The Recommendations For The Natural Lifter

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Hot Topic, Videos

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The Recommendations For The Natural Lifter

The Recommendations For The Natural Lifter

In this video I discuss my recommendations for natural lifters when it comes to optimal training. In the context of designing a proper training plan, “natural” refers to not being aided by steroids or other anabolic drugs at the moment.

This is different than the “ethical” meaning of “natural” which could go as far as being drug-free for life or at the very least a long period without having used growth drugs.

I prefer to see it from a practical standpoint: someone who has used steroids in the past but who doesn’t have them in their system for a certain period of time will not have a recovery advantage when it comes to training. As such, when it comes to designing a training program we simply are looking if someone is aided by drugs while doing the program or not.

TRT is another topic. To me, if someone is on TRUE TRT, which brings their testosterone levels to the normal range they can be considered “natural”. But most people who self-medicate and claim to be using “TRT dosages” are often closer to a mild steroid cycle than being natural.

Let’s get to the video!

If You Didn’t See The First One, Please Watch The Video On Natural Vs Enhanced Training; A Full Webinar Explaining The Differences Between Both Types Of Lifters.

Quick Recap

What is natural

  1. Various organizations have different definitions of what is natural. Some say that you have to be lifetime drug-free, others require a 5 years period without hormone use and some simply require you to be clean the day of the test.
  2. Differences between natural from an ethical standpoint and a practical one.
  1. From an ethical perspective, the natty = drug-free for life makes sense. As it has even been shown that steroid use could have some long-lasting benefits even someone goes off.
  2. Personally, I find it more useful to describe natural as someone who is no longer getting the benefits of steroid use at that moment. Meaning that it’s someone who cannot tolerate more training stress because he is using hormones. This is more of a practical opinion than one based on ethics as it allows me to make better programming decisions.
  1. Former steroid users can have long-lasting benefits in terms of muscle mass and strength (i.e. they don’t lose all of the gains made during their enhanced period… but is that always true?) however, they might tolerate even less training stress than lifetime natural lifters. WHY?
  2. Is someone on TRT natural?

Recommendation for naturals #1

For each program or phase, select one dominance between volume and intensiveness. Don’t use a high level of both

Note that it is technically possible to go for moderate volume and moderate intensity. BUT I find that most who try to do that quickly ramp up one or two of the variables and reach an excessive training stress level.

Recommendation for naturals #2

Even if you pick a « volume » dominance, still stay more conservative than enhanced lifters when it comes to overall session volume

Training stress has systemic effects (cortisol and adrenaline production). If you keep volume/muscle low but do a boatload of volume in your session you could negate your gains. For example, if you do 6-8 sets per muscle (which is low) but train 4-5 muscles directly, you still get to 24-40 work sets in your workout which is too much for most.

Normally for a natural trainee, I recommend using a total of 4-5 exercises in a workout (out of which only 2-3 are big demanding lifts) which an overall volume in the 8-16 work sets range for the session.

Naturals can likely go up to 20 total sets per session (but should not exceed 10-12 for a single muscle), especially if they have good recovery capacities and low life stress. But only if intensiveness is kept moderate.

Recommendation for naturals #3

If you want to do more volume per session you must decrease the « secondary stressors » for the session as much as possible, and even then, it should not be done in the long term

Secondary training stressors are psychological stress, neurological demands, density, and competitiveness.

If you want to do more than the 16-20 total work sets the limit in a session you should:

  1. Use a greater proportion of machine or isolation exercises
  2. Keep rest intervals longe
  3. Stick with exercises and methods you are comfortable with
  4. Don’t try to beat a partner

Recommendation for naturals #4

If you used a period of higher training stress it should not be longer than 3-4 weeks and you should follow it by deload for 7-10 days.

Deloading simply refers to lowering training stress to reduce cortisol and (more importantly), adrenaline. This prevents (or fixes) training burnout/overtraining by helping you re-sensitize the beta-adrenergic receptors.

You can deload by lowering any of the 6 training variables that increase overall stress (volume, intensiveness, psychological stress, neurological demands, density, competitiveness).  The variables are ranked in order of its impact on training stress (and it’s effectiveness during a deloading phase).

The more severe the « stress period » was, the more you must lower stress during the deload (you might need to lower 3-5 variables).

Recommendation for naturals #5

Train each muscle (at least indirectly) 2-3 times a week

The natural trainee needs the training session to trigger the increase in anabolism that the steroid-user gets around the clock from the products he uses.

After a workout, protein synthesis/anabolism is elevated for, at the most, 30-36h.

Training a muscle only once a week is thus suboptimal because you only get 30-36h or enhanced growth out of the 168h of the week.

If you train a muscle 2-3x per week this goes up to 60-72 or even 90-108h of enhanced anabolism in a specific muscle, leading to faster growth.

A higher frequency might not be ideal (for hypertrophy… strength is a different story) because you would either not be able to recover fast enough, or don’t provide enough stimulation in a session to trigger growth.

Recommendation for naturals #6

Even with an increase in frequency per body part, don’t increase overall frequency unless you use an extreme low volume approach.

Training has systemic impacts and these can kill natural growth. If you spike cortisol and adrenaline too much by training too often, you might negatively impact growth. Especially if you have a higher level of life stress.

I find 3-4 weekly workouts to be best with natural lifters.

That’s why I often use a whole-body approach (with 4-5 exercises per session) three days a week and will sometimes add a 4th session where we only use isolation/machine exercises for the muscles that were not hit « properly » during the 3 main workouts.

Other good splits include:

  • Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower
  • Whole body/Upper/Lower
  • Push + quads/Pull + hams/Push + quads/Pull + hams
  • Chest + biceps/Legs/Back + triceps/Delts + rear delts and traps

Recommendation for naturals #7

Don’t kill your gais with excessive warm-up sets

While warm-up sets do not cause the same cortisol/adrenaline release as work sets (they normally have an RPE level of 3-6) they still have an impact. Doing a ton of warm-up sets on each exercise can hurt your progression.

The goals of warm-up sets are:

  1. Prepare the muscles, joints system and nervous system to handle the work sets safely
  2. Allow you to select the weight for your work sets
  3. Practice the exercise and get used to the heavyweights

You certainly need more warm-up sets for the bigger lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc. Especially if they are done early in a session. Most of my clients will use three gradually heavier warm-up sets on the big lifts. If they are super strong they might need more (if you squat 700lbs you can’t go from empty bar to 700 in 3 sets).

But when it comes to less traumatic movements like isolation exercises or machine work, you likely only require one warm-up set, to help you properly select the weight for your work sets.

Recommendation for naturals #8

Take longer rest intervals

Lengthening the rest periods between sets is an easy way to lower cortisol without negatively affecting the growth stimulus.

In fact, some recent studies showed that longer rest intervals could lead to more growth by allowing you to lift heavier weights on average.

However, you don’t want to increase the rest periods so much that it takes you out of the zone. For example, taking 5 minutes between sets will negate the potentiation effect that you got from your previous set.


For those of you who read and watched the entire webinar and article – Kudos!

It’s that kind of dedication that will help you get through the tougher challenges of training.

This is how you will reach your goals. Expect more videos in this series! (To be continued…)

In the meantime, if you want more great Thibarmy resources, make sure you download our free guide on “How to Lift for Maximum Hypertrophy”.

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