In a decade of training, I've only made legitimate strength gains in the last 2 years. #SadAF. Most people have no idea how to get stronger, especially personal trainers.
I'll prove this point using a recent study where trainers failed to produce any significant gains in their trainees. I'll explain what they did wrong and I'll show you how to train in a way that actually works so you don't waste 8 years of your life, like me.
This article is written for newbie to intermediate lifters with limited training time, with a primary goal of muscular strength, and don't use steroids.
If someone approached me and said,
"I can increase your strength by a whopping 10%, increase your muscle by 3 pounds and decrease your body fat...kinda. All I need from you is 22 weeks of your life. You'll need to eat 14 pounds of powder and do a lot of boring and painful training. Furthermore, most of the gains won't transfer to any real athletic ability...what'ya say?!"
...I'd tell them to go fuck themselves. Sadly, this just happened.
In a recent study, untrained, middle-aged-men (30 - 50 yrs old) were divided into 4 groups and placed on a 22 week training protocol:
Group 1 - High intensity training (HIT) *Performed single sets to failure
Group 2 - HIT + High Protein (HIT+P) *Ate 1.6 grams of protein, per kg of body weight, per day. "High protein" was a 33% increase over their baseline intake of 1.2 g/kg/day. They achieved this increase by supplementing a protein powder.
To give you some context: 1.6 grams/kg/day for me (180 pounds), is a small steak.
Group 3 - HIT + High Volume (HVHIT) *performed twice the training as groups 1 and 2...2 sets to failure for each exercise. This group didn't increase protein. They ate the baseline average of 1.2 g/kg/day.
Group 4 - Control *These guys did nothing.
I like this study because the sample group was untrained, middle-aged-men. Most of my friends and clients are this exact demographic, so its relevant. It's easier to relate to a study using people like us rather than a study on rats, elite athletes of elderly females.
Muscle Growth - All exercise groups gained muscle. HIT gained ~ 1 pound, HVHIT gained ~2.7 pounds and HIT+P gained ~3 pounds.
...I am not impressed...
Fat Loss - All exercise groups lost fat. However, only the HIT group made significant losses compared to control. The HVHIT group trained twice as much and lost less fat. The high volume group ended up eating more total food, this tends to happen when you work out a lot. This is a great example of "Less is More" training mentality.
Strength - All exercise groups increased strength by about 10%. The differences between exercise groups were non-significant, but HIT showed the biggest gains. A 10% increase in strength for an untrained male, in 22 weeks is dog shit.
To give you context: If a man who can squat a 150 pound barbell were to increase his strength by 10%, he would almost be able to add two, 10 pound plates to each side. This amount of strength gain should be achievable in 1 or 2 weeks, not 22.
Time investment: The average training time for the HIT group was 36.6 minutes and 74.7 minutes for the HVHIT group. In 22 weeks the high volume group spent 29.8 extra hours working out, without getting stronger. I'm sure they had nothing better to do with that ENTIRE DAY!
Protein Supplementation: A 180 pound man would have consumed an extra ~14 pounds of protein powder throughout the trial...without getting any stronger. I'm sure 14 pounds of protein is easy on the pocketbook and sphincter valve tho.
This was no half-ass effort. The training protocol was professionally designed and quite complex.
"...Certified instructors consistently supervised all sessions and checked the proper application of the exercise protocol including the aspect of “work to failure."”
Working to failure isn't easy or fun. It feels like your flesh is both searing and tearing from the bone. Once in a while it's cool but these guys went to failure EVERY. SINGLE. LIFT.
They even controlled Time Under Tension (TUT). For example, trainees lift a weight for 4 seconds, hold for 1 second and then lower for another 4 seconds. FYI, this is the opposite of explosive lifting.
Here's what they actually did:
"All main muscle groups were addressed by 10-13 exercises/session taken from a pool of 17 exercises (latissimus back and front pulleys, front chin-ups, seated rowing, back extension, inverse fly, hyper-extension, sitting bench-press, shoulder-press, military-press, butterfly with extended arms, crunches, leg press, leg extension, leg curls, leg adduction, and abduction"
They did isolated machine work. Notice, nowhere in the aforementioned list is a deadlift or squat mentioned.
If you're an average guy with a time and money budget, looking to increase strength, taking "professional" advice, eating the right supplements and working your ass off MIGHT be a complete waste of time.
This illustrates a huge problem within the fitness/supplement industry. Most trainers have no idea how to actually make gains. Most supplements don't work. This way of training is unsustainable mostly because it doesn't actually work, but also because its time consuming, it hurts and its boring as fuck.
I'd love to see a retrospective study showing who continued with this protocol, for how long and what their gains were.
Newbie Gains AKA Virgin Gains
The program used in this study was so bad that even with protein and consistent training they broke the law of newbie gains; which states that a lifter will make his biggest strength and size gains within his first 6 months of training. It's so easy to progress as a novice lifter that its harder to NOT make gains.
This was the best this program could do. It's only getting worse from here on out. As we become more advanced our gains shrink. I put 100 pounds on my deadlift in my first year of powerlifting, without really knowing what I was doing. Now, I'm fighting tooth and nail for a 10 pound increase.
Stop Wasting Time
The High Volume group clearly showed more training doesn't equal more gains. Imagine what you could do with 29.8 hours of wasted time. How could you connect with your kid, what could you learn from reading, what project could you tackle? How many seasons of Game of Thrones could you re-watch?
The strength gains made here aren't useful. Technically, they got stronger. But, slow, isolated lifting doesn't translate to anything cool or athletic. Building a huge inverse fly and a massive 5-rep seated bench press will not increase your staying power on the mat at your local Ju Jitsu spot OR heaven forbid, an actual fight. Slow biceps curls make you better at...slow biceps curls.
These guys were middle aged men, so its likely at least some were Dads. Believe it or not, Dads are in charge of family protection...A powerless Dad cannot defend his family as well as that same man could if he were powerful.
These guys made sure to cover every muscle group. But they never actually trained them as one unit...the body. Instead they trained the biceps...then the triceps...then the shoulders...then the quads. What happens when you have to fire all these muscles simultaneously like your life depends on it.
Real strength comes from multi-joint movements that load the entire skeleton, like a squat. Power comes from doing those movements fast, like jumping. Useful strength...lets call it fighting strength, better yet, protector strength, is the ability to generate power throughout all muscle systems simultaneously with coordination. Seated triceps extensions will not train this type of strength, my friends.
Power = Force x Velocity
1. Lift heavy and aggressively, most of the time.
2. Let compound movements like the deadlift, squat and overhead press be the foundation of your strength programming.
3. Use isolation machines sparingly.
4. Be weary of "Certified Personal Trainers" especially if they're not strong and lean.
5. Eat real food, mostly animals.
When you focus on these five points, your protein intake will be auto-corrected by your hunger. Your volume should be whatever you have the time for and whatever amount is fun and recoverable. More is usually better, until its too much.
p.s. - There are times when slow, isolated machine work to failure is useful. It's great for elderly or injured people. I even know an elite wrestler who uses isolated leg curls with great benefit. This article is not for injured, elderly or elite athletes.
Thanks for reading
Coaching inquiries: Gabe@ancientgains.com