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Simple, Guaranteed Strength and Size

Muscle gain / 06 February, 2018 /

By Christian Thibaudeau

 Tell me if this sounds familiar. You find a new plan (or design one yourself) and it looks really cool; lots of advanced training methods, exercises changing every 3-4 weeks in a logical looking pattern. It is appealing and you are motivated to try it. You start it really hoping for some gains, but after a week or two, once the initial seduction is gone, you start to ask yourself if it will really work? And how will you know since things are changing all the time. If you go from 225 x 8 on the incline bench press to 265 x 5 on the flat bench did you get stronger? Did you improve? What if you went from 275 x 5 on the front squat with a 5020 tempo to a 295 x 3 with a 2010 tempo? You start to doubt the program. Sure, it looks fun and advanced, but how can you know if it is really working?

I remember 12 years ago being asked by André Benoit , one of the best strength coaches in the world, “Christian, what is the most important thing for a client to get results?”. After I gave him a few smart-ass answers (or answers by a guy trying to look smarter than he is), André gave me the right answer: “The most important thing is for the client to trust the program 100%”.

As you can see in the intro, that shadow of a doubt will indeed lead to inferior results.

With that being said, I’m about the present you with a program that guarantees that in 12 weeks you will be stronger and more muscular. There is no doubt to be had, and no possible way this program will not deliver.

It comes at a price though:

  1. It is super simple. In our era of “bright and shiny objects“, it will even seem boring. If you want the program to deliver the goods you have to put blinders on and keep plugging away for 12 weeks. Don’t be seduced by the mermaid’s song of bright and shiny new programs.
  2. It’s an old school bulk and strength plan. If you want maximum results you need an old school mindset: hard work in the gym and at the kitchen table. You need a caloric surplus to get optimal gains. You know me, I’m against sloppy bulking, so it’s definitely not a license to eat crap or binge out. Focus on quality, natural foods, but eat enough to allow you to increase your body weight.
  3. Stick to the plan. It is a program that revolves around getting strong on the big basics. There is basically no isolation work in the program. This means that you won’t find curls, triceps pressdowns or lateral raises in there. We want to use all-out energy on hard work on the big basics and growing. Those who have the desire to add curls, triceps work, flies, cable cross-over and the likes will fail to get maximum results. Don’t worry, you won’t lose arm size, delt fullness and pec thickness. If you are not willing to drop these for a measly 12 weeks of your life, please stop reading this article. But seriously, don’t worry. If you are pressing, pulling and squatting 30-60lbs more, you will be bigger overall, including your arms, pecs and delts. What do you have to lose anyway? How much muscle have you gained over the past three months doing tons of isolation work?

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

This plan is based on the principle of progressive overload. Basically, loading your body a little more at every session, asking it to work a little harder, forcing it to adapt. Remember that your body really doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t want to add more muscle unless it is absolutely necessary (muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain).

There is more than one way to trigger muscle growth: you can increase the release of local growth factors or activate mTor. Both of which are not dependant on overload. But progressive overload is the most tried and true method of piling on muscle tissue.

From session to session, you will either try to add weight to the bar or increase the workload. To be exact, out of four sessions per week, you will focus on adding weight to the bar twice and increasing workload twice.

BLOCK PERIODIZATION

The program uses four phases of three weeks each. Each block will see an increase in intensity (average weight used per set). Their volume will also tend to decrease (in the total number of reps, not in the number of sets) to allow the body to recover from the more intense loading.

The four phases are Preparation, Accumulation, Intensification and Realization.

Preparation (3 weeks): we will use a loading zone of around 72-77% and sets of 8 repetitions. This phase is meant to prepare the body for the heavier loading to come. It will also allow you to initiate the muscle growth process while also focusing on lifting technique.

Accumulation (3 weeks): we will bump up the average intensity to 80-85% and use sets of 5 repetitions. This is our main development phase. It is the zone that allows us to trigger the greatest combination of size and strength, we call this the functional hypertrophy zone.

Intensification (3 weeks): we continue increasing the average intensity to around 87-92% of your maximum and now move on to sets of 3 repetitions. This is pretty much exclusively a neural phase, it will allow us to maximize neural adaptations to prepare for the next phase. Note that 3 reps/set will still trigger some muscle growth but more interestingly it will increase myogenic tone (muscle tonus), making your muscles looking harder and fuller even at rest.

Realization (3 weeks): In this final phase, we switch to my favorite loading scheme, the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown to strength. We will reach a 100% effort on this phase but we also include work in the 80-85% zone to trigger more growth. Because of the neural focus from the preceding phase, the body will be more responsive to the sets of 4 and 5 reps, allowing you to trigger muscle growth more easily.

IMPORTANT: I give percentage targets, but in reality, these will vary from one person to the next. Some people can get 12 reps with their 80% while others can only get 5. So, I will also give you an idea of how hard you should push each set. Remember that the key is to increase the weight from week to week (progressive overload). If you push so hard that your last rep goes up in 5 seconds while using some compensation and while bursting a few blood vessels in your eyes, chances are that you will have a hard time recovering and rebuilding enough to be able to use more weight at the next session.

FOUR WEEKLY WORKOUTS

This plan uses four sessions per week divided into upper and lower body workouts. Each of these include four big lifts. The upper body sessions will include a supporting isolation exercise and the lower body workouts will include a loaded carry.

The first two workouts per week (lower body 1 and upper body 1) have a slightly lower volume of work and this is where you have to increase the weight from week to week. The last two sessions of the week (lower body 2 and upper body 2) use the same weight as earlier in the week, but the volume is increased.

The schedule is as follows:

Monday: Lower body 1

Tuesday: Upper body 1

Wednesday: OFF

Thursday: Lower body 2

Friday: OFF

Saturday: Upper body 2

Sunday: OFF

Can you use a different schedule? Yes, but it has to respect the same pattern (2 on / 1 off / 1 on / 1 off / 1 on / 1 off). This is the pattern that will allow for the best recovery which is crucial when your training program is centered around progressive overload. If it used more “pump” work or growth factor inducing methods, the schedule would not matter much since overload and load progression would not be the main trigger for growth. But with this approach, this is the structure you must follow for maximal gains.

FOUR LIFTING EXERCISES PER SESSION

Another key element of the program is that there will be very little exercise variation. Once again, this is to make it simpler to get that progressive overload. If you switch from flat bench press to incline bench press or to DB bench press, how do you know if you are putting a progressive overload on the body (putting a greater stress from one session to the next)? Furthermore, every time you change the big exercises you reduce, for a short period of time, the amount of work your body can recover from. This could make it harder to get a positive adaptation allowing you to progress twice a week.

The two main lifts of each workout will not change during the whole program. The other two big lifts can change once during the program: after the completion of the second block of training, but you don’t even have to change these lifts either. I would only change them if you are losing motivation and need to move some things around.

The supporting lift can be changed at every session since it will not be trained for progressive overload but to make sure that you are maintaining proper structural balance.

The loaded carry should stay the same too.

The first two lifts of every session are the four basic strength lifts: bench press, military press, back squat, deadlift (conventional or sumo depending on your preference).

The two other upper body exercises should be free-weight pulling exercises (bent over barbell row, Pendlay row, Seal row, chin-up, single-arm dumbbell row, etc.) and the supporting upper body exercise can be any isolation exercise you want for the upper body, but this movement will always be trained for 6-12 reps trying to reach failure.

For the lower body, the assistance lifts should be a deadlift/hip hinge variation (Romanian deadlift, upper back deadlift, rack pull, trap bar deadlift, power clean, power snatch, etc. : note that for the first two phases, the better choices are RDL, and upper back deadlift while for the last two phases, rack pulls, trap bar deadlift or the Olympic lifts are better options) and a back squat assistance movement (front squat, Zercher squat, hack squat, leg press, lumberjack squat, etc.). The loaded carry can be farmer’s walk, Zercher carry or prowler pushing, the parameters will be given in the program.

So, the sessions will look like this:

DAYS 1 & 3 – LOWER BODY

Back squat

Deadlift

Zercher squat (or another variation of your choice)

Romanian deadlift (or another variation of your choice)

Farmer’s walk (or another carry)

DAYS 2 & 4 – UPPER BODY

Bench press

Military press

Bent over barbell row

Supinated chin-up

Barbell curl (or any other upper body isolation exercise)

THE PROGRAM

 

The progression model is fairly simple. Here are the loading parameters of each block of training.

BLOCK 1 – PREPARATION (3 WEEKS)

Sets: On the first two workouts of the week you will do 3 work sets of each exercise as well as 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. On the last two workouts of the week you will do 5 work sets of each exercise and the same 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. Ideally, all the work sets would use the same weight.

Reps: You will perform 8 reps on the four main lifts of the workout, 12 reps on the upper body assistance exercise and 60 meters on the loaded carry.

Load: Use a starting weight of 72-77% (better start off conservative at around 72%), but there will be some individual differences. Start with a weight you can use for all your work sets without technical breakdown. Remember, the goal is to add weight every week, so don’t dig yourself into a hole that first week! On the last two workouts of the week, you use the same weight as you did earlier in the week, but you have to do 5 sets with that weight instead of 3.

BLOCK 2 – ACCUMULATION (3 WEEKS)

Sets: On the first two workouts of the week you will do 3 work sets of each exercise as well as 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. On the last two workouts of the week you will do 5 work sets of each exercise and the same 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. Ideally all the work sets would use the same weight.

Reps: You will perform 5 reps on the four main lifts of the workout, 10 reps on the upper body assistance exercise and 50 meters on the loaded carry.

Load: In this phase, the loading zone is between 80 and 85%. But in reality, you simply move on from the last week of the preceding phase and try to use 10-20lbs more weight (depending on the lift). Once again remember that the goal is to add weight every week, so it’s better to make a conservative jump in the first week of the new block.

BLOCK 3 – INTENSIFICATION (3 WEEKS)

Sets: On the first two workouts of the week you will do 3 work sets of each exercise as well as 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. On the last two workouts of the week you will do 5 work sets of each exercise and the same 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets. Ideally all the work sets would use the same weight.

Reps: You will perform 3 reps on the four main lifts of the workout, 8 reps on the upper body assistance exercise and 40 meters on the loaded carry.

Load: The intensity zone should be around 87-92%, but once again you simply increase the weight versus the last week of the preceding phase. Still remembering that you want to add weight every week, so don’t kill yourself on that first one.

BLOCK 4 – REALIZATION (3 WEEKS)

Sets: This phase is a bit different since on all workouts you will do the same loading scheme (5-4-3-2-1) with the same 5 sets. Use the same weight on both sessions. Since you don’t increase the sets or use more weight you will try to make the last two workouts harder by using shorter rest intervals (30-45 sec less). Still do 3-4 gradually heavier preparation sets.

Reps: On the four main lifts, you do a set of 5, a set of 4, a set of 3, a set of 2, a set of 1. You add weight on every set. Each set should be around 10-20lbs heavier than the preceding one. To properly select the starting weight in the first week of the new phase, use the same weight for the set of 3 as you used the preceding week. So, if you finished the 3rd week of Block 3 with 200lbs for your sets of 3, you would use the same 200lbs for the set of 3. Which would give you something like this:

180 x 5

190 x 4

200 x 3

210 x 2

220 x 1

Then the next week you adjust all those weights up.

Load: The loads used should range from 85 to 100% in that phase, but by now you should have a pretty good idea of how much weight to use.

QUESTIONS

Can I use this program when “cutting”?

NO! While I’m all for trying to continue lifting heavy to force the body to maintain muscle mass, this program is not simply based on heavy lifting. It’s based on progressive overload. On a caloric deficit, you simply will not have the nutritional support to recover and adapt to the point where you can increase strength weekly, respecting the progressive overload principle. You might have some workouts where your performance goes up, some where it stagnates and some others where it drops, and this is not what we are looking for with this plan.

Can I use different exercises on the two upper (or lower) body sessions in a week?

NO! The goal is once again progressive overload. We want to make things simple so it’s easy to respect this principle. Furthermore, by doing the same big lifts over and over you will improve neural efficiency which will make it easier to lift more weights on those big lifts.

Can I add some extra hypertrophy work?

NO! This is not a program for stimulus addicts and pump chasers. While you will feel hard and solid during the workouts, you will not feel swelled up and pumped up. If that is your main motivation for training, if that is what you enjoy, this program is not for you. If you add hypertrophy work you will further deplete energy and make the recovery process longer which could very well interfere with your capacity to use more weight every week. To be honest, some people probably have the recovery capacity to handle some extra hypertrophy work. But never assume that you are among the exceptions unless you have “proof”. Even if you have the capacity to sustain more work, you will still progress fast from doing the program as is written. But if you do not have the recovery capacity you believe that you have, then you won’t be able to sustain the required rate of progression. The only extra work I’m comfortable with is abdominal work.

Can I add conditioning work?

NO! Conditioning work is likely the worst thing to add to this program. Nothing will interfere with the required rate of recovery like conditioning work. I’m not against GPP, quite the contrary. But there is a time and place for it, and this program ain’t it.

What can I do on the off days?

Some people (me included) can’t stand not going to the gym one day. For these people, not training might actually cause more mental stress than a session, which will delay recovery in another way. So what can be done? Ideally nothing. The best option is to do the program as is. You could even add recovery work like massage, contrast baths and soft tissue work on the off days. But if you absolutely need to be in the gym there are only three things you can do: neural charge sessions (https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/neural-charge-training), mobility work, or abdominal training. Anything else might interfere with the program.

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…