A Reality Check for Young Gunners after Size

by on January 5, 2013

January 2013: A Reality Check for Young Gunners after Size

Note from John: I get a lot of requests from beginners to early intermediates to try out my training programs, and as much as I hate to, I have to tell the person they are not ready for it. My training is geared toward the intermediate-advanced lifter. I asked Lee to write an article for the beginner, as I believe his training philosophy in this respect is right on target.

If you check out a lot of my previous written work, you’ll notice that much of it has to do with the focus towards weak link muscles, mobility, stretching, and other things outside of just plain lifting that could make an intermediate or advanced lifter finally push through a long-standing plateau. I strongly believe that all the methods I’ve mentioned before are useful tools, and still stand by them in my own training, and when working with clients.

But this article will show you where I dropped the ball!

I always knew that the world of online fitness reading has had a plethora of young readers in audience, be they aspiring strength coaches, lifting enthusiasts, or even sports athletes. However, also within that young crowd comes a large number of novice lifters who are either self – proclaimed or in denial. I know this because I was one of them. This is a rulebook for young folks; this is how you don’t stay a pencil-neck for the rest of your lives!

S*#t Novice Lifters Do

If you’re as into it as I was in my late teenage years, then you probably train frequently, and (try to) eat lots, all in the pursuit of muscle. You may even do that gallon of milk a day thing. To add to the mix, you probably take advantage of great articles on websites like this where real training principles are found. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, there’s a lot right with it. But there’s one warning sign. That comes from spending too much time on the stuff that gets really specific. Lots of advanced writings talk about the activation of small muscles, the specificity of your macronutrients, supplementing, and your mental zone when for most, it comes down to actually lifting weights. It just disappoints me when a tiny guy with a bunch of knowledge from all the studying he’s done starts rattling off all sorts of contraindications pertaining to his body, and the resulting lifts he won’t perform. By the end, there’s nothing left for him to do but rear delt flies, clamshells and prone supermans, and he’s sworn off of squatting because he’s had issues making his multilfidus and diaphragm fire during the movement.

I’m not advocating taking technique or your body’s weak links completely out of the equation, but for God’s sake, lifting something is a good place to start if you’re after muscle!

With all the supplementing data out there, a lot of people who don’t know any better will start self-prescribing an elixir of supplements. Stuff to boost test levels naturally, stuff to improve sleep, stuff for joints, stuff pre-workout, stuff post workout, protein for bedtime, protein for morning workouts, waking up at 4am and having cans of tuna, the list goes on and on … it’s grounds for a long winded debate if I start negating this, so I’ll just keep things simple and compose my list of things novice lifters should primarily focus on to get size and strength.

Train the Big Stuff

Nothing new here. Everywhere you turn, there’s something out there that promotes focusing on compound movements. Not only will they keep your body in proper working order, but they’ll also help you get more anabolic. The “big 3” lifts, along with other multi joint specials like pullups, presses, and split squats, should still have their place as pinnacle in your program. You should do lots of these movements and strive for optimal technique. It isn’t brain surgery – we all know (to some variation) what a good rep of a full squat looks like. When we notice we can’t achieve positions that facilitate a good squat, it means there’s a dysfunction that’s worth addressing. Apply some exercises and mobility based work to assist the squat, and work on improving the movement itself before just cutting your range of motion and adding weight.

On the topic of adding weight, however, there should be plenty of opportunity to lift heavy. Granted you’re OK with technique, don’t be afraid to have some big weight sets for your big lifts. This is a major key to spark up some growth and you will be getting stronger just due to better nervous system efficiency. Do your best to keep your form through your heavy reps – but if your immaculate technique slips a bit towards the end of your set, it’s not the end of the world. Any powerlifter or bodybuilder will agree that there are always a few “grinders” that you need to put up to get some hair on your chest.

Forget Advanced Lifting Methods and Up your Training Volume

I’ve written about cluster reps, and supramaximal holds, and contrast set training, and 1 and a half reps. If you’re a novice, click your way right past those articles. Instead, just focus on having a greater training volume towards one key movement per workout. If you’ve got plans to squat on day 1, do a ton of squats on day 1. Not just 3 sets of 8. Then move on to your other exercises. An example of a leg workout may look something like this:

  • Back squats – perform a feel set @ 95 lbs, then ramping sets @ 115, 135, 165, 185 (all for 3-5 reps), then first work set @ 205 – 8 reps. Continue for 5 more work sets @ 205. Rest 3 minutes between work sets.
  • Walking Lunges (dumbbell loaded) – 4×20 steps

C1) Lying Leg Curl – 12 reps
C2) Romanian Deadlift – 10 reps (perform as compound set, 4 rounds)

The one thing I will recommend that isn’t typical of most lifters is to really work your lifting tempo. Especially in pressing exercises, applying some good 3-4 second negative phases to your reps will be sure to spark up your nervous system and pack on muscle. Eccentric strength is the type we all have the most of, so if we can exhaust our muscles in that fashion, the rest will be a cakewalk. Learn tempo now, as you will also see it emphasized in Mountain Dog programs once you get to that level!

Eat Right, Eat Well, and Eat on Time

The last thing I’ll do is go into scrutiny over macronutrient intake. All I will say is that consistency (eating meals every 3 hours) and making sure you’re getting a ton of protein (for most guys around 40 grams, and women half that) and some good quality carbs that are more volumous around training. Start with .4 grams of fat per kilo of weight. It’s easy to figure out what to eat, just look at the info on the Mountain Dog website!

As for supplements, aside from things that can help your joints function well, such as curcumin and fish oils, a properly balanced diet should really take care of typical recovery needs for the novice – we’re not NFL athletes here. Supplements, remember – are supposed to be just what they’re named – a SUPPLEMENT. They work best as an add-on to a good diet. Don’t obsess over what protein powder you should get, and how often you should take it. In my humble opinion, the two real times that a protein supplement matters most are post workout (especially if there’s no real food present for you to eat) and before bedtime. And that’s about it. As you get more advanced, and gains stall, then you break out the big boys, the intra workout drinks to support muscle protein synthesis and slow down muscle protein breakdown. John and Bill Willis have wrote extensively about this, but again, let’s graduate from novice status first!

Stay Mobile, Stay Flexible, Stay Healthy

As I mentioned in the first subheading, optimal technique can be hindered by tightness, so do your due diligence in performing mobility and flexibility drills to counter that will get the body moving right. For example, if you’ve got issues with tight hips and poor depth when squatting, it may aid you to do proper dynamic mobility drills to address that. One of my favourites to attack hip flexor mobility is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VreocgjJ36A).

Eric Cressey’s book Assess and Correct contains a plethora of exercises that are just what the doctor ordered to make your lifts hitch-free. Knowing the right muscles to stretch is equally important. Remember, we don’t want to waste too much time away from being able to actually lift weights in the gym. I maintain that static stretching certain muscles can come in quite handy, while doing the same to other muscles can be a complete waste of time. Check out this article that shows you which ones to focus on (http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/surprising_reasons_why_youre_tight_and_weak). There are some key areas of mobility to keep an eye on that can act to plague a lifter early in the lifting game. Here are a few of my red flag regions:

  • Thoracic extension – affects spinal posture, bottom positions of virtually all compound movements
  • Hip Flexor mobility – affects squat depth, activation of posterior chain, and integrity of low abs vs. hips
  • Dorsiflexion – affects calf tightness, squat and lunge quality
  • Shoulder mobility – a must – have for most pressing exercises and overhead movements.

If any of these are issues early on, they likely will get worse in time if not addressed. Do what you have to in accessory to your workouts (pre, mid, and even as separate short workouts) to make these issues disappear before they turn you into one of the same YouTube lifters we fitness writers laugh about at the dinner table when get together on Sunday evenings. Develop your habits now while you are a novice or intermediate!

It’s Not That Complicated

Well, it doesn’t have to be, anyway. If you didn’t get it, the point of this article was for people who haven’t yet reached that “advanced” level of training to keep their heads on. Don’t get too preoccupied with the tips out there that can help, well, intermediate and mature lifters – when what you need to do is focus on getting really awesome at the basics – especially when it comes to building muscle that you can keep. When you dumb things right back down to “train hard, train smart, and eat right” you’ll notice so many things fall into place. Add a couple of drills, stretches, and weak link exercises into the mix, and you’ve got a potion for power! It’s all about balance, and it’s up to you to become a pencil-neck no more.

Sample Week

It wouldn’t be John’s style to end this article without a sample training template that you can actually use, so here you go! I went with total body style because youngsters and skinny minis need it.

Day 1 – Vertical Push and Pull
Day 2 – Horizontal Push and Pull
Day 3 – Vertical Push and Pull
Day 4 – Horizontal Push and Pull
Day 5 – Isolations/Specifics

Day 1

A) BB Deadlift – 6×10
B) BB Press – 6×10
C) Bodyweight Pull Ups – 6×10

Day 2

A) Meadows Rows – 5×8
B) Bench Press – 5×10
C) Leg Press – 4×20

Day 3

A) BB Back Squat – 6×10
B) BW Chin Ups (Palms IN) – 6×10
C) Seated DB Shoulder Press – Neutral Grip – 6×10

Day 4

A) Seated Rows – 5×15
B) BB Incline Press – 4×10
C) BB Walking Lunges – 5×20 steps

Day 5

A1) One Arm Barbell Row or TBar Row – 12 reps
A2) BB Push Press – 10 reps
Perform 4 rounds

B1) Weighted (or just bodyweight) Dips – 12 reps
B2) Biceps Curls – 12 reps
Perform 4 rounds

C1) Romanian Deadlifts – 10 reps
C2) Leg Extensions – 15 reps

Rest day after day 2 and day 5.

Graduation – so when can you officially say you are no longer a novice?

It’s always a tough call to determine when you’re ready to train like an “advanced” lifter. Especially when you’re young and physical gains come relatively quickly. Having said that, I usually like to look at things, in my own perspective, as a question of overall strength. Strive to be able to perform big movements with your body weight for various amounts of reps. And I mean the number of pounds you weigh should be on the bar, or used as the load.

With good technique, try to perform the following movements for the desired reps with your bodyweight on the bar.

Bench Press – your body’s weight x 8-10 reps
Push Press – your body’s weight x 1 rep
Clean – Your body’s weight x 1 rep
Squat – Your body’s weight x 15 reps ** to full depth! **
Conventional Deadlift – Your body’s weight x 20 reps
Pull ups – (no added weight, just “bodyweight”) – 12 strict reps.

I consider this a fair, across the board, honest, plain as day indicator to see where you’re at, regardless of what you weigh – 160lb mini, or 255lb beast! No matter how heavy or light you are, if you have deficiencies, a couple of these tests will pose themselves as major challenges when you give them a shot. For example, a skinny mini may have no problem cracking out 12 pull ups and deadlifting his weight for a set of 20. But when it comes to the push press, clean, and squats, a different tale may be told.

I’m pretty sure you’ll notice a trend here. If you can pass this test, you likely won’t do it as a skinny mini. Which means you’ll likely have been training for a little while, and have developed some solid muscle through the basics. The take home point is that you should stick to the tried, tested, and true methods of adding strength and size so that your body can really mature (as far as training goes) before hitting it with the “crazy”. When you can get all these feats accomplished, take things to the next level and start training for some true hypertrophy. You can play around with advanced lifting methods and the like. You’ve proven to yourself that the foundational skills you’ve been working on have paid off.

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of leeboycetraining.com and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website www.leeboycetraining.com and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.