Left to their own devices, muscles are pretty dumb. They do exactly what the central nervous system says, and nothing more. But this is a good thing, because once you know the physics, biomechanics, and anatomical considerations responsible for muscle activation, training the body becomes easy—at least on paper.
OK, so it's not so easy once there's a loaded barbell on top of you, but strength and hypertrophy are nevertheless pretty simple concepts that people bizarrely overcomplicate. Do you want to get bigger and stronger? Here's how you do it:
- Increase tension
- Create metabolic stress
Pretty much every successful program, from the days of the old-time strongmen up through today's elite bodybuilders and powerlifters, works off these two basic principles—though I would personally also add adequate recovery into the mix. For every new workout program on late-night television that promises big but fails to deliver, there's a kid getting after it in a basement with nothing but a barbell, some angry music, and a dream of getting jacked beyond belief. I'll put money on the kid any day, because he meets those two standards better than anyone smashing HIIT circuits with 3-pound dumbbells.
Here's how you can take what he's doing and make it work for you.
Step 1: Increase the Tension
The goal of any strength training program is to increase the amount of force a muscle generates. While you may think the only way to do this is to go as heavy as possible on as many different lifts as possible, the truth is that this can be effectively trained with just a few lifts, as long as you perform them correctly.
It's true that the lifts that move the most weight create the greatest total body tension, so we're going to focus on heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses. Performing these lifts on a regular basis creates the best stimulus for muscle tension development. I recommend also starting your workouts with heavier strength work, which is more neurally intensive and teaches your body to recruit more muscle fibers. Afterward, switch to higher-rep movements to create metabolic stress.
But tension is also a matter of technique, not just exercise selection. Here are three ways to amplify tension on every movement:
- Lift with a complete range of motion. Muscle tension is greatest toward the end range of motion, and this is where you'll receive the greatest hypertrophy and strength gains.
- Increase time under tension (TUT). This increases the blood flow through the working muscles to alter the cellular water content, which increases muscle size and the "pump" sensation. One effective technique bodybuilders have long used to do this is to closely monitor and manipulate the tempo of the concentric and eccentric portions of movements.
- Concentrate on making whatever muscle you're working contract as hard as possible. Mentally smash it! This makes it work harder and generates more tension in the short term, but also spurs strength and hypertrophy gains in the longer term.
Step 2: Increase the Metabolic Stress—to a point
Both increased tension and increased metabolic stress hinge on the question of how you work out, as much as the amount you lift. For instance, if you keep rest periods strict, volume heavy, and don't allow for complete recovery between sets during high-intensity resistance training, it has a dramatic cellular effect. Over time, these simple tweaks can increase insulin sensitivity, encourage the muscles to use fuel (in the form of glucose) more efficiently, and prime the endocrine system to release a host of beneficial hormones including testosterone and human growth hormone.
Sounds great, right? Well, in the short term, you might find that extra stress means your body struggles to deliver nutrients to cells as quickly as those cells produce waste products. When waste products begin to outweigh delivered nutrients, perhaps during a set of max-effort high-volume squats, you feel like your spleen is going to explode and you find yourself passed out in a pool of your own sweat and failure. This is your body's way of saying the party is over until it recovers.
When this happens, listen to your body. Don't be afraid to take an extra recovery day—or two. Sleep long and deep, at least 8-9 hours each night, which is crucial to getting optimal hormonal response. Eat enough calories and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Nutrition and rest are the variables that nobody seems to take seriously enough, but they make the difference in utilizing metabolic stress as a springboard into growth, rather than turning it into a pit of despair.
Scared away yet? If not, then let's get to the program.
Max Tension and Stress Program
This program isn't for the faint of heart. It requires the blind intensity of an animal and the patience of a shaman. You'll do heavy compound lifts in each workout, followed by strategic tempo work to generate serious growth.
Each workout blends heavy strength work, high-volume hypertrophy, and metabolic stress through various TUT techniques, workloads, and contraction speeds. Don't be tricked by the relatively small number of movements; this is taxing training, so consider using an intra-workout supplement to keep up your stamina, and be sure to follow the recovery guidelines I set out earlier.
You'll have one day of rest between workouts, and you'll need it desperately. If you need an extra day or two in the early going, take it. On the other hand, if you want to work out on a fourth day during this phase, do general conditioning work or hit accessory muscles that won't take away from the program. This program allows for significant and consistent gains, so you shouldn't need much if anything else.
- Front Squats
5 sets of 3-5 reps at 75-85 % max. Tempo: 2 sec down, fast up
- Lunge Back Rotations
5 sets of 6 reps each side
- Goblet Squats
5 sets of 15 reps at 50 percent bodyweight. Tempo: 2 sec down, 2 sec up
- Dumbbell Farmers Walk
5 sets of 20 yards at 50 percent bodyweight each hand
- Barbell Curls
4 sets of 12 reps. Tempo: 6 sec down, 1 sec up
4 sets of 8-12 reps. Tempo: 6 sec down, 1 sec up
5 sets of 3-5 reps at 75-85% max. Tempo: 2 sec down, fast up
- Bodyweight Cossack Squat
5 sets of 6 reps each side, rest 3-5 minutes per set
- Barbell Rows
4 sets of 15 reps at 50% bodyweight. Tempo: 2 sec down, 2 sec up
- Uneven Loaded Step-Back Lunges
4 sets of 5 reps each leg. Load unevenly by 50 percent. Rest 30-60 seconds between sets; don't allow full recovery
- Barbell Hip Thrusts
4 sets of 12 reps. Tempo: 6 sec down, 1 sec up
- Glute-Ham Raise
4 sets of 6 reps. Tempo: 6 sec down, 1 sec up. Rest 30-60 seconds between sets; don't allow full recovery
- Bench Press
5 sets of 3-5 reps at 75-85% max. Tempo: 3 sec down, fast up
5 sets to failure. Rest: 3-5 minutes per set
- Dynamic Instability Squats
4 sets of 15 reps at 50% max. Add 25 percent in swing weight
- Military Press
4 sets of 15 reps. Tempo: 1 sec up, 5 sec down. Rest: 30-60 seconds between sets; don't allow full recovery
- Dumbbell Press
5 sets of 20 reps at 50% max. Tempo: 1 sec up, 1 sec down
- Dumbbell Rows
5 sets of 15 reps at 50% max. Tempo: 1 sec up, 1 sec down. Rest: None until you're done