Is That Generic Program Sabotaging Your Gains?
Thinking about doing The Texas Method to get strong? Going to try Arnold's Blueprint in the hope of finally revealing that chiselled physique? Have you found the latest program by IFBB Pro…whoever and are going to follow it to a tee in the hope of getting too big to fit through doorways?
What if I told you that these cookie-cutter programs are not helping your progress but destroying it? That’s right. Like a ninja assassin in the night they are, without warning, cutting off any hopes you ever had of 20inch biceps. Like a recently deceased pet goldfish, your dreams of a barrel chest are getting flushed down the toilet and forgot about the very next day.
Ok, maybe I am exaggerating just a bit. A more realistic way of putting it would be that the generic program you are following might be impeding your progress. Doesn’t sound as cool or hard hitting though does it? However, there is some truth in my hyperbole. You are an individual with different goals, genetics, training experience, potential and nutritional intake to the next guy or girl. Your training program should reflect this and I will use research to tell you why. Volume It is well established that a beginner lifter needs a lot less volume of training than an intermediate lifter, who in turn needs a lot less volume than an advanced lifter. I guess you could say volume is a bit like an addictive substance in this regard. The more you take and the longer you take it the more you need to get a buzz. A review in 2003 by Rhea et al of resistance training programs (1) showed that untrained individuals need 12 sets per muscle per week for maximal muscle growth. There is also research showing that beginners can get maximal gains on as little as 8 sets per week. Another review by Wernbom et al in 2007 (2) shows that intermediate lifters benefit from 16-18 sets per muscle group per week. It is also important to consider if you are in a calorie surplus (bulking) or a calorie deficit (cutting) as well. A person in a calorie surplus can handle a higher training volume (as more muscle can be built) than if they were in a calorie deficit and do not have the same recovery ability. There are many other factors which can affect the volume of training that a person can handle, including life stress, genetics and many more. So taking this into consideration it doesn't make sense for a beginner to follow one of Arnold’s famous high volume routines or for an advanced trainee trying to bulk to switch to a low volume strength routine.
Frequency The study I mentioned before by Rhea et al in 2003 (1) also shows that beginners do well training each muscle 3 times per week. This makes sense because muscle protein synthesis after a training session in beginners can last over two days (3). However a more experienced lifter will recover much quicker (4). So it doesn't make sense for a beginner to train a muscle more than 2-3 times per week, however, a more advanced lifter could benefit from a higher frequency. The frequency of training, of course, also depends on the overall volume of training per session on each muscle. This all has to be taken into account when individualising a training routine. Ask yourself if the latest fitness book you are following takes into consideration your training experience? How do you know your training experience? It is not just how many years you have been pumping iron. You need to look at your current strength level along with your genetic potential. Intensity It has been shown that someone new to lifting weights can maximally stimulate a muscle at 60% of their 1 rep max (RM)(1), whereas a lifter with more experience needs up to 80% of 1RM to keep seeing optimal progress. As a person gets even more advanced the intensity needs to be even higher in order to maximally stimulate the muscle (5). Should all beginners go on a 5,3,1 routine to get big and strong then? I'd have to say no. Do you know what rep range corresponds to what intensity? Is this the same for everyone? Again, I think not. If you go on to a one size fits all program you may strike it lucky and get the intensity and matching rep range that is optimal for your physiology at that time. However, odds are you won't.
Most generic programs that I see map out the exact exercises you should use and when. What if your gym doesn't have the machines or equipment needed? A forced exercise selection doesn't take into consideration injury history or ability to execute any exercises properly? Not everyone can squat below parallel and training with partial range of motion (ROM) has been shown to be less effective at building muscle (6). Do you have knee pain and the program calls for 3 times a week leg extensions? Can you do even one full pull-up? But the program says do 4 sets of 10? And what about muscle imbalances or priorities in yourself? The muscles worked first in a session will always get the best results (7). If your legs are a weak point and you follow a program that always prioritises your chest, you will struggle to bring your legs up to par. Take, for example, females that are training for a bikini competition. Somehow I don't think a bikini model would be best suited to follow Ronnie Coleman’s training program.
A program should be altered as you progress. If you are new to the gym you could easily add more weight on to the bar each time you do an exercise. However, if you are a bit more advanced, a periodized routine is needed to increase your strength. A beginner following an advanced Westside Barbell routine will progress at a much slower pace than is optimal. If you have never squatted before and you read Starting Strength by Rippeteo I guarantee your back squat will be better than most in the gym. At the same time, someone that has been squatting for 20 years will not get very far following Rippetoes 5x5 (unless, of course, they have been wasting the last 20 years following some other sub-optimal generic program and getting nowhere).
Your program may call for you to deload every 4 weeks whether you need to or not. Or you change all exercises after each month even though you could be making great gains on the barbell bench press for example. At the same time you could have spent 3 weeks stalling on an exercise that just wasn't suited to you. All in all this just makes for much slower progress overall.
I could go on with many more reasons not to following a generic, cookie cutter program, but I think you get the drift.
Conclusion Can you get results following a generic program? Yes, of course you can. Could you learn something from following the program written by a fitness expert? You definitely can. Is it better than roaming the gym randomly copying others around you? Yes. Is it cheap? It is less expensive than hiring a Personal Trainer, yes. However, will your results be optimal? No they won’t. Put simply, individualisation of your program is key. There is a best way to do things in life and as you can see following the latest generic program just isn’t the best way to get optimal physique development. **If you enjoyed the above and would like more training, nutrition, health and lifestyle advice straight to your inbox click here to join my mailing list.
References 1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12618576 2 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326698 3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9252485 4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19036897 5 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25031673 6 http://bretcontreras.com/partial-vs-full-reps-or-both/ 7http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737971/