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The authors of this FAQ have no qualifications in Sports Medicine, only years of working out, and trying different formulas. This is the general formula they advocate (low sets, high intensity). It is NOT a magic formula but it does work. The advice given here is based on that given in the book "Brawn" and the bi-monthly magazine Hardgainer, both created by Stuart McRobert. The technique tips are only that TIPS. They are not to be interpreted as guides to how to perform those exercises just as reminders to what aspects to focus on. Many books are available which cover exercise technique much better. Naturally when doing anything described here caveat emptor (let the buyer beware i.e. be careful).
1.1 What is a "hardgainer"?
A Hard Gainer is a genetically typical person (if there is such a thing). To be more specific he/she is born with no special genetic 'gifts' which enable them to pack on muscle mass quickly. Such people cannot gain lots of strength using VOLUME training, but a hardgainer can make impressive gains using less frequent workouts with considerably less volume.
Estimates of the percentage of the population who are "hardgainers" range from 60% (Steve Holman, in his book "The Home Gym Handbook" from Ironman Publications) to 95% (Some writers in "Hardgainer" magazine). The authors of this FAQ believe this percentage to be at least 85%. On this percentage, maybe we should call ourselves NORMALgainers? :-)
We grant that some people (the lucky few?) can make great gains using 4-6 days a week using split routines and lots of hours in the gym as the pros do. However these people are in the minority, and hardgainers who use these routines will only overtrain, perhaps making decent gains at first, but quickly reaching a frustrating plateau.
1.2 Am I am hardgainer?
This is a tough question. Some decisions on "hardgainer-ness" depend on physical measurements such as wrist/ankle-size etc. But if you find it impossible to regularly add some poundage to each of your exercises every week or two using a "conventional/popular" training program (one that has you training with the weights more than three days a week) then it is highly likely that you are overtraining. As a hard gainer, your tolerance of exercise is much less than that of an easy gainer so what the latter can gain on will just wear you down and out. For sure you will be much better off doing less exercises and sets and training less often.
So the question of being a hardgainer is very much a side issue. The core question is whether the "Hardgainer Method" would work better than current "popular" methods. The answer is an emphatic YES, in a large majority of cases; especially if you follow the guidelines laid out below as much as you can.
1.3 What is overtraining / How do I know if I am overtraining?
Overtraining occurs when you train your body beyond its ability to recover (it's so-called recovery-ability). If your body cannot recover from the last workout then it will be unable to adapt and unable to grow.
Symptoms of overtraining include:
- (i) A higher-than-normal resting pulse
- (ii) Illnesses become more frequent and last longer than usual
- (iii) Muscle spasms while resting e.g. eyelid twitch etc.
- (iv) Shaky hands
- (v) Loss of Sleep
- (vi) Loss of appetite
- (vii) Unexpected and unexplained fatigue
- (viii) Unintended weight loss
and MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL
- (ix) very slow or non-existent gains in exercise poundages in the gym. That is less than 2 lbs. a week on each exercise. In extreme cases overtraining can lead to DROPPING poundages.
Solution: If you are overtraining on your current routine, then cut back on workout-days per week, and exercises and number of sets used. Best of all give "The Hardgainer Method" a shot for 6-8 weeks just to see what you are missing. In most cases the person who tries this for the first time will experience a rapid gain in strength and muscle mass, along with an increase in energy. The method is outlined below in section 
1.4 What kind of results/gains can a Hardgainer expect?
A Common experience when an overtrained person switches to a hardgainer style workout, is for rapid gains initially (4-8 weeks). This would mean being able to add 5-10 lbs. on the 'big basic' exercises (Squat, Deadlift, Rows, Bench Press etc.) each week, along with 2-5lb increases on the smaller exercises such as the Arm Curl etc.
After this period the gains slow down to 1-2lbs poundage increase, each week for a further 4-8 weeks, after which the gains stop. It is here where we apply 'intensity cycling' (see section 3). Basically this involves working on lighter weights (80-95% of your best poundages) for 3-4 weeks without going to failure so as to allow your body to recover. It also prepares your body for further gains of 2-5lbs each week in the next cycle.
Writers for the magazine Hardgainer (such as Stuart McRobert) believe that an advanced hardgainer can reach (and bypass) 300lbs in the bench, 400lbs in the Squat, and 500lbs in the classic style deadlift a.k.a the bent-legged deadlift, at LEAST for single reps. This is called the 300-400-500 level. Many of the writers for "Hardgainer" (commonly abbreviated to just HG) are much stronger than this level, for example in 1993 Stuart McRobert deadlifted 400lbs for 20 reps!
However, these goals are NOT unconditional, they are based upon an advanced hard gainer who did not start too late in life and who has no serious structural or injury limitation, who trains diligently and very seriously for several years.
In other words being a hardgainer does not mean being in a different way to get to this level.
1.5 What costs are involved?
With the hardgainer method, there are
- NO supplements you have to buy/take
- NO special pieces of equipment to buy
- NO gimmicks
You don't even have to subscribe to "hardgainer" magazine for any extra 'secrets'. The program is simple! In fact you don't have to spend ONE $. ALL you need is a barbell, weights to put on it, and some effort (in the gym).
BUT (there's always a but) you won't get to the 300-400-500 level, in weeks or months. It will take years of hard work on the big basic exercises with lots of cycles and small poundage increments to your exercises to get there.
It's not easy (it takes effort in the gym, and patience), it's not advertised with a lot of snazzy over-the-top claims like Cybergenics is, and there are no drug-supported bodies promoting it like there are for some other products in the field (though they don't mention their drug use), but the hardgainer method is cheap and very simple. It works for lots of people to get them VERY strong and well-built without having to despair and resort to "chemical help".
2. The Hardgainer Method of training
2.1 What exercises should I do ?
The emphasis on "balance," "proportion," and "symmetry" for the beginning bodybuilder or hardgainer almost always results in less than unsatisfactory gains being made. The goal ought to be safely building some muscle mass, then when one is able to move some impressive weight, one can work on the sculpting. and detailing that comes from doing isolation exercises. To build some size and strength one should work hard over a period of years on basic compound exercises.
Though the basic compound exercises are certainly the emphasis of this program, there can be additions of small muscle exercises like barbell curls and calf raises. Injury-preventing exercises for the rotator cuff as well as grip work can also be valuable, even necessary as one surpasses 200 pounds in the Bench Press and 300 pounds in the deadlift for more than 10-15 reps.
2.2 What are the basic movements?
The basic movements are:
- Bench Presses
- Overhead Presses
- Rows and Pull-Ups
- Bar Dips
(Each exercise must be performed with good biomechanics and not on an injured or otherwise structurally limited body)
Obviously, there are many variations on the above exercises, they can and should be used for variety from cycle to cycle. For example, one cycle could be centered on the back squat while utilizing incline bench presses. The next cycle could be based on the classic deadlift and use the regular bench press. Weighted dips can substitute for close grip bench presses, and supinated pull-ups could substitute for biceps curls and pull- downs.
There is no rule to have to use barbells or machines: Use what works i.e. it adds muscle and helps you get stronger.
Other exercises to take beyond one's limits by progressive poundage are: Weighted Abdominal work with an emphasis on spinal flexion instead of hip flexion, Bent-over Rows, One Arm Dumbell Rows, Leg Presses and Standing Calf Raises, and Medium or Parallel Grip Pull-Downs.
If you have a movement that you like, and get results from, do it, but do it within the hardgainer philosophy of less sets, less exercises, and less workouts with intense effort and progressive 2.3.1 How often should I work out?
Training each lift in the all out effort that comes at the end of a cycle would very quickly result in overtraining for most normalgainers if it were attempted three times a week. Training each movement once a week while dividing all the exercises into three separate workouts can be productive, but better still would be to divide all movements into two separate workouts with several days for recovery in between. For the confirmed hardgainer, or at the end of a heavy Deadlift or Squat cycle, working an exercise twice in three weeks may be required for full recovery. Muscles grow in between workouts after being stimulated by a specific exercise. What good does it do to perform an exercise when not fully recovered from a previous session ? Showing up in the gym because one has become "habituated" to bodybuilding has to be completely thrown out.
A good rule of thumb for the hardgainer is never to train while still feeling systematically tired. Have one day completely free of systemic fatigue before training again. While it is still possible to have some local soreness from, say, Monday's Squat workout, you may be systemically fine and raring to go for Friday's deadlift session.
"When in doubt do less, not more."
2.3.2 How many sets and reps are required?
The answer to this question can vary from person to person and certainly changes within the span of a cycle. First, If you know that you benefit from high reps, low reps, or medium reps, use what works, but cut your total workload per session to no more than 10 total work (heavy) sets if you use low to medium reps. Do 8 or fewer work sets if you use high reps. All of this also depends on how heavy (intense) the work is. The more intense the workout, the fewer sets that can be done productively.
When in doubt do less, not more.
There are certain exercises that seem to work best when performed with high reps; the Squat and the Deadlift fall in this category with hardgainers getting excellent results with 15 to 20 reps. Training these two "giant" movements with high reps allows one to safely correct problems with form early in a cycle that might occur, without risking life and limb under a super-heavy bar. However, others prefer low rep work not only because it can be easier to do but because it can be darn effective in its own right.
There is no rule on the exact number of sets and reps to use. But try for low volume (10-30 work sets A WEEK) over a few (4-8 exercises).
2.4 What equipment is required?
With just a barbell, a bench, a safety stand for squatting and an overhead bar for pull-ups, a hardgainer can get great results. Other equipment like a good leg press machine or even Nautilus equipment can be used for compound movements as long as progressive poundage and abbreviated routines are adhered to. At least one noted hardgainer trains the squat with no stand at all, he cleans and presses the bar to start, then presses it again after completing 15-20 reps!
2.5 What does an example Hardgainer workout look like?
The 'classic' hardgainer workout is a full body workout done at most twice a week, and in some cases once every 4-5 days. The routine might look something like this:
10-20 minute whole body warmup used before-hand to get the body thoroughly warmed-up (use stationary bike or calisthenics etc.).
- Squat 2x20(or Deadlift(DL) )
- Stiff Leg DL 1x10(don't do this if doing DL)
- Bench Press 2x6 (or Dumbell press / dips)
- Dumbell Rows 2x8 (or barbell rows/chins etc.)
- Shoulder Press 1x6 (or Dumbell Press etc.)
- Calf Raises 1x15
- Arm Curl 1x6
Only the WORK sets are shown. 1-3 warmup sets are used. Abs are worked for 1-2 sets to absolute failure before/after the workout. Doing a whole body routine infrequently maximizes recovery time.
Another abbreviated routine might look like the following:Mon |Wed |Fri deadlift 5 x 6 |lat pull-downs 5 x 6 |leg press 1x8,2x12 incline bench press 5 x 6 |barbell curls 3 x 6 |weighted dips 3x6 weighted ab work 3 x 12 |calf work 3 x 15 |shoulder press 5x6 |side bends3 x 12 |calf 3x20
Here warmup sets are shown as the first 2 sets of a 5 set exercise and the first set in a 3 set exercise. As the weights increase through the cycle, two things can be done to optimize the workload to prevent overtraining. The first is to drop 1-3 sets from each exercise, and second is two eliminate the Wed workout and split its exercises between the other days. Finally one might eliminate all but the main exercise (deadlift in this case) and one or two others in order to squeeze an extra 5-10 pound increase for the focus lift out of the cycle.
A very abbreviated routine might look like this:
(only work sets shown, 1-2 warmups done prior to these)
- Day 1
- Squat 1x15 (affects whole body, thighs)
Weighted Pressups 1x6 (Triceps, Pecs, front-delts)
Arm Curl 1x6 (isolation for biceps)
- Day 2
- Deadlift 1x15 (whole body, back)
Pulldowns to Front 1x15 (upper back)
Shoulder Press1x6 (delts, triceps)
One or two more warmup sets might be added to each exercise above especially near the end of a cycle as the weights are getting very heavy. Though this may seem extreme, a cycle like this could easily result in a 25-30 pound increase in the poundage of the two focus lifts over the one's previous max by the end of a 12 week cycle. This type of schedule is also appropriate for the ultra-hardgainer who must limit total sets to the minimum.
There are many exercise routines in Brawn, some with as many as 7 exercises per workout. Some routines in Brawn are based on doing ONE exercise in a workout! A maximum of 15 total sets early to mid cycle, and around 8 total sets at the end of a cycle constitute the abbreviated routine. The fewer sets you do, the more weight you'll be able to lift, and the better you'll respond. If you get into an overtrained state, you are not responding (growing) optimally and you may very well regress!
2.6 What must a hardgainer focus on and what can they ignore?
The emphasis is progressive poundage in basic exercises, cycling of intensity, good exercise form, and complete recovery from the previous workout before lifting again.
Progressive poundage means adding an appropriate weight to the bar each week. An appropriate weight may be less than the smallest plate that your gym makes available. Craig's whole body can adapt to 5 pounds a week for most of the cycle while his biceps can handle 2.5 pounds a week only early in the cycle, later the appropriate weight increment for curls is 1 pound or less per week. The less you add, the longer you'll keep adding.
3. Intensity Cycling
3.1 What is intensity Cycling?
Intensity cycling basically means 'going easy' on the weights for a few weeks (4-6 weeks) so as to allow your body some time to get ready for more growth in the future (for a period of 6-12 weeks).
Normally what happens when a person starts weight training is that there is an initial period of growth (can be rapid in some cases) which gradually slows down to a point where you can't add 1-2lbs on your exercises each week. At this stage, your body (and your mind) could use a short break from the brutal hard work. This recovery period normally last 4 weeks or more. Of course, you still use weights, but you use less weight and don't go to failure. Gradually you build back up to your maximums from the last cycle. And the you'll find (if you give yourself enough recovery weeks) that you can now add a good bit of weight to the bar each week (5lbs or more on the big basics, 2lbs or more on the smaller ones) to reach new personal bests.
Of course this cycle too will eventually stop, when the gains stop. Then it's time to begin another cycle by doing your 4 weeks recovery. Using this method you can make consistent gains bit by bit, week by week, which will total up to big gains in a relatively short period.
Remember 'intensity cycling' is different from 'periodization' where you start a routine with relatively high reps (e.g. 12 reps) and after a period of weeks drop the reps by a third, then another third over another few weeks, the idea being to shock the muscle by verying the reps and weight used. 'Intensity cycling' stays with the same rep scheme throughout the cycle, and also for repeated cycles.
The trouble with training flat-out all the time, is that it always ends up in overtraining.
3.2.1 Why do athletes cycle intensity?
Today, most professional athletes cycle their intensity. Over the past few years, techniques have been found to better the athlete's performance, however they take a much higher toll on the body. The athlete must also reach PEAK fitness and strength at the right time. For both of these reasons, athletes will cycle the intensity of their exercise routine.
3.2.2 Why hardgainers MUST cycle intensity?
Hardgainers don't have the genetic gifts that easy gainers do. Even if they did they should include cycling for spurring extra gains when plateaus/stagnation set in. Remember, once you have overtrained, you can't bully your way out of it. The only solution is to drop your intensity temporarily. Cycling is a planned and organized effort to arrange irregular progress into a regular progression of 'ups' and 'downs', with each new 'up' or 'down' being a little higher than the previous one. After a cycle (of 12-20 weeks) one should look at having gained 15-20 pounds on the bench press, 20-30 pounds on the squat and Deadlift. Maintaining this progress for 12-18 months will give you tremendous gains.
3.3 How do I put a cycle together?
The easiest way to describe a cycle is to go through an example. Say your recent best barbell curl was 100x6 and your best squat 280x20. Now you REALLY want to get to 110x6 on the curl and 300x20 in the Squat. You are feeling a burned out lately as the hard part of your cycle has been going on for some time now, and the gains have stopped. If you are foolish you might try adding a 'shock' 5lbs to the bar each week to get your goals. But being burned out, and close to overtraining, all that will happen is that the 105lb curl will feel way heavier than 100 and you won't get 5 reps never mind 6.
Don't expect to get to 110lbs in a month - a few months is what you need. The following cycle considers only the first work set of the barbell curl and squat, each done ONE day a week. (There are other exercises in the cycle, but they are left out for clarity). The one to two Warmup sets are also omitted from the description. One to two work sets are all you need, starting with three in the early stage of the cycle and dropping to two and then to one as the cycle reaches its hardest. You must NEVER train more frequently than you can cope with as far as your energy level and recovery ability are concerned. If in doubt train with less volume and with less frequency.
So here we go, how does the cycle begin:
First thing is to get well rested, this means 7-10 days off; No weight training and no aerobics. This will give your body a good deal of the time it takes to recover after burning out/ overtraining. Then drop your poundages to 75-85% of maximum and build up from there slowly.ARM CURL SQUAT ================================================= Week 1: OFF OFF Week 2: 85x6 225x20 Week 3: 90x6 235x20 Week 4: 95x6 245x20 Week 5: 100x6 255x20 Week 6: 102x6 260x20 Week 7: 104x6 265x20 Week 8: 106x6 270x20 Week 9: 107x6 275x20 Week 10: 108x6 280x20 Week 11: 109x6 285x20 Week 12: 110x6 290x20 Week 13:110.5x6 292.5x20 Week 14:111.0x6 295.0x20 Week 15:111.5x6 297.5x20 Week 16:112.0x6 300.0x20 Week 17:112.5x6 301.0x20 Week 19:112.5x6 301.0x20
In the first workout, we cut back to 85% poundages for the same reps. Each week we add a little weight to the bar to get back to our previous poundages, and then we add some more weight each week which become personal bests. Note that the Squat takes a lot longer to get back to 100% than the arm curl. This is because the Squat is a very brutal exercise to do and in the recovery phase adding 20lbs each week (which may only constsitue 5-10%) has too much of an impact on recovery. If the poundages in the Squat are less, then a shorter build-up period of 4-6 weeks may be allowed, but the bigger your poundages are, the more recovery time your body needs.
- A Mini-Cycle
Cycles need not be very long. A short but successful mini-cycle will last for 6-8 workouts. A sticking point is the stimulus for a new cycle. Take an EXTRA 4-6 days rest between your workouts before starting this new mini-cycle. Cut back all poundages to 85%. The first two workouts (85% and 90%) will be comfortable, as you stay with your usual reps but with less poundage. The next workout at 95% will be more demanding. Then comes 97 1/2%, and then the 100% workout that you ended your previous cycle on. This cycle will be testing, but; so long as you've eaten and rested adequately between workouts, it will be successful. Next comes a new personal best, by adding 2-5lbs to all your exercises. Now you might want to add an extra rest day between workouts to allow more recovery time. This continues until you are stuck at the same poundage for the same reps for two weeks in a row, then it's time to start another cycle.
3.4 What happens to a cycle when I get sick?
Most people get sick at some stage during the year and whether it be a cold, or flu or worse, DO NOT work out while you are sick. For your own sake (your illness will get worse if you body can't pool its resources to fight it if it's trying to recover from heavy squatting) and for others (passing illnesses on in the gym is a major NO-NO for obvious reasons).
But say you are only sick for 1-2 days, then what do you do? It's a good idea to start with 5-7 days of complete rest to ensure the illness is really gone. Then take 2 weeks to get back to your before-illness poundages (one week at 90% and one at 95%).
If you are sick for longer, or you feel very drained or tired after your illness, then take 7-10 days off, and start your cycle over again. If you made any gains, then you have new 'easy' percentages to calculate. If you were still in the 'recovery' phase, then stay with the same percentages when you start over.
3.5 What are the keys to a cycle?
Be aware of the big misuses of cycling. First and foremost, don't reduce the number of easy workouts so you can get back into the hard sessions. This happens a lot because people are too greedy, but it only brings the cycle to a sudden halt with no gains to show for it. A 50:50 split between comfortable and hard workouts is a sound place to start. Adding too much poundage or going for too many reps (even with reduced poundage) will bring this cycle to a halt too. At the start of a cycle you should plan your 'new-ground' increases somewhat.
e.g. I'll add 5lbs a week to my squat for 4 weeks, keeping my style good. Then what usually happens is the gains slow down, so I'll drop to 2lb a week increases for 4-5 more weeks, and then 1lb increases for 2 more weeks, it's then I usually have to end the cycle. That will give me almost 30 pounds on my squat in 10 weeks (using a 14-16 week) cycle.
Obviously, you will have to chop and change this somewhat as you can never foresee every eventuality. Try to stay with the program as much as possible. But when you feel you can't add 5lbs next workout, then DON'T. Always make sure you reach your target reps! Don't be greedy by trying to add 5lbs when you can really handle 2lbs. You'll only end up with poor style (as the extra 5lbs will feel like a ton), giving you pseudo-strength and worst of all you could possibly get an injury. Stay with increases you can handle. 2lbs a week may not seem like much but with 26 such increases in the year, (with 26 recovery weeks) and you will add 52lbs to an exercise!
Cycling of intensity isn't infallible, as it depends on many variables. No cycling system works if you do too much work, do it too frequently and rep out to your max too early in the cycle. You need to experiment. You will make mistakes, but you must learn from them and not repeat them. Remember do whatever gives you the most muscle gains in the least time.
Experiment a bit to find what's best.
The two biggest variables involved are rest and nutrition. In the recovery phase, you can get by with two workouts every seven days. But when you reach the growing phase your body will need some more time to grow and adapt. In the first two to three weeks you can stay at two whole-body workouts a week, but then as you lose some momentum, you should add an extra day of recovery time, working out twice every 8-9 days. Or you could divide the whole-body program up whereby each exercise is trained only once a week with halt the exercises in one session and the other half on the other training day. Also try to make sure that you get enough sleep. In the growing phase simply getting an extra hours sleep every night can make a great impact on how long this growth phase lasts.
Nutrition is also very important. You won't become really big and really strong when you have cola and fries at every meal! You must eat nutritious foods. By now most people know what these are: Bread, potatoes, lean-meat (fish, chicken) non-fat yogurt etc. etc. Try to keep junk-food out as much as is possible. For drinks, MILK is the best. It has lots of vitamins in it, and is probably the best 'supplement' available. It's cheap and should be drunk in fair quantities. Hardgainers should think about drinking a litre of milk every day. Full milk would be ideal, but as always keep an eye on your waistline, and balance muscle gains against some small 'acceptable' fat gains. Skimmed-Milk (semi or fully) maybe more acceptable to those highly conscious of what they consume. Note also, that milk is only good if it agrees with the consumer. There are products on sale which can help if you have trouble digesting milk (which is most easily handled if drank by itself when the stomach is empty).
3.6 Will I lose muscle mass and strength if I cycle my intensity?
The answer is no. Many people will want to nay-say this, but one author has used cycling for over two years can honestly say he has never lost any strength during the recovery phase of any cycle as is shown by good, consistent gains in the corresponding growing phase; In one cycle adding 85lbs to the stiff legged deadlift (to go from 108lbsx10 to 193lbs x10) over a period of 12 weeks. The build-up phase of cycling is short enough, but gives enough stimulation to keep your muscle from forgetting what the 100% feels like.
3.7 Exercise X is gaining like a demon, but exercise Y has stopped. Should I stop my cycle?
No. If one exercise is gaining a lot, and another is not, then stay with the cycle. Try to add 1lb to the sticking exercise, or even 0.5lbs each week (possibly do the 'sticking' exercise once every two weeks to allow any other faster gaining exercise to keep on gaining). Pump every cycle for as much gains as you can. In the end you may only be able to add 0.5-1.0 pounds a week but keep it up and when these gains stop too THEN start over.
4. Squatting and the Deadlift
4.0 A word of warning.
If you have had a serious back injury, get the clearance of a sports-oriented chiropractor first before working these lifts. Even if you have had any minor back injuries, get a chiropractor's clearance.
NOTE: For many hardgainers, working the squat and the classic deadlift may be too hard on the lower back. Try doing the Squat and the Stiff-legged deadlift OR the classic Deadlift and use the (horizontal) leg press. Beginners should not try the stiff-legged deadlift until they have done at least 6 months of weight-lifting including the classic DL as the SLD can be dangerous for the newcomer if not done right.
The vertical leg-press is not recommended due to shearing forces involved and the problems it sometimes causes in the lower back.
4.1 Why do I have to use the Squat and/or the Deadlift?
Well you don't HAVE to use the Squat or Deadlift. That is unless you want to get as big as possible as quickly as possible. These exercises are the toughest to do, because you can really move a lot of weight in them for a lot of reps. This is because they use the strongest muscle complexes in the body: Thighs, Buttocks, Back structure where 70% or your muscle mass resides. Naturally by inspiring gains here, a spill-over will occur in the other exercises such as the bench press, arm curl etc.
Without these exercises, gains will be possible but not near half as quickly as they will be with them. Some people will shy away from them because of the intensity of effort required (they will also be some of the weaker members in the gym compared with those who use the Squat and DL for a couple of intense work sets during the week). Next time you are in the Gym look who does the Squat and the Deadlift(DL) and look who doesn't, then compare muscle mass! :-)
4.2 How do I Squat?
The key to Squatting is Form. If your form is great then this movement will have only benefits. If your form is poor then you will have serious injuries.
The key to getting good form in the squat relies on three things:
- (i) Stretching:
- This will get you limber enough to get the correct form during the movement. The stretching that needs to be done is for
- Calves (so no heel support is needed)
- Hamstrings & Lower Back (to help keep back straight)
- Groin (to help keep a wide stance during squat)
NOTE: Support under the heels is often required by many people for squatting, but this is actually very dangerous on your knees IMHO. Flat-footed squatting is also more productive since you aren't as shaky on your feet. This still means wearing shoes with a regular heel.
- (ii) Technique:
- Taking the bar in a power rack, place the bar low on the traps. Step out from the power rack.
Using no heel support, with a wideish stance, and head up; lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground. In this bottom position, pause momentarily as you DRIVE your feet into the ground to get back up. In the bottom position your back should be straight but will be slightly bent forward. The less the bend forward, the less danger on the back.
During this ascent - Keep your head up and this will help keep your back straight and near upright. Also make a major effort to keep your knees from bending in.
Do this for high reps for best effect (15-20 reps)
Take 1-2 breaths between the early reps.
Later as the Squat gets hard try for 3 HUGE breaths (sucked through teeth) between reps. Later you will need 10 or more breaths to get to 20 reps, but this is the kind of effort that builds serious muscle.
- (iii) Slow Buildup.
- Most people find it difficult to get correct squatting form with their current weight as it involves too many factors to get form right (head up, knees wide, watch your back etc. etc.). For this reasons and for people who are new to squatting I would advise learning the Squat from scratch while doing the Leg Press or whatever to keep the Quads strong.
Start off with just the bar. Practice the Squat twice a week, for 4-5 sets since the weight is so light. Make a very serious effort to get your form right and stretch as outlined above every day to get your muscles limber enough. Add 5 pounds a workout and keep your form 110% perfect. As the weeks pass by you will need less sets (2-3 per workout). Then the effort to get to 20 reps will become evident, but FORM must be focus still.
Then drop to squatting once a week when you begin to squat to failure. Use a few sets, since the squat can be very brutal if done right for high reps and high weight. Add at most 2-5lbs a week when squatting to failure (whatever you can handle and still keep form perfect).
4.2.1 Squats and their impact on the Glutes.
Although the Squat has been criticized for its ability to give some people oversized glutes, this is the case in people who do ONLY the squat. By doing the big basics and working the whole body, the glutes will look only a natural part of a muscular body.
4.2.2 Squats and the lower back.
The lower back is often the first place to be hurt by the Squat when it is not done right. Done with perfect form and your lower back will not get hurt. However, people with back trouble (OF ANY KIND) should see a sports-knowledgeable doctor before trying the Squat as it is very tough on the body.
4.2.3 Squats and the knees.
Some people say the Squat wrecks their knees but in my experience these people did one of the following
- Using support under the heels.
- They descended too fast and rebounded at the bottom.
In the first the knee is put in an awkward position it should never be in, and in the second, the force of rebounding is way too much for your knees to handle. Done slowly and correctly and you can squat until you are 70,80,90 whatever.
There is some evidence to suggest that even with all these safety precautions, squats can cause excessive soreness in this area for a few people. Therefore the Deadlift (classic or stiff-legged) should become the focus lift.
4.2.4 Alternatives to the Squat?
If you can squat you MUST squat! It is THE exercise to build muscle not just in the lower body but which promotes growth elsewhere too. The Classic Deadlift is the nearest rival. Do BOTH and you will already have the foundation for one heck of a program.
I would advise doing the bar-on-the-traps squat but there are some good machines out there. However they only come close to the free weight version and cannot surpass its muscle-building capabilities.
For home trainees you should invest in a power rack, or buy the Squat harness that wraps around the waist and keeps the bar between the legs called the hip belt. This is advertised in IronMan magazine and elsewhere.
Although not as good as the bar-on-the-traps version it's better that not squatting at all, but only if it can be done without a board under the heels to minimize the stress on the knees.
4.3.1 How do I do the Classic Deadlift (DL / BLDL)?
Some basic tips:
- Start Position
- Set yourself up with bent legs, feet close together, bar close to the shins, and head up.
- In the start position, the back will be bent forward, but will be STRAIGHT.
- Your arms hang in a straight and vertical line, no bending at the elbow.
- Your arms will lie outside your legs.
- "Squeeze" the bar off the floor. No Snatching. Simultaneously push with the legs and pull with the back. Keep the pressure on your feet well spread, and off the toes.
- At the top, straighten up, and shrug the weight back slightly. But do not thrust your hips out.
- When lowering the weight, don't drop it rapidly, and don't bounce it off the floor. Briefly set the weights down between reps.
Working the DL, and SLD once a week is enough in the hardest parts of your cycle. If you are getting acclimatized to these exercises, and the weights are light, twice a week may be okay. But don't train any of these lifts if your back is sore.
4.3.2 How do I do the Stiff Legged Deadlift(SLD)?
Some Basic tips:
- If the back is not 100% avoid the full range SLD and just stick with doing it to the floor with 45-pound plates on the bat to prevent excessive extension.
- Don't do the full-range movement until you can touch your knuckles to your toes whilst keeping your knees locked and together. Slowly and progressively increase your flexibility.
- Use 45- or 35- pound plates whilst standing on the floor until you are flexible enough.
- When you get sufficiently flexible, the bar should only go so deep that it will touch your shoelaces. You might want to do the exercise from a slightly raised platform to get the required stretch.
- initially lift the weight in a BENT-LEGGED DEADLIFT style.
- Stretch down to the lower position slowly! (ankle/shoelace depth at MAX)
- From the bottom position, smoothly and steadily lift the bar. Don't jerk, or twist, bounce or accelerate rapidly. Smoothly up, a short pause at the top, and lower smoothly.
- Don't try to keep your lower back flat or rigid. Keeping your head up as you pull will avoid excessive rounding of the back.
- Keep your knees slightly unlocked until your style is good.
Don't work both exercises SLD & DL hard in the one cycle, focus on one at a time.
The Stiff Legged deadlift is very dangerous if done wrong. If in doubt get a fully-qualified trainer to show you how or start off light with just the bar, and progress slowly 5lbs a week.
4.4 Why are 15-20 reps best for these exercises?
Lots of weight Lots of reps = Lots of muscle
This is only possible with the deadlift and the Squat. There is some evidence that the use of high reps in these promotes the release of testosterone (possibly due to the huge effort involved mentally and physically to take a large weight to 20 reps (squat/dl) in good form)
4.5 What powerlifting gear will help me in these lifts?
Unless you are entering competitions, you should avoid knee wraps, and the use of a weight-lifting belt which protects the back. If your back is prone to injury, avoid these lifts as they are very strenuous. But if you squat and you NEED a belt, then you should try to improve your squatting technique and the belt will become unnecessary. The belt will only impede the deep 'abdominal' breathing required to get through a tough squatting session. Wearing a belt in the DL may be more acceptable, especially for reps less than 6, but if you can use the DL in good style without it, drop the belt.
FIRST AND FOREMOST YOU MUST GET YOUR TECHNIQUE CORRECT.
Wrist straps are OK for the DL and SLD, but as with the belt, if you can work without it, do so. If you are competing do the DL without gloves to get used to the rigors of the lift, but otherwise gloves are okay.
5.1 What grips/stances are recommended for the exercises?
(*S*) = Spotters highly recommended if you can get them.
- Bench Press:
- The recommended grip is slightly wider than shoulder-width (by 1-3 inches on each side). Much wider than this can be dangerous for the rotator cuff.
- The stance is 40-60 degrees of leg separation. That is the angle between your thighs! (remember to keep the head up and back straight)
- Deadlift (Classic style/Bent-Legged):
- Feet are close together (heels about 8-12 inches apart, toes a bit wider). Arms fall straight down to bar (very wide, or very narrow grips not recommended). As with the squat, keep the head up ALWAYS, and keep your back straight. Drive with the legs.
- Deadlift (Stiff-Legged):
- Feet are v.close together, and point forward, from 6 inches apart to no separation. Grip is shoulder width. Ankle depth is the maximum depth recommended.
- Various grips are recommended. But Very wide grips are not, because of possible problems these grips can cause with the rotator cuff. Anything from 3-4 inches wider than shoulder-width to almost-hands-together is fine.
- Shoulder Press:
- Grip the bar just outside shoulder width. In the bottom position the forearms should be nearly vertical as it places less stress on the shoulder joint.
- Arm Curl:
- Grip the bar with arms parallel i.e. exactly shoulder width apart, maybe altering grip /- 1 inch for variety.
- Close Grip bench:
- Use a shoulder width grip (or little less). Be very watchful as balance is tough on this one.
5.2 How and when should I do aerobics?
This will depend, on each person, and what their goals are. Some aerobic exercise will be beneficial, but too much WILL interfere with muscle gains and recovery. Current opinion in HARDGAINER recommends 30 minutes of medium intensity aerobics done twice a week, on top of two weights workouts. Naturally as we want maximum muscle gains, aerobics should be kept to a minimum in the hardest parts of a cycle to encourage maximum growth, so NOT doing aerobics is acceptable late in a cycle.
However, as one gets older, aerobics becomes more important. After 35 years of age aerobic work should be included, increasing in emphasis as one gets older, but NOT ignoring the weight lifting aspect and it's myriad benefits too.
5.3 What differences apply for Women?
All goals, exercises, sets and reps apply for women too. However, the increments may be smaller and so the goals need not be attained for a woman to become as 'advanced'. A 200lb bench press, 250-300lb squat and 300-350lb Deadlift for singles would be undeniably very strong for a woman.
5.4 Where can I get those little 0.5 and 1lb plates?
In the US:
You can order 125-gram, 250-gram, and 500-gram discs from Mav-Rik at (213) 257-9139 and 250-gram and 500-gram discs from Piedmont Design Associates at 33 Oak Glen Drive, Greenville, SC 29607.
Pullum sports stock 500-gram and 250-gram discs. Telephone 0525-210102 or write to Pullum Sports, 45 New Bedford Road, Luton LU1 1SE, England, tel 01582-48117.
5.5.1 How do I subscribe to HARDGAINER magazine?
FOR A TRIAL COPY OF HARDGAINER write to the same address below and get THE best training magazine: Few advertisements, great articles and the best advice for the genetically typical 'hardgainer'.
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Beyond Brawn is a 496 page paperback. For current pricing and ordering check Amazon.com.
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