When I was younger, I was obsessed with getting big. And, being an instant gratification-loving American teen, I wanted to get big now. Also being a noob to training, I decided to hit up my old pal Google for the ‘best’ workout program (that is, the routine that would get me the results I was looking for the fastest).
My search turned up a few promising results. With hindsight, they were garbage. But then, with youthful enthusiasm, it was like striking gold. “This program looks pretty good…but so does that other one. Maybe I should combine them…” I thought to myself (it seemed like a good idea at the time).
In the beginning I jumped from routine to routine, gradually putting on muscle. But not enough. After months, I still wasn’t seeing the results I was after. I was following the programs, drinking my milk and getting plenty of rest.
And I still couldn’t even bench 135…which was more than slightly embarrassing since I looked like I should be able to bench at least 155. But there I was, whimpering about the strain-induced butt cramp I acquired while struggling to get just one more rep with all of 115lbs and wondering why I wasn’t improving.
My problem was that I didn’t know what I was doing. And if I kept following someone else’s workout routine, it would have stayed that way. I would have never learned to train myself, and I would have hit barriers in my training without knowing how to work around them.
You should know how to train yourself. With time and experimentation, you’ll find how to train yourself better than anyone else ever could. You’ll also find it to be incredibly simple. And training should be simple, especially when you’re a beginner. But don’t confuse ‘simple’ with ‘easy’, ‘cause they’re not the same.
I won’t get into routines or set and rep schemes. This article just outlines the very-basics. Let’s look at a table to simplify it further:
- It's simple: Train heavy, compound movements. But is it easy? No. Especially not if you’re used to isolation lifts.
- It's simple: Train with people who are stronger than you. But is it easy? Not necessarily.
- It's simple: Train your weaknesses. But is it easy? Not if you expect to get anything out of it.
- It's simple: Consistently consume more calories than you’re probably used to. But is it easy? Try it and see.
See the difference? It’s okay for training to be simple. It should be. Just don’t let it get easy, or you won’t get any stronger. Let’s go over the table a bit.
Train heavy, compound movements.
If you’re coming from a bodybuilding background, like I did, this one might take the most getting used to. But let’s face it—there’s nothing isolation movements can do that heavy, compound movements can’t do better. Even if all you want is bigger biceps.
Standing still as a board and robotically doing 25lb hammer curls after you’ve been training for 3 years isn’t going to get you any stronger or bigger. Actually, it’s the fastest way to stay the same. That’s what ‘going through the motions' is, right?
When I started training heavy compounds, my growth exploded. And I still didn’t even know what I was doing yet. Which makes the perfect segue into the next section of the table.
Train with people who are stronger than you.
You don’t get stronger by sitting on your butt and reading articles (and this one is no exception). They’re just tools.
So when I was 18, I got into contact with the owner of the local powerlifting gym. I learned more in a year at that gym, lifting with a team of people stronger than I was, than I would have learned in twice that time reading training articles and routines on the internet. And I got stronger while doing it.
For those of you who are into numbers, charts and tables, here’s another one that shows the value of training with people who are stronger than you. The ‘before’ column represents my stats before joining the powerlifting gym. And, of course, the ‘after’ column represents my stats at the time I left the gym.
|Before and After Stats|
Timeframe: 1 year - *I competed in both the 148lb and 165lb weight classes.
In one year, I saw a 28% increase in my total while staying at roughly the same bodyweight. It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t call the owner of that gym and ask about joining up.
Not to mention the camaraderie you’ll experience in places like that. Everybody is there for one reason: to get stronger. And they want you to get stronger, too. You push yourself and others and they do the same for you. It’s just you and your brothers and sisters versus the iron. How could it be any simpler?
I could have (and later did) seen even greater improvement when I finally committed to bumping up my calories. We’ll cover that more later. But, for now:
Train your weaknesses.
Nobody likes to do stuff they’re not good at, but as it’s said, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” And this applies to everything, not just lifting. A friend of mine who keeps a log on a bodybuilding forum has a signature that reads “Everything you want in life is just outside of your comfort zone.”
If that’s not good enough, try something a bit more relevant:
After my first month at the powerlifting gym (mentioned earlier), things started moving pretty quickly. My coach signed me up for a meet 3 days before it took place so I couldn’t back out. I ended up totaling 1,030lbs with a 350lb squat, 240lb bench and 440lb deadlift (that was an 8% increase in my total in just over a month). I was finally in the “1,000lb club” but wasn’t satisfied. My teammates, some of whom were/are seasoned pros, knew where I needed improvement and helped me train those deficiencies.
In my next meet a few months later, I totaled ~1,152lbs with a 402.5lb squat, 270lb bench and 479lb deadlift. That was an 11% increase from my first meet, and a 20% increase from when I joined the gym/team. I was making the kind of progress I had previously only dreamed about (I’d often had dreams of busting out deadlift sets of 405x20 in my back yard).
Why? Because I trained heavy, compound movements; I trained with people stronger than me; and I trained my weaknesses. And I could have gotten even stronger. I could have seen a 40% improvement instead of just 20%. But I didn’t. Because I wasn’t eating enough.
Consistently consume more calories than you’re probably used to.
Going from the 165lb weight class (where I started) to the 148lb weight class (where I did my last meet) wasn’t even part of my plan. It just happened that way because I was eating like a bird.
I wasn’t comfortable eating until it hurt, passing out and waking up the next morning to finish the plate of tacquitos I couldn’t quite fit in my gut the night before. In other words: I wasn’t willing to take my training home with me. You should be. Why? I’m glad you asked. How about another table to simplify things:
|Best Raw Lifts: Before and After|
Timeframe: 3-4 months
*The drastic increase in my squat while my deadlift hardly increased was due to Smolov. For 4 months, I didn’t deadlift but was still able to pull 500x2 because I kept up my caloric intake.
That’s an 11% improvement on my total in 3-4 months. I gained 15lbs on my bench, and I hardly benched. I maintained my deadlift, maybe even increased it a little, and I didn’t deadlift. The reason? I ate. I ate like I had never eaten before. A 500lb squat never seemed like a possibility to me, but once I saw how close I was to it…I ate.
When I first started lifting, I was a scrawny 115lbs standing at 5’5”. My max bench was 105, and I never squatted or deadlifted. At my peak, before I decided to take a break, I was 180lbs at the same height.
I am, by no means, an exceptional athlete. I don’t take performance enhancers and I’m not a genetic god. Like I said, I started out as a scrawny 5’5” 115lber. But I increased my bench press by 200% by following the rules outlined in this article. And if I can do it, you can too.