I call this a basic guide, but it will be applicable to beginners, intermediates and expert trainees alike. Majority of novice trainees are either too lost (due to lack of guidance) or too delusional (due to an overnight self proclaimed expertise) to choose the correct progression model for developing a strong, muscular physique. Even as intermediate and experts, if you feel stalling in progress, this guide would give you a new perspective on corrective measures. So, shall we begin?
The Tripod effect
Strength, Hypertrophy, Conditioning- the 3 legs of a tripod that forms the foundation for a powerful physique. For all of you who grew up in the 90’s; remember ‘He-man and the masters of the universe’? All I wanted to do was become like him.
Now tell me that’s not what you desire when you think of a powerful physique? Well, apart from the hideous hairstyle and stone-age dressing sense, everything else about this guy was down right perfect. Strong, muscular, chiselled like an intricate piece of art, can move about with the ferocity of a tiger.
Strength (how strong you are), hypertrophy (how muscular you are) and conditioning (good body composition with the ability to move well) go hand in hand. Each has its own importance and each has its own phase. How do you know where to begin? What should be the first point of focus? Should you get stronger first or build muscle or get rid of the body fat? The answer depends on which phase of training you currently are in – novice, intermediate, expert. In Part 1, I will be discussing the correct approach for novice lifters. The subsequent parts will deal with intermediate/expert trainees.
When I first started out with weight training I was clueless about the right kind off split to follow. My dad (being a bodybuilder in his hay-day) suggested that I follow a 6 day split;
Day 1 – Chest + Back
Day 2 – Delts + Arms
Day 3 – Thighs + Calves
Repeat this for the remaining 3 days, and take a break on sunday. Doing some of my own research I learnt that for a beginner to maximize gains, TRAINING FREQUENCY (how often do you train a muscle group over the course of a week) was the key. Listed below are some of the most research backed workout splits that came up-
1. Full Body Circuit training (repeated 4 times per week)
2. Push-Pull-Legs (repeated 2 times per week)
3. Upper Body- Lower Body (repeated 3 times per week)
The goal of high frequency training split is to constantly trigger Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) by the activation of MTOR pathway. Higher the rate of of MPS, more elevated will be the rate of recovery, consequently increasing muscle mass. (That’s exactly what we want right, them gains?) However, training a muscle group more frequently will limit the overall volume in terms of number of exercises, sets and reps you perform on a particular day. The muscle needs to be trained again during the week and overloading it beyond a point will inhibit recovery and performance.
I stuck with the above mentioned high frequency splits but something just wasn’t clicking. I felt as though it wasn’t allowing me to progress. NO! I wasn’t expecting to get jacked in a few months into training (I was pretty realistic even back then, unlike a lot of newbies today). The problem? I was unable to generate sufficient focus to feel the muscle work as there just weren’t enough sets. Even learning the movement pattern for an exercise was tough. So I decided to ditch frequency and shifted to a one- body part- a day routine with lots of volume. This allowed me to understand muscle contractions and etch the movement patterns withing my neural system. It was almost like having repetitive practice which eventually lead to good technique, improved form and a strong mind-muscle connect. Now you’d argue that I probably sacrificed my “newbie gains” by not following the scientifically approved splits. But hey, fast forward a good 8 years and I am 89kg with 12% bf and have kept most injuries at bay.
ONE step backward, FOUR steps forward
My approach might not have been the smartest in terms of excessive volume I was using. But what it allowed me to do was create a strong base of muscular control and technique to later build my strength on. Rep after rep, exercise after exercise, every movement drilled into the subconscious mind due to practice.
Training for strength will have you work through heavier loads in the 1-5 rep range. Training for hypertrophy, on the other hand, needs you to spend more time under the load to create sufficient stimulation for muscle growth. Hence, you end up working in a higher rep range (usually 6-15 rep). I kept myself devoid of any strength work for at least a year and focused on spending more time executing exercises correctly. This was a temporary step back for sure, but it came with much greater benefits in the long run.
Prerequisites for strength
Training for strength is an absolute must when you’re trying to develop an imposing physique, no two doubts about that. It is also a double-edged sword which needs to be swung with extreme caution. Strength training heavily relies on the neural capacity of your body to handle a certain load. Meaning, the stronger you get, the more efficient your Central Nervous System (CNS) becomes. To reach a state of such efficiency, you need to fire using all your motor-units and with maximum muscle control. Why so? Because unless your muscle fibers are firing at their best, majority of the load will stress the skeletal structure, unleashing havoc on your joints. Now unless you’ve been training for explosive sports since childhood, chances are that most of you lack this skill of muscular firing. The inability to have maximum (or even sufficient) motor firing will eventually create undue stress on your joints. A few years down the line, you’ll be a broken wreckage.
It has become a trend for new trainees to directly dive into a strength based approach the moment they step into the gym. Hypertrophy and isolation work has almost become non existent within the new training programs (mostly in the stupidly designed ones). You see tonnes of beginners trying to max out on their compound exercises by performing jerky singles/doubles. This is not because they’re trying to impress someone (I hope its not, you have to be a special case of stupid to lift with your ego). It simply stems from the fact that training for strength has become the no.1 priority. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big believer in strength myself. But unless you learn the Muscle firing, movement pattern and exercise technique, all that strength work is more detrimental than good.
So why should you focus on hypertrophy as a beginner? While you grind out those multiple reps day in day out, it fortifies you on 4 fronts:
- Establishing a strong mind-muscle connection
- Improving Motor-firing
- Learning proper technique and execution
- Adding Stability to joints.
Hypertrophy work helps you understand muscle contractions so that you can fire with maximum muscular control while training at heavier loads. It also helps stabilize the adjacent joints which will keep injuries at bay. Yes, you’re not prioritizing strength initially. But having a strong hold on all these above parameters will make that task much easier and safer as you progress with your training.
Asking what’s more important (strength or hypertrophy) is like asking ” who came first? the egg or the hen?” Each feeds into the other in an almost cyclic manner. If you stay obsessed with strength, you’ll often miss out execution. If you only focus on execution, you’ll fall back on strength. Building muscle is an amalgamation of the two. Don’t be exclusive to one! Here is what you must remember starting out:
- Spend the initial months focusing on Hypertrophy rather than strength work.
- Don’t train close to your 1 RM. Keep away from heavy singles/doubles.
- Work in the 6-12 rep range (can even go as high as 25 on lower body exercises).
- Follow the best possible split that suits YOUR needs and recovery capability (don’t have to go overboard with volume. Do the “research approved” stuff)
- Establish a strong mind-muscle connect, learn maximum motor firing, work on your technique and execution.
- Once you’ve made good progress on all these fronts, shift focus to strength work.
- Become HE-MAN or WONDER-WOMAN
The question is not, “WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT?”. The question is, “WHEN DO YOU PRIORITIZE ONE OVER THE OTHER?”