The first real program I followed was Max-OT. It was a pretty standard 5-day body part rotation with emphasis on big compound movements. The concepts were generally sound and I made decent strength gains on it. My main issues with it, though, are twofold: first, even though a different body part is worked each day, what I didn’t know then is that working out can still tax the recovery systems that are working on the recently-worked muscle groups. What I mean by that is, if I do legs on Monday and chest on Tuesday, even though I’m not directly working legs on Tuesday, the fact that I am exposing myself to extremely strenuous work is going to impact the recovery of my legs. Some with bigger bones and joints than me might be able to handle this frequency, but I believe it to be too frequent for a classic hardgainer. The other issue I have with the program is that the target rep range is 4-6. If you buy into rep ranges targeting different muscle fibers (I do, see here) then you’ll know this isn’t the optimal growth range.
The other type of workout I’ve done very seriously is high intensity training (HIT). The basic principle is that you only do one set of each exercise, but you do it to complete and total failure. Since it is extremely intense, the sessions must be kept brief and infrequent (time between workouts was usually a week). The thinking is that you’ve shown your body that it can’t perform a desired job, and thus, coupled with proper rest and nutrition, it will adapt to be able to handle such workloads. It seemed like flawless logic to me at first. I did it religiously. I lost weight during this time and some was definitely fat, but I think I may have lost some lean mass too. People may argue with me that I “did it wrong,” or simply “am mentally weak to push through,” but believe me, I gave it a fair shot. I have an engineering background and have no reason to be anything but scientific with this process. In this case, I have several important conclusions.
First, regardless of the fact that one routine or another may be “theoretically superior,” there is only one thing that matters in the end: results. And I wasn’t getting them, so I stopped. On a personal level, I may have stopped believing in the routine towards the end and this can have catastrophic effects on progress. On a scientific level, I have read that individuals with smaller bones do not have the regenerative abilities that larger people do and thus training to failure might not be as effective (source here). HIT definitely has a place in the fitness world, but I cannot personally endorse it as something that will help build lean mass quickly.
I’ve also experimented with circuit training, supersets, pyramid bullshit and found it to be generally ineffective at helping me add lean mass.
I’m going to start off by saying that when I was first introduced to weight lifting (age 14) by my football coach, he taught us what he thought were the basic strength exercises necessary to build a team up: squats, power cleans, and incline bench press. Deadlifts, regular bench, and rows were in there too, but those first three were the stressed exercises. I left those behind at some point thinking I needed to get more advanced techniques and more specialized exercises. Let me tell you something – don’t waste your time and energy on gimmicky bullshit. I have come full circle after more than 10 years of lifting and I can definitively say the best things you can do are the compound multi-joint exercises.
I’m not going to get into extreme specifics here, but here are the most important exercises you can do:
- Bench press (flat or decline)
- Bent over barbell rows
- Lat pull down (or pull ups)
- Shoulder press
I do train biceps, triceps, abs and calves, but the exercises above are far more important. They have provided most of my personal results and I feel great doing them. Seriously, master the technique at a light weight and then move up steadily from there. Don’t waste your time following some marketing scheme or whatever. Big exercises that stimulate big muscle groups. It’s not rocket science.
For those of you looking for a specific routine, I recommend Casey Butt’s practical routine for beginners (don’t let the name fool you, it’s applicable for those of all training levels).