Unconventional Bodybuilding (Pt.1)

The biggest handicap in research is an ability to think outside the box.  The handicap is being encumbered by all the conventional wisdom in a given field.

– Aubrey de Grey

Bodybuilding is wrought with conventional wisdom. And what people believe makes someone look like a bodybuilder or fitness model is shrouded in misconceptions.

bodybuilder, natural bodybuilding, unconventional bodybuilding, muscle hypertrophy, muscle maturity

Setting aside the use of PED’s or other bodybuilding drugs; looking muscular, strong, shredded or fit is the result of a very specific set of circumstances.  Circumstances EVERYONE has the ability to control.

Over the next three blog posts I’ll speak to these circumstances, uncover misconceptions, and provide some unconventional and counterintuitive training and nutrition methods of my own to maximize your development and enhance appearance.  But before I do we need to come to a mutual understanding about something.  And that something is…

Bodybuilding is an Illusion

Shawn Ray

When I was a young lifter with aspirations of looking like Frank Zane and Shawn Ray I thought you simply built muscle to the point that your skin stretched to epic proportions, fat melted off of you and deep muscle separation was inevitable.   In other words, you GREW into being completely JACKED.

You can imagine my disappointment and that of every teenage boy who ever thought the same thing when that didn’t happen.

So what did happen?

Well, muscle was built.  Just not to epic proportions.  And a degree of thickness was achieved that made it quite obvious (with a shirt on) that some heavy lifting had been going on.

And therein lies the rub…”with a shirt on”.   Because with the shirt off neither I (at the time) nor 99% of those who lift weights resemble anything like the guy on the cover of Muscle & Fitness.

However, realizing how bodybuilding is an illusion can change all that.

The two key factors for creating the illusion of being enviously jacked are…

  1. Being as lean as possible.
  2. Retaining as much muscle as possible while at your leanest.

These two factors are very much controllable.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is:  Getting as lean as you’ll need to means that you are going to be fielding a lot of questions and concerns from your friends and family about your “health” because of how “skinny” you’ve become.  They’ll tell you to stop whatever you’re doing.  They’ll say you look terrible.

I say, don’t worry.  It’s just jealousy!

In order to look how 99% of the population can’t you have to do what 99% of the population won’t.

Assuming that you are among the willing the question is, what do you do?  This is where conventional bodybuilding wisdom enters the scene and attaches itself to you like a psychotic girlfriend.  Despite the warning signs that she is absolutely nuts, for some reason you accept it and after a while you can’t seem to let go.

The road less traveled is often intimidating because it goes against convention.  This is especially so in bodybuilding.  Let’s look at what conventional wisdom says is necessary for superior physique development and see what we can offer as an unconventional or better alternative.

#1 –You Must Train Nearly Every Day and for Hours.

A commitment to training and a commitment to training with highest quality of effort possible are two different things.  Plenty of people maintain their daily obligation to go to the gym and put in their 60-90 minutes of exercise.

But do they make progress?

In some cases, yes.  In many cases, no.  In the instances where they do make GAINZ the question is whether or not they NEED to put in that much time.

2 hours

On average I spend just 2 hours training each week.  There are times when I train more but they are infrequent.  I am far from genetically gifted.  Yet despite spending half to one-third the time training as most natural bodybuilders I’ve still been able to make consistent improvements and compete at a high level for 15+ years.

This is NOT an indictment of high-volume and high-frequency training—whose supporters are likely foaming at the mouth like an attack dog ready to pounce on me right now.  Nor should the high-intensity crowd think I’m lending support to their minimalist approach.

It’s prudent for all factions to recognize the benefits provided by the other training methods and think about what parts they can pilfer and use to their own benefit.

The Unconventional Approach…

  • Focus on Quality over Quantity.
  • Training too or near muscular failure (1 rep shy) 80-90% of the time.
  • Perform the highest volume of work (sets and reps) in the shortest time possible. However, this doesn’t mean perform reps at hyper-speed.  Use a cadence of 2-4 seconds on the positive and 3-5 seconds on the negative to maintain constant tension on the muscles.
  • Push your boundaries not only by lifting heavier weight or performing more reps but by manipulating ALL training variables.
  • Recognize that exercise is a negative stress on the body and only serves as a stimulus for muscle hypertrophy; lending to the importance of ample recovery time.
  • Keep workouts to 20-45 minutes.  (Eliminate time spent socializing and taking selfies and this shouldn’t be problem).
  • An average of 3-4 workouts/week.
  • Train each muscle group once every 3-5 days.

By no means am I implying that my training will produce dramatically greater results than training with less intensity and longer.  I am simply pointing out that the common BELIEFS regarding how much time must be dedicated to looking like a bodybuilder is severely misunderstood.


Think variation and muscle confusion are one in the same?  They’re not.

You cannot “confuse” or “trick” muscles into hypertrophy and strength gains.  When you nestle under the bar there is no hesitancy or confusion on your muscles part about what they must do—which is contract.  And if you’re doing it right, they’re contracting pretty frickin’ hard.


And when you work your muscles to exhaustion and finally call it quits, it’s crystal clear to them what needs to happen next.  They need to adapt.  It’s their evolutionary duty.

Hypertrophy and Strength Adaptations Result from Muscles being subjected to Specific Conditions.

The basic requirements for building muscle and strength are no secret.  Challenge the muscles with relatively heavy loads, use enough volume to sufficiently exhaust mechanical and chemical resources, progressively increase training demands, repeat the process frequently enough to maintain and elicit new gains, but not so frequently that you inhibit recovery.  Bam!  That’s it!

Keeping up with these requirements as you develop more muscle and strength, in and of itself creates variation.  But you and I know that is not the type of variation implied when fitness gurus speak of variation.

No, we’re told to switch things up.  That we shouldn’t keep doing the same thing.

But exactly what does that mean?

Change some Elements—Don’t do an Overhaul

As pointed out, if the goal is muscle hypertrophy and strength gains there are certain conditions your training must meet.  It’s what we refer to as the S.A.I.D. Principlespecific adaptation to imposed demands.  In the same way, if your goal is to run a marathon your training must reflect the best means of improving aerobic output and muscular endurance.

The idea is not to keep your muscles “guessing” (they don’t sit around between workouts wondering what’s coming next) but to give them exactly what they need to get the result you’re looking for.   If the foundation of your training remains intact and in alignment with your objective then varying some of the elements can help enhance results and circumvent plateaus.

The Many Faces of Exercise Variation

The elements we most commonly think of altering are the exercises, rep and set schemes, intensity, rep performance, and the type of workout.  I’ll address each individually.

Exercises – Varying exercises can be anything from performing the same exercise at various angles (i.e. flat chest press, incline press, decline press), performing vastly different exercises for the same muscle group (i.e. leg extensions and sissy squats)  or performing the same exercise using different equipment (i.e. barbell deadlifts vs. trap bar deadlifts or dumbbell curls vs. cable curls).

Those who implement a variety of exercises, cyclically, tend to have more well-rounded physiques with better balance between or within muscle groups.  There is also a reduced risk of overuse injury (barring excessive volume or frequency) resulting from working in the same plane of motion over long periods.

Reps & Set Schemes – Increasing or decreasing your rep range, set length (Time Under Tension) or the number of sets performed is a play on volume.  It’s a means of ensuring that all muscle fiber types (Type I, Type IIa, Type IIb) are subjected to the appropriate workload to maximize development.


It is also the easiest way to alter training demands. When your muscles acclimate to a particular workload an increase in volume is an effective means of challenging them to a higher level of conditioning.  However, this increase in your total demands—which is necessary—will affect recovery ability.

Conversely, lowering your volume by performing fewer sets is effective in providing for more recovery time.  Cycling between high, low, and moderate volume training affords you periods of heavy demands to stimulate gains and periods of lower demands to boost recovery and sensitize you to higher volume training.

Intensity – Just as with reps and sets, increasing your intensity of effort—by training to muscular failure or beyond—can heighten training demands and stimulate muscle hypertrophy and strength increases.  Taken too far for too long it can also stifle recovery by exhausting your CNS which is why it should be implemented judiciously and cycled.

Rep Performance – Changing repetition speed and the execution of your reps (i.e. stutter reps, partials, Zone Training, 21’s, negatives, etc.) is a means of disrupting motor patterns, influencing fiber recruitment, and increasing training demands.

Watch this tutorial on Zone Training for an alternative way of performing your reps and check out the related article: The Pump, Occlusion Training, and How to Enhance Them.

Why would you want to disrupt motor patterns?  After all, you’ve worked so hard to get your form right so you can properly target your muscles and handle the most amount of load safely, right?

The reason is, sometimes the adaption you get is not the one you want.  We want to develop our muscles, we want them to get stronger—but not all of the increases in strength you see in the gym is the result of increased muscular development. The more practiced and technically sound you are at certain lifts the less energy and resources you will use to perform them.

If the end game is to thoroughly fatigue your muscles and give them cause for further development then performing exercises in a manner they are unaccustomed to can present a new set of demands to adapt to.

Research on repetition speed has shown that faster repetition may hold a slight advantage over slow reps in increasing strength but there is no statistical difference in the effect on muscle hypertrophy. However both fast and slow reps have several advantages and disadvantages.  Watch this video for a breakdown of each.

Type of Workout – Different workouts lend themselves to different adaptations, this much is obvious.  A trainee who performs several different modes of exercise or engages in various styles of training may have greater overall fitness than someone focused on only one mode with one objective.  But they won’t necessarily excel or achieve their ideal level of development in any one area unless by genetic chance.

And this is where must be intentional about using blatantly different styles of exercise for variation versus altering the elements like mentioned previously.  If you can accept the potential for regression in certain aspects of your development by abandoning one type of training or exercise for another then by all means, go for it.

The Final Word

I understand what the “muscle confusion” guys are getting at. The need for exercise variation is overwhelmingly valid.  It just bugs the hell out of me—as well as every other sensible fitness instructor—when we have to explain to a neophyte that muscle confusion is nothing more than marketing bullshit.

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The Truth about Missed Workouts and Detraining on Muscle & Strength Gains

He felt panic stricken.  What was he going to do?  He spent at least seven hours a week, every week for the last eleven months working to increase is bench and add more muscle.  At nineteen years old he was at his peak (so he thought) and this upcoming week was about to squash all the work he’d put in.  The same thing happened to him last year during the same week so you thought he would have learned by now.

It was June and he was home from college for the summer.  As a lacrosse player, he loved the sport but loved training more.  The hours spent in the gym smashing personal bests gave him more satisfaction than scoring goals.

That’s what made this week so hard.  There would not be a single minute for him to spend in the gym.  The lacrosse camp he was a coach and counselor at for this one week each June was massive—thousands of kids.  And with so many kids running around on and off the field there was not a spare minute in the day.

Not being able to train ate way at him every day.

He was excited when day six finally arrived.  Time to go home!

He walked in the door said a quick hello to his parents and within minutes he was back out the door, in the car, and heading to the gym.

Gym time

He got under the bench for his first couple of warm-up sets.

“Whoa, that felt easy” he thought to himself.

And then he moved onto his working set.  With one-eighty-five on the bar he was expecting to push out his usual six reps.  But after he completed eight it hit him that the week off didn’t hurt him one bit.

Not the type to put two and two together he just thought how “lucky” he was to have not lost any strength.  Never mind that he just bested his last four bench press workouts.

What can I say, I’m a slow learner.  :-)

People get neurotic about their training.

Missed workout

We all agree, a healthy commitment to exercise and nutrition is great.  But when a commitment turns into an obsession—usually in the case of body dysmorphic disorders—it’s never a pretty sight.  I would not go so far to say I suffered from a disorder (I always maintained some sensibility about how I looked) mine was more of a compulsion.

I worked hard, earned my gains and yearned for more.  I would guess you and I are probably similar that way.  It’s very normal to be concerned that too much time away from the gym will result in regression.


Is all the unrest we feel about time away from the gym warranted?

If we rely on the empirical evidence the answer is, no.

If rely on the research, the answer is still, no.

Research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2013 (Ogasawara R1, Yasuda T, Ishii N, Abe T.) [1] compared the effects of a periodic resistance training (PTR) program with those of a continuous resistance training (CTR) program on muscle size and function.

The CTR group trained continuously over a 24-week period, whereas the PTR group performed three cycles of 6-week training (or retraining), with 3-week detraining periods between training cycles. After an initial 6 weeks of training, increases in cross-sectional area (CSA) of the triceps brachii and pectoralis major muscles and maximum isometric voluntary contraction of the elbow extensors and 1-RM were similar between the two groups.


In the CTR group, muscle CSA and strength gradually increased during the initial 6 weeks of training. However, the rate of increase in muscle CSA and 1-RM decreased gradually after that.


In the PTR group, increase in muscle CSA and strength during the first 3-week detraining/6-week retraining cycle were similar to that in the CTR group during the corresponding period. However, increase in muscle CSA and strength during the second 3-week detraining/6-week retraining cycle were significantly higher in the PTR group than in the CTR group.


Thus, overall improvements in muscle CSA and strength were similar between the groups. The results indicate that 3-week detraining/6-week retraining cycles result in muscle hypertrophy similar to that occurring with continuous resistance training after 24 weeks.

Another study from 2000; Neuromuscular adaptation during prolonged strength training, detraining and re-strength-training in middle-aged and elderly people (Häkkinen K1, Alen M, Kallinen M, Newton RU, Kraemer WJ) [2] provides further evidence that 3 weeks of not training will have an inconsequential impact on muscular size and strength.

According to the researchers findings:  Short-term detraining (3 weeks) led to only minor changes, while prolonged detraining (24 weeks) resulted in muscle atrophy and decreased voluntary strength…

Barring injury or some traumatic event anyone moderately committed to maintaining their fitness is unlikely to miss 24 straight weeks of training.

More is to be gained, not lost, from detraining.

Most encouraging about this study and confirmed by others [3,4] is that there is no inhibition of muscular or strength adaptations upon returning to training.  But all of us life-long lifters already recognized this, we call it “Muscle Memory.”

In fact in many instances results upon re-training after a week or two of detraining exceeded previous bests.  This was my experience at nineteen after returning from a [forced] week off from training.  And the scenario has played out hundreds of other times with personal training clients who—fearful that the past 4 months of progress would be wiped away by their upcoming two week vacation—would come back stronger and sometimes looking better.

We shouldn’t be surprise when we consider the effect continuous training can have on the Central Nervous System (CNS) and General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), as well as how it can blunt anabolic signaling.  Taking a week or more off can help all of our physiological systems fully recover and desensitize us to training.  All of which are necessary for long-term gains.

Periodization has shown us the way.

As someone who is focused primarily on muscle hypertrophy and building functional strength, and not demonstrating strength (as in the case of a powerlifter or O-lifter), I’m not a big fan of Western Periodization.  However, conceptually, it’s spot on.  Especially when you view it through the prism of the GAS.


Periods of exercise stress must be followed by periods of rest so the body can overcompensate for and adapt to the stress.  In the same way Western Periodization breaks up your training into cycles that focus on a particular adaptation, you want to have specified periods of increased or varied training demands accompanied by periods of lesser demands and layoffs.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, almost to the point of sounding like an iPod stuck on repeat—building muscle is metabolically demanding.  Our body will seek out any way, other than building muscle, to increase strength and contend with the demands placed on it through exercise.

That’s why a linear training and recovery model is only beneficial to advanced trainees striving to maintain their gains.

The more our intensity, volume, frequency, method of rep/set performance, exercise selection, etc. remains the same the more sensitized we become to it.   The stubborn nineteen year old couldn’t wrap his thick skull around the idea that time away from the gym is good for gains.


But that’s not to say there are not legitimate concerns about detraining.

The two that most quickly jumps to mind for those aesthetically ambitious is fat accumulation resulting from diminished activity and a loss of muscle fullness.

However these are concerns that can easily be addressed and rectified:

To avoid fat gain requires a simple recalculation in caloric intake.  Accounting for the calories you won’t be burning through exercise while remaining at or below your maintenance levels will impede any potential fat storage. …Simply solution to a simple problem.

Next, loss of muscle fullness is the result of glycogen degradation.  Meaning your muscles are not overcompensating for the glycogen depleted during muscular contractions.  This trend reverses immediately upon returning to training.

If you’re taking a week off from training this change is nearly unnoticeable.  But if you plan to take more than one week off from purposeful training then you might implement one or two very light workouts a week in which you get a moderate pump, deplete some glycogen, but do not disrupt systemic recovery.

Aside from unease about potential aesthetic deviations the only other observed negative effect in some studies (and validated through personal experience) is a short lived decrease in metabolic conditioning.  Upon resuming training subjects/clients fatigued after fewer exercises than is typical or required slightly longer rest between exercises.  In my experience most trainees regain their previous level of conditioning after 1-4 workouts.

One step back and two steps forward.

As much evidence as there is to support detraining it should be understood that it is not a license to fly by the seat of your pants.  These periods must be planned.  They should be built around periods of heavy demands so you can take advantage of heightened anabolic signaling (5) and desensitization to training on the frontend (like when you were a beginner and made rapid gains) and unimpeded recovery on the backend so you can overcompensate and adapt to the demands.

The question is: are you willing to give little in order to get a little more?


1. Ogasawara R1, Yasuda TIshii NAbe T.  Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2511-9. Epub 2012 Oct 6. 

2.  Häkkinen K1, Alen MKallinen MNewton RUKraemer WJNeuromuscular adaptation during prolonged strength training, detraining and re-strength-training in middle-aged and elderly people.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000 Sep;83(1):51-62.

3. . Ogasawara R1, Yasuda TSakamaki MOzaki HAbe T.  Effects of periodic and continued resistance training on muscle CSA and
in previously untrained men. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2011 Sep;31(5):399-404. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-097X.2011.01031.x. Epub 2011 May 31

4.  Bruusgaard JCJohansen IBEgner IMRana ZAGundersen KMyonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining.  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 24;107(34):15111-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0913935107. Epub 2010 Aug 16

5.  Ogasawara R1, Kobayashi KTsutaki ALee KAbe TFujita SNakazato KIshii NmTOR signaling response to resistance exercise is altered by chronic resistance training and detraining in skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2013 Apr;114(7):934-40. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01161.2012. Epub 2013 Jan 31


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Why the Best Trainers Get Better Results than Everyone Else

Many of the best and most effective trainers and coaches take very different paths to make their trainees successful.  Which makes us wonder what they all have in common since their approaches can vary so greatly.

Take a deeper look and you’ll notice they focus their attention on two things…

The Big Picture and The Details

The philosophy each has pertaining to exercise is what guides their decisions about how to piece together all the exercise variables.

For me the big picture is all about managing and manipulating training demands to stimulate muscle growth and strength at each stage of a person’s life.  That means understanding how exercise fits within the schema of every other stress and activity a person is faced with and how to navigate the waters to help them reach their goals.

The philosophy that guides all my exercise decisions is that exercise should be prescribed in the least amount necessary to get the best or desired result.

What constitutes “the least amount” will depend on the goals, needs, current condition and tolerance to exercise stress of the individual.  It’s for these reasons I don’t adhere to one specific training method.

The details are things like lifting tempo, time under tension, reps, sets, frequency, load, muscle targeting, mental focus and intensity of effort.

Always Start with the Big Picture in Mind

Many weight training programs will work to a degree.  Whether or not you get the result you’re looking for depends on whether it was the right program at that time.

Whenever we dig into the latest research or read an article from our favorite fitness expert we can’t help but romanticize about the details.  How many reps did the subjects perform?  What percent of 1RM was used for each set?  How frequently did they train? Etc.

All of that is useful information, but it’s useless without proper context. You can’t simply throw shit together and hope it works, you should…

Plan the Details

One guy whose stuff I like to read and watch is Nick Nilsson.  Nick is called “The Mad Scientist of Muscle” and for good reason.

I was asked to write the forward for his book Muscle Explosion a few years back and the one thing I noted is that even though his training programs look bat shit crazy (and I mean that in a complimentary way), he is very calculated in his approach.   He sees the big picture and then goes nuts mapping out the details.

I’m not sure I could ever be as creative as Nick; I don’t think 99% of us could be.  But I don’t think you necessarily need to be in order to have greater success.

You just need to see the big picture, stick with a philosophy and then make sure the details are aligned with it.

Avoid the Shiny Object Syndrome

If you’re not getting the result you want, reexamine the details and your application of them or adopt a new philosophy.  Don’t jump on every new program or abandon what’s worked for each compelling piece of new information.  Not without planning for it so you can determine its true worth and relevance to the big picture.


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The Hardest Step in Becoming (and Staying) Fit

“The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step.”  ~Lao Tzu

I’ve always liked this quote because it highlights the importance of taking action.  You can’t achieve any desired outcome until we get off your butt and start moving towards it.

The energy and strength to live a high quality active life doesn’t manifest itself out of thin air.  (Apparently, neither does money because I tried thinking really hard about having a lot of that and nothing happened.)   It truly is a journey and the landscape is constantly changing. If you don’t change with it …you’re screwed.

The first step is the hardest they say.

I disagree…

The hardest step is the one you take after each misstep.

We all mess up …and anyone that says they don’t is lying to themselves.  There will be times when you bend to temptation or fall off the wagon. It’s human nature.  What happens next, however, determines if you ever make it to the journey’s destination.

Do you allow a day where you abandon your workout to become several days of inactivity?  Does an unexpected dessert binge result in you deserting your nutrition plan the next day too?  Or do you acknowledge when you’ve gone off course and immediately take steps to get back on it?

The reason why correcting course is so difficult requires a crash course in cognitive behavior.

Negative actions are often tied to psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression and stress, and then there are chemical factors like the release or suppression of dopamine and serotonin (a.k.a. the feel good chemicals).

Your negative action (like binging) might be in response to a negative emotion (feeling anxiety) but it can cause one as well (feeling guilt and depression for having binged).  Eating fatty or sugary foods release dopamine and serotonin which makes you feel better but as a consequence causes you to crave more fat and sugar. The result is a very ugly cycle that’s hard to break.

The expediency in which you get back on track governs your success.

iStock_000019407597MediumWhile some of these things are the stimuli for why we succumb to our impulses, experts agree that mindfulness is the solution.  Being aware of when and why you have setbacks is the best way to avoid them or move past them quickly.

Is it easy?  No.

As I said at the start, I think this is more difficult than getting started.  But it is crucial to not falling in a cycle that puts you back where you started or worse.


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5 Things You Must Know to Pack on Muscle

The struggle to build muscle is one that’s near and dear to me.  Never the genetic freak. Completely average at best.

I know what it’s like to pour everything into your training with only negligible returns.

I’m not complaining though.  This reality is what’s helped me sift through so much of the BS that’s written in articles and on other blogs and shown on YouTube.

Now when I read, see or listen to someone I know whether they’re full of shit or there’s something legitimate to what they’re saying and worth exploring.

There’s more reasons further than the eye can see for why some guys pack on muscle and others don’t. (Yes, there’s more than just genetics all you self proclaimed hardgainers.)

Knowing these five will swing the odds heavily in your favor …regardless of genetics.

Here they are, in no order of importance:

1. There is a Training Variable Domino Effect

We’re clear on the fact that every workout program has these four primary variables present: intensity, volume, frequency, and load.  Then we have detail oriented variables such as rep speed, rep and set variations, equipment, and rest periods.

What’s not always clear is the immediate impact that putting your focus on one (or a few) has on the rest.

Through my first thirteen years of my weight training the focus had been on completing a certain (high) volume of work.  When I made a shift to focusing on intensity of effort a funny thing happened …I couldn’t handle as much volume.  At least not long term.

I tried, but soon realized that if I wanted to keep my focus on training with the highest intensity possible for each exercise, doing more sets per exercise would cut into my performance.

When my focus shifted to an increase in frequency I couldn’t maintain the same high intensity, training to muscular failure and beyond workouts, for more than 2-4 consecutive weeks.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, rather the cumulative stress was resulting in a drop in performance because my body didn’t have time to overcompensate.  We’ve all experienced this on some level.

Have you ever been forced to take a week off from training only to come back stronger?

The reason why is because your body had the opportunity to systemically recover from the cumulative stress.

Why does this matter?


Your Long Term Success in Building Muscle is Directly Proportional to Your Ability to Manage Your Overall Training Demands by Managing Exercise Variables.

When you adjust or change one variable it causes a domino effect. Think about going from your typical straight sets to adding two forced reps at the end of each set.

After one or two sets the load you can handle on each consecutive set will likely be much less than usual.  It’s also likely that you won’t maintain the same level of intensity throughout the workout as you normally do.

This could be good, this could be bad.

Whether you get a hypertrophy response depends if the training demands from making this change are appropriate, relative to your needs at that time. And if they’re balanced with enough recovery time to allow for overcompensation.

The point is, whenever we adjust training variables we have to take notice of how it effects the others and our intended outcome.

2. You Have to Change Your Approach and Innovate Your Training

Let me start by saying that the following suggestion does come with a caveat.  If you’re relatively new to weight training there’s no need to make frequent or dramatic changes to your training.

Depending on your responsiveness it can take 6-12 months before you start seeing diminished returns from a single or double progression approach (ie. increasing weight and/or reps).

When the time does come.. 

Relying on What Got You to Where You Are Won’t Get You to Where You Want to Go.

This is when periodic changes in your training demands through new and unique ways of training is most beneficial.

Sometimes the innovative thing to do is to train LESS.  Not just for recovery to but to desensitize yourself to the current demands and then come back with a fury.

3. You Need to Stop Listening Everyone Else and Listen to Yourself

I hear my parents words echoing in my head, “Just because your friends would jump off a bridge doesn’t mean you should.”

I get it.

Problem is, I’m more likely to be the first to jump.

But there’s a lot of truth in the message they were trying to convey.  How many of us in pursuit of the perfect program have jumped from one expert or champions routine to another?

Only to be disappointed that we didn’t get the result promised.

I should have cannonball delts and powerful pecs by now!

The times I’ve made by best progress were when I followed my intuition.

No one knows you better than you know yourself.

An outside objective point of view is important but even I’ve been proved wrong by clients who told me they felt like they needed a little bit of ‘X’ and when added into the mix (or taken out) it worked.

If you have any appreciable time training under your belt and you’re observant you don’t need to put your faith in the next guys program. Put it in yourself!  If you’re intuition was wrong see #2.

4. Your Nutrition Can Not be Based on “What you think”

Having personally trained hundreds of people the most common answer I get when I ask someone how much protein they’re taking in is, “I think I get enough”.

I think I get enough, is not an amount.

(And I really wish people would stop referring to peanut butter as one of their primary sources of protein.)

When you don’t know how much carbs, fat, protein and calories you consume it’s nearly impossible to determine how much you need …or don’t need.

If your goal is to build muscle you need a certain amount of protein based on your lean body mass, body type, and activity level to optimize protein synthesis.

You also need a certain amount of carbs to supply energy for your hard workouts. For most people ketogenic diets are not ideal for muscle building building since protein will first be converted to glycogen to supply your energy needs.

We’re better served taking in enough carbs to satisfy our energy needs so the protein we do consume can do it’s primary job of repairing and building muscle tissue.

Track what you’re taking in so you, your trainer, coach or nutritionist, can make informed decisions based on what you know, not what you think.

5. Look at the Whole and Just the Parts

All of this muscle building stuff would be a heck of a lot easier if we lived in a vacuum (not the Hoover kind).  But we don’t.  We live in a dynamic world where our environment and our body is constantly changing.

Not too long ago my wife took me hang gliding for my birthday.  She knows I love heights which is why the birthday before that was spent sky diving, and I went two other times before that.

The view from 13,500 ft. is like nothing else.  You can see so much more than you can on the ground.

Our training isn’t much different.  Week in and week out we’re on the ground level.

It’s Easy to Miss What’s Happening or What Has Happened Until We Take a Step Back.

Only then do we see the sum of all the parts.

Workouts are only a piece of what defines our outcome.  It’s a big piece, but still just a single factor in whether or not we are building muscle, maintaining, or regressing.

Nutrition, lifestyle, age, experience, stress, rest and yes, genetics all play a role in the effectiveness of your training and muscle hypertrophy.  The more you can control the controllable components the greater your likelihood for success.

Activity Trackers

I like technology.  Anything that makes it easier to manage my life and keep track of what’s going on is a good thing in my opinion.  I see the pitfalls too.  It can be distracting at times and take the focus away from what we should be doing.  Let’s be honest, technology is partly responsible for kids looking like sloths these days.  They’d rather run their fingers over a video came controller or iPad instead of running outside.

But in the same way “The Force” can be used for good (think, Luke Skywalker) or bad (Darth Vader), so can technology.  One trend I’ve watched grow over the past year has been the use of wearable activity trackers—products like Fitbit, Jawbone, Polar, and Nike Fuel Band to name a few.  These products keep tabs on the number of steps you take, calories burned, heart rate, hours of sleep, and more.  I’m pretty sure soon they’ll track bowel movements also.

One product that will be coming out soon that I’m really excited about is called Atlas.  Not only does it do everything that every other wearable does but it will also learn your exercise form and alert you when you’re not doing it properly.  Also really cool is that it will track your reps and not count the bad ones.  As a personal trainer I like the possibilities.  I know that may sound counter intuitive—why would I want people using a tool that does part of my job?

Here’s why.

People still need direction on how exercise correctly so they don’t hurt themselves and can be more productive.  That will never change.  If a client is using a device such as this.  And the device learns their form as I the personal trainer instructs them.  Then when that client is on vacation, or is performing workouts on their own, we both can rest assured that they are at least doing their exercise properly.


A device won’t be able to push them harder or make educated decisions about the direction of their program but, it will make their unaccompanied workouts better.  And that has tremendous implications for someone’s long-term success.  I love that!

Over the past year or so I’ve noticed the growing trend of clients using wearable activity trackers.  The biggest plus is that they tend to be more conscious about being active outside of the gym.  It becomes sort of a game.  How many more steps can I take today compared to yesterday?  How high can get my heart rate?  How much longer can I keep my heart rate elevated?  Can I burn 100 or 200 more calories each day?

If being aware of your activity encourages you to be more active, I’m all for it.  Not to mention the ability to measure your progress.  What’s really cool is that most of these wearable’s sync up with your home computer or smart phone and automatically uploads your data each day.  This gives you the opportunity to analyze what your body is going through over several weeks and months.  So if you’re questioning why you put on two pounds in the past two weeks you can pull up your report and see that you were 30% less active than normal during that time.  Or maybe you were just stuffing your face with pasta.  (Unfortunately the activity trackers can’t keep tabs on what you put in your mouth…maybe that’ll be part of the next version.)

Why You Should Train Like a Bodybuilder Even Though You Don’t Want to Look Like One

I’m writing this for you, the mom, dad, man, woman, busy professional, student, and slacker (J/k I know you’re not a slacker. Slackers don’t read my stuff) who seek out the help of personal trainers and to my personal training brethren who routinely have to talk people off the ledge when it comes to training heavy and hard…like a bodybuilder.  The statement: “I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder” drives me crazy.  I understand where it comes from which drives me even crazier than when my wife insists on plucking my eyebrows.  (I don’t care what women say, that shit hurts.  I’d rather sit through 6 hours of tattooing.)

The conversation when a new client comes in—especially the ladies—typically goes like this after I’ve explained our inclination for training heavy and hard relative to their abilities (I’ll skip on all the niceties and small talk):

Client:  But I don’t want look like a bodybuilder.

Me:  You won’t…you can’t.

Client: Yeah but I see those women/guys on the magazines and I don’t to get that.

Me: Let me ask you.  Are you currently taking steroids, testosterone, or growth hormone that you obtained from a black market dealer?

Client: No

Me: Then I think you’re safe.  Genetically speaking 99.6% of people don’t have the genetic aptitude to get huge.  They don’t have the muscle fiber make up, muscle length, or in the case of women, the testosterone levels needed to pack on mass. Just look at all the teenage and twenty-something guys whose testosterone levels are shooting through that are TRYING to look like the guys in the mags never get there without PED’s.

(I point to a picture of me in bodybuilding competition shape)


Client:  That’s you!

Me:  Geez, don’t act so surprised.  Yes, that’s me about 10 pounds lighter than I am right now. 

Client: You’d never know you’re a bodybuilder.

Me:  (Think to myself: “Thanks again for reinforcing my bodybuilding inferiority complex,)  If you walked down the street and ran into one natural bodybuilder or physique competitor after another at best you would say they look like they’re in really good shape and that’s how you want to look.  Nothing freakish or unusual about them, just extremely shredded when it’s time to step on stage. 

Bodybuilding is an illusion.  Exceptionally low body fat levels and bright lights shining down on the body help muscles stand out and appear more pronounced.  Once the shirt and pants go back on they look like “normal” people (but we know even natural competitors are anything but normal).  Even the biggest and baddest natural competitors look like they could be your exceptionally fit co-worker or friend. 


The purpose of Bodybuilding

While people might not want to look like bodybuilders, training like one—from the standpoint of heavy loads and high intensity—is what results in the toned (I freakin’ hate that buzz word), and fit look they are aiming for and developing greater functional strength (dammit that’s two buzz words in one sentence, I’m going to have to take a shower after I’m done writing this).  So long as exercises are performed under controlled conditions with exceptional execution, minimizing ballistic movements, then training like a bodybuilder will do more to prevent injuries than cause them.  (If you want increase your chance of injury from lifting just do some of that silly shit people do on the Bosu and fit ball.)  The increased strength, muscular endurance and muscle development you achieve through “bodybuilding” will have a greater impact on more aspects of health and fitness than any other form of exercise.

In a nutshell, bodybuilding is all about improving your quality of life.  And besides if you’re not actively trying to “build” your “body” what the heck are you exercising for?

The Indisputable Principles of Exercise and How the Experts Screw Them Up

I have nothing against “fitness experts.”  In fact I regularly seek out, read, listen to, and pick the brains of people (not in a Walking Dead sort of way) that I consider to be experts in various areas of exercise because in quiet moments of self-reflection I realize that I don’t know it all.  Hard to believe I know.  I like hearing different points of view, especially the diametrically opposing ones.  As Stephen Covey put it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek to understand.”  If I’m able to understand their point of view then I’ll either glean new insight and apply it to what I do, ooooooooor I’ll bang my head against a wall thirty-two times as a preventative measure to ensure the information doesn’t settle into my brain.

Arguing Over Exercise Principles

It’s really simple.  Every workout program ever designed has these four principles present; intensity (as in effort, not a percentage of 1RM), volume (some number of sets), load (any resistance being used or % of 1RM) and frequency (scheduled occurrence).  The way some experts talk about these principles individually you would think that one holds the key to success and the others should sit back and remain silent.  And it comes from both sides of the aisle, as well as the front and back of the room.

Experts dedicate an inordinate amount of time to the study and practice of what they do which is what makes them experts in a particular area.  But it can also blind them from everything else going on around them.

The HIT experts bang on the volume guys for wimping out on their sets as soon as discomfort sets in lieu of performing more sets.  The Volume Guys laugh at the HITters for spending more time talking about training than they do actually training.  Both point to studies done by people on their side of the aisle to substantiate their position.  Each misses the valid aspects of what the other does.  All agree that Crossfit is completely nuts.  And anyone professionally involved in fitness who is over the age of 70 can prove that none of this new shit is actually new, they were doing it in the 50’s.

Where the Fitness Experts Blow It

How the principles listed above are arranged—the measure of each ingredient—is determined by three other components; S.A.I.D. (specific adaptations to imposed demands), diminishing returns, and the mother of them all, the sole determinant of why or why not a program is suitable, individualism.  For any fitness expert to make blanket statements about theirs being a superior approach is naive and arrogant. It assumes that intensity, volume, load, and frequency exist in a vacuum and are uninfluenced by S.A.I.D., diminishing returns, and individualism, as well as other external factors.  They fail to recognize that the only superior approach is the one that’s most appropriate at that particular time for that particular individual because of his/her particular circumstance.

Exercise Principle Pimps

Most fitness experts mean well.  I sincerely believe that.  But well-meaning doesn’t excuse you from pimping out certain exercise principles to push YOUR preferred way of training.  We all have a “home base.”  But it doesn’t mean you cannot and should not explore things outside of that circle if it could mean better results for you or those you provide professional services to.

Though no one likes to think in broad terms that’s precisely what the best experts do.  They understand all the principles and how they interrelate, and how they should be adjusted according to an individual’s current physical and mental state. In society we have to abide by many laws not just the ones we prefer.  Exercise is no different.

You Can’t Achieve Your Physical Best Without Understanding This…

Generally speaking we’re all the same.  Same physical structure, same bodily functions.  But the similarities between you and I likely end there.  My blood pressure was 120/70 every time it’s been taken in the past 3 years, I burn fat relatively easy but I’m lucky if I can squeeze out a 0.25 lb. increase in muscle mass from year to year,  I work about 80-90 hrs a week and, I’m 36 years old.  How do you compare?

Possibly the same in some areas, likely different in them all, and this is only a small sampling of physical characteristics we could compare.  Our abilities and limitations vary across a broad spectrum, as do our requirements to improve, maintain, or decelerate the loss of muscle, strength and functional ability.

Inherent traits make us unique.  Think of the people in high school who were categorized as “the brain”, “the jock”, or “the artist”.  Each got his/her label because they naturally excelled in a particular area or skill.  But as “natural” as they were in that one area they likely had to work hard to achieve average success in others—if they achieve success at all.

I don’t call attention to this to shoot down your dreams of physical Superstardom.  Fact is most people never actualize their true potential and none of us really know what our limits are.  The reason why I bring this up is because people and personal trainers put too much focus on the general—broad brush stroke—training practices when they should be focused on determining individual specific needs.


There is a need for general training routines since there is no way of knowing exactly what a persons individual needs are at the start.  General routines set the foundation and can be used as a benchmark to compare future results and progress.  A personal trainer for example might have a basic routine they start everyone on for a number of weeks or months and depending upon the trainees results and feedback, they begin to alter their workouts to better align with their individual needs.

The trouble is when people continuously jump from one workout method of the month to the next, and follow routines that were designed for someone other than themselves.  Instead they should be analyzing their individual characteristics to determine the proper direction of their training.  Approaching training (and nutrition) this way can literally save years of wasted effort.

Bell curve

Though we all don’t have the superior physical abilities to be a champion physique athlete or model nearly everyone has the potential to achieve a relatively strong, lean, and muscular physique if their training, nutrition, and lifestyle are congruent with these objective and satisfies their individual needs.  So where do you currently reside on the fitness Bell Curve above?  Where does each of your major muscle groups reside on the curve?  What does it say about your receptiveness and tolerance to exercise?  How can you adjust your training to address these individual characteristics and maximize results?


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