Here are 2 conflicting statements that most of us know to be true:
1) Every Workout System Works. While wars rage over which workout system is better, the bottom line is that everything seems to work. People are getting results on Wendler’s 531, Stronglifts, Starting Strength, low volume training, high volume training and even rest pause training.
2) Few People See Solid Results. You see it on every Internet lifting forum - 10% of lifters are making great progress, while 90% of lifters make extremely slow progress. Hitting a 250 pound bench press, or building a 16 inch arm seems like an impossible task.
Now for the obvious question: if everything seems to work, why are so few people making decent progress? The answer to this mystery is quite simple, when you analyze the real keys to success.
Does Every Workout Program Work?
Nearly every program works, yes. Even inefficient, disorganized programs stuffed with too much (or too little) volume and/or sub-par exercise choices can still result in decent muscle gains because of this truth...
If you stay consistent and don’t miss workouts, eat enough calories and protein to grow, and get a lot stronger than you are now, you will build muscle and strength.
End of story. That’s the magic secret. That’s why most every program seems to work.
How many times have you seen some guy with huge arms post up his workout plan, and it looks like a chaotic mess? My guess is more than a few times. Most likely this individual will also think he’s stumbled upon some amazing secret, such as drop sets build muscle better than anything, when in reality the real key was found in his strength increases, consistency and food intake.
So Do Workout Programs Matter?
Even though you can make good progress using nearly any workout system, it doesn’t mean this approach is optimal. Most lifters ignore mastering form fundamentals, force too much training volume, overwork arms, abs and chest, avoid the most challenging but impactful lifts (squats, deadlifts, etc.), and substitute in advanced training techniques such as rest-pause, drop sets, supersets, instead of focusing more of their energy on progression of weight (getting stronger).
Programs do matter. It’s best to stick with a system that has a good reputation, and has been tried and tested. Which workout system is best for you? Hard to say.
Most quality programs are comprised of the same basic (and effective) exercises, work within the 5-12 rep range (great for muscle and strength building), and have you training about 3-4 days per week max. Pick a system that most motivates you to hit the gym. If you don’t like the "popular system of the week", that’s ok.
Pick something you do like, and STICK WITH IT. Jumping from program to program to program is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Remember, programs aren’t magic, progression of weight is. Keep your focus on getting stronger.
Progression - Are Strength Increases Really The Key?
Yes. There is no other way. There are no weak bodybuilders, just as there are no frail and unmuscular top-level powerlifters. Strength is required to build muscle, and muscle helps with strength building.
Whether you are looking to build muscle or only interest in getting stronger, the initial path is the same. You must spend a period of time getting stronger in standard rep ranges (5-12 reps in most cases). During this period of aggressive progression, you will also build plenty of muscle.
But, but, but..."bodybuilder X" say he doesn’t train for strength gains. True! He may not train specifically for strength gains. He may focus on the pump, or the mind-muscle connection, but guess what...he still requires progression of weight to build muscle.
The pump without progression of weight is useless. The mind-muscle connection without progression of weight is useless. While there is certainly nothing wrong with using these tools, they still require you to get a lot stronger than you are now.
I want you to understand an important points with regards to bodybuilders who state they don’t specifically train for strength gains. That point is this: despite stating they don’t train for strength, to a man they are still nearly as strong as elite level powerlifters. Nearly. Or at least within shouting distance.
I know this to be true because I work in the industry. I have spoken with, documented and trained with many of the best natural bodybuilders in the world. These bodybuilders AREN’T weak. Each of them has worked hard to pack on muscle mass, and are amazingly strong in their own right.
Doug Miller has a Youtube video in which he deadlifts 405 pounds for 20 reps. The “giant killer” Shaun Clarida has a Youtube video in which he deep squats over 500 pounds for reps. I’ve also seen first hand Mr. North Carolina Joe Ohrablo do dumbbell bench presses with 150 pound dumbbells, and wheelchair bodybuilder Rich Knapp do one arm pullups with his wife on his back.
Does any of this sound weak to you? Absolutely not. It’s the norm, not the exception.
To get big, you must get stronger. You don’t have to become a powerlifter, training with heavy singles and triples, but you do have to get a lot stronger than you are now. To get strong, you must get bigger. You don’t have to become a bodybuilder, building up every minor muscle group to its maximal size, but you do need to get a lot bigger than you are now.
Consistency - Just How Dedicated Are You?
So now that you know just how important strength increases are, let’s talk about another issue holding trainees back...lack of consistency. How many workouts are you missing each month? Do you deload or reset weight every time you have a sub-par training day?
If you’re missing more than a handful of workouts per year, or frequently resetting weight (even though you haven’t built much strength), you are not dedicated enough to expect gains. I’m sure it hurts to hear this, but it’s the truth. Those that want it don’t make excuses. They get to the gym and put in the necessary work.
More than this, they LIKE going to the gym. They look forward to training, and eat, sleep and dream about progress. You can’t fake dedication. Successful lifters don’t half-ass anything. They plan their meals and give everything they can on any given day - even bad days.
Successful lifters realize that results require a long term commitment. They understand that bad days will happen, and don’t become alarmed when their performance is sub-par. They certainly are not quick to deload, or reset weight.
Dedication might require you to make a few lifestyle changes. Think about the areas of your life that are unbalanced. Are you drinking too much, or staying up late every night playing the Xbox? Are you living on junk food and soda even though you know these habits are unhealthy?
To be successful, and find consistency, you’re going to have to bring some form of balance and self-control into your daily life. If you continue to place yourself in situations that result in sleep deprivation or hangovers, you’re going to miss workouts.
Another area that trips up many trainees is lifting frequency. They try to be superheroes, training 5 to 7 days per week thing more is better. This is nonsense. Better is better. Besides, what good is using a 6 day split if you’re missing 2 workouts a week because of other life commitments, fatigue, etc?
Let’s be reasonable here. Set aside the notion that you need to live in the gym to achieve results. Did you know that most powerlifters train a max of 4 days per week? True. They might do some conditioning work on off days if they have time, but they are not living in the gym lifting weights 6 days a week.
I know a few advanced bodybuilders that lift 5 days a week, but guess what? You’re not an advanced bodybuilder. In fact, you’ve barely built any muscle mass at all. Instead of trying to kill yourself, back track, slow down, and build a solid base.