The last few months, during my yearly layoff from hard training (I’d rather spend my free time at the pub during New Zealand’s nice summer weather, and “yearly layoff” sounds nicer than “lazy slug”), I’ve been gravitating towards less demanding, more fun kinds of lifting.
Regular readers will know of my love for autoregulated daily training, but I’ve discovered that I really only care for this during the winter months. For whatever reason, I find myself uninterested during the summer. That reason is beer and sunshine.
Instead, I prefer a more unstructured and unfocused approach, which you might call “screwing around”.
The last few weeks, I’ve been messaging back and forth with JC Deen about good old fashioned Bro-training. You know the stuff: body-part splits. Having an arms day. Pumping the hell out of everything to get that hurt-so-good burn.
Why? Why not? For one thing, it’s fun. Training like this is nowhere near the mental exercise of getting under a heavy squat or pulling a big deadlift. I like paying more attention to the little detail muscles that I’d normally ignore.
Most of all, it keeps me in the gym when I’m just plain sick of the heavy work. You may call me lazy or unfocused if you wish. I call it an ad-hoc yearly plan.
Anyway, since we’ve been bantering back and forth half-seriously, I figured this would make a good topic: how to Bro up your training, enjoy yourself a little (in contrast to the always-on PR OR DIE! mindset), and still get something out of it.
For me, any physique-based training program has to follow three rules of thumb, so I’ve been building my Brogram around them.
Step 1: Tension Rules
Protein synthesis, myonuclei activity, and muscle remodeling and hypertrophy all respond to tension above all else.
Tension is what you get when you stretch a rubber band. Muscle tissue works much the same way, albeit with a reverse gear. Unlike a piece of rubber, the muscle can actively contract to produce tension on its own. This happens whenever you move, and is particularly evident when you’re contracting the muscle against resistance (otherwise known as “lifting weights”). The greater the resistance, the greater the tension.
All else equal, the heavier the weights you’re working with, the greater the stimulus to grow.
Some of you will want to play the “but strength isn’t size and the science isn’t settled!” refrain, so I’ll remind you that bodybuilders lift weights. They do this for a reason, and it’s not because endurance training builds muscle mass. You want to grow, you need to make the muscles in question hoist some iron. That’s self-evident just from paying attention, no research required.
But it’s easy to read too much into that statement, too, since the else isn’t always equal. As I’ve said so many times, lifting heavy weights is not the same thing as powerlifting. Putting 200 pounds on your squat doesn’t matter much if it happened because you moved to a low-bar style and put on a triple-ply suit and knee wraps.
Strength matters, but so does the circumstance.
Step 2: Get Some Work Done
Tension is important but it’s also what we’d call a permissive variable. High tension is necessary, but not by itself sufficient, to maximize hypertrophy processes; it has to be there, but it’s an enabler rather than a direct cause.
The research suggests that, tension aside, hypertrophy is work-induced. There are several definitions of work but, for our purposes, it means “energy used up while making the muscle contract”. Making the muscle contract, and thus do work, stimulates it to grow.
The easiest way to measure work of this type is with volume or tonnage. Multiply the weight by the number of total reps done (sets * reps per set) and you’ll get a number that’s good enough. As you improve over time, that value should grow along with your muscles.
Now, obviously we can’t measure work by itself. If it were that simple you could just sit on the exercise bike for eight hours at a time and get huge quads, or whatever equivalent for any other muscle.
This is where tension matters. Work has to be done with high-enough tension. That’s why going for jogs doesn’t give you huge legs; the tension isn’t high enough. Do work, but do work with heavy-enough weight.
Step 3: Think Muscle
For the sake of completeness, I want to mention a final piece of the puzzle: hypoxic or occlusion training, which I’ve written about several times in the past. To quickly summarize, when you keep a muscle under constant tension and work it to failure, you wind up causing some neural and metabolic voodoo that acts very much like a heavier work set. In effect, you shortcut the process and mimic the effects of training heavy without actually training heavy.
Along with tension and work, we need to keep this in mind. My current belief is that the occlusion effect accounts for most bodybuilding methods and techniques, the constant-tension, slow-tempo, push to failure-and-beyond kind of training. This includes drop sets, rest-pause training, partial rep “burns”, giant sets, and anything else I’m leaving out.
Whether you’re using heavy HIT-style sets or pumping work, make the muscle do the work.
Doctor of Brolosophy
In my recent Brogramming I’ve been combining two approaches, based on those three rules:
1. Letting volume happen with heavy weights. I’ve got no real strategy here. I’ve been drawing on two viewpoints that I’m familiar with: Pavel’s Russian Bear workout from Power to the People! and Borge’s Myo-Reps. Without any strict plan, my mindset coming into these sessions is to hit something reasonably heavy for 3 or 5 reps, then get some work done on top of it.
The Bear approach is to drop back say 10% (I just go by Plate Math) and then knock out a lot of sets with short-ish rests, say a minute or thereabouts (I just use the breath-timer). So I’d hit a top set of say five, then cut back and do more fives every 60 seconds or so (triples also work really well if you’re having a lazy day).
Myo-Reps works a little different, taking a rest-pause approach where you knock out a lot of mini-sets. Borge’s written a ton about this so I’ll just point you at his articles (hint: use Google Translate).
Which works better? That question doesn’t have any meaning to me. I just do what I feel like as long as I can measure progress.
2. Constant tension movements with light weights. The quintessential Bro method. I especially dig this for the upper body detail-work, but it works well for quads and calves too (hamstrings I’m not quite sure about, but that’s a personal thing — they cramp — rather than a blanket criticism).
I don’t get too wacky here. I pick a weight I’ll get at least 10 reps with, work the movement through most of the ROM but not to a point where the muscle relaxes, and just go until it hurts. Sometimes I’ll do short-ROM “burns” for another 4-5 mini-reps after fatigue sets in, or even a static hold for however long I can take it. I don’t ever bother with the drop-set or giant-set stuff, though you could if you wanted. Rest-pausing a la DC Training could go well here too.
Besides the obvious pumpitude, I’ve developed a real love of this stuff because it does wonders for my poor joints. Since I’m not training as often, my aches and pains are coming back with a vengeance, so it’s nice to stick with lighter weights.
Do whatever you like. Seriously. It wasn’t that long ago that I’d have been up in arms over a body-part split but, being realistic, I don’t think it matters as long as you’re being reasonable about it. You want to go do push/pull/legs? Have at it.
What I’ve been doing is one or two leg days, and then (ideally) 2-3 days to hit the upper body work. Since I’m not hammering out anything heavy, the recovery isn’t any big deal. I’m also not getting up to any major volume, generally only 2-3 work sets per muscle, so there’s also that.
Upper Body Day
Overhead Press up to a reasonable triple or five (with back-offs or rest-pause)
Chinups, the same. Some days I’ll just do pulldowns instead and treat them like one of the accessory exercises.
The rest of this workout is accessory work for the detail muscles. I go for chest on an incline, traps with dumbbell or machine shrugs, delts with the cable or dumbbell, and then whatever for the gunz. Typically I’ll do dumbbell curls on the preacher bench and then pulldowns with the rope attachment, but sometimes I’ll do curls in the squat rack or close-grip bench or something like that.
You’ll notice I’m not benching and that’s for a good reason. That lift chews up my shoulders and I’m tired of it. I’d rather stick with overhead work for my strength move and then leave chest work for dumbbells. If you want to bench, that’s your call.
Front Squats up to a reasonable triple or five with back-offs. Triples are better because let’s face it, reps on front squats suck.
Leg Press and Calves (on the leg press sled) for the constant-tension move.
I could stand to throw in a deadlift of some kind for triples, or maybe a stiff-leg or RDL for fives, but so far I haven’t made myself care enough.
Also one option I’ve got in mind is to do sled work or tempo work on the cycle as extra leg work. This would get me some cardio in, and let’s face it I need it, but it also gives some extra leg stimulus. Legs like conditioning-type work so long as it’s reasonably intense. This covers your excuse for not training legs, as you run a lot.
This is pretty Bro-ish without getting up there into red-alert frat-boy territory, and it’s got some ScienceTM behind it to upset all the people that get allergic around science, so there’s something to please everyone.