It seems like the debates over effective resistance training program design will never end. Throughout my career as a trainer I have studied and implemented countless strength and hypertrophy regimens. What always intrigued me was that so many of these programs promote what appeared to be completely antagonistic training philosophies! One guru will insist that only high volume training is ideal for muscle growth, while another expert declares that low volume, high intensity training is the key. Other routines were so convoluted that you would spend more time contemplating the complex variations therein than actually training! This is called “analysis paralysis”.
What became apparent, however, was that despite all of the conflicting information, the most effective programs typically share common elements and principles. Rather than focusing on the different theories, it will serve you better to look at the big picture: the fundamentals. The intention of this article is to present the most effective training principles in a simple and clear fashion. If you design your next program based on these basic concepts, you will get results. When it comes to training for size and strength, this is “What Really Works”:
1. Use Progressive Overload:
This is the most basic and one of the most important principles. Muscles grow bigger and stronger as they adapt to stress. Therefore, you need to progressively overload your muscles each week either by lifting moderately more weight, exerting more force, or performing more repetitions with the same weight. This is why it is so important to record your progress and write down your training goals.
2. Use compound, multi-joint, free weight exercises:
Basic, big pushing and pulling movements such as variations of the deadlift, squat, lunge, power clean, overhead press, chest press, row and pull-up involve more muscles, larger muscle groups, more resistance and greater Neuro-Muscular Activation (NMA) than isolation movements. Generally, the more of your body you involve in the exercise and move through space, the greater the NMA. By this reasoning, a heavy weighted dip would be more productive than a heavy decline press, and pull-ups are superior to pull downs, for example. These exercises not only produce greater increases in size and strength in a shorter period of time, but they also stimulate the production of higher levels of growth hormone in your body. In addition, by training destabilized (free weights vs. machines) you are involving more of your small intrinsic muscles.
3. Use Ground Based Exercises:
This idea ties in with the above principle. When possible, choose to train in a standing or ground based position rather than seated or lying. This alone will make the exercise much more functional, and more challenging! Compare the seated overhead press to a standing military press; or seated rows to bent-over barbell rows. There is also typically a greater involvement of your core muscles with ground based exercises.
4. Train your CORE:
Some define their core as only their abdominals; I look at the At-Home Strength Training “core” musculature as your entire midsection, including your abs (rectus abs, tranverse abs, obliques), spinal erector muscles (quadratus lumborum, longissimus, spinalis, multifidus, iliocostalis), and glutes. Considering this, you should incorporate exercises to target each of these main areas. I recommend starting your workout with some core isometrics, to activate these muscles in order to facilitate a stronger workout and prevent injury. The basics are the plank, the side plank, the bridge, and the lying back extension. Then I finish each workout with a different isotonic core exercise.
Of course, if you are using the big, multi-joint exercises I suggested above, your core muscles are being challenged during the rest of your workout as well. By using functional, free weight, ground based, compound movements, you are involving your entire midsection to a huge extent. I also strongly advise against using any belts, wraps or straps during most of your regular training, as this can decrease the involvement of the important core stabilizers. These training accessories should be reserved for maximum lift attempts and competition, unless otherwise indicated for specific injuries.
5. Train with Balance:
I have written entire articles on the topic of ‘balance’: balancing rest and training; training different energy systems in balance; having balance in your life. It is an important subject, not to be overlooked. For now, let’s look at the following aspects of balance:
o Include stability training & unilateral (single leg, arm) movements:
Incorporate some exercises that force you to balance on one leg or stabilize a weight with one arm, such as step ups, lunges, single arm press, etc. Working with odd objects such as kegs or sandbags also create a greater demand on your stabilizers and place a new stress on your body, leading to new results. These types of movements will increase the strength of your weaker side and develop your proprioceptive ability.
o Balance the volume of training for (and the strength of) agonist and antagonist (opposing) muscle groups:
This is an important principle for increasing strength, size, NMA, and preventing injuries. Basically, you want to balance the workload on both your pushing and pulling movements. The force and speed you can generate in a press or a throw is largely affected by the ability of the antagonist muscles to eccentrically stabilize the joint. If you cannot control deceleration, you can’t accelerate to your full potential.
Research has also demonstrated that one can recuperate faster by performing a set for an antagonist muscle group between sets. This is known as Push-Pull Supersets, such as super-setting rows and chest presses, or pull-ups and overhead presses. It has been shown to maintain strength between sets, as well as stimulate hypertrophy.