How to Structure
The easiest way to progressively overload the muscles is to increase the weight and/ or reps each workout. Increasing the duration (length of the workout) or the frequency (number of sessions per week) may also overload the body, however, there is a greater likelihood of over-training when either of these two approaches are used compared to simply increasing the intensity of training.
It is still possible to make gains by training longer or more frequently, but for many people their progress will be slower if they choose either of these approaches. It is similar to driving a powerful car on a wet road and planting your foot on the accelerator. It causes the car's wheels to spin resulting in you not getting very far despite the large expenditure of energy (fuel) and possibly crashing!
The stress in this case is forcing the muscle to work to its maximum capacity or beyond by lifting weights. By progressively forcing the muscle to work at or beyond its capacity each workout in your bodybuilding routines (at a high level of intensity), you ensure continual muscle stimulus. Keep in mind of course that the goal of many people is to not actually increase their muscle size but to simply stimulate the muscles so the body is forced to maintain their muscle mass as they burn fat and lose weight.
High-intensity training means that you perform as many repetitions as possible with a certain weight and continue the set to a point of momentary muscular failure, which means you cannot lift the weight for another repetition no matter how hard you try.
High-intensity training in your bodybuilding routines may also involve training beyond failure by using advanced techniques of overload (ATOs). These may include: supersets, drop sets, forced reps, pre-exhaust, pyramiding, etc.
If you work to failure (or beyond failure) on your sets in your bodybuilding routines there is no need to perform a large volume of exercise because the intensity is high enough to stimulate muscle growth. Accordingly, 1 or 2 sets are the maximum number of 'work sets' required on an exercise (not including warm-up sets). Performing more sets than the minimum required to stimulate growth in your bodybuilding routines may lead to over-training by making greater inroads into your body's recovery ability.
Larger, more complex body parts, like back, will require a greater number of exercises so they can be hit from a variety of angles and so the maximum number of fibres may be stimulated. Smaller or less complex body parts, like biceps, require fewer exercises.
This means you won't spend more than about 40 minutes weight training if you are training on your own or 70 minutes if you are training with a partner. This also makes the training more efficient. A great philosophy to adopt is: 'Get in the gym, train hard and get out!' Doing so ensures stimulation of the targeted muscle group(s) as well as maximum muscle recovery.
Each muscle group only needs to be trained once a week to obtain maximum muscle growth, including abdominals.
Ideally, training sessions in your bodybuilding routines should be infrequent. 3 to 4 sessions per week is all that is required to achieve the desired results. They should be split up in either of the following ways during a week:
==> 2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on, 2 days off
==> 1 day on, 1 day off, 1 day on, 1 day off, 1 day on, two days off
If you walk into the gym without knowing what body parts you are going to train in that session, what exercises you are going to perform, how many sets you are going to do or what weight you are going to use on each exercise, it is highly likely your training isn't anywhere near as effective as it could be.
Having your bodybuilding routines written down can provide you with valuable information regarding your progress. It can show you where you have come from and in what direction you are heading. It is a great tool for providing feedback as well as for planning future workouts.
For example, if you have documented the last few weeks of training, you can see whether your strength levels have increased or not. If they have, then you should maintain the lifestyle habits (intense training, adequate nutrition, correct supplementation, minimal stress, etc.) that have helped you make the gains. If not, then it is time for 'target-correction'- re-assess your lifestyle and see where improvements can be made to get you back on track.
When documenting your muscle building workouts, include the following information: order of exercises, number of sets performed, weight used on each set, number of reps performed each set and any ATOs used.
You may also want to include how well you have been sticking to your nutritional plan, how you have been feeling prior to each training session (energy and muscle soreness) and how long each workout has been taking. Each of these pieces of information can provide you with valuable feedback.
The reason for this is quite simple: the small muscles are synergists (assisting muscles) when you perform compound (multi-joint) exercises for the large muscles. If the small muscles are fatigued when you perform exercises for the large muscles they will fail first before the large muscles get trained properly.
For example, if you train your triceps before you train your chest, when you perform an exercise like the bench press, your triceps will fail first before you chest gets thoroughly worked.
The only exception to this rule is when training abdominals and lower back. Since these muscles are 'stabilisers' when performing many exercises they are best to be trained last; even though they aren't the smallest muscle groups. You can imagine the potential risk if you trained abdominals and lower back before performing heavy squats!
In saying this, it is definitely best for beginners to emphasise more machine exercise in their workout routines and gradually progress to more free-weight exercises as their strength, balance and co-ordination improve.
Since more balance and co-ordination are required when performing free weight exercises, more muscle fibres are recruited in the agonist(s) (prime mover), the synergist(s) and the stabiliser(s), resulting in potentially more growth. Consider the difference in DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) between doing flat dumbbell presses and a machine bench press.
However, some machine exercises can stimulate fibres in parts of a muscle's range of motion that can't be hit with free weights. Try working the hamstring through their full range of motion whilst using only free weights!
Compound exercises (exercises that require movement to occur at more than one joint) should be heavily emphasised in your muscle building workouts. These exercises tend to be the most intense if they are done correctly and therefore may stimulate maximum muscle growth.
Even though they don't stimulate as much muscle growth as compound exercises, isolation exercises should still be performed because they can work muscles through certain parts of a range of motion that are very difficult, if not impossible, to access with compound exercises.
I suggest only performing two work sets per exercise (after your warm up sets) with the first set being your heaviest set. Always train to failure or past failure if possible on your work sets and perform between 3-5 exercises per body part to ensure the targeted muscle is hit from a variety of angles. This will maximise the number of fibres being stimulated.
As far as rep ranges are concerned, it is important to understand how different rep ranges affect the muscles. Low reps (1-5) with heavy weights primarily affect the nervous system. This is why powerlifters train in the lower rep ranges; they are trying to increase their 'neural drive' (the number of nerves firing into a muscle simultaneously).
Of course, if you have more nerves firing into a muscle at the same time you are going to get more muscle fibres contracting at the same time, resulting in a more forceful muscle contraction.
At the other end of the rep range scale, high reps (20+), results in the muscle being flushed with blood. The adaptation that the body makes to this type of stress is known as 'vascularisation' and results in an increase in the number of capillaries surrounding each muscle fibre. This is ideal for endurance athletes who require nutrients to get to the working muscles as efficiently as possible. There is some hypertrophy resulting from this adaptation as well.
The most popular rep range for bodybuilding routines is 6-20 reps per set. This range is known as 'glycogen retention'. Since stored muscle glycogen is used as the primary fuel source during this rep range, a depletion of these stores results in the body adapting to the stress by storing greater levels of glycogen in the muscles.
Overall, I suggest following the 80/20 rule when it comes to rep ranges. 80% of the time, work in the rep range of 6-20 and 20% of the time, work in the other two rep ranges. This means in one macrocycle (one month of training), you will use the standard rep range for three weeks and then for one week you will use the other rep ranges, perhaps with your first set being the heavy set and the second set being the light set.
If you would like some samples workout routines, please visit: Fitness and Bodybuilding Workouts. It will provide you with all the information you need in order to get the best results possible in your bodybuilding routines.
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