People say I need to dedicate a separate day to each body part. Is that not right?
No – and it might even be counterproductive. “The problem I see most beginners make is following routines that are too advanced for them,” says Dan Forbes, a strength and conditioning coach and founder of Veteran Athlete. “As every guy who’s been training for a few years knows, the first year or two in the gym is a special time, when it’s possible to make progress each and every session. Those ‘newbie’ gains are glorious, and the best ways to capitalise on them are to get moving properly and work hard.
“Doing complex split routines, where you divide your weekly workouts into body-part sessions, as a beginner is like using a sledgehammer to open a nut. They build too much fatigue, which impedes the body’s learning process, increases recovery time and slows progress.”
So what should I do instead?
Keep it simple. No, simpler than that. “One go-to routine for beginners is the ‘one set of 20’ routine created by Dr Michael Yessis,” says Forbes. “The concept is simple. Select one exercise per body part, choose a weight that you can do 20 reps with and get after it. The next time you go to the gym you perform the same routine with only one instruction: beat your last session. A couple of extra reps, the next size dumbbell up – whatever it is, you must make progress.
“I have clients do this until they fail to make progress for two sessions in a row. Then I drop the reps to 14 and repeat, then I drop them to ten reps – and only then do I introduce multiple sets. This approach will let you make progress every session. Who doesn’t love that?”
How many days a week do I need to go to the gym?
Three is Forbes’s recommendation for beginners. “That’s less about recovery time and more about keeping plenty of options in the bag for when you reach the point where you need to do increase frequency to keep seeing progress. If you can’t manage three, two days a week will still get the job done. For those keen beans who want to do more, I don’t hold them back – do whatever frequency you want.
“The key with increasing or decreasing training frequency is to remember to keep overall training volume the same when possible. For example, if a client has 20 sets of total work for their quads in a programme and goes from training twice a week to four times a week, I’ll simply spread those 20 sets across four days.”
OK, I’m officially intermediate. What are my options?
“When someone has a bit of training experience, I like an upper/lower split,” says Forbes. “An upper/lower split allows you to spread the training load across the week. I’d usually go for a power-building set-up – think big, compound lifts done with low reps at the start of the week, then some higher-rep isolation work later in the week. This increases strength while you build some lean mass.
“With this type of set-up you can ensure that your muscles get exposed to the three key drivers of muscle growth – mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress – across each week. But you’ll also keep engaged by shifting the focus of the sessions across the week.”
What if I want to improve one body part?
“To focus on a particular body part, you want to increase the amount of work that muscle is doing in a training cycle, known as the training load,” says Forbes. “In these situations, I opt for a higher-frequency set-up rather than adding in a training session specifically for that body part. It allows for a higher quality of work and higher work output.
“For example, if you were to perform flat bench presses, incline bench presses, dips and flyes, by the time you get to the dip you’ll have already activated the key muscles, accumulated fatigue and lactic acid, and caused some muscle damage. In a nutshell, you’re spent.
“In comparison, if I set up a training programme so that you perform flyes and dips on a lower body focus day, you’ll be able to use more weight. That means a greater training load for that muscle and a more frequent stimulus to grow and adapt.”