Words Of Caution For Hardgainers!

A given training program can be applied by two individuals and the implementation & effect be very different. A program is a mere list of exercises, reps, sets and workout days. Here are some things to keep in mind.
No matter how thorough training instruction is, it's impossible to include all caveats and exceptions. Individual variation can be considerable, not only in muscle size potential, but in terms of age, innate recovery ability, tolerance of exercise, satisfaction of the components of recovery, training intensity, volume & frequency, gym facilities, training experience, exercise form, motivation, goals, general lifestyle, work commitments, etc.

A given training program can be applied by two individuals and the implementation & effect be very different. A program is a mere list of exercises, reps, sets and workout days.

Training Intensity

In my own writing, and that of some others, there have been cautionary words concerning ultra-high-intensity training. A recommendation is sometimes given to train a rep or two short of total failure. This can be terrible advice for some people, since what they think is failure is already a rep or two or three or more short of it. If these people cut back on their "intensity" by a rep or two, they will further compromise their ability to progress.

The recommendation to train a rep or two short of failure, rather than go "balls to the wall," applies only to people who truly know what failure is, and can accurately determine that they are training a rep or two short of it. Because I can't witness you train, I can't assess whether or not you're accurately determining this. Here's where a hands-on personal coach can be so valuable- he/she can see if a trainee is doing what should be done. It's one thing to receive advice, but whether it's put into practice is something else.

Urging people to train as hard as they possibly can, with no holding back whatsoever, has real merit because it allows no margin for slacking. (Few trainees work to true failure unless a knowledgeable supervisor directs them.) But at least each would attempt to go all the way. When, however, a recommendation is given to stop a rep or two short of failure, it gives trainees an escape from all-the-way training even before they pick up a weight.

I recommend that you experiment with your training in a sensible way. One of the variables to experiment with is exercise intensity. Experiment with training to failure, and training slightly short of failure.

Things become complicated because there are many variables beyond exercise intensity that can account for results. Training to failure might be the most productive format for some people providing that the volume and frequency of exercise are appropriate, and recovery is optimal.

Just a bit too much volume, or a bit too much training frequency, may undo the potential good of the very-highintensity work. All that may be needed to make the very-high-intensity training work is to abbreviate workouts sufficiently, and not hit each exercise quite so often.

Some people, however, give up on very-high-intensity training and conclude it doesn't work for them when, in fact, it was their specific implementation of it that was amiss. If you already train short of failure, then cutting back further is unlikely to help you, and in fact will probably lead to regression. Hard training is a necessity, but just because "hard" is good, that doesn't necessarily mean that "hardest" is best.

Training Volume

While some trainees have been guilty of over-abbreviating their training program, and cutting back too far on exercises and sets for them (relative to their training intensity and volume, recovery ability, genetics, etc.), the response of some trainees to the possibility of their having cut back too far, has been to add too much work (extra sets and/or exercises) and thus unabbreviate their programs.

Thus they go from one non-working program to another. It's somewhere between the two markers that the best solution is to be found.

This thinking, however, strictly applies to people who have already adopted abbreviated training. For almost everyone else, out in the mainstream, training will already be excessive in terms of volume and need cutting back, not expanding.

Training Frequency

Some people who have adopted abbreviated training have cut back on their training frequency too far, at least too far relative to the intensity and volume they are using. Had, for example, they been training harder, then perhaps the lesser training frequency may be more effective.

While it seems to be easier, at least for some people, to build strength on infrequent training schedules where a given exercise or bodypart is trained less often than once a week, many people seem to need a bit more frequency-twice every 7-10 days or so per bodypart, though not necessarily the same frequency for each area-in order to produce muscle growth.

While a bit more training frequency may be good for some trainees, at least for those who want additional muscular size, if you overdo it you'll be back to square one. That's the danger-there can be a fine line between too much and enough, and then a further fine line between enough and too little.

What To Do

Genetically typical and drug-free trainees don't have a capacity for a lot of weight training if they want to make good progress. Abbreviated training programs will always be necessary, but just what's "abbreviated" can vary considerably. Do too little and you may stimulate no progress. Do too much- too much for you, that is-and you'll also make no progress.

Because to some degree training volume, intensity and frequency can offset one another, the same abbreviated program can have different effects on different people according to how the three variables are manipulated and how the factors of individual variation come into play. A bit more training frequency may make a given training intensity produce better progress; or, an extra set or two per exercise may produce better progress; or a set or two less per exercise may produce better progress.

This is frustrating since there are so many variables at play, especially for trainees who are beyond the novice stage. This is why you need to experiment, sensibly, to find what works well for you. Then to further complicate matters, what works well for you now may not in a few years time.

This is why it's so important that you become very knowledgeable about training, and then set about experimenting sensibly to apply that knowledge to your own individual case.

Training Experience

Your level of training experience, and strength and development, can affect the effectiveness of a given interpretation of training. While more frequent training, for example, may better suit novice and some intermediate bodybuilders, it may be a negative step for advanced power men.

If you're steadily getting stronger, and strength is your priority, stay with what you're currently doing. If you're getting stronger, but not seeing the size increases you think should accompany the strength gains, I suggest you try a little more frequency or a little more volume. If you're steadily getting bigger, and growth is your priority, stick with what you're currently doing. If you're getting bigger, but not seeing the strength increases you think should accompany the size gains, I suggest you try a little less frequency or a little less volume.

The qualifier about progressive poundages is justified: The strongest muscles aren't the biggest, and the biggest muscles aren't the strongest, and getting stronger doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get bigger. But don't jump to an extreme view and think that poundage progression is unimportant.

For most people for most of the time, poundage progression is very important providing, of course, that consistently good form is used. You still need progressive resistance, but the precise format of training you apply the "progressive poundages in good form" to (frequency, volume, rep count, etc.), can influence how much size a given strength increase produces.

What's excessive abbreviation of training for some trainees may be just the job for others. Different trainees may need different interpretations of the same basic principles, and may need different variations at different stages of their training. Training is more of an art than a science, and sensible experimentation is needed if you're to find what works best for you. You must, however, and as stressed earlier, keep your training abbreviated, as typical trainees don't have the ability to deal with the type of routines that gifted and drug-enhanced trainees prosper on.

Before You Hit The Gym

Before you go experimenting with your training, and as I've said repeatedly, you need to get everything in good order out of the gym. So, one more time...

If your sleeping and nutritional habits are in a mess, no amount of experimenting with exercise program design will make much difference. I'm taking it as a given that the major components of recovery are in good order. If they aren't, you must get them in good order before you throw yourself into training. You should give priority to the out-of-the-gym components of recovery before you get really concerned with the in-the-gym factors of training. Recovery is that important.

Some trainees will never gain much muscle, though they may have gained some strength, at least in part because they don't eat enough. Of course, many trainees do eat enough-and some of them consume too much, as shown by surplus bodyfat. If you're lean, and your bodyweight never seems to move yet you want bigger muscles, chances are that you're not consuming enough quality nutrition.

For further discussion on related issues, and some specific guidelines to try in the gym, see Stuart's series "Experimental Training" in issues 72-74.

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