The Ultimate Routine

If you’re constantly reading bodybuilding or fitness magazines, books and web sites searching for the routine – the perfect combination of exercises, sets, and reps – or the training method – the perfect style of performance – I’m going to save you some time and frustration…

There is no such thing.

While some exercises are better than others for specific muscle groups or specific individuals, there are several that are effective for each muscle group, and while there are many different high intensity training methods like the traditional Nautilus principles, SuperSlow protocol, timed static contractions, etc., all of them are effective if done hard and progressively as long as you don’t overdo the volume and get adequate rest between workouts.

However, constantly changing routines is not the answer either.

If you are not making progress changing your routine or specific exercises is usually not the answer. Either you are not stimulating the body to produce a response (not training intensely enough), or you are interfering with or preventing the body from producing a response, by doing more exercise more often than the body is capable of recovering from and adapting to within some time period or by not getting adequate nutrition or rest.

Before switching up exercises or changing training methods ask yourself,

  1. Am I really working as hard as possible on each exercise?
  2. Am I keeping my workouts relatively brief?
  3. Am I allowing my body adequate time to recover between workouts?
  4. Am I eating well?
  5. Am I getting enough sleep?

If the answer to any of the above is “No” then changing the exercises you’re performing is not going to help your progress.

Often, changing exercises, routines, or training methods appears to break plateaus because during the first six to eight weeks of a new routine weight progression tends to be more rapid due to neural adaptations or learning the skill of the new exercises or method of performance (or relearning the skill of exercises not performed for a long time). Changing exercises at this time is a mistake, however, because it is after this period of neural and skill improvement that real progress begins. When skill and neural adaptations can be ruled out as a major factor in progress you will know every time you improve by repetitions or weight on an exercise it is due to changes in the muscles and not just how efficiently you’re using them.

Some recommend variation because they believe a muscle will become resistant to further adaptations to a particular exercise after a period of time. Unless you are at or near the limits of your potential strength for the muscles worked if you are unable to progress on an exercise you are either not training it hard enough to stimulate improvement or doing something to prevent your body from recovering and producing the improvements stimulated. Contrary to uninformed opinion the body does not become resistant to further adaptations to the exercise movement itself – as long as potential for improvement remains, the stimulus is provided, and the requirements are met for recovery and adaptation the body will improve – what it adapts to is the level of demand of the training. The more advanced your training becomes and the nearer you get to the limits of your potential the harder you have to train to stimulate further improvements.

The more skilled you are at performing an exercise and the better the neural adaptations the harder it is possible for you to work the muscles involved. If you want to maximize the intensity of your workouts you must maximize these neural and skill adaptations, not prevent them by constantly varying your routines.

Another reason some people recommend varying exercises regularly is to avoid harm to the joints from overuse, however this is not a problem if proper exercises are selected and performed correctly to begin with and if the overall volume and frequency of work is not excessive.

This does not mean you should never vary your training, but changes should be made for specific reasons rather than variety for its own sake. Assuming the volume and frequency of training are reasonable, you can get nearly as big and strong as your genetics will allow training hard and progressively on a very basic routine of just a few exercises with very little variation. This should form the foundation of your training.

I realize some people like to vary their routines for psychological reasons: they get bored with their workouts, or find the appearance of faster progress that comes with a change of exercises motivating. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the long-term emphasis is on progression on a few basic exercises and the routines are not varied too often. While entirely switching routines every month or two is a mistake, there are some ways to incorporate variety into a routine while also maintaining enough consistency to ensure you are making real progress rather than just increasing numbers on paper.

The two approaches I suggest are:

  1. Perform one or two routines with a few consistent, basic exercises, and a few exercises that alternate.
  2. Alternate between a consistent “benchmark” routine and one or more varying routines.

For example, certain exercises make up the core of all my routines; squats, deadlifts, standing presses, chin ups, parallel-bar dips and gripping. I have a few other exercises I like and perform consistently, but however the workouts change they always include those few. You might perform completely different exercises, but the specific exercises are not as important as long as they effectively work all the major muscle groups.

Some advanced trainees may find despite a significant degree of overall improvement in strength and size certain muscle groups are not as strong or well developed as others. This may be due to genetic factors – not everybody has the genes to develop perfectly proportional or symmetrical strength and size throughout the body – however any perceived imbalance or asymmetry may be improved by changing the routine to focus more on lagging muscle groups.

Other situations where variation may be needed is to accommodate changes in other activities or to work around an injury.

With a few exceptions, beginners should stick with the same basic exercises for at least their first two to three months of training, focusing on learning and practicing proper form and becoming accustomed to pushing themselves through the muscular burning and discomfort associated with training at a high level of intensity. Even advanced trainees should not vary their training too often and stay focused primarily on consistently progressing on a few basic exercises.

Whatever variety you incorporate, keep in mind any changes made should should be purposeful and contribute to overall, long-term improvement. Select exercises and structure your routines in accordance with your training goals and how your body responds to exercise rather than simply switching things around randomly or just following whatever appears in the most recent Muscle & Fiction magazine or in the forum at BodybuildingBroScience.com, or whatever is popular in your gym at the time.

While some workouts may be better or more thoughtfully designed than others there is neither a single “ultimate” routine nor a need to constantly vary routines for best results. The best routine is is any that effectively works all the major muscle groups and is performed hard, consistently and progressively.

Be Sociable, Share!

, , , , ,

32 Responses to The Ultimate Routine

  1. drew m. November 27, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    wow this is like the best post i’ve read in a long time. i’ve always thought the whole muscle confusion was bs considering pro powerlifters have been doing the same 3 exercises-squat, bench, deadlift- and get huge as a result. not to say there’s not better, more effective exercises, but they stick to the same three for the long haul and reap the strength/size gains.

    thanks for the post.

  2. Dwayne Wimmer November 27, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    Drew,

    Another GREAT Post. I agree. Although, I have found it is hard to get the general public to understand that veriety is either for your mind, so as not to get board and keep working hard, or in cases where the trainer wants to change the program all the time, it is to give the trainer a false sense of importance so their client has a reason to keep paying them.

    Again, GREAT Post!!

    Dwayne Wimmer

  3. Donnie Hunt November 27, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    Hey Drew,

    I have definately been one of those looking for the “ultimate routine” at different times in my life. When I start looking I try to remind myself: safe/good form, heavy/intense, low volume/brief, infrequent. My biggest problem is consistency.

    Another really good post!

  4. Dennis Rogers November 27, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Again great post,sign me up for your book,I am sure that it will be the last book on HIT I will ever need and I have read them all!
    Dennis

  5. Richard November 27, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    Yeah another tops post Drew, i’ve been guilty of this over the years! I noticed you included the parallel bar dips over the standard bench/machine press as the core chest exercise. Is this the better choice of the two? Thanks.

    • Drew Baye November 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

      Richard,

      The parallel bar dip involves more muscles than the bench press. I occasionally include bench presses in an alternate routine, but dips have been my main chest exercise for a long time.

  6. Michael Allen November 28, 2010 at 6:00 am #

    Thanks for this very helpful article. I have been doing HIT for about a year (age 71), with no background in gym work and certainly no one-to-one personal trainer around, so this kind of info is very useful.

  7. Phil November 28, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Hi Drew

    Can I ask a bit about the bio-mechanics of the parallel dip. Is there a best way to perform this exercise – or is it just a matter of getting up there and doing your best? I’ve read about body position and the different emphasis on the chest as a result – but now I am questioning the validity of this info (because I probably heard it as part of local gym-lore or one of the so-called muscle magazines).

    I’m looking forward to your book. This blog has already been a great eye-opener for me. Many thanks, Phil

    • Drew Baye November 28, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

      Phil,

      Dips are like squats; people rarely do them correctly, either moving wrong, not going low enough, or if they do go low enough, bouncing at the bottom in a way that is sure to take its toll on their joints. Parallel bar dips should be performed with a parallel grip with palms facing inwards – while this might seem obvious there are still people out there doing them the way Vince Gironda recommended with palms facing out which internally rotates the arms in a way that puts a lot of strain on the shoulder joint.

      When placing the hands on the bars the heels of the palms should be directly on top of the bars – not the center of the palm – so the wrists are directly over the bars and the bars, wrists and elbows line up in the same plane. The arms should be angled out slightly, not straight out to the sides.

      Lean forward throughout the exercise; this increases the range of motion around both the elbows and shoulders and works the chest closer to the middle of it’s range of length where it is stronger.

      Start in the top position. If the dip station you’re using doesn’t have steps get a stable bench or stool to stand on – this ensures you are able to catch yourself with your legs at any position over your range of motion if necessary.

      Lower yourself slowly, keep the chest, shoulders and triceps tight, and turn around when you start to feel a stretch in your chest – do not try for a deep stretch. You should feel a stretch, just not a deep stretch, and any stretch should be felt in the muscles and not the shoulder joints. If you are feeling even a slight stretch in the muscles you are getting as much range of motion as you need or will benefit from – go further and you risk irritating or injuring the shoulders.

      Start gradually and drive up in a controlled manner, focus on contracting the chest, shoulders and triceps. Slow down as you approach lock out then immediately but slowly change direction while staying tight.

  8. Brian Liebler November 28, 2010 at 7:37 am #

    Drew,

    As usual, you hit hit the nail on the head. This post and your previous “10 Biggist Mistakes” reminds me of the no nonsence writings of Mentzer. This clear, simple, but,highly effective approach would be attacked by allot of Trainers and Websites because most people are looking for something magical or mystical. Were all looking forward to your Book!

    • Drew Baye November 28, 2010 at 11:35 am #

      Thanks Brian,

      I just started working on the book again, after having taken a “break” to finish editing a volume containing all three of Arthur Jones’ Nautilus Bulletins along with a shared table of contents and a couple new appendixes, and if you like this article you’re going to like the book. The book does contain routines, but in that section I state very specifically that the routines are there to serve as examples or starting points from which people can form their own and are not “written in stone”.

  9. Andy November 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Drew,

    congratulations!!! for this really great post on one of the most important topics of exercise science: Variety.
    You make things clear and are really trying to help trainees around the world!

    Thank you…

  10. Johnny November 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Drew,

    I perform 2 workouts per week: 1 workout one set of dips, pull-ups and deads and another one set of bench, rows and squats. Am I varying too often?

    You mentioned before that you had a trainee progress a lot with only one exercise. Which was the exercise?

    Thanks!

    Johnny

    • Drew Baye November 28, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

      Johnny,

      I have never had any clients perform only one exercise. You might be thinking of someone I else mentioned who performed one exercise per workout. The fewest exercises I’ve ever had anyone perform in a workout is three, and it was an advanced client who trained extremely hard.

      • JLMA September 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

        Drew,
        Do you remember which ones were those three exercises?
        Thanks!
        JLMA

        • Drew Baye September 21, 2012 at 8:40 am #

          JLMA,

          We alternated between two routines. One was leg press, pull down, and overhead press. The other was deadlift, chest press, and compound row. I remember occasionally adding calves at the end of the second as well.

  11. Aaron November 28, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Drew,

    Good post. Gives me something to think about. I always do better with dips than with benching. I’ve come to see how much more the shoulders are being used in benches and how much weaker I am because of shoulder problems. The Arthur Jones’ Nautilus Bulletins are quite informative. What a treat!

  12. Phil November 29, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    Drew

    Many thanks for your very detailed response. Seems I definitely have to do some adjustment with my technique.

  13. James November 30, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    Drew,

    Hey i was reading an article about a HIT routine Where you lift your maximum weight for one rep. Then a negative for 60 seconds. Then reduce the weight by half and go to failure(6-8 reps). Do this for six exercises with about 90 seconds of break inbetween each. Then he goes on saying that this creates an inroad of 50% which is huge,(a lot more than normal) Which produces much more stimulus and gains than a regular hit routine. He only says to do this once a month.

    The articale was by Jim Flanagan. What is the validity of this super workout? I wanted to check with you to see if killing myself in this routine would be worth the huge gains he clams it brings.

  14. Dave K December 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    Great article, Drew. What about the ineffectiveness of machines like you’ve talked about in articles past? For example, I have a gym membership at Planet Fitness and often use their machines. Is improperly designed machines another important point to consider if not posting the gains you’d like, or would that have a minor effect? Thanks!

    • Drew Baye December 3, 2010 at 12:20 am #

      Dave,

      While an improperly designed machine will be less effective than a properly designed one it is still possible to make good gains if you’re using them correctly. I made very good gains when I was following Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty program using a combination of free weights and an older line of Badger Magnum equipment, which was by far one of the worst brands I’ve ever used.

  15. Mark December 22, 2010 at 5:40 am #

    Some HIT training states to train full body 1 time per month and they claim to make huge strength gains.

    Other HIT camps like Mike Mentzer state that it is better to do a 4 split (Chest.Back/Legs/Shoulders.Arms/Legs) every 6-9 days which equals to training each body part (except for legs) about once per month.

    Then there is McGuff who says only 1 full body workout every 7 days.

    Then I read your HIT theories that say 2 workouts per week. I am so confused. Isn’t 100% recovery necessary before moving on to the next workout? Also, shouldn’t one wait until MAXIMUM strength gains are produced before training the same muscle again? McGuff says this can take up to 21 days to occur. I am so confused about frequency. I made some gains when I waited 7 days but I made even more significant gains when I rested 21 days, so which frequency is better to follow?

    • Drew Baye December 24, 2010 at 1:50 am #

      Mark,

      There is no single frequency that works best for everybody. Recovery time varies considerably between individuals and requires some experimentation to determine. Assuming everything else is in order (diet, sleep, etc.) if you are improving on a workout to workout basis you’re getting adequate recovery between workouts, if not, take some extra time off to ensure full recovery then resume at a slightly reduced frequency.

  16. Mark December 30, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    What is your opinion of Tom Venuto recommendation to do more sets. He says that he tried 1 set training and didn’t gain any size even though he admitted to getting stronger. Then he resorted back to higher volume and continued gaining size.

    Similar testimonials were provided by Arnold Schwarz. and other former champions who tried 1 set training.

    I too have done 1 set training for the past year and while I continue gaining significant strength, I’ve little to show for it in size gains. I continue 1 set training monitoring my frequency and continue excelling in strength with the hope that one day it will translate into size but all my workout buddies say I am wasting my time.

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

      Mark,

      Tom is wrong. If a person is performing the exercise properly more than one work set is not required. If a person is not gaining I would question how hard they were training and whether they were getting adequate quality food and rest and allowing enough time between workouts for recovery.

  17. Ted January 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    While I usually employ whole-body workouts once every 5 or 6 days, I’m thinking of starting a triple split program – Day 1: chest, delts & tris……Day 2: Back, traps & bis…..Day 3: Legs, maybe a set of crunches. No more than 3 or 4 total sets per workout, taking two or three days off between workouts. Has anyone used something similar? What kind of results? All feedback, including negative impressions are welcomed.

    • Drew Baye January 6, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

      Ted,

      Although I usually do brief, full-body workouts I’ve had good results with upper/lower splits. The important thing is to measure what is important to you and keep track of how those measurements respond to changes in your training and diet.

  18. Ted January 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Yep – I usually do full-body workouts but after 30+ years of training gains come in such tiny increments that it’s difficult to assess just how much progress, if any, I’m making. Thought maybe a split might shake things up a bit. Switching workouts up can be deceiving – as others have mentioned, what you might think is progress might actually be just neural learning.

  19. Andy January 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Drew,

    concerning training for muscle growth:

    There are some in the field of exercise science, who promote constantly changing exercises and style of execution in order to shock the muscles and therefore stimulate muscle growth. At best no workout should be the same than the previous one if physical change is your primary goal and not strength increase.
    They state that a trainee can get tremendous strength increases if he stays on a non-varying routine of a few basic exercises for months after months or maybe years. The muscles don´t become resistant to further adaptations but these adaptations are just strength increases and not muscle mass increases. The central nervous system learns steadily to better execute the same exercises and so there is no need for the body to increase the mass of the involved muscles.

    There must be a different high intensity stimulus every time you train when you want your muscles to grow. It has to be a shocking experience so that your body has no other chance than to grow. Just a few more pounds on your familiar exercises can´t deliver that.

    That is not my opinion, but isn´t there a bit of truth?

    Andy

    • Drew Baye January 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

      Andy,

      No, there is no truth to that. The idea that one must “shock” or “confuse” the muscles is a myth. Neural adaptations precede hypertrophy, not the other way around. They account for the largest percent of strength increases when you begin a new exercise or routine, but after about eight weeks they account for only a few percent at most, with the majority of improvements being due to muscular adaptations.

      I suspect the biggest reason for the continued promotion of this myth is to justify the new workouts and training programs the bodybuilding and fitness magazines have to come up with each month to fill the space between advertisements. If they just told people it was as simple as working hard and progressively on a few basic exercises, keeping your workouts brief and infrequent, and getting quality food and sleep, they’d quickly run out of things to write about.

  20. Ted January 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Drew -

    Actually, I do agree – neural adaptions seem to precede growth…..also, for me, it seems that strength increases precede hypertrophy.

Leave a Reply

WP-SpamFree by Pole Position Marketing