By C.S. Sloan
Just the other day I received an e-mail from a reader of my articles. “Hey, Sloan,” the reader asked, “how do I gain the most amount of muscle and strength in the quickest amount of time?” or something like that. At first, I dismissed the question—I get asked generic questions like that on a regular basis. And after all, the only thing one really needs to do is scour the internet for no telling how many articles that will outline how to do just that. Or—for that matter, I thought to myself—all this reader has to do is read over my blog. If you ingest all of my posts on training, that should be more than enough information for gaining plenty of muscle mass and strength.
Then, it hit me: My training ideas—although static in the basic theories—have evolved over the course of training powerlifters, strength athletes, and just average Joes who want to gain muscle mass and strength. And my ideas are still evolving.
So here you hold in your hands what I consider the 3 keys to gaining monstrous amounts of muscle mass—and to have the strength to go along with it.
Key #1: Squat, Squat, and Squat Some More
When it comes to packing on muscle mass, I have my lifters do a variety of different programs. But the one thing that every single program has in common is the squat, and lots of it
If the lifter is a relative beginner, then I have him/her start out with a basic 5×5, heavy-light-medium program. Here is what a basic 5×5 program would look like for the squat:
Monday: Heavy Day
Perform 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps. The last set should be all-out; six reps should be a near impossibility. Let’s say your max for 5 reps is 225 pounds, then your workout would look something like this:
Wednesday: Light Day
Two days later you would work up to about 80% of the weight used on Monday. You would stop progressing, however, on your third set. Sets would look something like this:
Friday: Medium Day
Friday is the “medium” day; here you work up to around 90% of Monday’s top set. Sets would look something like this:
Advanced lifters need something a little different: they need more total volume and workload on each training day. If you’ve been lifting for some time—and you have the muscle mass to actually demonstrate it—give the following squat workout a go for a couple of months. You’ll be (more than just) pleasantly surprised by the results.
Here’s my advanced squat program:
Monday: Heavy Day
On this workout, perform 3 to 4 progressively heavier sets. Perform 5 “work” sets of 5 reps. Your training session might look something like the following:
Simple but definitely tough.
Wednesday: Light Day
On this training day, you will work up to 80% (approximately) of your work weight on Monday. Once again, you will perform 5 sets of 5 reps. Our hypothetical lifter from Monday should do a workout that looks something like this:
Friday: Medium Day
This training day will be a little different. Here, you will work up to 5 “work” sets of 2 reps, but with a weight heavier than Monday. Don’t worry, it’s still a “medium” day because of the total workload that is being used. Our hypothetical lifter for the week should be doing something along these lines:
Keep in mind that these are just a couple of ideas when it comes to training the squat—although they are highly effective ideas. The important thing is that you should be doing some kind of hard, heavy squatting at least twice each week if you’re really serious about gaining muscle, strength, power, and all that good stuff.
Key #2: Choose the Correct Exercises
Looking at this “key” you might find that it sounds boring, or that it’s in no way anything that you didn’t already know. But the truth is that most lifters rarely choose the correct exercises.
I’ve been guilty of this in the past. Often, for instance, I would prepare for a powerlifting meet (and would be preparing other lifters at the same time) and not do the kind of exercises that would really be a “boon” for muscle growth and strength gains. Too many times the only really effective exercises I—and my lifters—would perform were squats and deadlifts. We, of course, did bench presses since we needed them for competition, but then our assistance exercises would too often consists of extensions and dumbbell raises (for the bench) and hyperextensions and good mornings for the squat and deadlift. I’m not saying that workout was bad, it’s just that it could have been better.
Here’s what I have currently started doing: I pick a lower body pushing exercise, a lower body pulling exercise, and upper body overhead pushing exercise, an upper body pulling exercise, and some kind of “strongman” exercise to finish the session off.
A typical workout might consist of these exercises:
squats, deadlifts, standing barbell presses, wide-grip chins, farmer’s walk
The next workout session might consist of these exercises:
front squats, power cleans, push presses, barbell rows, sled dragging
Now that’s choosing the correct exercises.
Key #3: Train Frequently
I have uttered it more times than I can imagine, in both training articles and while talking to lifters. For myself—and for you—it should become the mantra that you live and die by (at least for lifting). Apply it and succeed. Don’t apply it and fail at your own peril. Everyone, repeat after me: “The key to muscle and strength gains is to train as frequently as possible while being as fresh as possible.” Thus spoke strength researcher Vladmir Zatsiorsky.
Frequent training works. Period.
I discovered just how effective frequent training is a few years ago: I was training for a powerlifting meet down here in Alabama. A couple of training partners I lifted with wanted to try one of those crazy “Boris Sheiko/Russian-style” squat routines. I decided what the hell, might as well give it a shot. But if we were going to follow a Sheiko squat routine, then we were going to do the entire program. We were going to train our bench presses and deadlifts Sheiko-style just the same.
The program we followed had us bench-pressing three times per week (Note: I would now substitute overhead work for bench pressing if I was to do it again.), squatting twice each week, and deadliftng twice each week. The squatting and deadlifting were both done on different days, which meant that we were training our hamstrings, glutes, and lower back a total of four times each week. And none of the workouts we did were light on volume.
I definitely had my reservations at first. But after a few weeks, I was sold. My squat had never been stronger, and my deadlift and bench press were increasing. The only problem: I was gaining too much muscle, funny as that may sound. This routine wasn’t for someone trying to stay in a weight class, but it was fantastic for a trainee trying to pack on the pounds. I had to actually decrease the amount of work I was doing in each workout in an attempt to stay in my weight class.
Not only did the frequent training work, but it worked better than any system I had ever used. (And keep in mind that I had been training for a long time before that.)
There are several effective programs that use frequent, volume-oriented workouts—but not so much volume that you can’t recover from them (remember our mantra). If I was new to training, then I would definitely start with a Bill Starr-style “heavy-light-medium” program. You can find some good material on this kind of training at my website, or you can just pick up a copy of Iron Man magazine each month—Starr always has a column. Don’t worry about how basic it seems. It’s good stuff.
Another good piece of training would be Mahler’s “Combination Training” program. I’ve used similar programs for guys who just wanted to pack on muscle mass—and who cringed at all of the ultra-heavy training I usually employ.
If you’re an advanced lifter, then I definitely recommend that you give one of the “Sheiko” training plans a try. His programs were/are brutal, but for advanced lifters who have the guts to give them an honest go, they can be the most rewarding programs you’ll ever follow.
There are plenty of articles out there that deal with gaining muscle mass and strength—God knows I’ve written my share of them—and there are also a lot of good programs. But I can guarantee that a program that centers around the 3 keys in this article will never fail you. Apply them and be prepared to grow monstrously.
About The Author
C.S. Sloan is freelance writer, contributing editor for Iron Man magazine, strength athlete, martial artist, and Integral mystic. For more great information on training, check out his blog at: http://cssloanstrength.blogspot.com/