Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Routine design - Part 1

Writing routines was always fun for me.

When I was younger I would write out literally hundreds a week.  Contemplate how they looked on paper, how that work might "feel" in the gym, and then write more.

I always found the myriad of ways you could structure training to be interesting, and I felt like I had a good grasp on what looked good on paper, and what would work in the gym.

Unfortunately not everyone seems to be able to do this.  People write out routines, then go on forums and ask people how they look.  I  never really understood that because I always felt like I could write my own routines and discern if they looked good or not.  Other people can't really tell you what routine looks good for you.  You need to spend enough time training to get an idea of workload tolerance, frequency tolerance, and what set and rep schemes resonate with you as a lifter.  I always felt like it was asking someone else what a certain food tasted like.  Go try it yourself, and see if you like it.  That's the best way to know.

Writing out routines, or figuring out program structure isn't a lot different.  After you've spent enough time in the gym you should be able to discern what looks good on paper for you in regards to what you can do/tolerate in the gym.

So with all of that said, let's break down some of the components of routine design.

Frequency - 

Before you decide on frequency, you have to ask yourself a number of questions that pertains to it.

1.  How many days a week can I physically make it to the gym?

Now the fact is, I won't really allow for a lot of excuses here.  However if you don't have a car and rely on someone else (like a youngster might), then you have to work that out with whoever would be driving you.

If you DO own a car then you should be able to start with "7 days a week".

2.  How many days a week do I "want" to train?  

This is an entirely different question.  The fact is, some people don't desire living in the gym.  And that's really ok.  Lots of people have this thing called a life outside of the gym, and it's full of magical places like their friends house, their significant others house/apartment, restaurants, parks, museums, movie theaters, etc.

And then there are other people who truly enjoy just spending a lot of time training and immersing themselves in the iron.  They may train 6-7 days a week, sometimes training twice a day.

It really all depends on what you like here.  There is no specific right or wrong answer.  That is, until we come to the next question...

3  How many days a week do I "need" to train?  

Notice the difference in wording here from question 2?  The primary word change is "want" and "need".  Those two words mean very different things.

You may only want to train three days a week.  But in order to reach the goals you have set, you may NEED to train 4 or 5 days a week.  Answering this question will force you to be introspective about training, and how serious you are about attaining your goals.

On the flip side, if you haven't made progress in a very long time and you've been in the gym 6-7 days a week, you may NEED to train less.

Sometimes overzealous people need to do less.  I think a lot of women in the fitness industry probably train too often.  I've known some that train three times a day, when you include their cardio sessions.  They often look stringy and flat because of this.  Not only that, year after year they seem to make very little in the way of progress because they are afraid to eat more, and afraid that if they miss a training session they will lose muscle.  Shit, there are plenty of guys just like this too, so I will try to not to just hang this perception on females

Remember that training is a stimulus.  And once the stimulus has been achieved from training, the recovery cycle has to take place at some point.  Otherwise, no progress will be made.  What sucks about that is, you can indeed train your ass off, and basically make no progress.  People who talk about being "hardcore" are often the ones that spin their wheels the most.  They may have heard the saying that "you don't grow in the gym", but they can't seem to get those words sunk deep enough into their skull to actually apply the meaning.

This question of "need" will essentially spawn off several other questions.

"How many days can I recover from?"

"How many days do I need to get the optimal amount of work in?"

"What is the combination of those two factors?"

When you arrive at the conclusion to the last question there, you should be able to answer number 3.

If you want my general answer it's this.  I've never seen a reason why you can't reach your goals training 4 days a week.  Lots of people do even better with just three.

Mass or strength?  

The next question seems like they could or do work very well together, but to the dismay of all the "powerbuilders" out there, they really don't.

The fact is, training for maximal strength is very different than training for maximal hypertrophy.  And you need to decide on one or the other, and train towards that goal.

A guy training for a powerlifting meet doesn't need to do the type of training an offseason bodybuilder would.  Nor does a bodybuilder need to worry about the amount of weight he can lift for a single rep max.

The powerlifter isn't going to flex on the platform.....well, I guess he could after an attempt but he's not going to be judged on his symmetry or lines.  And no one gives a shit what the bodybuilder on stage can bench press.

Now all the powerbuilders out there will say that you can mix in the two.  The fact is, you'll end up a little stronger, and a little bigger, but you won't really maximize either the way you could have if you had prioritized one or the other.  Besides, I've grown to hate the term powerbuilder.  It generally means a guy who goes to the gym that isn't going to compete.  So you're just a gym goer.  That's it.  That's all.

I've written many times about the difference in moving weight through space, and making the muscle work.  When you're training for strength you should be all about moving the weight through space in the most leverage efficient position as possible.  For the purposes of bodybuilding, or hypertrophy, you should be all about accentuating the eccentric potion of the movement, and making the muscle work.  You should also be keen on what movements you need to do, and how to do them, in order to improve certain areas of the musculature.

While it's true that you can't totally isolate a bodypart, you can use movements that do indeed place more of an emphasis on certain parts of the muscle than others.  Some people used to argue this fact, but there's been research done that has shown that certain movements do in fact place a greater emphasis on certain areas of the muscle, than others.

For example.....

Ten young, resistance-trained men were recruited from a university population to participate in the study. Employing a within-subject design, participants performed the SLDL and LLC to muscular failure using a load equating to their 8 repetition maximum for each exercise. The order of performance of exercises was counterbalanced between participants so that approximately half of the subjects performed SLDL first and the other half performed LLC first. Surface electromyography was used to record mean normalized muscle activity of the upper lateral hamstrings, lower lateral hamstrings, upper medial hamstrings, and lower medial hamstrings. Results showed that the LLC elicited significantly greater normalized mean activation of the lower lateral and lower medial hamstrings compared to the SLDL (p < 0.05). These findings support the notion that the hamstrings can be regionally targeted through exercise selection.
This really shouldn't be of surprise, however it's nice to get confirmation through study that what you believed was thought to be true (though I will admit, I've gone back and forth on this one through the years).

I will give you my own experience in regards to this.

After I tore my quad, I did some self assessment work and determined that my quads indeed, were weak.  I was weak on hack squats, and basically anything that took my hips out of play when knee extension was called on to overcome a certain load.

So I made it a point this past offseason to make a point to bring up my quad strength.  The first few weeks every hack session I would strain one of my vastus medialis muscles.  Not bad, mind you.  Just enough to remind me that my quads were weak and lacking.  The fact is, hacks made my quads do the work without the aid from my hips and adductors very much.  Two areas I was much stronger in.

I had the same issue with high bar squats.  I stayed more upright, and pushed my knees out harder than previously.  I would slightly strain my VMO every few weeks with these as well.  To me, this was a good sign.  It signaled that my theory was correct.  My hips, glutes, and adductors were plenty strong.  But my quads were an area of weakness that needed to come up.

Eventually that happened, and I stopped straining my VMO.  I was eventually doing doubles with 585 in the high bar pause squat.  So all the work I did in the offseason paid off with some squat PR's, and being well rounded in my lower body strength.

Now that I've gone around the world and back to make a point about movement selection, you can see why it's important to make a choice about what you are training for.

If you want to train for mass, then your movement selection will probably need to be configured a bit differently than if you are training for the big three.  Yes, having phases where you build on one can and will indeed transcend into the other, however it's more beneficial to concentrate on one than trying to ride two horses with one ass.

If you notice, I didn't include "cutting".  I don't really believe that training looks any different for losing bodyfat.  You're either trying to build or maintain lean tissue (the latter in a cut phase), or trying to build or maintain strength (again, the latter in a fat loss phase).  If you're in a fat loss phrase it's still paramount that you ask the body to work hard in order for it to WANT to hold on to lean muscle mass.  Now bodybuilders who are in the last few weeks before a show aren't going to want to push the limits in training.  The joints ache and they are usually quite dry from low carbs, so that's a great time to snap some shit up by going too heavy.  Up until that point, you should still be training hard to give the body a reason to retain that lean tissue.

My recommendation here is this.  EVERYONE should be using the offseason to either get lean, or build mass.  If you're over 15% bodyfat, you need to get that in check.  If you're in good shape in that department, then you should be working towards building more lean tissue.  Why?  Because regardless of what you read on the internet about "CNS" at the end of the day it's your MUSCLES that lift the weights.  And the more muscle you have, the more weight you're going to lift.

For the powerlifter, he or she should change gears once meet prep starts.  For the bodybuilder, nothing really changes except diet.  I feel like that should simplify answering this question.

In part 2 I will go over whole body routines, split routines, why I like both at various times, and what kinds of each I prefer.

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  1. Hey Paul. Hope everything is well with you. I love that you brought Gillian on board. I found an amazing picture of her and it's now my goal to get as close as I can to her physique, while still growing my powerlifting numbers. Thank you!

    I have a question - I've been working on paused squats, and added hack squats back into my routine, and my squat has gotten much better for it. But I'm now having some pain/soreness in one hip flexor. I'm taking a week off squatting to give it a little rest. It's sore even on bodyweight squats. Do you have any thoughts?


    1. Hip flexors are tricky. Everyone always recommends stretching but I often think they get like that because something is weak and they are compensating for it. Or the hip flexor is weak and unable to keep up. You can try stretching it, or dropping hacks if it started shortly after.