains. In addition, it isn't so heavy that it should torment your joints and fry your nervous system.

But it isn't at all easy. The first few sets probably won't seem so tough, but by the end, as fatigue accumulates, you'll know you're into something serious. It's as hardcore and productive as it's name implies... which is just what most trainees need.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Training for Hard Gainers

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...

Day 1
Incline Press
Barbell Row
Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press

Day 2
Forearm/Grip work
Neck work
Calf Raise

Day 3
Overhead Press
V-bar Dip
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...

Day 1
Incline Press
Barbell Row
Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press

Day 2
Overhead Press
V-bar Dip
Deadlift (optionally every second week)
Calf Raise

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.

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,, 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...

Double Progression
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.

Single Progression
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.

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:, 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, 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.

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.

Day 1
Incline Press or V-bar Dip

Day 2
Overhead Press
Deadlift (may be done every second week by those with tempermental backs)

Day 1
Incline Press or V-bar Dip

Day 2
Overhead Press
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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hard Gainers - Get Your Priorities Straight

Why did I say all of those nasty things in my previous entry, knowing that some of you will either have accepted your status as "hard gainers" or are taking stock of your small bones, short muscles and miserable results in the gym? Was it simply to be cruel? No! Not at all. I am a hard gainer myself. I said those things to wake you up to your situation and now we'll work on getting you to stop fruitlessly following the lead of those who are much more gifted for weight training than you. If you recognize your plight you can finally start to do something about it.

Hard gainers must accept that they cannot train as brutally as more gifted people. They cannot tolerate as many sets and/or exercises, and they absolutely must not waste their precious recovery resources on silly, inappropriate exercises. Hard gainers must, more than anybody else, focus on simply getting stronger for reps on a few basic movements that recruit the major muscles of the body. Squats, deadlifts, bench or incline presses, rows, overhead presses, pullups, and dips - gaining strength on these exercises is the only thing that matters for hard gainers. Hard gainers achieve that by training these exercises practically exclusively, briefly and for no more than three total hours in the gym each week. The diet must contain plenty of hearty foods - protein, carbohydrates and fats (and natural cholesterol for testosterone production) and each night should see at least eight hours of restful sleep. No, this is not what you see prescribed by drug-built bodybuilders in the supplement catalogues (aka "bodybuilding" magazines), but this is the only route to success for the drug-free hard gainer. Hard gainers MUST IGNORE everything else if they wish to succeed.

If you are a hard gainer look at it this way, do you think you will ever have a massive chest and powerful arms if you can barely bench press your own body weight? No, you will not. Likewise, do you think you will ever build a big bench press by doing silly flyes with 30 pound dumbbells? No, you will not. Likewise, think you'll get a big back if you can barely chin yourself? If so, you need to wake up. Think you'll have big, powerful legs if you're too lazy to squat? Think leg extensions with a few plates will do it for you? If so, I'm sorry, you're going to be very disappointed.

Let me be clear, if you can barely bench press your own body weight, your legs wobble if you try to squat much more than that and you can't chin yourself more than a few jerky times, then you might be able to have a lean athletic "looking" body, but you will never be what people consider "big" and strong". There isn't a strong man alive who is that weak, there isn't a big man alive who isn't that strong, and there isn't a strong man alive who got that way by lifting little dumbbells or using silly machines. If you think otherwise then you have your head up your ass and you need to pull it out.

Hard gainers wake up. Some people simply are not gifted for building muscle and strength. Those people have the deck stacked against them from the start and they have to take special measures in order to get anywhere - not follow the bullshit written by the drug-addicts in the muscle comics.

If you are a hard gainer and want to build a respectable physique (or strength) then get your priorities straight - get strong for reps on squats, deadlifts, bench or incline presses, rows, overhead presses, pullups, and dips.

"There's no such thing as a hard gainer."

Sorry, this guy doesn't have the 'gifts' - small joints, short muscle bellies (at least in the biceps), low starting muscle mass, etc. Sure, he can build up his physique/strength, but competing with the "big boys" will be a tough battle for him.

Recently, on discussion boards I monitor, some people have been proclaiming that there's no such thing as a hard gainer. According to them, the term "hard gainer" was invented and used by bodybuilding magazines to sell supplements to people who think they aren't gaining as quickly as everybody else. Sounds like sound logic. Here's one of the posts, grammatical errors included...
"there's no such thing as a hardgainer, its just summat the bloodsucking fiends from various companies thought up, to make people who aint getting the benefits they want from the gym quick enough, part with the hard earned cash for a "new solution" for all you hardgainers!

here's a solution, eat loads, because them muscles have to be repaired somehow!!

i do believe its easier for some people to gain muscle than others, but its hard to gain muscle for everybody, not just the skinny guy! its just he has to swallow his pride and start the weights low and keep at it, of course its frustrating and demoralising at first, but if you keep at it and eat enough food you'll gain without these magic muscle gain for hardgainers theorys!

it just had to be said!!!"
I actually don't really disagree with this guy. It is easier for some people to gain muscle than others, and the supplement companies will say or do just about anything to get your money. But, anybody with even the slightest experience training other individuals will know, quite assuredly, that some people gain much faster than others. On the flipside, some gain much slower. There has been some confirmation of this in the scientific literature, where at least one published study has found that body build does indeed influence the rate at which the body adapts to weight training - with individuals of heavy build gaining much faster than those of slighter builds (L.M. Van Etten, F.T. Verstappen, K.R. Westerterp, “Effect of Body Build on Weighttraining-induced Adaptations in Body Composition and Muscular Strength”, Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 515-21, 1994.). However, after 20 years involvement in the "Iron Game" I don't need research to tell me what I've seen countless times in flesh and blood - even if training, diet and lifestyle is the same, people will gain at drastically different rates.

Some people have much less potential for building muscle mass and strength than others. Those types tend to have shorter than average muscle belly lengths, small bone structures and 'delicate' joints, and/or testosterone levels on the low side of average. They don't necessarily have to be skinny, they can be fat as well - with the curse of being a fat hard gainer one of the hardest of all to overcome. These people simply cannot tolerate high training loads, possibly combined with high training frequencies, to nearly the same degree as more gifted trainees. They are, perhaps, "slow gainers" as much as "hard gainers". Yes, they usually have to eat very well to gain any muscle at all. Yes, they have to train and rest nearly perfectly to make even miniscule progress. But no, in the end, no matter what they do, they will never compete with the genetically gifted of the physical culture and lifting worlds. Sorry, that's just reality and it doesn't matter if you like it or accept it or not - you will never change it.

The name "WeighTrainer"

For those who are interested in why the name "WeighTrainer" is spelled wrong, and not "Weight Trainer" or "WeightTrainer"...

The original host of the website placed a 12-letter limit (no spaces) on domain names which could be used in the http address. "WeightTrainer" has 13 letters, so I took out one "t". Personally, I think it's a stupid name, but I couldn't think of anything else that encompassed all fields of weight training - bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strength training, etc.

Entry to Blogging

I avoided starting a blog for years now because, quite frankly, I saw them as private soapboxes for people whose opinions are often better kept to themselves. However, based on the suggestion of a Strength and Size Forum member I've come to see that a blog makes sense. The fact is that over the past 15 years I've participated in a lot of valuable internet forum discussions that have gotten lost because they weren't catalogued and archived. Also, there's plenty of useful training/diet information that is much better suited to a blog entry than a website article. A blog also lets readers comment on what's posted, participate in the discussion and stay up-to-date with what's going on in the "WeighTrainer world".

Hopefully this is the start of something productive.