“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”-Harrington Emerson
Couldn’t have said it 150 years later better myself. The fact of the matter is, people have been getting big and strong for a long time, and while some favor dumbbells, some barbells, some say squatting will cause cancer, while others laud it as the best exercise ever, there are a lot more similarities than differences when it comes to programs that get people jacked.
I have a number of principles that I stand by that have stood the test of time when it comes to writing training programs, regardless of the client’s goals. For example, one of my principles is to do no harm. If a client comes in with and during their assessment we find that their squat looks like a question mark, than we’ll have to figure out why, and proceed to try to improve it.
What I won’t do is load up a barbell with 6 wheels and put it on his back on day 1 in an attempt to get him stronger. The risk of his spine exploding far outweigh any possible benefit.
There are a handful of other principles that should provide the framework on how you design and perform your training programs. Here are 3 that seem like common sense, but based on what I see around me on a daily basis, are far from it.
There are very few reasons why you shouldn’t be using a full range of motion in a lift. If you can’t squat to parallel without pain, then you shouldn’t be squatting until you figure out what the issue is. Bench pressing is another one where you see people shortchange the movement because, “it’s bad for your shoulders if you go all the way to your chest.”
Newsflash: The only thing it’s bad for is your pride because you have to unload half the weight you have on the barbell. If barbell benching hurts your shoulders, don’t do it. Find another variation that doesn’t hurt, whether it’s with a neutral grip, dumbbells, or pushups, or get your shoulder issues figured out with a professional.
If you want full results, you need to move through a full range of motion. It’s not up for debate and is one of the few absolutes in training.
If you push, you need to pull. If you train your upper body, you need to train your lower body. It’s really that simple. The big compound lifts tax your whole body for sure, but you don’t want to be the guy that can bench 315 but can’t do a chin up. If you are, you’re probably carrying around too much fat and have shoulders that feel like square blocks in round holes.
Neither of those is optimal.
An easy way to make sure you have balance in your program is to use an upper/lower training split. One week, you’ll train upper body Monday, lower body Wednesday, and upper again on Friday. The next week, Monday will be lower body, Wednesday will be upper, and Friday will be lower again. Keep repeating and you’ll be on your way.
More specifically, for every pressing exercise, include a pulling one. To help organize further, for every overhead pressing exercise, include a chin up variation. This will ensure that at the bare minimum you are working in equal amounts in each direction. Your joints will be thankful, and you’ll be building a physique that looks and performs better.
This is the meat and potatoes of training. Over time, you have to do more than you were, just like if you want a tan, you need progressively more sun exposure. Building strength and muscle requires that you move more weight, do more reps or sets with the same weight, move the same weight through a bigger range of motion, or do the same amount of work in less time. How you choose to do this is your choice, but the scientific reality is that you need to challenge the system past it’s current abilities to make it progress.
Program hopping is for amateurs that go to the gym for social hour, not for people who are focused on getting results. Pick a handful of movements that you deem appropriate and strive to get better at them week after week. When you first introduce a new lift, you can usually add 5 pounds to the bar each week for awhile as your technique and familiarity with the movement becomes better. This is the simplest and most effective approach.
A way that I like to progress secondary lifts is like this:
By structuring things like this, in week one you did 24 total reps with a weight, where in week 4 you did 40. That’s 67% more work with a given load than you started, and is sure to cause your body to respond, even though the week to week increase was relatively small.
As I’ve heard Dan John say, it’s all about a little bit over the long haul.
Principles are non negotiable, or as Webster more eloquently defines them:
“a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”
If you don’t have a fundamental basis for how you’re doing things, all you’re doing is throwing shit against the wall and hoping something sticks.
Don’t be a monkey, train smart, train hard, and reap the benefits.