Thursday, January 3, 2013

Strength Before Splits

Let's talk about learning to walk before you run.

I'm speaking of the all too common pitfall beginners seem to always gravitate to: trying to do something way too advanced long before they're ready.

I get it.  You want "dat aesthetic".  Maybe your training motivation is purely to look good for the ladies, and while that isn't my cup of tea, I think it's a perfectly fine goal.

What isn't so fine is doing some ridiculous pump routine or advanced split made up entirely of assistance exercises to try and "sculpt" yourself. 

Most of the time, the people on these routines (if they're on any kind of program at all and not just lifting whatever weights at random) can't do 5 strict chin ups or squat 1.5x their body weight.

If this describes you, please stop.  You aren't getting anywhere without a solid base of strength.  I don't know why it isn't abundantly apparent, but no natural bodybuilder ever got huge muscles without first developing a relatively strong body.  It simply does not happen without drugs.  Maybe you don't care about strength (which is ridiculous, but it happens), but you aren't getting those big, attractive muscles without getting at least reasonably strong first, period.  If you can't put up at least a decent squat, dead lift and bench, you're going to be frail and weak and have a physique that matches without exception.

Fortunately, the solution is very simple.  All you really need to do is squat, dead lift and bench press pretty much every damned time you step into the gym, or at least multiple times a week, until you can do the following:

Squat 1.5x-2x body weight
Deadlift 1.5-2x body weight
Bench Press your body weight
Press .6x body weight
Strictly chin yourself 5-10 times (harder to pin down due to chins being more difficult for bigger dudes)

There's a hundred different protocols that work on hitting these goals.  Starting strength, Stronglifts 5x5, Bill Starr's 5x5, my own novice program contained in the Corpus Compendium and so many others.  They're all practically the same.  Pick one and do it until you can hit the above benchmarks before you even think about anything more advanced.

Even at a calorie deficit, with poor recovery, inadequate sleep, and crappy nutrition, almost every novice will be able to progress to the above by alternating the following and linearly increasing weight on the big lifts by 5-10 lbs every time they train:

Day A
Squat 3x5
Bench Press 3x5
Deadlift 1x5

Day B
Squat 3x5
Press 3x5
Chin (or working towards a chin with negatives) 3x reps to failure

There's room for a bit of assistance work in there if you can't give up your preacher curls or lat pulldowns.  Go hard on the main lifts, then perform 3 to 9 sets of whatever 1 to 3 assistance exercises at a moderate intensity if you must.  If they start interfering with the main lifts, change or cut them.  If it were my call, I'd limit these to dips, Pendlay rows, back extensions/glute ham raises, roman chair sit ups, ab wheels, sled/prowler work, farmer's walks, calf work, grip work, and the like. 

Don't try to add in cardio, 10 sets of curls, 3x sessions of HIIT on your rest days, 2 Crossfit WOD's a week, etc.  Just work hard at the main lifts and watch your numbers and your muscles get bigger.

Once you've developed a base of strength, training options open up tremendously.  At this point, go ahead and pick something more tailored to your specific goals.  I would still caution you to make sure that whatever program you pick always includes development of absolute strength using the main lifts, no matter what your goals are.