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Huge in a Hurry

April 29, 2009 10:58 AM

If you've been training for more than five years, I'll bet you've learned a lot. In fact, I'm sure you look back and think, "Damn, I wish I knew then what I know now." You'd be stronger, bigger, leaner and probably much closer to your ultimate performance goals. Hindsight is 20/20.

Well, I'm no exception. I've made my fair share of mistakes over the last 13 years of training. So I'm here to help you avoid getting trapped in the quicksand that slowed me down. Einstein said to make everything as simple as possible, so I've narrowed down the key size- and strength-training principles to five points. These points are based on recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibers with every repetition, and they form the foundation of my new book, Huge in a Hurry

1. Lift Big

Beginners can get away with doing the craziest things in the gym. For them, everything works (initially, anyway). However, if you've been training for more than a few years, it takes more to get the job done. At the top of the list is loading. You'll never build strength and size quickly if you use weights that are too light.

In a perfect world we'd all be able to max out with heavy singles for all workouts. But this approach, as you can imagine, isn't ideal. It's too hard on your joints and it can really fatigue your central nervous system. Therefore, lighter loads are necessary. How light can you go and still get bigger and stronger? I think a 20 repetition maximum (a weight you could lift 20 times before failure) is just about as light as you can go.

Most of my workouts are based on loads between a 2-6 RM. In addition, I might go as light as a 20 RM to give the joints and nervous system a break. Plus, it's great for building anaerobic endurance.

Therefore, my programs are based on lifitng loads between a 2-20 RM. When you use loads that are in the lighter range of that spectrum it's imperative that you adhere to the next principle…

2. Lift Fast

The faster you lift a weight, the more muscle fibers you'll recruit. That's a fact. Scientists refer to this as a "positive correlation." When one is high, so is the other. Therefore, it makes no sense to lift slowly. This doesn't mean you should fling around weights and knock out your training partner. Perfect technique is essential. However, you must accelerate all lifts as fast as possible.

Heavy weights won't move fast, no matter how hard you try. When it comes to, say, a 3RM you're already lifting the load about as fast as it'll go. You will recruit more muscle fibers if you attempt to lift even faster, but the speed will basically appear the same from an onlooker.

With lighter loads, however, it's a different story. Anytime you're using a weight that you could lift faster, it's always better to do it. You'll derive three big benefits. First, you'll get stronger. Second, you'll build bigger muscles. Both points are based on the relationship between speed and muscle fiber recruitment. Third, you'll get leaner. Why? Because fast lifts crank up the cardiovascular demand (metabolic cost) of an exercise.

Try this simple experiment. Do 10 bodyweight squats with a slow tempo (3 seconds down, 3 seconds up). Make a note of how much your heartrate changes after that set. Then, rest for a few minutes and repeat the drill. This time, however, perform 10 jump squats with maximum effort. You'll quickly realize how much more demanding and effective fast tempos are for leaning you out.

But just telling you to lift heavy, and lift lighter loads fast, isn't enough. Remember, the goal of my system is to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. We're on the right track, but you've got to incorporate the next principle, too.

3. Stop When You're Ahead

There's an old-school saying that's prevalent in the high-intensity training circles. To paraphrase, it goes something like this: you get bigger and stronger in the last few reps of a ball-busting set that's taken to failure. The theory is that, as you approach failure, your body recruits more muscle fibers to get the job done.

This makes no sense. If the last few reps recruited more muscle fibers, the set would get easier, not harder. Henneman's Size Principle tells us that you're only recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibers when you're lifting heavy or fast. So if your speed slows down, or if you need to drop the weight with subsequent sets, it's because muscle fibers have dropped out of the task.

Therefore, you must stop each set when your speed slows down. I'm not talking about microchanges in speed because you need to induce some fatigue to get results. The speed must slow down noticeably.

Let's say you're doing a standing shoulder press with kettlebells with a load you could lift about 6 times before failure. The first four reps might go up fast with a consistent speed. At the fifth rep, your speed slows down in the mid-point and you have to use extra effort to lock it out. That's when you stop. Don't stop if you think you're about to slow down, and don't stop in the middle of a rep.

But if you force yourself to keep working once the speed has slowed down your muscles will have nothing left other than the "third string" (smaller, weaker muscle fibers). You must keep the biggest, strongest muscle fibers in the game.

This is why I no longer recommend specific set/rep combinations. And that brings me to my next point…

4. Focus On Reps and Let the Sets Take Care of Themselves

There's no way to know exactly when your speed will slow down. That's why it's impossible to prescribe a specific number of reps for any given set.

Here's an example to make my point. Let's say your 6RM for the deadlift is 300 pounds and I told you to do 25 total reps with 60 seconds of rest between each set. If you stop each set when your speed slows down you'll get more reps in the first few sets than you will in the last few sets. How many reps you'll get, however, will vary with each person. It's based on muscle fiber make-up, previous training, neuromuscular efficiency, and a few other variables.

The good news is it doesn't matter how many reps you get per set, or how many sets it takes. All that matters is the total number of reps you do with any given load. For a 6RM, a target number of 25 reps per lift works great for building size and strength.

How many reps I recommend with a specific load depends on the goal of the training session. As a general rule, you need more total reps with lighter loads.

And you need to know one more principle to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible…

5. Use Big Lifts

Apply the four aforementioned principles to any lift and you'll get better results. However, the exercises you choose (or don't choose) will make your workouts much more productive. The key is to use exercises that recruit the most muscle groups, right from the start. That's why I'm not a big proponent of single-joint exercises. They have their place in certain programs, but you're better off recruiting hundreds of muscle groups at once.

A kettlebell swing will do a helluva lot more for hamstring development than a leg curl. A kettlebell clean and press will build bigger shoulders than a dumbbell side raise. And the squat and deadlift are unparalleled for building lower body mass. The reason why all of these exercises are effective is because they recruit the maximum number of muscle groups.

There's no better workout than chin-up, dip, and deadlift. It really is that simple.

For more information, you can contact Chad at