You've no doubt heard elite bodybuilders say that they train "by feel." But what does this really mean? When most of us try to train this way, our workout just ends up being an unsatisfying mess of random, repetitive movements.
We could learn a lot from IFBB pro Frank "Wrath" McGrath. Luckily, he's happy to teach us—although you can't tell it from his face.
This experienced iron warrior trains like he shops: without the slightest regard for your expectations. In just four movements 16-20 sets he's able to stimulate the type of back growth that others devote endless hours and dozens of sets to producing.
Here are the five elements of his perfect intuitive workout.
1. Programming Either this or that
Wrath didn't head into the rugged confines of World Gym in Dunellen, New Jersey, without a plan on the day he shot this video. He had a couple of options in mind, and he kept them both open until the correct answer appeared.
"Today I had an idea it was going to be back or shoulders," he says. "But especially when you're traveling, or certain body parts are still sore, you have to switch things around. Maybe my back is hurting a little bit—my lower back, or my knees—so I switch up certain days."
Today, his back wasn't hurting—not yet, anyway. It felt strong. So he draped himself in his signature black Animal Iconic tee, pushed his headphones into his ears, and went to work.
2. Exercises Similar, but different
Frank's choices may look random at first, but over the course of an entire workout, a vision came into focus.
In Wrath's previous back-training video, "Backing it Up," he started his day with heavy seated cable rows. This time around, he started with wide-grip lat pull-downs. Why? Because something caught his eye. "Found a pretty cool old-school bar. Had, like, bicycle handle grips on it. Thought I'd give it a try," he succinctly explains.
The result of this whim was 4 or 5 sets—he says he's not really sure which—that warmed him up and left him ready to push it even harder in the seated cable row, T-bar row, and underhand pull-down.
His choices may look random at first, but over the course of an entire workout, a vision came into focus. Wrath started off pulling vertically with a wide overhand grip, moved to pulling horizontally with a narrow neutral grip, then up from the floor with a medium-width overhand grip, and finished pulling down at an angle with a medium-width underhand grip.
The combination of grip styles, widths, angles, machines, and free weights fit together seamlessly, like an ancient Greek phalanx marching into battle.
In the end, his lats had nowhere to hide.
3. Volume Until you're done
After moving most of the stack with the pull-downs and cable rows, Wrath felt ready to push himself with the T-bar. Sure, he could have just stacked on a bunch of 45s and destroyed himself, but he knew he could do more work—and better quality work—if he took the old-school approach of using 25-pound plates. So he gradually stepped his way up to a "pretty good" top set—don't ask exactly how much—and gave it a ride.
This seemingly insignificant trick—using small plates—makes a big difference. First of all, you're able to draw your elbows farther back at the top of the movement and get a better contraction. Second, it creates the conditions for a brutal dropset finish.
Wrath dropped down in small steps to the point of exhaustion. He could have kept going until there was just a plate or two on the bar, but he didn't. He knew when he was done, and that's where he stopped.
How much did he rest along the way? As much as he needed, but no more.
4. Load Heavy, but not too heavy
Wrath has been in the iron game for a long time. A physique like his takes decades to build, not just years. And in that time, he's lifted more than his share of terrifyingly heavy weights. But with experience, he discovered he preferred the sweet spot somewhere between "making every muscle work" and "fighting for my life." Lo and behold, his back muscles preferred it, too.
"I remember there were days when I was doing bent rows with four plates, doing heavy rows on everything, the whole stack on my pull-downs," he recalls. "The day when I really started to concentrate on squeezing the muscle and stretching the muscle—still going as heavy as possible, but just lightening it up just a little bit, just so I can control it more—my back started to grow."
Wondering how to grow? That's how. It isn't magic. It's not even math. It's a feeling, and to find it, you'll need an open mind and many thousands of reps.
5. Range of motion What's right for you
Frank isn't going to tell you the way you're doing things is wrong. But just take a gander at his back—if you can fit the whole thing in your field of view—and it's impossible to escape the conclusion that he's doing something right.
So what is he doing? He's squeezing the muscle, of course, but he's also stretching it. "It's always stretch and squeeze. That's all I do, every exercise," he says. "It's as important to stretch the muscle as to squeeze it."
Wrath says he's been "a full range-of-motion guy" from day one, but he's not using somebody else's arbitrary definition of the correct distance between A and B. Once again, he listens to his body and waits for a tell-tale feeling to tell him when to change direction.
That's what the "mind-muscle connection" looks like in action. In Wrath's brain, it's as focused as the knurling on a barbell. "When I'm training, I think about the muscle in my head, not just moving weight," he says. "I'm thinking 'lower lats.' I'm thinking about getting wider when I'm doing this exercise. Thicker when I'm doing this row. These things are always in my mind."
Ask yourself: What's in your mind? Try to feel your way through this back workout today and let us know what you discover in the comments.