The Quest for Size And Strength

“A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Confucius

The Quest for Size and Strength

In other articles, I’ve written at length about functional anatomy, exercises to try and the like, but I wanted to write an article that summarizes the kind of training I’m all about. Some might call me old-school or a throwback, but I feel like nowadays everybody is always searching for the newest, latest and greatest routine without ever really preparing their bodies for such a routine. Then, when they fail, they blame it on the routine, the coach, etc., when the real problem is they simply aren’t ready for a specialized training program.

Eastern European and Russian sport scientists have written for decades about the needs for kids to have a wide variety of skills. Even though they may have a child recruited for a certain sport as early as age 8 or 9, no specialization of their training occurs until they have developed a thorough skill set. The more developed all their physical qualities are (strength, speed, agility, movement, flexibility, etc.), the more adaptable they will be and the more quickly they will learn any new skills or techniques taught to them. Even after they begin more specialized training for their sport, in the first year or two of training only 30-40% of their preparation is dedicated to their specific sport, while the other 60-70% revolves around basic training to make them a more functional and holistic athlete. Beyond becoming a better all-round athlete, they are also developing a solid base from which they can further build and improve upon.

Now, compare this to the average weight trainer we see in the gym nowadays. There is no base development. There is no program that says to get bigger arms maybe you should squat first. Instead, we see a beginner come into the gym and immediately specialize on getting bigger pecs, huge arms, etc, and therefore all they do is work on that particular area. Before they even know it they are short-circuiting their success: Their weights may go up for a while and they may even get a little bigger, but they will never realize their full potential.

Before I get into the actual program, I want to state a few things:

  1. This program isn’t for the average rookie! A beginners training program would be even more well-rounded than this one. This is for the trainee who has been hitting the weights for a little while, but needs a better base. They need something that is not only going to give them some total body horsepower, but that will also better prepare them for future training beyond this cycle. This cycle will promote total body strength and mass development if accompanied by the proper recovery tools (e.g. eating right, getting adequate sleep, etc.)
  2. There are no machines in this program, and that’s the way it should be! Remember, we are trying to not only develop a strength base, but a movement base as well. The body knows not of muscles, but of movements. The more movements your body knows and learns, the easier it will be in the future to teach your body new or more complicated movements. Free weights help you develop stability, balance, coordination, stabilizing muscle groups, etc., while machines lock you in to an ineffective strength curve, a less-than-optimal movement pattern for your body, and don’t provide the real-world benefits of moving heavy iron.
  3. Finally, this program is HARD! I have given it to some of my athletes and they are beginning to see the benefits of hard work and heavy iron. One athlete in particular actually asked for a program to improve his bench press, but after reviewing his other lifts it was obvious that his bench press would never be what it could be without an improved overall strength base. In other words, his bench would always be stuck at about the same strength level unless he brought up bigger lifts like his squat and deadlift.

The Program

Again, the following program will probably be very different from anything you’ve tried before. Gone are the days of training arms for an hour and a half or using the squat rack for heavy shrugs. You will be training three days per week, and each workout will last anywhere from 75-120 minutes. The key here is to push yourself! Notes for the program will follow, but here’s the program itself.

Day 1 – Primary Low Body Day

Squats, 5 x 5, 3-5 minutes rest

The king of all exercises, in my opinion. When I first started squatting I was 5’11” and weighed about 173 dripping wet; now I’m up to 195 with strength and functional mass to back it up. I’m in no way, shape or form the biggest or strongest guy in the gym, but if squats can do that for my long-limbed and small-boned body, they can do it for you as well. Set up with a hip width stance, toes pointed slightly out, and the chest inflated. Sit back and force the knees out. Lower to the appropriate depth (you know what I mean!), and then explode back up to the top. The first two sets should use moderate weights to help get you prepared for the heavier ones, and the last three sets should all be hard.

You need to push yourself to see growth, but pushing yourself doesn’t mean failing! Many a great program was developed around heavy squats, and this one is no exception. 99% of the time, if your squat weights are going up, so are your weights on everything else.

Barbell Lunges, 3 x 6, 2 minutes rest

Alternate legs as you are performing the reps. Your back knee should come very close to (but not touch) the ground. Land and drive off the heels for added stability. Not only are barbell lunges a great exercise for your quad development, but they also develop the hamstrings and glutes, as well as helping to promote unilateral balance between legs. For those with a true love of pain, try doing these onto a 6″ box for an even greater ROM.

Good Mornings, 3 x 5-6, 2 minutes rest

Place the bar approximately the same place on your back as where you squat. Inflate the chest and push the butt back as far as possible, and return to the top when you feel you are going to lose your arch. Good mornings are an excellent exercise to develop the glutes, hamstrings and erectors; not to mention the fact that they will also improve your strength and technique when it comes to squatting!

Louie Simmons stated that a good morning that is approximately 60% of your best squat is the bare minimum if you are interested in squatting heavy weights. So, if your good mornings aren’t up to snuff, work them hard and watch the backside of your body blow up!

Glute-Ham Raise, 4×6-8, 90 seconds rest

Drive the toes into the plate, and squeeze the glutes and hamstrings. Lower under control. If you are currently using a leg curl machine, you could use it instead as a target for your Sledgehammer GPP, or even donate it to your rival school or competitor. Hopefully, they will make it a main-stay in their program.

Strong glutes and hamstrings are key to developing a balanced lower body, so don’t neglect these areas when it comes to your training. If you don’t have a dedicated machine, the manual leg curl (or natural GHR as described by John Davies) is another viable option.

Back Extensions, 3 x 8-10, 60-90 seconds rest

Start off on a GHR or back extension bench with your upper body folded over the arc and roughly perpendicular to the floor. Squeeze the erectors and raise yourself up until you make a straight line with your body or just a little beyond. Squeeze and hold at the top, then lower yourself under control to the starting position.

The back extension has been a forgotten exercise for many years, but I’m hoping it will make a comeback. While everyone is interested in promoting core stability, they never seem to examine the important role of the trunk extensors when it comes to stabilizing the spine! Strong erectors are another vital component when it comes to heavy squatting and deadlifting, so make the back extension a mainstay in your program.

Day 2 – Primary Upper Body Day

Bench Press, 5 x 5, 3-4 minutes rest

Ah yes, another 5 x 5 set-up. Again, the first two sets should be moderate weight, while the last 3 should all be tough. Lower the bar with speed but under control. We aren’t doing negatives here, so get in a groove and move that weight with confidence. Keep the elbows tucked and the scapulae pulled back and down. This is your base to press from.

Too often bench presses are the only compound, free-weight exercise used in a training program. Bench presses are great, but don’t put too much value on them. Remember that if all your lower body compound lifts are going up (e.g. squats and deads), chance are your bench press is going up as well.

V-Bar Rows, 4 x 8, 2 minutes rest

Refer to my Back like a Front Article for a description of how to perform these. Key points to focus on include keeping the head and chest up with a nice arch in your back, pulling through your elbows, and stretching at the bottom and squeezing at the top.

With regards to the order of performance on this day, I would have no qualms with the trainee performing the rows first, and then performing the bench second. Rarely do people put as much time or effort into their back training, and therefore the anterior portion of the trunk is very well developed while the posterior portion lags behind. If you are one of these people, consider putting your dogma aside and trying some back work first in your program.

Standing Behind Neck Press, 3 x 6, 2 minutes rest

An exercise that has been raked over the coals by personal trainers and physical therapists alike, the standing behind neck press is one of the first progressions for teaching the jerk to Olympic weightlifters. Lower the bar to the bottoms of the ears, then drive it back up to the starting position. Keep the abs and glutes tight throughout for increased stability.

Beyond building big shoulders, standing up will help integrate the muscles of the core and lower body into the movement. The best thing about the behind neck press (and why many prefer to teach it first!) is that you don’t have to worry about your chin, nose or any other part of your face getting in the way.

Throatcrushers (flat or decline), 4 x 8, 90-120 seconds rest

Refer to my Old-School Triceps article for an explanation on throatcrushers. In essence, you are performing a skull-crusher or nose-breaker to your throat instead of the aforementioned areas. Decrease the weight slightly to make sure you don’t crush your windpipe in the process!

In my triceps article, I talked about starting the movement to the throat and then progressively moving it back as you get tired. For this program, decrease the weight a little more and make sure to take all the reps to the throat. Anytime I have included these in my program, my bench press has gone up because they really seem to hit the entire length of the triceps from origin-to-insertion.

Biceps, (you choose) 2x failure, 90 seconds rest

I can almost hear the moaning and groaning about only getting to do two sets of beach muscles, but the goal of this program is to promote total body growth and develop a base. You are already taxing your body to the fullest with the preceding exercises and workouts, so why cut into your body’s recovery capacity by shamelessly pumping up your arms at this point of the workout? If you’ve made it this far, I will let you pick your own punishment with regards to the biceps work you perform, but keep it to two sets!

Shoulder Horn or any external rotation work, 3 x 12, 60 seconds rest

If you don’t have a shoulder horn, you can use any exercise that develops your external rotators; I simply prefer the shoulder horn because it locks you in and doesn’t allow much momentum or body English to move the weight. Keep in mind that the strength of the external rotators needs to be in-line with what your internal rotators and pressing muscles can do. I once read an article by Poliquin where he put 60 pounds on a guy’s close grip bench simply by getting his external rotator strength up. Remember, muscle balance is key so don’t neglect it.

Day 3 – Upper/Low Body Assistance

Deadlifts (preferably sumo), 4 x 5, 3-5 minutes rest

Instead of 5 x 5 like I recommend on squats and bench, take a set off and really focus on what you are doing with the pulls. Typically, the last set of heavy deadlifts can get really ugly and anything less than flawless technique is unacceptable. Focus on keeping your head and chest up, which will set a nice arch in the low back and greatly reduce the possibility of any back injury. From this point, drive your heels through the floor and focus on pushing the chest and hips through.

Like squats, you’ve got to increase the weights because the basics are what will make your entire body grow. Deadlifts are the most total body exercise in the program, because they affect almost every muscle group in some form or fashion. I prefer using the sumo style for two reasons: 1) it’s generally easier for most people to learn and perform correctly, and 2) I feel it leads to more balanced development of the posterior chain when compared to conventional pulls.

Close-grip bench, 5 x 5, 2 minutes rest

This is a key exercise to building a big bench, because the last 1/2 or 1/3 of the bench press movement is almost exclusively triceps. Don’t go extremely narrow; usually 12-14 inches between your pointer fingers is enough. Again, lower the bar with speed but under control. Keep the elbows tucked as best as possible, but also strive to increase the weight from week-to-week.

One note on close-grips (or any triceps exercise, for that matter): It’s been my experience that you usually have 2 reps to bail out on a set. What I mean by that is you can perform your first four reps perfectly, then your 5th rep is ok but slower, your 6th one is a grinder, and the next one ain’t coming back up! If you have a solid spotter then this shouldn’t be a big deal, but if you are training on your own it’s better to come out safe than sorry.

RDL’s, 3 x 6, 2 minutes rest

Good mornings are the perfect complement to squats because they hit the same muscle groups, as well as teaching you some evasive maneuvers in case a squat ever gets away from you. RDLs are the same way for deadlifts. Inflate your chest and set your arch, then focus solely on pushing your butt as far back as possible. If you feel any semblance of rounding in your low back, return to the top and reset your position. RDLs really blow up the muscles of the posterior chain, and they also reinforce the concept of keeping an arch when the bar gets out in front of you when pulling.

Sternum chin-ups, 3 x 5

Refer to my back article or Poliquin’s regarding performance of the sternum chin. The truth is, if you want to bench press some serious weight, you need to have a stable base. Newtons’ third law of motion states that for every action or force there is an equal and opposite reaction or force. Therefore, the better you can stabilize and press your back into the bench, the more weight you should be able to move away from it. Many elite level bench pressers use the visualization of pushing away from the bar versus just pushing it up. Sternum chins are very tough, but if this is the price to pay for a bigger bench, so be it.

Reverse Hypers, 3 x 10-15, 60-90 seconds rest

The Louie Simmons special. I, personally, like to use body weight only on these days, because my primary goal is to promote recovery and blood flow in the low back. However, if you have a dedicated machine or are in need of increased lower back, glute and hamstring strength, adding some weights certainly isn’t going to hurt.

Training Notes

  1. Strive to increase your weights every week. 5-10 pounds is usually acceptable for low body exercises, while 2.5-5 pounds is a good goal for upper body exercises.
  2. Always leave a rep in the bank. The only week you should train near failure is the 3rd week of the cycle. The 3rd week should be close to failure, but again I would prefer if you didn’t fail on ANY exercise. Missing weights only breaks your confidence; push yourself to your limits but try your best not to miss ANY reps. Success breeds confidence, and vice versa.
  3. The 4th week is an unload week. Zatsiorsky states that a typical unload week has a significant decrease in volume, but only a moderate decrease in intensity. A good rule to follow is to use the same weights you used in your 2nd training week, and decreasing your reps per set by 40% (e.g. if you are doing 5’s, cut it back to 3’s).
  4. For the 5th week, perform the cycle again, but you can customize it more and put in some different exercises if you choose (Editor’s note: I recommend that you don’t switch the exercises). If this is the first time you’ve gone through a cycle like this, you may think about just sticking with the same exercises because your body will still be adapting to the amount of weight handled and learning any new exercises. If you do choose to switch exercises, remember the rules:1). Compound exercises, 2). Heavy weights, 3). No machines, and 4). Hard work!
  5. Another point that needs to be made: This program will not give you the desired results in four weeks! You may get stronger and put on some mass, but you need to stick with it for a while to really make some impressive gains. Don’t be one of those people that changes programs like you change your underwear. Like I said before, swapping some exercises every four weeks is perfectly acceptable, will break the monotony, and keep your training fun and interesting, but don’t be impatient when it comes to the gains. I’ve been on this cycle and hybrids of it for the last eight months, and I’ve put on ten pounds of lean body mass (without trying) and probably 50-60 pounds on all my major lifts.
  6. RECOVER PROPERLY! This program is hard and it will test your body’s ability to recover, so getting enough sleep/rest and eating properly are crucial to maximizing your gains on this (or any other) training program. Beyond that, your macronutrient intake (and specifically your carb:protein intake ratio) can help dictate whether your gains are more pure strength gains or strength AND mass gains. Refer to John Berardi’s Massive Eating and Lean Eating articles on how macronutrient intake can affect strength and mass.
  7. If you have or incur any injuries along the way, take care of them immediately. Recovery is always prolonged when you don’t take the necessary steps to heal yourself.
  8. If you aren’t positive on how to do exercises, check out this web page I designed a couple years ago. It should walk you through most of the exercises listed, and has movie clips of most exercises: StrengthLab (Thanks to Dr. Robert Newton and Justin Cecil for their role in developing the Strength Lab webpage!) (NOTE: This site is no longer available!)
  9. Try to have at least 1 day of rest in between workouts. Work hard while in the gym, and then recover hard when you are out of it.
  10. I’ll leave the abs and GPP up to you. Make sure you are doing enough to keep yourself healthy and your recovery up to snuff. I wouldn’t recommend performing a lot of cardio or GPP during this phase because our primary goal is to put on some functional mass and increase strength levels.
  11. Last, but certainly not least, EXPECT YOURSELF TO PROGRESS! I’ve seen far too many trainees get stuck in a rut and they begin to believe that this is the best they can be. I would be willing to bet that, at the most, 1% of the people in the training world have reached their genetic ceiling. If you need to, try some relaxation or visualization to help break mental barriers. Expect progress, grow confidence with each workout, and remember that if you work hard and dedicate yourself to your goals, you will achieve them!

Conclusion:

After you’ve read this article, you may be thinking “Man, this sucks! There weren’t any new exercises for me to try in there!” The real truth is that the exercises that were great 100 years ago are still great today, no matter what new discoveries have been made in between. A program that emphasizes total body strength and development, accompanied by proper recovery and nutrition, will far outperform any specialized program on the market today. I titled the article “The Quest for Size and Strength” because these things don’t happen overnight; you have to be consistent and disciplined with your training to realize your true potential. So, next time you want to add some pounds to your lifts or some mass to your frame, try this program out and see just what it can do for you!

About the Author:

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]

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  1. Hey Mike,

    I’m trying to figure out when you wrote this, but I don’t see a date anywhere. Anyways, I was wondering if you’re still using this template or if you’ve switched? What are your thoughts on when a three day per week template like this is more appropriate versus a four split like most powerlifters seem to prefer?

    I did great on Starting Strength before switching to a four day upper/lower split and didn’t do nearly as well on it. Now I’ve gone to the Greyskull LP, which is similar to Starting Strength, but a little more moderate. This program looks really good and is a little more moderate than my current Greyskull. Wendler jus wrote about using 5/3/1 on a three day full body split as well.

    It seems to work better for me, but the biggest downside is the length of workouts like these which you mention at the start with going up to 120 minutes. So my question again, when do you think it’s more appropriate for these three day a week templates versus the four day a week ones? The hardest part is not spending 2 hours with accessory movements.

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