Monday, June 17, 2019

Designing Your Own Training Program - John Christy

Originally Published in This Issue 
Back Issues Available Here

If you have been a reader of HARDgainer for a while, and have studied the material, you should have no problem designing your own training program. I average five calls a week from readers wanting me to take them on as consultation trainees. Some of these people can benefit from my personal instruction, but many don't need it. If yu want my intstruction - or any other author's - instruction, just study the articles in the magazine. 

In this article I am going to cover all the considerations of designing an effective training program. Keep in mind that these recommendations are based on 23 years of lifting experience and 11 years of professional strength coaching. There are, however, very good coaches who have different but effective approaches. 

Keep Things Simple

An effective training program doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, complicated. So don't try to find or develop some super secret program that is more effective than anything ever used before. As a matter of fact, let me let you in on the biggest secret in all of weight training - there are no secret programs.  

The Two Most Important Factors

The most important design considerations of any program are that it can be performed consistently and progressively. If you don't train consistently, your body won't get the stimulation it needs to get stronger and bigger. So, for any program to be effective, it has to allow you to train as consistently as possible, and to add weight to the bar on a planned basis.

The frequency, volume, and intensity of a training program are determined based on maintaining consistency and progression. You need to be able to recover from workouts so that you don't over-train and end up getting hurt or sick. If either of these occur, you'll miss workouts.

If your workouts are too frequent, your joints will take a beating and you'll likely end up with some form of long term joint inflammation, and you'll miss workouts. If your workouts are too frequent, your immune system won't be able to recover and you'll wind up getting sick all the time and, once again, you'll miss workouts. And if you are not training consistently, you can't add weight to the bar, so then you are not being progressive. 

I hope you're getting the point. 


The frequency of workouts has to be based on several factors the most important being the ability to recover between workouts. Your ability to recover between workouts is influenced by a number of factors, including the type of job you have (if you're young enough, or rich enough), family responsibilities, how much rest you get every night, how well you eat, and if you're involved in any strenuous sports.

For someone who has a job and family, I have found that two workouts per week works great. I've had others who handle three times per week and make progress, although these workouts have to be specially limited in the number of exercises. 

For the trainee who is in high school or college, three workouts per week works well, although two per week may still be more effective over the long haul. The two weight training workouts per week also allow for 2-3 bouts of aerobic work and/or sports activities each week.

It still amazes me that some people still can't believe that at 5' 10" and a weight of 235 lbs. I still only train two times a week. This allows me to do aerobics two times per week as well as wind sprints and baseball skill work (I still play semi-professional baseball during the summer). 

I also should mention that I don't believe in training someone to become just big and strong. I believe people should become big and strong athletes. What I mean by this is that they should be able to run and jump and move in different directions. In essence, I believe that your strength and size should be functional.

Weight training two times per week will allow you the physical time, as well as the recovery time, to do aerobic work. It also gives you the flexibility to move a workout if you have to miss for family or work, or if you simply haven't recovered from the previous workout. For instance, if you usually work out on Tuesday and Friday, and you can't make Friday's workout, you can easily move it to Saturday and stay on track. This way you get Sunday and Monday to rest, and can still be recovered by Tuesday's workout.

The goal of training is not to see how much torture the body can stand, but 
to stimulate the body and then let it recover.      

So why tolerate training three times per week and make gains, just because you think more is better? If you can train two times per week and continually get as strong (or stronger) as you would training three times per week, with less chance of injury, and hence maintaining consistency over the long haul, what benefit does three times per week weight training offer? 


How much training should you do? Well, this is based on the number of exercises you do, the number of sets, and the rest interval between sets.

You should be keeping a good pace throughout the workout, and even though you are resting 4-5 minutes between the live (work) sets, you should be able to complete a workout in about one hour, or inside 90 minutes without question. This time does not include initial warmup time or stretching. The clock starts at the beginning of your first exercise and stops at the conclusion of your last live set. When I say a good pace, I mean that you're not sitting around shooting the breeze between exercises. But you need to take the proper rest interval between work sets.

When a trainee is at the point where he is training hard, I don't feel that any more than 2 work sets of any exercise are necessary to stimulate growth.

As far as the number and type of exercises is concerned, I feel that a compound leg movement (squat, deadlift, leg press), a compound upper-body pressing movement (bench press, overhead press, dip), a pulling movement (row, pulldown, high pull), a crunch (for the abs), and and some grip work should cover it. You also need to include calf work and some direct biceps work once a week. That does it. 

Designing a program is not hard.
Maintaining the effort and consistency is! 

I think what happens is that many of you are under the illusion that you will find a better way. Well let me tell you - THERE ISN'T ONE. 


How hard should you train? This subject has been battered around for eons. So, I'm going to give you my opinion. I've had tremendous success with putting this opinion into practice. My definition of training hard is training to the point where there is possibly one more rep left in you. In other works, I feel you should train right up to the edge of momentary muscular failure, but not over the edge. 

The goal of weight training is to lift progressively more weight each session,
not to go to failure. 

After 23 years of training (reaching a maximum weight of 252 lbs. at 5' 10") combined with 11 years of training over 600 people, I know for an absolute fact that you can get progressively stronger and hence bigger without going to failure. But - 

You have to get to the point where the last rep in a set THREATENS to make you fail.   

Another way to say this is that you need to challenge yourself to make your prescribed reps and beat failure. And then the real challenge is to train at this level for many months by adding a small dose of iron to the bar every workout. 

Okay. I cant stand it any more.

Look at this stuff! 


Check out that trap bar designed with a built in bar jack - 
and other cool features too! 

And the Transformer Bar, with 48 different positional variations - 

You gotta watch the videos to really see what you can do with this one. 

Outstanding equipment innovations over there. 

Okay . . . I'm better now. 

Starting Weights and Rate of Progression

At the start of a program you should use a weight that allows you to complete 5 reps more than the goal of the set. For instance, if you want to perform 2 work sets of an exercise at 5 reps each, you start with a weight that allows you to do 10 reps if you went to failure, but stop at just 5 reps. Then, over the next 6-8 weeks, you need to build up the weight slowly until you could complete about 6 or 7 reps if you went to failure, but stop at 5. At this point you should slow the rate of progression to what I feel is the maximum that the body can compensate for on all of your exercises. 

2.5 pounds on squats, deadlifts, leg presses.
1 pound on benches, dips, presses, chins, rows, pulldowns, curls, crunches. 

The curls will eventually have to go down to .5 pounds per workout. By the 16th week you should be at the point where there is only one more rep left in you after you have made your fifth rep.

There are instances I have seen where someone who is eating and recovering to their utmost ability will be at the 16th week and still have 2 or 3 reps left in them beyond their goal number. This is fantastic and shows that their body is recovering from this rate of progression. At this time I would suggest a bigger load increase over the next several workouts so that they are training with just one rep left in them beyond their goal number for the set. Then I would have them go back to adding the small doses of iron to the bar.

You don't have to use 5 reps as your goal number for a set. Use any rep count that you think will bring results for you, or that you enjoy. Just start out with reserve reps left in your and slowly build to the point where you are training with just one rep left in you. Then, settle in for a long and very productive training period.

But . . . 

Don't start looking for other ways to train.

Look for ways to recover better between your workouts, so that you can stay consistent. 

Look for ways to concentrate more strongly during your workouts, so that you can train harder and with better form.

You would be surprised at the number of trainees who surpass all their previous training records simply by following what I have outlined in those three lines. 

The Template

What follows is a twice a week training template. I know for a fact that I can get anyone strong and big with this program. So, if you have the guts to follow the rules that I have outlined in this article, and do not get distracted by the glut of information that is out there, you can get yourself very big and strong with this program.

Only work sets are listed. 

Do 2 or 3 progressive warmup sets prior to each of the big exercises (add 1 if you are an 'older' trainee), and just one for each of the smaller exercises. For multiple warmup sets for an exercise, take 2-3 minutes between them. 

Always take the full 4-5 minutes rest prior to the first work set, and between work sets. 

Day One

1) Crunch - 1 x 15
2) Squat - 2 x 6
3) Stiff Legged Deadlift -  1 x 10
4) Bench Press - 2 x 6
5) Pulldown - 2 x 6
6) Static Grip -  60 seconds

Day Two

1) Side Bend - 1 x 15
2) Regular Deadlift - 2 x 6
3) Overhead Press - 2 x 6
4) Curl - 2 x 6
5) Calf Raise - 1 x 10

I've never had a trainee experience any problem recovering from stiff legged deadlifts on day one, and regular deadlifts on day two, along with squats on day one. But the critical proviso is that thee total number of sets per exercise must be limited. For instance, on day one, two work sets of squats are performed and only one set of stiff legged deadlifts. On day two, only or or two work sets of deadlifts are performed. Keep the total volume or work for the lower back very limited, to avoid over-training that area. 

Exercise Technique

You must perform all of your exercises with good technique. To do this subject justice I would have to write a whole book. There's not enough space in a single article to do a good job. I strongly suggest you buy Stuart McRobert's book on technique, and study it. It contains all you need to know for now on the subject. 

Final Thoughts

Being consistent and putting out the effort necessary for many workouts over a long period of time is a hard part of weight training success. Getting the proper amount of rest and food consistently  is also a hard part. Staying focused on every set you do so that you can concentrate on combining all the effort that you can muster while maintaining perfect form is a hard part. Having blind faith in what I am saying (until it proves itself to you) so hat you are not constantly jumping from one program to another, is a hard part. 

Designing a training program is the easy part. 

You can do this yourself. You don't need any help. All you need is knowledge. This article can provide that. 

Now get to work . . . 

not on designing your program but on putting out the effort to stay consistent and train progressively. 

The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience
  - Leo Tolstoy 


Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Long Cycle - John Christy

Simple Periodization for the Beginner to Intermediate Trainee

The program philosophy presented in this article is one of the best ways for a beginner to intermediate trainee to dramatically increase their strength and size in a relatively short period of time. 

Now, when I say "short period of time" I'm referring to the real world, not fantasyland. "Short" in the real world is at least one year of training time. In fantasyland, where most of the steroid users, clever marketers and armchair theoreticians hang out, you'll get promised 20 pounds of 'rock solid' muscle in a few weeks.

Using what is presented below I've transformed trainees within a couple of years to the point where it is routine for them to be accused of steroid use. 

Periodization Defined

So,what is periodization anyway? By definition it is a process of structuring training into phases. I know that to most beginning trainees it seems like some mystical formula shrouded in the language of the old Soviet Union; that it is pretty complicated stuff. But, in actuality, it is quite simple. And that what I am going to do in this article - explain how to make it SIMPLE. 

The essence of periodization( also known as 'cycling') is to build up the workouts so that a trainee is training hard to a period of time and then to purposely 'back-off' by training relatively easier, so that the trainee can recover and super-compensate from the previous period of hard training. After the back-off period the body is fully recovered, stronger, and ready to start another period of building up, training hard, and then backing off again. This cycle of training has been proven over and over again to be superior to just training as hard as you can all the time.

There are a multitude of interpretations of periodization - most of which would make a mathematics PhD shudder. Now, there may come a time when a trainee may need to get more sophisticated, but only when they've achieved an advanced level of strength and development. Also, I believe that having 'preset' dates for the back-off (regeneration) training periods, as is the case in the standard periodization model, aren't as productive for the beginner to intermediate level as letting the body dictate when it's time to back-off. Now, you ma be thinking that such an instinctive type of setup would be reserved for the advanced trainee, but it's just the opposite. And it's not so much 'instinctive' as it is simply letting the body dictate when these periods are to occur. Yeah, you can start a beginner trainee out on a routine that has preset back-off weeks but I feel you'll be cutting the results short, versus letting the body dictate when this is necessary.

For instance, one method of periodization has the trainee hitting it hard for three weeks, with the fourth week designated as the back-off week. But, what if the trainee is still going strong at the end of week three? And what if the trainee keeps going strong for 12 weeks? If you'd have followed the typical formula presented above (where you back-off in week four), you would have lost three weeks of progress in that 12 week period. Now extrapolate this over a one year period, and it becomes very evident of the time 'lost' to backing off essentially one week ever month. Understand that I am not against backing off I'm for it, but only when it is necessary.

My plan has the trainee going hard until the body dictates that it has plateaued. Experience gained through over 60,000 hours of hands on instruction has taught me that a beginner to intermediate trainee can go at least six months before a back-off and rebuild is necessary.

Keep in mind that I'm talking about beginner to intermediate trainees here - not advanced trainees. The beginner to intermediate, especially if substantial muscle mass gain is a goal, and the necessary caloric intake to accomplish this goal is being met - can 'go' a lot longer than an advanced trainee before hitting a plateau. The main reason for this is that the nervous system of a beginner isn't as developed as an advanced trainee. Therefore, it doesn't adapt and plateau as fast. Also, the beginner has much more room for improvement versus an advanced trainee who is pushing his genetic limits and may not want to gain substantial bodyweight. 

The Plan 

Here's how I do it. The trainee's experience and goals will dictate the rep goal that I'll start them out at. But for this example let's say that I'll start a trainee out using sets of 12 on all the big movements (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, rowing or chins or pulldowns, barbell curls, close grip benches or dips, etc.). 

Within about four to six weeks the training gets to the proper level of effort (with one rep left before failure), and I start micro-loading (see "Exercise Rate of Progression below) as the means of progression to allow the trainee to 'ride' this rep target as long as possible. If the trainee is eating properly progression will continue for three to six months using a rep target of 12 reps. 

Note: If you don't have any very small poundage plates, consider checking out baseball bat weights. They come in weights as low as .5 lb (8 oz.). Just make sure the ones you choose  fit on the bar you use. I mean, otherwise there'll be no poetry and certainly no joy in your own private I don't know . . . Mudville? Gus Van Sant agrees! 

Exercise Rate of Progression

Squat - 2.5 lbs. per week
Deadlift (regular) - 2.5 per week
Power Clean - 2.5
Stiff Legged Deadlift - 1 to 2
Bench Press (all forms) - 1 to 2
Row, Pulldown, Chin - 1 to 2
Shoulder Press - .5 to 1 
Barbell Curl - .5 to 1
Pushdown - .5 to 1
Close Grip Bench Press - .5 to 1
Grip, Forearm Work - .5 to 1
Crunch, Situp, Leg Raise - .5 to 1
Rotator Cuff Work - .5 lb. every four weeks
Neck Strap - .25 
Standing Calf Work - 1 to 2
Single Leg Calf Work - .5 to 1
Back Extension - .5 to 1
Sidebend - 1

On this type of training program these increments provide the 'right' loading - or stating it another way - the right 'dose' or iron. This will allow the trainee to continue to make their rep target from workout to workout for a LONG period of time, especially when the rep target is reduced to 6 reps and below and especially when the trainee is gaining weight.

When the trainee fails to make the rep target (12 reps in the example above), I'll have him repeat the weight for a couple of workouts. If he still can't complete the 3 sets of 12 reps then it's time to back-off and rebuild. Now, the way that I do this is different from what is normally prescribed in traditional periodization models.

Traditional periodization has the trainee reduce the top weight substantially for a week, and then either jump right back to using their top weight again the following week, or taking an additional week to 'climb' back up to their previous top weights. Then, hopefully the trainee will go beyond the top weight that they were handling for the 12 reps during the next two weeks. This process does work, but as I said for beginner to intermediate level trainees I feel there is a better way. 

Now, for you periodization aficionados, don't get your underwear all twisted by the explanation I just gave. I KNOW that what I presented is an oversimplification but it is way beyond the purpose of this short piece which is to make things simple to break down every nuance of the various loading parameters (wave, step, linear, non-linear, conjugated, yada-yada-yada) that are used in various periodization formats. 

So instead of dropping the weight what I'll do is have the trainee actually increase the weight by the prescribed dose (e.g. 2.5 lbs. on the squat) BUT DROP THE REP TARGET to 8 reps. This will give him a couple of weeks of less intense training and then the training will climb to the proper level again. 

What is different, and great about this is that the trainee continues to 'feel' the weight that had become a maximum effort to make the 12 reps - not now only does 8 reps. Without going into scientific detail I feel the nervous system doesn't get 'detrained' as much using this method as when following other periodization models that have the trainee lower the poundage. 

Here's the other thing that's great - the trainee gets quite a confidence boost because what was a weight that was very difficult for 12 reps is now performed for a strong 8 reps, and with added weight on the bar. This confidence continues to grow as the weight mounts on the bar over the next several months till it starts to become very difficult again. 

Then I'll have the trainee 'ride' this rep target by continuing to micro-load for as long as possible, and then I'll drop the rep target again - in this case to 5 reps, and the entire process is repeated. The 5's are a magical number (actually a weight that is roughly 80-85% of a one rep max) - I'll explain what I mean by 'magical' sometime in a future article. You must understand that working at 5 reps builds the maximum amount of functional muscle mass. I've had trainees utilize 5 reps as the rep target for up to a year before they'll need to make the next drop to 3 reps. 

Once the 3's 'dry up' there are several ways I recommend the trainee to go, dependent on their goals. I may go to a program based on using sets of single reps followed by a back-off set of 8 repetitions. I may have the trainee go back to the 5's again. It just depends on the particular circumstances of the individual. 

This entire process takes anywhere from two to three years. Not very fancy, but hey, it sure brings home the bacon, literally transforming the trainee into someone who is not recognized by family and friends. 

After the above process has been completed, the trainee has gained so much muscle and increased their strength to a level that puts them in the intermediate to advanced category. From here I'll generally (once again depending on the trainee's new goals) start 'cycling' the rep goal over a 3- to 6-week macrocycle. 

Using the example of a 3-week macrocycle here: In Week 1 the trainee will perform 3 sets of 8 reps. Week 2 it'll be 3 x 5 reps. Week 3 he will perform 3-5 x 3 reps. Then the entire process will be repeated with the addition of a small dose of iron to each week's load. This process can go on for another year. 

Using the approach that I've just explained, trainees under my guidance have put on up to 80 pounds of solid bodyweight an achieved national rankings in drug free, raw powerlifting. 

Program Design

It's beyond the scope of this article to get into the details of program design as this topic can get very big and confusing. To get detailed information on how to set up a training program read the article Designing Your Own Training Program -"Hardgainer" # 52). 


What I'm going to do here is present two templates that I have had tremendous success with. One is performed Two Times Per Week, the other, Three Times Per Week.

Twice a Week (e.g. Monday and Thursday)

Day One

Crunch: 1 x 5-20 (choose a 'fixed' rep target between 5 and 20 reps
Squat: 2-5 x 5-15
Stiff Legged Deadlift or Back Extension: 1 x 10-15
Bench Press: 2-5 x 5-15
Pulldown, Chin, or Row: 2-5 x 5-15
Calf Raise: 1 x 5-20
Static Grip: 1 x 60-90 seconds

Day Two

Side Bend: 1 x 5-15
Deadlift: 2-5 x 5-15
Overhead Press: 2-5 x 5-15
Close Grip Bench Press: 1-3 x 5-15
Wrist Curl: 1 x 15-20
Reverse Wrist Curl: 1 x 15-20

Here are two Three Times a Week templates. 
Recommended sets and reps are the same as the Twice a Week template.

Day One

Stiff Legged Deadlift, or Back Extension
Bench Press
Pulldown, Chin, or Row

Day Two

Barbell Curl
Overhead Press
Calf Raise 

Day Three

Side Bend
Close Grip Bench Press
Static Grip

This template spreads the 'big' exercises over two days. Some trainees feel they can't do justice to all the exercises on one day. 

Day One

Stiff Legged Deadlift or Back Exension
Barbell Curl

Day Two 

Bench Press
Pulldown, Chin, or Row
Calf Raise
Close Grip Bench Press

Day Three

Overhead Press
Static Grip

I kept the rep range broad because the goal reps that you choose to work at need to be based on your goals and training experience. I generally recommend new trainees start out utilizing higher reps in order to develop motor skills (technique), and to keep the overall force on the connective structures relatively low (compared to sets of 5 reps and below).

So, if you are just beginning in the iron game, of if you've been at it for a while and feel that you haven't made the progress that you should have, I challenge you to string together at least One Year of training utilizing the 'long cycle' approach that I have presented in this article. 

If you achieve this goal I am confident that you'll look, and perform radically different by this time next year. 


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