Most beginners to bodybuilding are keen to have a programme outlined for them which covers every aspect of training. Usually they want to know the exact exercises for a specific day, often relating to certain body parts.
Although this approach is useful for a beginner, it has some serious disadvantages once you become more experienced in lifting weights. You need to take a long-term view, when it comes to developing a physique. You also need to keep a record of your progress. Many beginners make some decent progress in the first couple of months, but then after a while progress tends to plateau. This is quite normal and nothing to be worried about.
Whether you want to develop your conditioning, improve your punching power for MMA, or enter a physique competition, you want to continually make progress. The real problem is in not spotting this plateau in the first place. So many people train “blind” without keeping a record of their weights, reps, sets and exercises. They go to the gym hoping that what they do will produce results. More often than not, plateaus are reached on all exercises, but if you end up training by a gut feeling rather than definitive and accurate results, you will remain on that plateau, having not recognised it in the first place.
A bodybuilding program can only take you so far without an underlying knowledge of the principles needed to develop strength and size. The strongest lifters in the world, in the sports of powerlifting, strongman and Olympic weightlifting are meticulous about keeping records of their progress. A typical powerlifting gym has white boards on the walls rather than mirrors! This is to enable the lifters to see their progress, workout to workout, over the course of the year or even longer than that. Some gyms keep records of lifters achievements from years past to encourage the new guys to progress.
Using Periodization In Your Training
One of the key principles that powerlifters use to progress is that of periodization. Most athletes in all sports use this principle to some extent. Basically, it comes down to modifying your training over time according to your body’s adaptations. Powerlifters tend to change exercises quite frequently, often every week, choosing a new exercise to increase their three major lifts. Different variations of bench press, squats, and deadlifts are used and rotated throughout the year.
To take the bench press as an example, powerlifters will make slight modifications every week to the way that they train. One week and they may use a closer grip to accentuate triceps strength. The next training session they may increase the range of motion with the use of cambered bars. Another tactic is to continually vary the repetition range. With powerlifters this usually means anything from one rep to 5, in order to increase strength. They also use bodybuilding type sets and reps schemes to maintain muscle size and speed training with 50 to 60% of their one rep maximum lifts to increase their force production.
Applying Principles To Bodybuilding Training
So how can you apply these principles to bodybuilding? Obviously, the first thing is to keep a record of your progress. Ultimately, the bodybuilder’s progress can be seen in the mirror. But underlying the aesthetic part of the sport is the foundation of training in the gym. Wou can either keep records in a notebook, or mentally, but unless you have a very good memory it is quite easy to forget what you lifted last week let alone several months ago. This being the case, it is quite difficult to build up a picture of progress or identify exercises that are no longer working for you.
3 Major Principles of Weight Training
There are so many variables to consider that it can be overwhelming at times. But there are a handful of key principles that you need to bear in mind in order to keep progressing as a bodybuilder. Three major ones are frequency of training, volume of work done, and the intensity of your workouts. It is often said that these three are mutually exclusive. What that means in essence, is that if you have a workout in which you train a body part for 20 sets, it is unlikely that each one of those sets will be performed at maximum intensity because as you progress through the workout your energy levels and ability to recruit muscle fibres decreases.
With regards to frequency, a high-volume workout that included more than 10 sets a given body part, would not likely be repeated with any significant progress unless you had rested for a week. I’m talking about resting the specific body parts, not the entire body.
You can test how your body responds to these three variables by starting out on a typical body parts split training programme and monitoring your strength increases. The typical body parts split would look something like this:
- day one: chest, shoulders and triceps
- day two: rest
- day three: back, biceps and forearms
- day four: rest
- day five: quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and abs
- day six: rest
- day seven: rest
In this type of training split, which is very common and used by a lot of professional bodybuilders, a high volume of work is undertaken in each workout for the specific body parts, the intensity levels are moderate, usually only going to failure on the last couple of sets of any given exercise if at all, and the frequency is fairly low, i.e. once every seven days for each body part.
Modifying the Parameters
Because most people stick to this type of program they rarely allow their bodies the chance to experiment with something else. If you become stuck in a rut it could be just a question of changing one of these three parameters. You could increase the volume of work, i.e. the number of total sets performed for each exercise. Or you could limit the number of exercises themselves, so instead of having four different exercises for your triceps, you could just limit that to two.
Another alternative would be to increase the frequency of your workouts, and cut down on the volume. You could pick one exercise for your quadriceps, such as leg press during a Monday workout, and then choose just one other, such as front squats on a Thursday workout. You would have to test this over the period of several workouts to see if your strength is increasing. You know if your strength is increasing if you manage more repetitions workout to workout, or manage the same number of repetitions with an increased weight.
Over time, you will gain an impression of which type of system works for you best and will gradually understand how to apply these principles in your training. You will no longer be reliant on somebody else providing you a workout program set in stone.
Do not be afraid to go against the grain and come up with a training routine that you’ve never heard anybody else try out before. If it works for you then that’s all that matters. For example, you may find that certain body parts respond to a higher volume of training than others. You may see great progress if you train your quadriceps with 10 sets total, and your chest with just two or three sets but performed with high-intensity taking each set to failure, or near enough.
You may find that your biceps respond better to direct training only once every couple of weeks, but your triceps get stronger through training them three times every week. Unless you keep a record you will never know, that’s why I stressed the importance of doing this at the beginning of this article.
Apart from the three major principles of frequency, intensity, and volume there are other ways to manipulate your training. The basic building block of all workouts is this single rep. The repetition is the one factor which a lot of people forget to manipulate. There are innumerable ways of changing a repetition in any exercise so that you will never run out of variations.
A repetition has several parts to it including the lifting (concentric), lowering (eccentric), the pause in the lowered position, and the pause in the contracted position. There are actually other variables as well such as the range of motion and the plane of motion. I don’t want to over burden you with too many details here but the two main things that you can manipulate in terms of bodybuilding are the range of motion and the overall speed of a rep.
Most people train with too much speed. Unlike an Olympic weightlifter who wants to accelerate the weight as fast as possible and get it overhead, a bodybuilder wants to slow down the speed of a rep so that his muscles are doing more work rather than letting inertia takeover. A good example of this is in the lateral raise used to develop the medial deltoids. If you raise the weight too fast, your medial deltoids are no longer performing much work as inertia has taken over. I have seen some people working the medial deltoid so fast that if they actually let go of the dumbbell it would fly up on its own!
Check Your Form and Rep Speed
If you are finding progress hard to come by, check your repetition speed first of all. I am not an advocate of super slow training where reps can take up to a minute each, but you do need to check your form and examine how much work auxiliary muscle groups might be doing too. Take the seated row as a good example. This is performed primarily to develop the muscles of the upper back and lats. However, in their quest to lift more weight (or more likely to impress others in the gym) a lot of people end up engaging the lower back and hamstrings in an effort to pull the weights back. Laying off the extra heavyweights, and concentrating on a slower rep speed will enable you to focus the attention on the target muscles better.
Paradoxically, if you have reached a plateau in certain exercises, it may be necessary to actually reduce the amount of weight and along with that, reduce the repetition speed, especially in the lowering phase where most muscle tissue damage occurs.
Don’t Confuse the Numbers with the Mirror
Ultimately, progress for a bodybuilder is not in the amount of weight used but in the aesthetics of the physique. In your quest to make progress, do not confuse the two. Use the record of your weights, reps, exercises, frequency and intensity of training to develop a physique rather than reach certain numbers. Always let the mirror be the guide in the end.
When Instincts Take Over
Once you understand the major principles involved in developing strength, and size, you will possess an instinctive sense of where to take your training. This is why you rarely see professional bodybuilders keeping a log book of their training, because they have certain benchmark exercises that they use to make judgements in terms of strength. If for instance, they are beginning their workout with flat bench presses, the first few working sets will tell them how they’ve progressed.
If they have put maximum effort into the first exercise, everything that follows will suffer in a certain sense because a lot of energy was used up in the first movement. If they have gone all out in that first exercise and achieved a strength increase from the preceding workout, the progress has been made. What follows from then on in the workout is less critical in the sense that they are not going for an all-out personal record but trying to achieve muscle fullness, a pump, and generally speaking, the volume of work will take care of the hypertrophy.
What is often a good idea, is to switch which exercises you start workouts with. So if for instance last week you began with flat bench press, it would be a good idea to begin the next workout with maybe a decline or incline press. Your first exercise is always going to be your strongest and that is where you can honestly judge any strength increases. Keeping a mental note of how many plates he had on the bar isn’t that difficult and you’ll soon get a feel for progress over the course of a few weeks. However, if you are just beginning, I would advise strongly to keep a Journal of your workouts and once you feel instinct has taken over and your memory for different exercises is good then fair enough.