Tommy Suggs and I have known each other since we were collegiate lifters in Texas. When he brought me to the York Barbell Company in 1965 to be his assistant editor at Strength & Health magazine, we started training together. It didn’t take Tommy long to figure out that I was an overachiever in the gym. He quickly determined that he didn’t need to do as much work as I did in order to be successful. He made it a rule to do half of what I did.
Which program produced the best results? On paper it appears that I would make the higher lifts, since more work translates to progress. At the end of our lifting careers, however, we’d posted the exact some totals for the three Olympic lifts – 1,035 – and our bests on the press, snatch and clean and jerk were nearly identical as well.
Tommy’s condensed program worked well for him, and he was smart enough not to be lured into a more extensive routine. On the other hand, had I done the abbreviated program that worked so well for him, my strength would have suffered. We simply had different training requirements. We still do, in fact. This basic variation in individual needs is one of the most difficult aspects of strength training for many people, especially beginners, to understand.
Any program that is publishes in a magazine or a book is no more than an outline – a list of suggested exercises – and not a magical formula. The main reason it takes several years to achieve a high level of strength fitness is simply because it takes a great deal of experimenting before you finally come up with a routine that fits.
In addition, we all discover to our dismay that the program that lifted us up to one level may not be nearly as efficient in moving us to a higher one. Needs also change as you get older, although the basic principles of strength training don’t. That’s why you must incorporate them in any program, no matter what changes you’re making.
I’ve repeatedly expressed my belief that the best strength program is one in which you work all the major muscle groups in each session. Older trainees and those who are no longer involved in sports can often use some form of the split routine. My philosophy, however, is based on doing a core movement for the shoulder girdle, back and legs at each workout. That said, it’s time to elaborate a bit on the selection process.
Some people are perfectly satisfied to do the same core exercises year-round. My friend Jerry Hardy has been doing the exact same routine for 20 years. It brings him the results he wants, so he’s never altered it. Most people, though, feel the need to change their routines every so often. They grow tired of doing the same exercises. Plus, they often hit sticking points on certain movements an start to make gains again when they change to others. Using different exercises also lets them hit some neglected muscle groups, and this is a good thing.
The main point to keep in mind if you do decide to change your exercises is to make certain the new movements are as demanding as the ones you were formerly using. In far too many cases people substitute a much easier exercise. Part of the reason for this is that health clubs and spas encourage the practice. They’d much rather hurry their members through a battery of machines than have them do heavy training, which takes a couple of hours. I believe that a fitness facility that promoted strength training would make out extremely well. When done properly, strength work doesn’t take all that long, and it’s my opinion that those who put hard-earned money into memberships are growing tired of being given weenie routines that don’t require them to break a sweat. Get them stronger, and they’ll become so addicted that renewal won’t be a problem.
I watch many people switch from deadlifts and bent-over rows to T-bar rows and lots of sets on the lat machine, and from full squats to leg presses and a circuit on the leg machines. I’m not suggesting that T-bar rows, lat pulls and leg presses aren’t useful, for they are. If you use them in place of more demanding exercises, however, you’re not going to get as strong.
Take a step backward in strength training and you’re suddenly caught in an insidious trap. People say they change exercises because they want more variety, but in truth it’s because they want an easier routine. Unfortunately, any exercise that’s easier is less effective.
On the other hand, it’s perfectly permissible to substitute clean high pulls for deadlifts or snatch high pulls for bent-over rows, for both are very demanding. They’re more dynamic as well, and they do stimulate different muscle groups. You can also do lunges instead of squats on the light day, for lunges are very tough when you work them hard. Or you can do jerks instead of overhead presses for a few workouts
When changing your routine, always maintain the heavy, light and medium concept. That means you substitute a difficult exercise for a difficult one and a less demanding one for another of equal effort. You just want to make sure the substitute exercise is as least as exacting as the one you’re dropping.
Another factor to consider when you alter your routine is workload. The problem usually arises on the light days – not so much because the exercises are too demanding but because the total amount of work performed is too much for the light day requirement. That’s particularly true when trainees are on a four-day-a-week routine and use Tuesday as the day they throw in lots of auxiliary exercises. Over time they add increasingly more light movements, to the point where the total amount of work performed actually exceeds that of the heavy day. The intensity may be lower than it is on the heavy day, but if they continue with the program, progress soon comes to a halt.
There’s a school of thought that it’s better to do only two core exercises on the heavy day and work the third muscle group lightly. The folks who believe this feel that if they squat and pull heavy, they just don’t have enough energy left to fully apply themselves to a hard upper-body exercise. They prefer to come back on Wednesday and do their heavy upper-body workout. I’ve had some trainees who did best when they only worked one core exercise per session: heavy squats on Monday, benches on Wednesday and pull on Friday. Then they filled in with light and medium exercises for the other bodyparts accordingly, always putting the light workout after the heavy one.
I also suggest that trainees have one special routine they use when time is short. I have a great deal of control over my training time, but I still end up using this abbreviated workout, which I call a Bridget Fonda, a couple of times a year. It’s short and sweet – but far from easy. My Bridget Fonda routine consists of squats, power cleans or high pulls and some form of pressing, depending on what equipment is available. I do five sets of each in a circuit, without resting between sets. I can complete the entire workout in 15 minutes if I have to. If I decide to do something extra, I add some beach work and ab exercises.
I use my Bridget Fonda workout when I’m pressed for time and also for my light day when I’m on vacation and not really motivated to spend a lot of time in the gym. It doesn’t really matter what routine you use, but if you don’t have one ready and merely attempt to hurry through your regular program, you’re going to leave the gym in a negative-state. With the Bridget Fonda routine, however, you leave completely happy because you did exactly what you set out to do.
I receive quite a few inquiries concerning the best formula for sets and reps in a strength routine, as well as how to jump weights from the beginning to the final set. Strength training is, in fact, a science, and the recommended sets and reps are based on research. Studies have proven conclusively that four to six sets of four to six reps produces the best results. I always use the mean, five sets of five, because it makes the math so much easier. This is especially true for any coach who works with a large group of athletes.
The above formula applies to the majority of the core exercises but not all of them, which I’ll explain below. Five sets of five is very beneficial for beginners and some intermediates, as it helps to establish a firm strength base. When you use five reps, you work the attachments and also hit the muscle bellies in a balanced manner. Five reps is also a good number for teaching technique. Sometimes when people are learning a new exercise and try to do 10 or 12 reps, their form begins to falter on the last few reps because of fatigue or lack of concentration.
Once trainees move to the intermediate or advanced levels they need to vary their set and rep sequence. For example, they should do some lower reps so they can overload their attachments. If you only do five reps in the bench press and decide to test yourself with a max single, you’re going to be disappointed simply because your attachments aren’t adequately prepared. The lower the reps, the more the tendons and ligaments are involved. Consequently, any successful strength routine will change constantly so that at various times you do fives, threes, twos and singles.
As mentioned above, there are exceptions to the five-sets-of-five-reps guideline for core exercises. The two lower-back movements, good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts, are best performed for slightly higher reps – eights and 10s. On those exercises I believe it’s better to increase the workload by lifting less weight for more reps. That way you can perform the exercises more correctly, with less stress to an easily injured area. For example, if you can handle 220 for eight on good mornings, you can probably use 250 for five. The extra weight would force you to alter your mechanics to counterbalance it, however, and that changes the nature of the exercise. It also increased the stress potential, as this is a very direct lumbar exercise. Using 315 for eight reps is certainly tough, but it’s not nearly as tough as trying 350 for five. What’s more, you actually lift a greater workload when you use the lighter weights and higher reps.
High-skill movements are also exceptions to the five-sets-of-five rule. You can do the fives on warmup sets for such exercises as power snatches, full cleans, hang cleans, jerks off the rack, front squats, clean and jerks, snatch high pulls and clean high pulls, but once the weight gets heavy, you should lower the reps to triples at the most.
I include front squats in this group, although they’re not really in the same category as the other exercises. I recommend using lower reps for front squats because the rack always starts to slip just a bit after only the first rep. That makes the second and third even harder, and, if the bar is allowed to slip farther and farther, it places a tremendous amount of stress on your wrists. It’s better to do a few extra sets with lower reps so that the bar remains firmly on your front deltoids.
You should also do auxiliary exercises for much higher reps. You perform these at the end of the workout, when your energy is waning, so low reps are not recommended. In this case high reps stimulate the muscle bellies, which is what you're trying to accomplish. I use the 40-rep rule for all the auxiliary exercises, with the exception of calf work, on which I run up the reps even more. Forty reps translates as two sets of 20 or three sets of 15 or 12. The rule applies to all biceps triceps, deltoid, lat and leg exercises, including leg extensions, leg curls and adductor work. For calves I do three sets of 30 because I think you have to abuse your calves if you want them to get stronger.
What about those exercises you perform with bodyweight, like chins, pullups and dips? Basically, I stick with the 40-rep rule. In the beginning stages, though, many can only do five or six chins, so in that case I allow them to cheat a bit. Eventually they’re able to do at least 10 reps in a set, at which point they can satisfy the rule.
What about ab work? I recommend one set of ultra-high reps, doing at least one exercise for the lower abs and another for the upper abs at every session. The hyperextension is another movement you should do for high reps. I’ve observed that trainees who use resistance in the form of a plate held behind their head on this movement start to twist and break form when they get tired. That’s potentially harmful to the lower back, so it’s better to use no weight and run the reps up.
The procedure for selecting the poundages you use on an exercise seems to confuse a great many people. I receive more inquiries on that facet of organizing a program than any other. Perhaps it’s so basic that people believe they’re missing the point by keeping it simple and logical. Here’s a few helpful guidelines.
Always begin with a light poundage. The truism is that you can start too heavy, but you can never start too light. One of the greatest bench pressers I ever trained with always did a few warmup sets with the empty bar.
You should balance the jumps from the first to the final, heavy set as best as you can. The first few sets are warmups to prepare you for that last set. They not only prepare the muscles and attachments physically, but they also let you hone your form and feel the progressively heavier weights. For example, let’s say you’re planning to do 225 on your final set of bench presses. Your sets would look like this: 135, 165, 185, 205 and 225, all for five reps. If you plan on squatting 315, you’d do these jumps: 135, 185, 225, 275 and 315, again for five reps.
Why not use the pyramid approach, I’m often asked, where you start with 10s and go to eights, sixes, fours and then hit your final set for the required number of reps? That technique is not as effective for most people, because it requires too much work before you attempt the final set. The idea is merely to warm up the muscles without tiring them, and that’s best accomplished with five reps. You can do higher reps after the heavy max, but if you do it the other way around, you’re going to adversely affect your last set.
Some trainees prefer to do the fourth set with a weight that’s fairly close to their final set. The smaller jump to the max feels better to them, and in the above squat example, they’d take 295 on their fourth set rather than 275. Others like to handle a lighter weight on the fourth set and take a big jump to their max, feeling they need to conserve energy for that main effort. They’d take 225 or 265 on the fourth set, then go right to the heaviest poundage. Which works best? Only trial and error can supply you with that answer, because, once again, everybody is different.
What about warming up for a max single? Start light, the same as you would if you were going to do a heavy set of five or three. Do at least three warmup sets of fives, then go right to singles. Typically, I find it’s best to take the first single with a weight you can triple, then proceed from there. If that attempt was ridiculously easy, take a large jump. If it was hard, take a small one. Some folks thrive on big jumps, swearing they get geared up better that way. Others like to creep up on their personal records with small increases. Both methods can be effective – just as long as you don’t take so many intermediate sets that you tap into your strength reserve before attempting a P.R.
One final work of wisdom. Once you have a program that brings you results, stay with it.
The very best program in the world is the one that works best for you.