Natty Lifter's Guide to Training: Build Quality Gainz w/out Steroids

In this four part series, we break down everything natural lifters should know about building muscle without steroids. Up first, how should you train?

I have a few friends currently using steroids.

And I’ve had multiple conversations with athletes regarding their desire to use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during competition.

But at the end of the day, this topic is much more complex than most realize…

  • Are you going to have blood work completed monthly and follow up with an endocrinologist?
  • Where are you going to source the compounds from? How can you verify their legitimacy?
  • What sort of dosages are you going to use? Why?
  • Are there any potential interactions between the compounds themselves?
  • Are there any potential interactions between the compounds and pharmaceuticals you’re already taking for health concerns?
  • What are you going to do when you run out of the compounds? Do you have a post cycle protocol?
  • When was the last time you had a routine blood panel? Are you sure you’re in good enough health to consider performance enhancement through endogenous anabolic compounds?
  • Have you considered the psychological toll that PEDs may have on you as an individual? Are you going to willingly admit to using them or will you force yourself to blatantly lie to others until you cease to use them?

I’m not an endocrinologist and I don’t play one on the internet. But, what I can tell you is that PEDs are much more complicated than a simple 250mg weekly shot of testosterone cypionate.

As such, we’re not going to touch the topic today. Instead, I’m going to provide you with a framework for maximizing muscular hypertrophy while simplifying the training process as much as possible.

Over the next few weeks I’m also going to dive into additional articles which will cover the other pieces of the puzzle (recovery, supplementation, and nutrition) for maximizing hypertrophy without pharmaceutical assistance.

The Virtual Wild West

Social media is a microcosm of endless sound bites, witty quotes, and generic motivational videos. If you spend any amount of time perusing the annuls of the internet, you’ll quickly find there are a million and one trainers eager to educate on their “unique system guaranteed to bring results”.

Related: The Future of Fitness - 5 Trends to Keep Your Eye On

Unfortunately, in the world of training and nutrition there is rarely anything new or “revolutionary”. The basics will always work, they’re just tough to sell because they’re not sexy or exciting.

But, it’s important to pick the lowest hanging fruit first, right? In the world of business management, you’ll typically find this referred to as the “Pareto principle”.

Pareto principle (i.e. the “80/20 rule”) - for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The same can be said for training – most individuals experience 80 percent of their growth from a select few exercises. However, you’ll typically find that they try to rationalize the addition of “junk volume” within their program (i.e. tons of supplementary work which doesn’t provide enough of an overload to stimulate a large magnitude of growth).

If you talk to most bros, they’ll probably tell that their biceps “exploded” from straight bar curls. When in actuality, it was likely the high volume of weighted chin-ups they were performing simultaneously which provided a much larger stimulus for growth.

Most trainers and trainees realize that volume is needed for growth. Accessory work is important and your overall workload will ultimately determine how large of a homeostatic disruption you can create within your bodily systems.

M&S Athlete Performing Accessory Work

The point is, you probably already have a good idea on what you CAN do; the question is more so, what SHOULD you do?

My goal is not to provide you with more complex information, there is already enough of that on the internet. However, I want to provide a concentrated dose of reality. This is not a debate, this a simplification of ideologies.

This is not a cookie cutter program.

This is not a 5x5 copout.

This is not your stereotypical “3x10” for 8-10 exercises.

This is real programming for real athletes.

  • Show up.
  • Work hard.
  • Follow the program.
  • Make progress.

The Nuts and Bolts of Being Natty

Day 1

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Floor Press 3 7, 5, 3
Barbell Floor Press 1 20*
Barbell Z Press 4 6
A1. Overhead Banded Tricep Extension 4 AMRAP
A2. Decline Plate Sit Up 4 AMRAP

*NOTE: Utilize 50-60% of the weight from your top set of 3 in the first exercise. Start conservative (50%) and progressively work your way up each week.

Day 2

Exercise Sets Reps
Trap Bar Deadlift 3 7, 5, 3
Trap Bar Deadlift 1 20*
Belt Squat 4 12
A1. Dumbbell Row 4 12
A2. Reverse Crunch 4 AMRAP

*NOTE: Perform as touch & go reps. Utilize 50-60% of the weight from your top set of 3 in the first exercise. Start conservative (50%) and progressively work your way up each week.

Day 3

Exercise Sets Reps
Seated Barbell Overhead Lockout 3 7, 5, 3
Seated Barbell Overhead Lockout 1 20*
Dips (weighted if possible) 5 AMRAP**
A1. Close Grip Smith Machine Bench Press 3 12
A2. Decline Plate Sit Up 4 12-14

*NOTE: Utilize 50-60% of the weight from your top set of 3 in the first exercise. Start conservative (50%) and progressively work your way up each week.
**NOTE: Leave 1-2 reps on the tank for each set. Do NOT go to muscular failure.

Day 4

Exercise Sets Reps
Front Squat to Pins 3 7, 5, 3
Front Squat to Pins 1 20*
Neutral Grip Chin Up (weighted if possible) 5 AMRAP**
A1. Nordic Hamstring Curl 4 6-8
A2. Reverse Crunch 4 AMRAP

Remember, training is only part of the puzzle. Everyone wants to talk about what goes on in the gym; when in reality, progress is usually made in the other 23 hours of the day spent outside the four walls of the iron sanctuary.

FAQs

Q: “What if I want to do more?”

Start by adding an additional set for your last superset of accessory work each week. If that’s easy, you can add an additional set to the moderate compound accessory work included before the final superset. So, day 1 would go from this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Z Press 4 6
A1. Overhead Banded Tricep Extension 4 AMRAP
A2. Decline Plate Sit Up 4 12-14

To this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Z Press 4 6
A1. Overhead Banded Tricep Extension 5 AMRAP
A2. Decline Plate Sit Up 5 12-14

To this:

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Z Press 5 6
A1. Overhead Banded Tricep Extension 5 AMRAP
A2. Decline Plate Sit Up 5 12-14

Don’t overcomplicate this. You need to establish a baseline before you get too excited and destroy yourself with 25 sets of chest work. If you’re that eager to add volume after your first training session then odds are your work sets weren’t that heavy. Train harder before you assume you need more volume. Stimulate, don’t annihilate.

Q: “How long can I use this program?”

Don’t fix what isn’t broken. If you’re enjoying the format (exercise selection, set/rep scheme, frequency, duration, etc.) and you find your lifts are steadily improving, your joints feel good, and you don’t wake up feeling like you got hit by a truck every morning after training, then stick with it.

Related: 4 Things I Wish I Would’ve Known When I Started Training

Over time you may find yourself growing complacent with the same programming and as such, it’s fine to tweak things slightly. Notice I said “tweak”, not overhaul. Switch to a slightly different squat or press variation – choose hack squats instead of front squats or incline bench instead of partial lockouts. Small variations can make a large difference; there’s no need to completely rework the system when the framework is solid.

Remember, small hinges swing big doors.

Compliance is the Name of the Game

I can give you everything you need but if you decide to add a ton of extra volume to this program, I can’t guarantee you’ll get the same results. Sure, there is an element of individualization which is necessary within any program but until you run the base template, you’ll have no idea how or what to adjust.

Don’t add another 12 sets for arms or 2 supersets for hamstrings because you just read about it in another article. Put your exercise ADD on hold for 8-10 weeks; show up, think less, and work harder.