As a bodybuilder you are forever pushing the boundaries to gain the smallest possible edge, to smash a personal best, or to overcome a dreaded training plateau. Every intensity method from rest/pause, to supersets, to triple-drops, you have incorporated in the hopes of fast-tracking muscle gains. Ultra high reps, super low reps, and every range in between have been employed to build copious amounts of lean body mass. In short, you’ve tried it all yet the scales have hardly budged, your arm size remains the same and body fat isn’t budging. Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics.
We’re told over and over that to experience ongoing progress we must continually change up our routines. Doing the same thing over and over yet expecting radical results to those that have already been achieved is, many claim, futile at best. While it’s true that many different training approaches can be combined to ensure great bodybuilding results, it is equally indisputable that doing correctly what has worked for champions of years past will promote outstanding progress.
Let the following seven back to basics tips be your passport to plateau-busting gains.
1. Compound Intensity
As bodybuilding’s gene pool has become full to overflowing, and a sophisticated array of pharmaceuticals has enabled the average lifter to become unstoppable, many hard-gaining gym goers appear to have assumed that the many fancy routines and training strategies they read about in the glossy magazines have brought about today’s rapid physical progression. A preponderance of isolation movements coupled with single set routines and periodized strength training protocols has served only to confuse the average trainee.
Continually work on perfecting your technique rather than fruitlessly searching for that elusive silver bullet – get better at the basics.
Before circuit routines, predicated upon high intensity and multiple muscle group activation became an option for muscle hungry novice lifters, there were bench presses, deadlifts, squats and a few additional, yet equally basic, and effective, movements. Such compound (multi-joint) lifts are responsible for packing on more pure muscle than all other movements combined. Pick one per body part along with 1-2 associated lifts (for example, bench press coupled with incline dumbbell press and flat bench fly) and aim to get stronger on each. As with all the tips to follow, the key to progress in adopting such a basic regime is to refine your training approach with each session.
2. Prioritize Free Weights
Machines, cables, calisthenics and various other training aids and methods have increasingly been adopted as training options for those wanting variety and a new twist on old school approaches.
Although it has been said many times before, nothing can replace free weights for building a complete physique.
Yet the message doesn’t appear to have sunk in. Instead of replacing bench presses (which have received a bad rap of late as apparently they are the leading cause of pec tears) with machine presses, learn to safely perform the bench press, as this movement will place more direct top to bottom and side to side pressure on the pecs than any non-free weight movement ever will.
Aside from their unique mass building benefits, free weights will also build the all-important stabilizer muscles and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) surrounding each target muscle group, a benefit machines and cables are not ideally suited to doing. Other superior free weight movements include: squats, barbell curls, dumbbell shrugs, incline dumbbell press, bent barbell rows, side laterals and skull crushers.
3. Enter the Hypertrophy Zone
Along with increasingly emphasizing non-free-weight training methods, many bodybuilders are turning to a variety of rep ranges to target different combinations of physiologically distinct muscle fiber types in the hopes that such a unique stimulus will provoke further gains. This may or may not be an effective strategy. By keeping our reps in the 8-12 range (which ensures that 70-75% of our one rep max is employed, an amount deemed perfect for pure muscle building, or hypertrophy), we provide our muscles with an ideal training stimulus, the primary goal of any bodybuilder worthy of the title.
4. Force the reps
While it has become fashionable to delay full-force training intensity until the final set of an exercise (the rationale being that to go beyond failure means we will not have enough left in the tank for subsequent sets), such a notion was unheard of back in bodybuilding’s Golden Era, where all sets were completed with unbridled fury. Aside from an initial warm-up set (utilizing around 50% our one rep max), all sets, whether we are to complete two or seven, must be taken to complete failure and, on the final 1-2 sets, beyond. Doing otherwise would be a complete waste of time from a muscle growth standpoint.
It is better to adopt the Dorian Yates approach of training beyond failure on all non-warm-up sets, even if this means reducing them to two per movement.
Going beyond failure means doing whatever is necessary to ensure 2-3 further reps are completed, in good form, following each “to-failure” set. It is during those final added reps that massive micro-trauma of the muscles will occur and, provided we achieve proper rest and nutritional intake, our muscles will have no choice but to grow larger and stronger than ever. Ways to go beyond failure include: rest/pause, partner-assisted forced reps, completing negative reps once positive failure has been achieved, and drop sets with minimal rest.
5. Twice-weekly Training (per body part)
Back when performance enhancers were limited and Ronnie-esque growth potential was unheard of, most bodybuilders trained each muscle group 2-3 times time per week. Considered today to be gross over-training, such a schedule nevertheless enabled many to build very respectable physiques. Theories abound as to how often we should train each of our muscle groups. With the notion of over-training ever present in the minds of those conditioned to believe that less is best, a common solution seems to be once per week.
While three times per week may be stretching it, by training each muscle group twice over a seven day period we are assured that all body parts receive both adequate stimulation and are less likely to atrophy.
It is scientifically accepted that a muscle group takes between 48-72 hours to recover. Why is it, then, that many do not again stimulate a particular grouping immediately after this period? In extreme cases, more recovery may be needed, but, in general, to prevent regression it is best to train each muscle group once every three days. Such a strategy certainly did not hamper the bodybuilding pioneers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. So, if your one day per week training is not giving you the results you want, try twice-weekly training.
6. Separate Cardio and Resistance
To save time and to capitalize on low glycogen levels brought about by intensive resistance training, many have begun placing cardio training directly after their weights sessions. While theoretically sound, in practice such scheduling may compromise muscle recovery by delaying post-training nutrition and, to an extent, further taxing weary muscles (depending on the modality used and which muscle groups were trained beforehand).
Worse still, some place cardio before weights in the same training session – doing so will pre-exhaust energy levels and dilute weight training intensity.
Those natural trainees who combine cardio and weights in the same workout inevitably resemble fitness models rather than bodybuilders. Sure, fat loss may be hastened, but muscle gains are likely to be shortchanged. Do what the champions of old did: when it is time to weight train, do so, then get out of the gym and recover. And if cardio is required, schedule this on a separate day.
7. Train Instinctively
Just because you have strictly outlined your training for the week does not mean you must follow this plan to the letter. For the most part, you will, but on occasion you may have the energy to do more or, on the flip-side, you may feel you need extra recovery time so may choose to cut your sessions short. Similarly, if a movement isn’t feeling right on a given day, it may be wise to switch it up for another lift. Champions of yesterday and today know the value of instinctive training.
Having a solid plan of attack is needed for optimal progress in the gym, but knowing when to deviate from this plan is equally important.
With the modern-day advent of specialist coaches and an increasing influx of personal trainers, aspiring bodybuilders, accustomed to following directives, are training less instinctively. The take home message: listen to your body honestly and make any necessary changes to ensure you strike the right balance between training with hellish intensity and promoting the recovery needed to translate poundage into progress.
Should you ever encounter a training plateau or if you are misfortunate enough to be experiencing one now, rather than seeking out a range of new approaches (a strategy which may even have placed you in your present predicament), go back to basics and refine the well-tested methods that have, since time immemorial, worked for thousands of devoted lifters. In our haste for success we often overlook what works best, or even what has assisted us in the past. When all else has failed, revisit proven strategies. Continue to refine the solid muscle building principals of success and you can’t go wrong.