The truth is, these programs ‘work’ because the lifter who uses them is relatively new to the gym. If you’re not been training before, anything you do is going to work for a while.
The previous level of training was zero, so even a bad program progresses from there. You will see what are called “newbie gains”, where you quickly see a significant difference in your body in the first 6-12 months of training.
That will inevitably slow down at some point, and then suddenly you hit a wall. There is no more progress, and you don’t know why – you’ve been following this popular program that everyone recommends.
The reason it no longer works is that it’s not a great program to start with. The gains you see are misattributed to the program when really, they’re caused by the simple fact that you went from doing nothing to doing something.
The reason these programs are not very good is that they have the whole philosophy of training wrong. The entire premise of the program is coming from the wrong angle.
What Makes a Good Program?
To consistently see progress in your body you need to be consistently overloading the muscles with additional demand for work. This can come by manipulating many factors in your training such as exercise selection, weight, sets, reps, tempo, rest periods, training frequency, and more.
Ultimately, for your body to grow stronger than it was yesterday, you must challenge the muscles to do more work than they did yesterday. Work is what will bring growth.
Popular programs such as 5×5, 3×5, CrossFit, and anything that is overly reliant on using percentages of 1 rep max is focused on the wrong thing.
They are not focused on doing more work – they instead focus on the number – the weight used is the be all, end all. They’re ego training.
Lifting the most weight possible for 5 reps is always going to make you veer towards making each rep as easy as possible.
You can lift more weight by using momentum, using as many muscle groups as possible, focusing on getting the weight from A to B as quickly as possible with minimal time under tension, taking long rest periods between sets, etc.
All of this is the opposite of doing more work – which is what will ultimately drive progress.
I would suggest the correct philosophy of training is to make the body, and specifically the muscle you are training to work with any given exercise, do as much work as possible.
This will force adaptation, and ultimately growth in muscle, strength, and capacity. You will always be able to make progress because you can always do more work. You cannot always do more weight. If progress was consistently linear, anyone who trained for a few years would be lifting world record standard weights.
How to Do More Work
To do more work you want to manipulate one or more of the given training variables to make it harder. The exact opposite of what you will naturally do when following one of these ego-based programs that is all about the numbers lifted.
To make an exercise harder you can:
- Take shorter rest periods between sets. Keeping the cardiovascular system elevated and not letting muscles fully recover between sets will impose a greater demand on the muscles.
- Perform more reps per set. This is an obvious one, the simplest way to do more work is to literally do more reps, or more set, or more exercises.
- Focus on contracting the muscle as hard as possible, rather than just moving the weight from A to B. You can use momentum, and other muscle groups to move the weights, or you can focus only on using the target muscle as much as possible. Using the right muscles will give a greater training effect.
- Keep tension in the muscle at all times by not quite locking out at the end. For example, keep tension on the quads during squats by never fully straightening the legs as you stand up, get within an inch of straight legs, and then go down for another rep.
- Complete the entire workout in less time. Higher tempo workouts create more metabolic demand. Try to do the same workout as last time, but finish it in less time and you have progressed – this is great for doing more work without increasing wear and tear on joints that more weight or more exercises would bring.
- Slow the tempo of lifts down. Lower the weight for 3-4 seconds on the lowering phase. Include pauses in the stretched phase, and focus on contracting the target muscle, rather than moving the weight. This will make each rep much harder, you will use less weight, but the muscles get a much greater workout.
- Train to muscular failure, and then perform a couple of partial range reps. Don’t do this with a heavy weight, it could be dangerous, but if you have hit failure in the 10-12 rep range, you can try to eek out a couple of extra reps. If the weight only moves through part of the range of motion or doesn’t even move at all, it doesn’t matter – the intention of trying to move it is still making your muscles work, and it is the work that counts.
- Combine various exercises together as supersets to increase the total work demand. Doing opposing muscles will help increase the total workload done in the same amount of time. While doing two exercises for the same muscle will train the muscle to failure and increase the workload performed. For example, do a set of bench press, then jump on the pec fly machine to fully finish your chest in isolation.
Programming Your Training
There is nothing wrong with desiring to hit new maxes and lift more weight. Indeed, that is what makes training fun. Please do not think I am advocating against doing so.
What I am saying, is that programs which focus too heavily on lifting specific numbers, rather than on doing more accumulated work, are not the best way to go about achieving it.
You will find that by doing more work and driving more muscle growth, you will get stronger quicker and more consistently. This is especially true after you have gone through the early “newbie gains” and things start to slow down.
Focus your training on doing more work, by making it as hard as possible.