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By Kevin Dye
Who do you listen to for training advice? Is it the latest Mr. Olympia, just because he's won the highest bodybuilding contest? Or maybe, the biggest guy at your gym, the one who stands out because he's a "man amongst men"? Or even some guru who's known because of the mystique that surrounds him or his training methods? Well, if you follow the advice of any of these people, without personalising it in some way, then it's a safe bet that you aren't training optimally, because the ONLY person who can honestly design the best routine for you is YOU!
Inside all of us right now are the answers we need to help us in our pursuit of bigger and stronger muscles. Listening to what our bodies tell us is the smartest move any of us can make, as no matter who we idolise or how famous a bodybuilder might be, how can someone else know exactly what suites us? If, like puppets, we blindly follow the advice of others then we aren't training in the most effective manner possible. It's only by training optimally can the best progress be made, so we are essentially robbing ourselves in every possible way if we ignore what our body tells us, as only we know what's best.
There are four main factors to assess before we settle on the routine that's right for us; the essence of these factors should be based on our own unique needs. Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two routines can be exactly alike either, sure they might share some similarity, but contain important differences to suite personal variation. These differences dictate, (1) exercise selection, (2) rep allotment, (3) exercise tolerance, and, (4) workout frequency. Let's look at each one in detail to see how personalisation dictates what\rquote s best for our needs.
The first step in designing your own routine is learning which movements suite you, as all exercises aren't created equally. No matter who you are, your routine should revolve around the basics, as they involve the heaviest poundages, requiring the most effort and the best stimulation. The basics are the ONLY movements that deliver worthwhile and noticeable results, and though there's only a handful of truly effective exercises, there is enough variation within each to suite everyone. But be careful, just because a movement is deemed a "must" , doesn't necessarily mean it is the right one for you, and only by knowing your body can you chose movements that ares appropriate for you.
For example, most of my training life I was convinced deadlifts were my forte, but every time I exceeded 400lbs I strained my lower back. Each time it happened, I was angry and annoyed with myself, as not only did I suffer extensive pain but also I then had to lay-off from training for a few weeks, frustrating me even further. As a yearly injury you'd have thought I would learnt earlier, but because my beliefs were so strong about my deadlift suitability, I would eventually start to use them again and inevitably hurt myself as my poundages built up and edged past the 400lb range.
Eventually I looked inside and listened to the messages my body kept telling me, and to my amazement I saw squats were better for me, combined with periods of stiff-leg deadlifts, which have always felt "right", I didn\t miss anything avoiding deadlifts. This was a revelation, as I always considered myself a second rate squatter, but I now know I was wrong, and squats suite me far better than deadlifts ever will.
You too have to by honest with yourself when deciding what exercises to include in your routine, and use only those movements that suite you. If bench presses don't suite you, as others and I have discovered, then take the time to find out what does. Never use an exercise just because it's popular, because fame doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't suite you. Same for every other exercise you perform, assess its worth before making it an integral part of your routine. Never keep performing something that doesn't feel right or keeps hurting you, no matter who endorses it or how popular it's touted to be.
Rep allotment, like exercise selection, is based on genetic allotment, and you have to know your unique muscle fibre make-up before settling on a particular rep range. Just as there are those that excel at long distance running because they possess the appropriate muscle fibre make-up (slow twitch muscle fibres), there are others that make better sprinters because they possess the opposite traits (fast twitch muscle fibres). I was fortunate, in that I knew before I ever tested myself that low reps suited me better than medium or high reps did, so low reps have been a main stay throughout my training life.
When I finally tested myself in the mid-80's, using Ellington Darden's recommendations, it confirmed what I always knew; I possess a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres. To be sure I tested myself again in the early and late 90's, and each time the results were the same, showing genetics never change no matter how advanced you get. These results explain why I have never been a good "repper", a handful of reps on any exercise and I'm spent. Knowing my muscle fibre make-up makes my choice of reps inevitable, I\'m a low repper, so why waste my time training in any other way?
Knowing your exercise choice and rep allotment is just the start of designing your own routine, because if you don't hone the amount of exercises you include in each workout to meet your tolerance levels then you could hamper your gains at best, or cease gains altogether at worst. This is never a static process, as it's constantly changing based on your strength levels, ability to generate intensity, and numerous other factors involved in our daily lives. This makes it a tricky factor to get right, so you have to keep an open mind and be willing to adjust exercise volume, as you grow bigger and stronger.
Beginners are able to tolerate a far greater exercise volume than an advanced trainee, because the beginner can't generate a high level of intensity to cause substantial damage. But over time that changes, till eventually he/she will only be able to tolerate a fraction of the exercises each workout they used to handle. It's a fact of nature, as strength and size increases so does the strain it puts on the system as a whole, and to accommodate for these increases something has to be adjusted in accordance, it's inevitable.
Trying to fight against nature is foolish, as no one is a single entity; we all possess the same human traits we must obey. We have no choice, our energy stores aren't indefinite, and neither are our tolerance levels for exercise. As an advanced trainee with 22 years of dedicated training under my belt, I know for a fact I'm limited to only a handful of exercises each trip to the gym. I love training as much as anyone, and probably a lot more than most, yet that still doesn't exclude me from the fact my system can't tolerate any great amount of volume, so I'm forced to obey my body and not overdo it.
Likewise, you too have to find your own level of tolerance each workout, as this also effects the set allotment you allow each movement. The way I see the equation is you either, (a) do one all out set to failure, or (b) perform 2 sets just short of failure, the end result is essentially the same. What you chose to use is based on personal ability, a s there are some trainees better suited to maximum intensity, while there are others that prefer holding that last rep inside, then repeating another sub-maximal set. It\rquote s all a matter of knowing yourself, then abiding by your personal nature, and only you know what that is.
Like exercise volume, the frequency with which you are able to train and see progress is something we must personalise over time. When we all commenced training we would have probably gotten away with daily training, due to the minimal effects we made on our recuperative abilities. But as we advance, handle heavier poundages and learn how to train harder, we made deeper inroads into our precious recuperative abilities, meaning more and more time must be allowed between workouts to allow for the recuperation and overcompensation processes to complete their cycles.
I would love to be able to train daily, or at least three times a week, but I know that isn't practical, as not only is it a huge drain on my energy levels but also my mental abilities to psyche up to train at the appropriate level of intensity. That is why I am forced to wait for at least 3 days between workouts, so I am rested enough to add another small weight increment on each exercise next workout. Without progress why train in the first place? I expect to see progress at least every second workout, and if that isn't evident then I adjust something, either volume of frequency, to ensure progress continues.
A good starting point, open to adjustment based on personal needs of course, is allowing 2-3 days between workouts. If progress isn't forthcoming then lengthen the days off till you see regular progress at least every second workout. Unfortunately, too many trainees are afraid resting too long between workouts will m ake their precious gains evaporate, when in fact the opposite is usually the case. Recuperation is a complex process requiring time to complete its job, as is overcompensation (size and strength increases), so don't be afraid to allow the time for your body needs to repair the damage your training inflicts.
By using the exercises, reps, volume and frequency your body requires means you are training in the safest and most effective fashion possible. If we all take the time to listen carefully to what our body tells us we are saved the frustration of searching endlessly for answers. No longer will we need to frantically search each edition of the latest muscle magazine for advice, or follow Mr. O suggestions, just because it earnt him a trophy. Remember, what might be best for HIM or others doesn\rquote t reflect your needs, which isn't to say you might not learn something, but be weary of what you take on board. Listen to YOUR body; obey YOUR needs , as within each of us are the answers to all our bodybuilding needs for life, never underestimate them!