This issue of HARDGAINER marks the start of our eleventh year. In it we’re starting a new series in which an article from exactly ten years prior to the current issue will be reviewed and updated, to reflect what the respective author has learned over that ten-year period. Because Iwrote most of the articles in the early issues of HARDGAINER, I’ll be writing the early installments in this new series. But later on, other authors will be involved.
– Stuart McRobert
Training On The Right Lines
By Stuart McRobert, from HARDGAINER issue #1, July-August 1989
Excerpts from issue #1
This routine is a great start to a long and sustained period of appropriate and effective training. A simple but sound initiation (or return, as the case may be) to rational training methods for you. This routine itself will give you twelve weeks or more of progressive training. If correctly carried out, it will give your strength and muscular size a very satisfying increase. Twelve weeks aren’t enough to transform your body, but it’s enough time to make obvious physical improvement; and to establish some of the changes in training methods that are required to bring about a long-term metamorphosis.
This routine is simple and basic for one reason only—this is the only sort of approach that offers the chance for a hard gainer to get impressive. Let’s not have legions more of hard gainers trying to prove to the contrary! We must rid ourselves of the mentality that lots of exercises and very frequent workouts are the way to progress. The more work that’s done, the more that the effort put in is diluted.
The routine isn’t just the given number of exercises. It’s the unified whole of the choice of exercises, manner of exercise performance, rest, cycling of intensity, frequency of workouts, nutrition, keeping of records, planning, progressive poundages, will, effort and persistence. A large combination of important factors.
To start off this routine, take ten days of complete rest from the gym. Rest, relax and get fully recovered from all signs of overtraining. Return to the gym no more often than twice a week. Assuming that you don’t have access to quality sophisticated machines, use the following routine of free- weights exercises. Only modify or change an exercise if you have a sound reason to.
1. Crunch style situp
3. Heel raise
4. Deadlift (once a week only)
5. Bench press
6. Pulldown to the chest, or barbell row with head braced [see revised views]
7. Press behind neck [see revised views]
8. Barbell curl
9. Nothing else, absolutely nothing!
Rep targets are 20 for calves, 10 for crunches and squats, 8 for everything else. If you’re new to training, we advise you to get [the assistance of] an experienced instructor or friend.
We’ll start out training very comfortably. For the first workout, following a warmup set or two for each exercise, select a poundage that you could comfortably use for 5 more reps than the target number, but only do the target number, 2 sets per exercise.
Please avoid training hard for the first part of the program. We need to get a gaining momentum going—perpetual progression.
Now comes the intensifying factor— every workout, add 5 pounds to exercises 2, 3 (if using a machine) and 5; 10 pounds to once-a-week deadlifts, and 2.5 pounds to all the other exercises. In practice, this roughly means that the first two weeks are very easy, the third needs a bit of effort, the fourth and beyond are quite hard through to super hard. Only do the target reps, remember.
As the weeks accumulate, it’ll become impossible to maintain the target reps for both top sets of each exercise. When this happens, either drop the second set, or, if you have the energy, do the second set with a 10% poundage reduction.
As the poundages build up it will become impossible to maintain the target reps for even the first top set. When this happens, let the target reps drop, as slowly as possible, to a minimum of 15 for the calves and 6 for everything else. Take a pause for a few seconds between the final reps of sets. Use this modified rest pause technique to enable you to keep getting the reps out. Keep exercise form good. A bit of relaxation of form on the final rep or two of a set is all right, but nothing more. [This is not all right! See my revised views.]
When at the minimum target reps, reduce the poundage increments to once every other workout. Keep this going for another few weeks. When the workouts become brutally hard, you’re recommended to reduce training frequency to no more than three times every two weeks. Deadlifts should still be done at alternate workouts— only once every nine or ten days now. At this stage, add one or two forced reps once a week for each exercise. Get a training partner or spotter to give just enough help to make the rep happen. Push hard!
Concerning training frequency, avoid being locked into a fixed pattern. Take an extra day or two between workouts whenever you feel the need for it. Some rare people even have difficulty recovering properly from workouts done more frequently than once every six days. This may particularly apply to you if you do a lot of manual labor. If you do work that’s physically very demanding, take extra rest between workouts, while simultaneously doing [fewer] sets when in the gym.
On the other hand, if you truly feel fully rested after only three days between workouts, then train again. Just be absolutely honest with yourself—take the extra rest if in doubt. You’re the judge.
Keep a written record of each workout. Know exactly what you did at your previous workout. Write down exactly what needs to be done at the next session.
Aim to do this program for a minimum of twelve weeks, with every week being progressive. When you’re absolutely at your maximum, for the minimum target reps, you should have well exceeded your previous 6/15 rep bests in these exercises. Not only will you be stronger but you will be many pounds heavier in muscle.
All this will work if, and it’s a big if, you truly push yourself when the workouts become tough, holding absolutely nothing back! Maximum fighting to resist dropping the reps. Adding the required poundage while not cheating and just heaving the weights up; keep things strict. Resist the urge to add more exercises, sets, reps or workouts. Many people think they are training hard when in fact they are ending every set a couple or more reps before the true end of the set. Beyond the early easy workouts (and warmup sets aside), you must give your absolute all to do every possible rep!
If you’re thin, be sure you eat enough, especially when the training gets tough. For the hard gainer it’ll likely be a waste of time trying this routine if you don’t intend combining it with some substantial eating of quality food and substantial drinking of milk. When training heavily, at least for the extreme hard gainer, you must eat heavily. Prudent and thoughtful use of quality food supplements is recommended if you can afford it. If you find gains extremely hard, then keep all non-bodybuilding athletic activities to a minimum, or, better still, temporarily eliminate them. We need our recovery capacities to concentrate fully on restoration from our gym activities.
Let’s take the squat as an example, Suppose that before reading HARDGAINER you could just manage to squat 250 for 6 reps. To start this program, select 200 [80%] and do 2 sets of 10 reps (2 x 10) even though you could do 15 without much struggle.
Week 1: Mon 200 2×10 Fri 205 2×10
Week 2: Mon 210 2×10 Fri 215 2×10
Week 3: Mon 220 2×10 Fri 225 2×10
Week 4: Mon 230 2×10 Fri 235 1×10, 1×8
Week 5: Mon 240 1×10 Fri 245 1×10 Have dropped the second top set.
Week 6: Mon 250 1×10 Fri 255 1×10
Week 7: Mon 260 1×9 Fri 265 1×9
Week 8: Mon 270 1×8 Fri 275 1×8
Week 9: Mon 280 1×7 Fri 285 1×6 Now training three times every two weeks.
Week 10: Wed 290 1×6
Week 11: Mon 290 1×7 Fri 295 1×6
Week 12: Wed 295 1×6
Week 13: Mon 300 1×5
End of cycle, terrific progress!
While doing this routine, perform some progressive warmup work prior to the top sets. Do 2 or 3 warmup sets for the powerlifts, and 1 or 2 for the other exercises.
Now ten years wiser
Here are five major areas in which I’ve modified my views relative to when Iwrote the 1989 article. These changes evolved as a result of additional personal experience, and from studying the experiences of others.
1. I’m more conservative with exercise selection. For example, Ino longer recommend the press behind neck, or barbell row. In fact, I now discourage those exercises. (Though not relevant to this routine, neither do I recommend the T-bar row, any sort of squat with heels elevated, or any explosive movement, unlike ten years ago.)
2. I’m far more insistent on the use of good form. (I cringed at the sentence I wrote ten years ago: “A bit of relaxation of form on the final rep or two of a set it all right…” No it’s not all right!) Impeccable exercise form is the bedrock of bodybuilding, or any type of resistance training. Without good form, injury is inevitable—and sooner rather than later. I suffered serious injuries since writing the 1989 article, and I’ve learned the hard way of the paramount need to train with perfect form, and to take no liberties whatsoever. Back in 1989 I used to give intensity more importance than form. This explained why I used to hurt myself so often—I’d compromise a tad on my form, in order to get out an extra rep or two, just like many others do. Now, I have no time for this sort of undisciplined training, and neither should you.
3. Though the 1989 article doesn’t mention rep speed, I didn’t object to explosive form in those days. I’m cringing again! Safe exercise form is not just about the pathway a bar takes during a given exercise, as critical as that is. It’s also about speed of movement. Explosive movements greatly increase the risk of injury. I now urge a truly controlled rep cadence—about 3 seconds for the ascent, and another 3 seconds or so for the descent. “Long stroke” exercises take longer than “short stroke” exercises. I don’t, however, urge the counting of seconds. The focus needs to be on effort and poundage progression while maintaining perfect form. Just keep the bar moving in a controlled manner—no explosive movements. The key word is “smooth.” Keep every rep smooth—no jerky or sudden movements.
4. As abbreviated and infrequent as the training routine in issue #1 is relative to conventional training, I now recommend even more recovery time, and in some cases even a reduced volume of training per workout too.
5. Training cycles don’t have to be structured quite as rigidly as described in this 1989 article. Even better results can be had from using cycles with no predetermined end dates—ones lasting even over a year at a time. Consistent gains are the greatest motivating factor. Properly designed and personalized programs can produce poundage gain on each major exercise every week or two for very long periods.
In most cases I would no longer urge a reduction of 20% of weights to start a new training program. A 10–15% reduction would be adequate.
I also wouldn’t urge twice a week training of all exercises (aside from the once-a-week deadlifting). I’d generally recommend training each exercise just once a week. So, the listed eight exercises (substituting the front press or dumbbell press for the press behind neck), would be divided into two even groups, one group trained on day one, and the other on day two.
I’d also add two exercises—the side bend (so long as there are no back problems that preclude this exercise) and the L-fly, one at each workout. Here’s the revised program of ten exercises:
2. Stiff-legged deadlift
3. Press (barbell or dumbbells) 4. L-fly
5. Crunch style situp
1. Bench press
2. Pulldown or, preferably, the pullup/chin 3. Curl (barbell or dumbbells)
4. Heel raise
5. Side bend
I’ve substituted the stiff-legged deadlift for the deadlift, and put it in the same routine as the squat. Some may prefer the deadlift, or the partial deadlift. And some may prefer to put their choice in the non-squat routine. But others may not respond well to that arrangement—see my Editorial in this issue.
I’d written, “If you’re new to training, we advise you to get [the assistance of] an experienced instructor or friend.” The last ten years have taught me that experience is no guarantee of expertise, and finding truly competent instruction on form is nigh on impossible to find in most gyms. This is one of the major reasons why I wrote a book on exercise technique—to provide a reference to help people become their own form experts.
In the 1989 article I recommended the pulldown, or the bent-over row while keeping the head braced. Today, I rate the chin/pullup as a superior exercise to the pulldown (so long as there’s sufficient strength to perform chins correctly). And today I’d never recommend the barbell bent-over row. The one-arm dumbbell row is a much safer exercise.
With training frequency for each exercise reduced, there would be fewer occasions over the twelve weeks for poundage increments. Though the weights wouldn’t be cut back so much, the cycle would need to be extended in order to match the sort of gains given in the illustration in the 1989 article. But this would tie in with my preference today to have longer cycles, using smaller poundage increments once you’re in new poundage territory.
This slower and extended progression schedule would help to minimize if not eliminate perceived increase in intensity from week to week, once you’re back at your best working weights. This is vital for producing long-term consistent gains because it means you can keep adding a tad of iron every week without having to work harder to get your rep targets. This is The Golden Fleece of training—increasing load on the bar but without any perceived increase in training intensity.
Wow, congrats again Conor for adding such interesting posts, the comparison about the two articles is very instructive.
And now the tricky question, what is your take about these “conservative” trainings for “hardgainers” natural bodybuilders? Are just two training-days per week enough for creating consistent gains? Is training more than that a key to overtraining, injury or stagnation?
Thanks a lot,
Hi César, thanks so much for stopping by and your kind words.
In my own experience so much comes down to diet, sleep and schedule. Some people I’ve met really thrive on training two days a week but they train with an unmatched intensity. Others such as myself split the body into various components such as chest/back, shoulders/legs etc. and train more than two days a week.
I spent years experimenting with various schedules until I settled on 4 days a week training. The key really is trial and error.
Now that being said, and something that comes across very well in this article is the two keys to progress: Consistency and intensity in your training. If you’re consistent, the rest sort of figures itself out. If you’re training with a purpose, a focus, an intensity, the growth is always going to come.
If someone is doing a perfect diet and sleeps min 8h every night, then 2 sessions per week are enough. but you also need to have lots of experience, do the optimal exercises for each body part and train like a machine aka perfect form/tempo/volume/intensity. It’s that simple lol
Hey Drew, thanks for stopping by. I think the key issue here is really intensity. McRobert wants people to give full effort each workout – not many trainees do it.
I think that 2x a week works wonders if you go all out…that’s a personal opinion mind you