Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Reprinted with permission of Hardgainer, Vol. 7, No. 6 (May-June 1996)

People are always asking me questions like these: “Which is better, 20-rep squats or 10-rep squats?” “Barbells or dumbbells?” “Machines or free weights?” “One set to failure, or multiple sets?” “Straight sets or pyramids?”

The answer is, “They all work!” We all have our preferences, but the way you choose to train (or the method) is not nearly as important as how you train. The key is that no matter what mode or method you use, you work brutally hard. You lift as hard and heavy as you possibly can—apply focus, form and progression. Hard work will make most methods work as long as you eat right and get plenty of recovery time.

You can loaf or use bad form using any method, and you will get poor results. You can have a negative attitude, lack concentration and just go through the motions using a Hammer Strength machine or a barbell. You can go for months or even years without progressive poundages using any method of training. Remember, there is only one absolute rule in strength training: high intensity training (hard work) + good nutrition + adequate recovery = results.

Everyone responds differently to various training methods. You should experiment to find the ones that work best for you. Keep a detailed training log and write everything in it pertaining to your training including how you feel, what you ate, any aches and pains, etc. Nothing should be haphazard. Review your notes often and learn from them.

The Basic Exercises

No matter what mode or method you use, you must include the basic exercises in your program. This is the foundation and does not change. To incorporate all training modalities—free weights, machines and manual resistance—I choose not to describe the basic exercises in free weights terms. Instead of saying “bench press” I’ll say “horizontal push.” Rowing would be a “horizontal pull,” military press would be a “vertical push,” pulldown would be “vertical pull.” With this type of description it doesn’t matter whether an overhead press is done with a Hammer machine, thick bar, regular bar, dumbbells or manual resistance. It would still be a “vertical push.”

Many people do not have a balance of pushing and pulling exercises. This can contribute to joint problems. The musculature that surrounds a joint (prime movers and antagonists) should have balanced muscular development. If you spend too much time on the bench doing bench presses, and not enough time rowing, you are inviting shoulder problems. Overly developed anterior deltoids and underdeveloped medial and posterior deltoids will be the result.
When one side of a joint overpowers the other, it is almost like what happens to a car when the front end is out of alignment, and it pulls to one side. This especially applies during sudden movements such as playing sports. Many shoulder dislocations and other problems are caused by improper training and the imbalance of pushing and pulling.

The basic movements are: vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, horizontal pull, and leg-hip-back push/pull (usually the squat and Trap Bar deadlift). You can add a few isolation exercises, such as arm work, as long as you are not overtraining. If you are healthy and able, these movements should remain the framework of your program.


There are many people who seem to think that “high intensity” only means “one set to failure.” This is not true. High intensity means hard work and “one set to failure” is just one way that works for some people. High-intensity training is simply hard training. Intensity is defined as the amount of work done per unit of time.

There are four ways to increase intensity. (1) Progressive resistance—this is the top priority. The other three ways will do nothing more than burn calories unless you always include a form of poundage progression. (2) Sets to muscular failure, or “more reps” in a given set. When you reach the rep goal, add weight. (3) Reducing the rest between sets—get enough to recover but not too much. (4) Using stricter form to make the movement harder.

Any training mode or method that works falls under these categories in some form. They are all different ways of “overloading” your muscles, causing them to work harder than before. Many people argue that they have the best or only way to train. This is pure garbage. There are many methods that work, and thousands of people to prove it.

If you put an extreme emphasis on any of the four ways of increasing intensity, then there will be some trade off in the other areas. For example, if you put an extreme emphasis on minimum rest, then you will have to lower your base poundages. You’ll have to do the same if you put extreme emphasis on form and thus do extremely slow movements. If you put an extreme emphasis on lifting the heaviest poundages, or demonstrating strength as Dr. Ken puts it, then you’ll need more rest. The key thing to remember is that we all have our own individual training beliefs based on personal trial and error, but there are many ways to build muscle and strength if you work brutally hard and always have some form of progression. In any successful program, using any method, your primary focus is adding weight ot he bar (or machine) in good form.

My Personal Training Methods

I’m 5’8” and weight about 210 lbs at 41 years of age. I train my whole body on average twice per week, doing the basic movements with an equal emphsis on pushing and pulling. (Occasionally I add an extra day or two of rest between workouts.) I also do cardiovascular work, at least three times per week, for 30-45 minutes each time.
I do different eercises on each of the two weight-training days. I usually do low reps for upper body (5) and sometimes do singles. I usually do 3 work sets per exercise. My priority is to lift the heaviest poundages possible in perfect form. I put an emphasis on the eccentric or negative side of the lift, always lowering the bar slowly. I explode on the concentric or positive side of the contraction.

For the past year I’ve only used a 3” bar for the bench press and recently got 350 with it (with a delayed pause). I’ve previously gotten 370 in the bench press with the regular bar, but after 30 years of natural training my goal is to reach 400. I do overhead presses with a 2 1/2” bar and use close to 200 lbs for 5 reps. I use a 2” straight bar or 2” EZ-curl bar for curls. My Trap Bar deadlift, and squat, are well over 500 lbs.

I train in cycles and switch my program around after about four months. I usually do 20-rep squats and high-rep deadlifts for one cycle per year, for a change. Although it works well for some people I don’t like to do extremely slow movements. I believe that many people who gravitate towards this do so to camouflage puny poundages.

Cycle Variation

There are many methods that work, and many ways to incorporate the basic movements, so why not mix things up a bit when you change cycles? This will prevent boredom, and maintain enthusiasm. I’ll do 20-rep squats for four months and then may switch to 5-rep squats for the next four months. It’s instinctive; my body usually tells me when it’s time for a change.

Many people like to “mix it up” during every workout. This may be fine if you are very advanced and really know what you are doing. But I believe that most people, including all beginners and intermediate trainees, are better served by sticking in a training program for the duration of a cycle. This way you give the program time to work, and you really know what is working. If you change things too much your record keeping will be impossible to interpret.

Give you program 3-6 months to work for you. You will learn from your record keeping what changes to make for the next cycle. During a cycle, keep the exercise sequence and rest between sets constant, or your notes will be of no help.

My cycles are loosely defined and may go longer or shorter than four months, depending on progress being made. Here are three examples of cycles I have used, listing only the core movements and work sets.

Cycle 1

Day one
1. Bench press: 3 x 6-8
2. Front pulldown: 3 x 6-8
3. Military press: 3 x 6-8
4. Seated cable row: 3 x 6-8
5. Squat: 2 x 20

Day two
1. Incline press: 3 x 6-8
2. Behind-neck pulldown: 3 x 6-8
3. Behind-neck press: 3 x 6-8
4. Lying T-bar row: 3 x 6-8
5. Trap Bar deadlift: 2 x 15

Cycle 2

Day one
1. Dumbbell bench press: 3 x 8-10
2. Chin: 3 x maximum reps
3. Dumbbell press: 3 x 8-10
4. Bent-over row: 3 x 6-8
5. Squat: 3 x 8-10

Day two
1. Incline dumbbell press: 3 x 8-10
2. Pulldown: 3 x 8-10
3. Military press: 3 x 8-10
4. Seated cable row: 3 x 8-10
5. Trap Bar deadlift: 2 x 8-10

Cycle 3

Day one
1. Bench press: 3 x 5
2. Front pulldown: 3 x 5
3. Military press: 3 x 5
4. Seated cable row: 3 x 5
5. Squat: 3 x 5

Day two
1. Incline press: 3 x 5
2. Behind-neck pulldown: 3 x 5
3. Behind-neck press: 3 x 5
4. Lying T-bar row: 3 x 5
5. Trap Bar deadlift: 3 x 5

Mental Toughness

You need mental toughness to make maximum gains in any program. I recently had a phone call from a 22-year-old trainee who said he was overtraining on 3 sets per week. I’m not joking. He needs a serious attitude adjustment. Don’t overtrain, but do train. Many people are more concerned about overtraining than they are about training. If you stick to the basic movements, training only twice per week, and only squatting and deadlifting once a week each, you should have plenty of recovery. You must pay your dues.

Be tough and train hard. I strongly recommend that you order The Psychology of Winning by Dennis Waitley, from Nightingale Conant (Motivational Tapes) 800-323-5552. Also order The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz at your bookstore.

True Dedication

Many people talk a good game but are not really dedicated. Do you drink alcohol? If so, how many days per week? This is a weak link for many. If you are pounding beers more than one night per week, I question your dedication. If you use any tobacco products, you’re not dedicated. Junk food? Sleep? Cardiovascular exercise? Mental focus? Find your weak link and work on it.

No Magic Formula

The same rules apply to all the modes and methods of training previously mentioned. Try them out and find the one(s) that work for you. There is more than one way to get great results. Beware of “research” and statistics that claim one method to be superior. Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” If you look closely there is usually something being sold. Every camp that espouses a certain “superiority theory” has their own pet researcher. This is one of the reasons why the training field is so confusing for beginners.

Stick to the basic Hardgainer training philosophy, no matter which training method you use. Remember, the method is not nearly as important as how you train. You can succeed using any of the methods mentioned in this article, if you are totally committed and work your whole body brutally hard, eat right, have a positive attitude, and get plenty of recovery.
Does modern bodybuilding make you sick? You should write for Natural Strength! I always need good articles about drug-free weight training. It only has to be at least a page and nothing fancy. Just write it strong and truthful with passion! Send your articles directly to me: bobwhelan@naturalstrength.com

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