As a young and avid weightlifter, I looked up to IFBB professional bodybuilders for advice in training and diet. I would search for videos online of Jay Cutler, Evan Centopani, and others for motivation and to use as a guide for what exercises I would train for the muscle group I was working that particular day. At first, I would do exactly what was shown in the video—the same exercises, number of reps and sets, and amount of time under tension. Over the years, though, I’ve developed my own way of training based on 5 principles, or “pillars,” that can be applied to every body part. Keep in mind that on some days, you will have more energy/strength than other days, but the approach should still be the same.
#1 Warm Up: Isolate the Proper Muscle Fibers
The first pillar to weight training is to warm up and isolate the proper muscle fibers. This may be the most important pillar of them all. When you first get to the gym, typically your body is not ready to go straight to the heavy compound movements. Now, you may get away with this for a while, but why risk injury and set yourself back for weeks or months because of skipping this step? All it takes is one time. As you start to do the first few reps of the day, be sure you are focusing your mind completely on the muscle fibers you are working.
Start with lighter weight and get a solid pump before moving on. Though you may be warming up the muscles, you can really fatigue the muscle by performing proper form and really squeezing hard throughout the entire rep range. I consider these as sets in my workout because they are important and do exhaust the muscles. The set/rep range I typically use is 2-4 sets of 15-20 reps per set. This all depends on how each set feels and if I think my muscles are ready to take on the next exercise.
#2 Heavy Compound Movements: Meat & Potatoes
Once the proper muscles are fired up, the next pillar of training is heavy compound movements. This is the “meat and potatoes” of weight lifting. Some familiar exercises include: bench press, squat, deadlift, shoulder press, leg press, bent-over row, seated row, shoulder raise, chest fly, leg curl, leg extension, bicep curl, and triceps push down. These exercises are great for building overall size and strength, but come with a much higher risk of injury. By initiating your workout with the first pillar, you are able to feel the proper muscles contracting better, go lighter yet yield the same or better result, and prevent injury.
I usually do 1-2 exercises of these movements. Each exercise will be performed in 3-4 sets and rep ranges are typically 10-15 reps. Start with a weight that is comfortable enough for you to make 15 reps but no more than 20. Progressively increase the weight on each set so that your reps get closer to 12 or 10 reps with the same proper form as the first set. Do not sacrifice form for weight. If the weight becomes too heavy to get 10 reps or the form begins to suffer, drop the weight back down and crush the last set or two. You always want to push yourself, but it’s ok to go back down in weight if it’s too heavy. This is bodybuilding, not ego lifting.
#3 “Active Recovery”: Time Under Tension
Following the heavy compound lifts, I like to call this the “active recovery” pillar. Your muscles just took a beating from the last few exercises. At this point, you should be feeling exhausted. Instead of getting sloppy in training, give your body a slight rest. This does not mean sit around or talk your way out of a workout. What I mean is pick an exercise that works the full range of motion, but is a lighter load on the muscle, and maintain constant tension throughout each rep. Think about putting more time under tension on the muscle versus weight load. Squeeze the entire time you perform the exercise. I like to do 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps. This allows me to gain back a little energy while continuing to work the muscles.
#4 Super Sets & Drop Sets: Pumps
Finishing up the workout is the time to really push yourself the hardest! The second to last pillar is comprised of super sets and drop sets. After gaining the energy back in the last exercise, you should be ready to really pump the muscle full of blood and push as many reps as possible on each set. Keep your form in check. When the form starts to suffer, drop the weight or move to additional exercises. You should be absolutely exhausted after completing 2-3 sets of this.
#5 Stretch Muscle Fibers: Past Normal
Finally, the last pillar of my weight training is to elongate, or stretch, the muscle fibers. You can do this by simply performing isometric stretching, or you can also perform certain exercises that emphasize big stretches. For example, you could do stiff leg deadlifts on leg day or hanging pull ups for back. These exercises use weight to cause tension and stretch the muscles past normal range. Stretching opens up the muscle fibers completely and allows blood and nutrients to fill in these areas for recovery.
In general, what has always worked for me is to consistently train the basic, tried and true exercises–what I call the “meat and potatoes” movements I listed above. I rarely eliminate these exercises from my weekly workouts, and only change the amount of weight, sets, reps, intensity, time under tension, etc. I do, however, switch up the order of exercises for all muscle groups.
I don’t follow a set workout. I mainly go by how my body feels and how it looks. For example, if I notice I haven't put as much emphasis on rear delts as I have the front or side delts, then I may start with rear delts on my next shoulder training day. As long as I hit every angle for that particular muscle group and I stick to my “5 Pillars” approach, then I know I’ll have a very productive workout.
If you hit a plateau, switch up rep ranges and amount of sets per exercise. If you lack energy one day, push yourself anyway; maybe focus on higher volume and increasing the time under tension versus trying to push max weight. If you feel like going heavy, then use that energy to push harder. Always be flexible in your approach and do what makes sense to maximize each and every workout.
The “5 Pillars” represent my basic approach to weight training, one that will help prevent injury and help you get the most out of your training without overcomplicating things. Too many lifters get caught up making things more complicated than necessary. When you link these pillars together, you should feel some of the biggest pumps of your life. You will, no doubt, leave the gym exhausted and feeling an extreme sense of accomplishment knowing you gave everything you have at every rep of every set. Although these “5 Pillars” have formed the foundation to my training as a bodybuilder, I still use these principles to continue to push myself in every workout. There’s no question that they can do the same for you. So until next time, train hard.