As a teenager, I pretty much lived in the weight room. If I wasn’t playing guitars and hitting punk rock shows with my friends, I was shoveling the heaviest weights possible on to barbells, and thereafter shoveling anything I could find into my face. Not surprisingly, I got pretty big for my age (albeit maybe not in the healthiest or leanest manner).
As I got a bit older, I got really serious about pursuing mixed martial arts, and committed myself to training with the best in the game. Though I initially sucked terribly, through hard work and dedication I have since compiled a combined amateur and professional record of seven wins and three losses. Not terrible for a shmuck with zero coordination or natural ability. My experience as a fighter has expanded my knowledge of fitness, and exposed me to various methods of conditioning, weight-cutting, and inevitably, injuries.
I last stepped into the cage in May of 2011, taking a fight on ten days’ notice, and during finals week at school, and won via rear naked choke in the first round. Following that fight a series of events occurred, and long story short, my life got way too complicated to keep training at the level that I was for the last several years.
Following an extreme vitamin D deficiency last winter, my health and appetite plummeted, resulting in me going from a healthy 160 pounds all the way to a sickly 149 (it was common for me to get as heavy as 175–178 pounds between fights, and I competed at 155 pounds).
Many nay-sayers attributed my health problems and weight loss to my vegan diet. Not only did I know these people were incorrect, but I was determined to prove them wrong.
After slowly recovering physically, and reinvigorating myself mentally, I began abiding by a calorie-dense plant-based diet, and an intense strength training program. I am now walking around steadily at a dense 170 pounds, and still gaining lean muscle—leaving many of my “haters” with little to say about my diet, health, or physique.
I am going to breakdown an overview of what I have been using to pack on size and strength, cover a few base terms, and layout a template of how this method actually plays out in a training session.
The style of training I have been implementing as of late is a hybrid between various techniques and approaches I have learned, borrowed, and adapted over the years by experimenting with various philosophies on strength training.
I realized that a good friend of mine, and up-and-coming bodybuilder, Erik Nielsen, was also training in a very similar manner, and with a philosophy he calls “power-building.”
Basically, power-building is a hybrid of explosive, heavyweight, and fast-twitch power-lifting movements, and higher repetition, full-range body-building and endurance movements.
This method is ideal for someone who wants to simultaneously build power and strength, while also gaining lean mass—adding weight to the scale as well as the barbell. Another advantage of the higher volume components of this routine is a major “pump”—prompting your muscles to look much fuller and “ripped,” and when paired with a clean diet, this will also condition your body to minimize fat-gains while you are bulking up.
Something that many people do not realize is that although many times an individual who is very strong is also big and muscular, these things are not always synonymous—power, strength, and size are actually three separate entities, and it is important to understand the fundamental movements and approaches that will garner the most improvement in each of the three.
Power-Lifting is a term usually used to describe compound exercises performed in an explosive manner with as much weight as possible in relatively low-rep ranges—between one to five repetitions per set. Power-lifting is unrivaled in its ability to build raw strength and explosive-power, making it a great addition to any weight training program, and great supplementary training for competitive athletes looking to improve explosive output.
Some examples of compound movements that are very beneficial for building power are the deadlift, the squat, the bench-press, the power clean, and the push-press.
While moderate to high volume strength training is what typically generates the most muscle growth, the importance that power plays in building lean muscle should not be overlooked. If you become more powerful then your mid-range strength will increase as well, allowing you to lift heavier weights for more repetitions, and as result, your body will be forced to grow lean muscle tissue to adapt to this new level of stress.
Body-Building Training is centered on somewhat slower, deliberate movements executed with a full range of motion—emphasizing constant tension throughout every repetition—and performed specifically for hypertrophy (lean-muscle growth). Exercises performed in a body-building style are usually performed in a moderate to high rep range, generally between six to fifteen repetitions, and in some instances even as high as thirty—making this style very ideal for an individual looking to build lead muscle, and improve overall body composition.
Within the realm of body-building, there are two training techniques I am very fond of, and those are Super-Setting and Drop-Setting. Both of these techniques are explained in detail at the bottom of the page.
The most important thing to keep in my mind with my routine, or in my opinion any routine, is that compound movements should always be your central focus and priority. Week to week, you can and should make minor tweaks to secondary and supplementary lifts, but I never recommend omitting a compound lift for one of these supplementary movements. For example, I would never recommend replacing the barbell squat with a movement like leg extensions—you simply get a much more beneficial and intensive full-body workout with compound movements. And when building strength and size is your goal, it is not advisable to replace compound movements with isolation movements, which are limited to a single body part; however, these supplementary movements certainly have their place, and make excellent additions to any workout plan, so long as they are not the central focus.
The Training “SPLIT”
I think I have yet to write an article for Sunwarrior without using the phrase “you have to do what works best for you,” and I hate to be the baron of repetition, but here it is again. The reality is I cannot realistically or responsibly advocate exactly how many days a week you should be working out without knowing more about you as a person, and getting familiar with your lifestyle and ability to recover.
As a general rule of thumb, and going off of what has personally gotten me the best results, I would recommend 4–5 days per week of intensive weight training, and two to three days split between low-impact physical activities and rest as a good starting point. In other words, train hard four or five days a week, and do a little cardio on the side if you have a very sedentary life outside of the gym. If your lifestyle already has you running around like a chicken with your head cut-off as is and, or, you have a fast metabolism, then you are probably fine without the extra cardio, but either way, always, always give yourself at least one day of the week to just “chill.” In my opinion this is very important for physical and mental recuperation and will allow you to stay consistent. Remember, the most effective training is consistent training!
Again, some of you reading this may be able to handle more volume and intensity than what I am recommending, and some of you may have to scale it back to three days per week of intense training; this will all be contingent upon your body’s recovery rate, and your personal schedule and availability.
A last bit of advice: as with any strength training program, I recommend that after every six to eight weeks of intensive training you either take an entire week to rest, or at the least scale it back a bit, either in terms of training volume or intensity—many people call this “de-loading.” This will give your body the recovery needed to maximize growth, and recover from the stress it has been enduring; it will also give you a much needed mental break, and an opportunity to assess your progress and determine the best means of working further towards your current goals or setting new ones.
Putting it together:
I have included a template of what my typical training sessions look like. You will notice a “reverse pyramid” effect taking place over the routine as a whole; what I mean by this is that as the workout progresses, the weight in each movement decreases, but the repetitions increase. I find this very effective for maximizing raw power and strength when I am my freshest, and then really pushing my muscle fibers into growth by fatiguing them with mid-range and high-rep sets for the remainder of my workout. In other words, I have plenty of energy when I am lifting really heavyweights, and by the end of my workout, when I am fatigued, I am lifting lighter weight, but at a much higher volume, which allows me to keep pushing myself to failure.
Before any workout, I always warm up and this can last anywhere between five to fifteen minutes depending on the workout at hand. I like to do a few minutes of low-impact cardio, such as jumping rope, using the elliptical machine, or lightly jogging on the treadmill. This is followed by stretches and movements relevant to the lifts I will be performing: for example, if I am going to be utilizing my legs for much of my workout to perform various squatting motions, I will be getting blood flow to them by doing light-weight leg extensions, performing bodyweight squats, practicing my form with an unloaded barbell, and hitting a few lighter sets before working into my heavy, working sets. Once I feel good physically and mentally, I am ready to roll.
Compound Power Movement: 3–5 repetitions per set for a total of five sets*
*Repetitions vary depending on the powerlift I am executing, and I never exceed three repetitions if I feel it will compromise my technique, which is of particular importance in movements like the squat and deadlift where serious injury can occur if proper precautions are not taken with heavy weight on the bar. The goal here is not to hit a one-rep max effort, nor is this component of the workout supposed to lead to failure, it is to gradually, and safely, build power without compromising your ability to train throughout the week; that being said, the final repetition of each set should be very challenging, and if it feels too easy, it is probably time to up the weight a bit.
Compound Strength Movement: 10–12 repetitions for a total of three sets.
Often the typical strength-training has increased repetition and set range, and for good reason. This is a great range for building size and strength, and I love upping the reps after my explosive power training.
Superset 1: 3 TOTAL SETS
Movement A: 10–12 repetitions
followed immediately by
Movement B: 10–12 repetitions
A super-set is actually two sets performed back-to-back with no rest in between. I love executing these with moderate amounts of weight in the middle of my workout to continue to push my muscles into growth. Another positive side effect of super setting is that it is very demanding from a cardiovascular standpoint, and is a great tool for building short-burst, anaerobic conditioning.
Super-Sets can be performed with two movements targeting the same muscle—two protagonist movements, such as two leg-central exercises performed back to back—or they can be opposing or antagonist muscles, such as one leg movement performed back to back with a pressing motion. I like to mix my approach to super-setting up depending on what muscle I am targeting, how my body is responding to training, and what my goal at hand is. At times I even incorporate ab and core work into super-sets with primary muscle groups if I have already performed my central compound movements, and I am using moderate to lighter weight. I find this particularly beneficial if a movement in a super-set is very demanding, because that muscle can rest while my abs are still working hard to complete repetitions of core movements.
Superset 2: 3 TOTAL SETS
Movement A: 10–12 repetitions
followed immediately by
Movement B: 10–12 repetitions
End with core-work, and/or possibly additional burnout work depending on what was performed in the supersets*
*I often super-set my abs or hit them in a circuit-style. For example, I may perform a set of weighted crunches, and then immediately follow them with a set of leg raises, and then target my obliques. Like any superset, I find this very efficient for burning my core and getting the “most bang for my buck” in a timely manner.
*Burn-Outs can consist of various light-weight movements directed at a muscle you have been hitting with intensity in a given training session. I often utilize dumbbells, cable machines, and barbell plates for these movements. An example of a burn-out technique I often utilize when I am really trying to target my shoulders, core, and forearms, is the “five-minute plate.”
A common addition to our intensive sparring sessions at Agallar Combative Systems would be conditioning at the end of class when we were already fatigued from going many hard rounds. Coach Nick Agallar would push us further with various MMA specific drills and anaerobic movements. One of his favorite tools was a simple barbell plate. I have also seen this technique used by former UFC world champion Sean Sherk.
To perform the “five-minute plate” find a barbell plate you are comfortable with. I typically use a 45 lb. plate, but some of you may have to scale back, and others may have to use twice that weight. Just keep in mind the point of this movement is not to build strength, it is to build endurance and give your muscles a “pump,” so do not be overly concerned with the weight you are using.
When you are ready to begin, you will be performing different movements with the plate for an entire five minutes non-stop. I generally switch what I am doing every 30 seconds to ensure that I am fatiguing myself to the utmost, and to hit my shoulders, forearms and core from different angles.
Examples of movements that can work into these five minutes can include any pressing motion, deltoid front raises, push-outs, over-head squats, and oblique work. The whole point to consider is that you absolutely must not put the plate down until five minutes is done, and if executed correctly, you should be very fatigued and have a great pump.
On some days, I will omit one of the super-sets in my routine to perform extended drop-setting after a given movement. A drop-set is generally performed after the last standard set of movement, and is done by reaching fatigue with a particular weight, dropping the weight down, performing another set to fatigue, dropping the weight from there, performing another, set, and so on, until you have either hit a pre-determined number of drop-sets or you are on the brink of complete failure. I generally push myself to the brink of complete failure when drop-setting, because I program them into the end of my routine and I can use this as a final burst of all-out energy to maximize hypertrophy. However, you can also program drop-setting earlier into your routine and not go to this point of fatigue and still reap the muscle-building benefits of this very effective technique.
Perform 2 sets of Lat Pull-Downs for ten repetitions. On your third set, push passed this ten rep limit as much as possible, until fatigue sets in and you can’t quite complete another rep with proper form. At this point drop the weight of the machine and perform another set until you are about to reach failure, again drop the weight. Continue for desired time, and desired effect. Keep in mind, if this is done earlier in a routine it is not recommend to go beyond a couple drop-sets, because you still have a lot of work ahead of you and you do not want to be too fatigued to get through your workout with proper form and focus.; however, if you are at the end of your routine, I do recommend pushing as hard as possible, because you will then be able to cool down and recover immediately following your drop-sets.
By blending different techniques and approaches, I have been able to pack on over fifteen pounds of lean muscle in a relatively short period of time. In the process, I have also upped my strength and power considerably. I attribute my success in the gym, and the success of other athletes, such as my buddy Erik, to the philosophy of “power-building” and the routine of continuously shocking my muscles into growth by hitting them at different angles, for different repetitions, and using a wide array of weight and movements.
I think it is very important to mind specific attention to every repetition and set performed in a workout, and in the coming weeks I am going to break down exact workout plans and instructions structured with the template in this article, so that you can see exactly what I am doing, and more importantly, learn how to safely and properly execute these movements yourself to maximize gains and minimize injury.
Train hard and live well!