Practical Starting Routines for The Drug-Free Trainee

In Part I [Read Here] we went over ‘The Rules’. Now we’re going to build on those rules and start fleshing out some sensible training routines that will help you progress as quickly as possible. So, let’s get right into it and give you something to do in the gym.Program #1 – Your First 2 Weeks Of Weight Training

This is what I want you to do. Each time you go to the gym do the following routine:

The Basic Routine

  1. Squats 2 x 10
  2. Bench Presses 2 x 10
  3. Bent-Over Rows 2 x 10
  4. Overhead Barbell Presses 2 x 10
  5. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts 2 x 10
  6. Barbell Curls 2 x 10
  7. Donkey Calf Raises 2 x 10
  8. Reverse Crunches 2 x 10

Explanation

Perform this routine 3 times per week on non-consecutive days. That could work out to be Monday/Wednesday/Friday, it could be Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday or it could be Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. It really doesn’t matter which one you follow so pick the one that’s the most convenient for you. If you normally stay up late Friday night, and therefore get little sleep, then it wouldn’t be a good idea to work out on Saturday. Likewise, if you have lots to do during the week, then it may be more practical for you to train once on the weekend and twice during the week – the Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule may not be an ideal option for you. This may help free up some time.

“2 x 10” means two sets of ten reps each. Do all of these sets very lightly for the first two weeks, and use the same weight on both sets of each exercise. I know that it says in all the muscle magazines that you have to train to failure and “no pain, no gain” and all that, but, for now, that’s completely unnecessary. When you first learn a new movement your body goes through a period when your nervous system ‘learns’ to do everything the best it can – kind of like learning to ride a bike. During this period you don’t need to push too hard; it won’t get you anywhere any faster. Did peddling as hard as you could help you learn to ride a bike faster? No. Several studies have shown that in the early stages of weight training the vast majority of strength gains are due to this nervous system learning and not muscle growth, anyway – this is just the way the body adapts at first. In addition, training to failure isn’t necessary for anyone to stimulate growth and, as a beginner, your body will grow in respond to this relatively easy work just as quickly as it would if you strained yourself pushing, pulling and squatting. That’s a scientific fact. So it’s not the time to go overboard trying to grow big muscles by pushing and straining. What we’re after in the first two weeks is to help the nervous system along by doing two, relatively easy, sets of 10 reps for each movement, three times per week – with the best form possible.

There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to complete this workout in well under an hour. Any longer than that and you’re just being lazy. As the weeks pass, and you go through the next series of programs, you’ll find that the workouts start taking a bit longer, but even in the last program of this series (program #6) you should be able to get your work done in about an hour. It simply doesn’t take that long to stimulate optimum muscle growth. Think of it this way, the longer your workout is the more energy you burn up – energy your body could be using to fuel the growth process. So we want to train long enough to stimulate growth in all the major muscles, but we don’t want to train so long that we hamper our growth (more is NOT always better). The programs in this series have that balance taken into account.

I suggest that you get someone who knows what they’re doing to teach you how to do these exercises correctly. You may also want to get a good book or video on exercise form – or search the internet for such things. If you learn improper form now you’ll have one hell of a time correcting it later. Remember, I said that your nervous system is learning the exercises now, so DON’T start out on the wrong foot. If you do you’ll have a MUCH HARDER time building muscle when your nervous system does get up to speed. Learn them right to begin with.

You’ll probably be very sore after your first few workouts. This is because even when taking it easy on these exercises your muscles will still be subjected to a lot of what’s called ‘micro-trauma’. If you push it too hard at first you’ll be that sore that you won’t even be able to walk upright for several days. Then you’ll miss your workouts and that’s not good. So relax, “slow and steady wins the race.” As for the soreness, it’s always MUCH worse after your first few workouts. Within a week or two your workouts might not even make you sore at all. (Don’t worry about that either – soreness isn’t necessary for muscle growth).

Program #2 – The Next 2 Weeks Of Weight Training

So, now that we’ve got those initial two weeks taken care of let’s move into the next two weeks’ training. We’re going to stick to the same routine but now you can start pushing the last set of the two a little bit harder – not all out, but just a little tougher. So for your second set add a little bit of weight to the bar. You should still stop all of your sets with several perfect-form reps left in you, though. Think of it as shifting into second gear. NOT a big shift, but just a nudge. During the first two weeks your muscles learned to cooperate with each other (like finding your balance), now the individual fibers within your muscles are starting to work together more efficiently. That means your individual muscles are actually learning to contract ‘better’. So, at this stage the nervous system is still the major producer of the gains you make, but now it’s happening inside each muscle moreso than between groups of them.

This period is still one of learning for your nervous system, so strive to do every rep of every exercise with the best possible form. If you learn to do them the right way now, you will be rewarded later. And don’t forget, if your ‘form’ is bad you’ll eventually injure yourself anyway. So the program looks like this:

3 days per week Set #1 Set #2
Squats easy add weight
Bench Presses easy add weight
Bent-Over Rows easy add weight
Overhead Barbell Presses easy add weight
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts easy add weight
Barbell Curls easy add weight
Donkey Calf Raises easy add weight
Reverse Crunches easy moderately hard

Add weight to the bar whenever you feel you can, but not if it means that your sets become too difficult or if your exercise ‘form’ starts breaking down. Remember, at this point we’re setting the stage for future gains so HAVE PATIENCE!

When you do your Reverse Crunches your first set should be a set of 10, like before, but on your second set try to do a few more reps. Don’t work so hard that you see stars or anything, but try to get an extra rep on your second set when you feel comfortable with it. In other words, do a set of ten and then another set of however many reps it takes to get a little fatigued.

Explanation

I realize that this nervous system and fiber ‘cooperation’ stuff probably isn’t what you had in mind for the first 4 weeks of your training. You probably figured you’d be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger by then. Well, what can I say? That’s just the way the body works. It doesn’t like to do things that require a lot of energy (like building and supporting new muscle tissue) when it can get strong in other ways that aren’t as ‘costly’ (like refining the way the nervous system operates). But here’s the good news: In another couple of weeks all that nervous system stuff will largely have sorted itself out and your body will concentrate on building some real muscle. (Though neural adaptations to training never completely cease. That’s how Olympic-style Weightlifters get so strong without getting really muscular – they train specifically for neural adaptations.) In the meantime, you’re doing everything you can at this stage of your training life to promote the maximum rate of improvement. You will be seeing some growth by now, but the best is yet to come.

In case you’re wondering about training ‘intensity’ let me address the matter this way: You really wouldn’t build any more muscle by training harder at this point. I know some authors continually preach that you must train to failure in order to progress optimally, but that’s simply not true. Muscles grow because when you train them you do ‘damage’ to them (I know it doesn’t sound nice). Your body’s reaction to this damage is to make the muscles stronger so that next time they’ll be able to handle what you throw at ’em. At this stage your muscles are very susceptible to training induced ‘damage’, but your nervous system just isn’t coordinated enough to do much additional ‘damage’ to the muscles if you were to push to failure. So, it really isn’t necessary to work ‘all-out’ during this period. In fact, to do so wouldn’t make any sense at all – it would just be an added, unnecessary burden on your nervous system.

Program #3 – The Next 2 Weeks Of Weight Training

Your first month down! Now we want to get the muscles’ and nervous systems’ learning period over with and start moving into the growth zone. We’re going to do that by adding one more set to all our exercises, bringing our total up to three sets per exercise. This will give your muscles a little more to deal with and also help your nervous system finish its optimizing process. This extra set should be placed in between your first and second sets – a little heavier than the first, but not as heavy as the second. So now, for each exercise, you do three progressively heavier sets.

3 days per week Set #1 Set #2 Set #3
Squats easy add weight add more weight
Bench Presses easy add weight add more weight
Bent-Over Rows easy add weight add more weight
Overhead Barbell Presses easy add weight add more weight
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts easy add weight add more weight
Barbell Curls easy add weight add more weight
Donkey Calf Raises easy add weight add more weight
Reverse Crunches easy hard no third set

Like the previous two weeks, add weight to the bar whenever you feel you can, but not if it means that your sets become too difficult or if your exercise ‘form’ starts breaking down. On your third sets use a weight just heavy enough so that you feel like you’re lifting a good weight, but not so much that it becomes an all-out effort. You should feel as though you could do an extra few reps if you tried. And keep the first two sets of each exercise light – think of them as warm-up sets.

For Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, take it easier on your second weekly training session. Only do two sets, with the weights being the same as you would use on the other days – only you don’t do the heavier third set. This will allow your lower back to have a little extra recuperation time in the middle of the week.

For Reverse Crunches do a set of ten, take a 1-2 minute rest, then do a set of however many reps it takes to get a good “burn” in the abs.

Program #4 – The Next 2 Weeks Of Weight Training

By now you’ve got six weeks of good, solid weight training under your belt. Your nervous system should be getting pretty ‘optimized’ and you’re getting into the serious muscle growth zone. And to usher that ‘growth zone’ in we’re going to make a few changes. First, I want you to drop your reps down to 8 on all of your upper body exercises (you’ll have to add a bit of weight and start working a bit heavier for this) – keep your lower body exercises at 10 reps. Second, I want you to stay on the Basic Routine that I gave you but now, on the second training day of the week, I want you to add some more weight and start pushing pretty hard on your last set of each exercise. Use enough weight so that the set is genuinely difficult. You shouldn’t use that much weight that you don’t get all 8 or 10 reps (depending on whether it’s an upper or lower body exercise), but it should be heavy enough that you definitely wouldn’t say it was easy. Still, take it fairly easy on the other two days, though. You should be using about 80% of the weights that you use on your ‘heavy’ day on these days. We’re taking advantage of the fact that your nervous system is now getting up to speed, but we don’t want to over do it. It’s the balance that’s important. You can train abs “hard” at each session.

Remember, only use a difficult weight on your third sets on the second training day of each week. Your routine now looks like this:

The Basic Routine

  1. Squats 3 x 10
  2. Bench Presses 3 x 8
  3. Bent-Over Rows 3 x 8
  4. Overhead Barbell Presses 3 x 8
  5. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts 3 x 10
  6. Barbell Curls 3 x 8
  7. Donkey Calf Raises 3 x 10
  8. Reverse Crunches 1 x 10, 1 x ~

And as an example of your ‘heavy’ day, let’s say you train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday would be your ‘heavy’ day. This is how it would look.

Wednesday Set #1 Set #2 Set #3
Squats easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Bench Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Bent-Over Rows easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Overhead Barbell Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Barbell Curls easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Donkey Calf Raises easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Reverse Crunches easy hard – incline no third set

The other two days would be the same except on the third set of each exercise you would not use enough weight to make the sets difficult (about 80% of your ‘heavy’ day weights). On your ‘heavy’ days add weight to the bar whenever possible, but make sure that you still get all of the reps that you’re supposed to in excellent form.

For Stiff-Legged Deadlifts only use about 70% of your ‘heavy’ day weights on the other two weekly training days – your lower back can’t be pounded with heavy weights too often.

For Reverse Crunches do your first set like before, but on the second set lie on a slant board which is on a slight incline. That way the exercise will be harder. Aim at getting 20 reps on your second set. If you reach that goal increase the incline angle. Don’t have ‘light’ days for Reverse Crunches – all three weekly training days are ‘hard’.

Program #5 – The Next 2 Weeks Of Weight Training

Now you’ve been at this for eight weeks. If you’ve lasted this long that probably means that you’re going to stick with it. You’re also at the point where your nervous system isn’t the big factor anymore and now you’re in position to concentrate solely on muscle growth. I want you to now perform two ‘heavy’ days per week. So, instead of performing one ‘heavy’ and two ‘light’ days per week, like you did for the previous two weeks, now you’re going to do the opposite – perform two ‘heavy’ days and one ‘light’. The ‘light’ day goes in between the two ‘heavy’ days. So, if you work out on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, Monday and Friday would be your ‘heavy’ days.

Monday and Friday Set #1 Set #2 Set #3
Squats easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Bench Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Bent-Over Rows easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Overhead Barbell Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Barbell Curls easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Donkey Calf Raises easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult
Incline Reverse Crunches easy hard no third set

Once again, add weight whenever you can on your ‘heavy’ days – but don’t work so heavy that you can’t get the reps that you planned to, and in excellent form. On your ‘light’ day use about 80% of the weights that you use on your ‘heavy’ days. For Stiff-Legged Deadlifts only perform a ‘heavy’ day on the first training day of the week – on the other two days have a ‘light’ day for Stiff-Legged Deadlifts.

For Incline Reverse Crunches follow the same procedure as before, but now you can start doing your first set (10 reps) on an incline also. Aim for 20 reps on the second set and increase the incline angle if and when you get there. Once again, there are no ‘light’ days for abs. Eventually, you’ll have increased the angle on these Incline Reverse Crunches so much that they really become Hanging Knee-Ups. That probably won’t be for awhile yet though, I’m just giving you an insight into where this is going. Stay patient.

Program #6

The 10 week mark – some more changes are in order. We’re going to take our three weekly training days and bump them into two. What I mean by this is that now we’re going to do 4 sets per exercise on training days 1 and 3 and leave out the second training day altogether. So now, instead of doing two progressively heavier warm-up sets and then one ‘heavy’ set on our ‘heavy’ days, we’re going to do two progressively heavier warm-up sets and then two ‘heavy’ sets (both with the same weight). And if you’re pushing those two ‘heavy’ sets hard then the extra day’s rest will do you good. Both training days of the week are ‘heavy’ days. So now your program looks like this:

Monday and Friday Set #1 Set #2 Set #3 Set #4
Squats easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Bench Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Bent-Over Rows easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Overhead Barbell Presses easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Barbell Curls easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Donkey Calf Raises easy add weight – still easy add weight – difficult same weight
Incline Reverse Crunches mod hard – incline hard – incline no third set no fourth set

Remember, add weight on your heavy sets whenever you can, but always get your reps and always maintain proper exercise form.

For Stiff-Legged Deadlifts stick to the heavy and light approach. That is, perform one ‘heavy’ day and one ‘light’ day each week. On your ‘light’ day use about 75% of the weights that you used on the ‘heavy’ day.

Incline Reverse Crunches are to be done as before, but now you can start pushing the first set harder. Aim at two sets of 20 reps. Increase the incline if you need to.

So What Next?

I suggest that you stay on Program #6 for as long as your strength continues to increase. At that point you’ll have hit your first plateau and you can consider yourself an intermediate trainee. When that happens, and your strength does stagnate, you’ll have plenty of options – way too many to get into here. But before you go searching for a new routine, go back and look at ‘The Rules of Productive Weight Training for The Drug-Free Trainee’ from Part I of this series. Break any one of those rules and you’ll do serious harm to your weight training success. Oftentimes getting your progress going again is as simple as making sure that you’re following those rules.

If you truly are at a plateau then it would be a very good idea at this point to change some things around. Try switching some of the above exercises with some new exercises (but still stick to compound, free weight ones). You may want to try Dips in place of Bench Presses, or Chin-Ups in place of Bent-Over Rows, etc. If that’s your course of action (and it is a wise one) then break your new exercises in just as you did during the beginner’s program – in other words, start light and build up systematically over time.

An equally excellent idea would be changing your rep scheme. Perhaps try doing sets of 5 reps instead of sets of 8 on your upper body movements. Now would also be an excellent time to start a routine centred around the time-honoured 20-rep Squat. And you can do all of this in the basic framework provided by Program #6. In fact, many very advanced trainees train this way.

I will give you one further piece of advice also: If you’re a small-boned person (with your wrist circumference less than about 10.5% of your height in inches), then it would probably be a wise idea for you to train each bodypart at least twice a week …and three times is often better for people with this type of build (at least for periods of time). Because of your small structure, however, it’s very unlikely that your joints can handle heavy training on the same exercises three times per week. I suggest that people like you still train their full bodies three times per week, but use different exercises on each day …and try to select exercises that are significantly different from each other so that the joints aren’t constantly stressed in the same manner. For instance, for chest you might do Bench Presses on Monday, Incline Dumbbell Flyes on Wednesday, and V-Bar Dips on Friday. I’ll cover these approaches in more detail in other articles.

If you are a big-boned, heavy-set person, you might enjoy training in this fashion also, but you also have the option of splitting your bodyparts and training them on different days. For instance, you might train Chest, Shoulders and Triceps on Mondays and Thursdays, and Legs, Back and Biceps on Tuesdays and Fridays. That way you can do two exercises for each bodypart at each session instead of just one. (I wouldn’t recommend more than this yet, though …you’re still an advanced beginner/novice intermediate).

It might also be a good time in your weight training career to look into some of the more ‘technical’ aspects of the art and science of weight training. What about training to failure (until you can’t budge the weight), isolation exercises, pre-exhaustion, negatives, etc, etc, etc? My best advice to you would be to read the articles here on the WeighTrainer and bring up your questions on The Strength And Size Forum. If you digest all that stuff you’ll have plenty of ammo in your arsenal for building the body and/or strength that you want.

Final Comments

Before I finish this article I’d like to say a few words to those of you who’ve trained for a while but feel like giving up. Perhaps it’s too much hard work. Perhaps you’re discouraged because everyone else in the gym seems to progress faster than you. Perhaps it’s because you’re confused by all the conflicting advice that you may have heard. Or perhaps it’s simply because you’re not gaining as fast as you had hoped you would. Let me tell you now, if you are genetically average, there are two things above all others that it takes to be successful at weight training: Desire and patience. And one without the other is useless. You have to be willing to hit the weights day in, day out – month in, month out – year in, year out – to get the results you want. You have to want it that bad. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will you be. So, unless you are a very genetically gifted individual, you’re going to have to pay your dues. Of course, if you only want to firm up a bit then your task is going to be considerably easier, but if you’ve got your eye set on being big and strong then it’s going to take some time. That’s just the reality of healthy, drug-free training. Whatever you do, don’t go off on a tangent searching for the perfect training routine – it simply doesn’t exist. The program I’ve given you is as close to an ideal training approach for drug-free individuals as you’re going to get – that I promise you.

So make up your mind now. Anyone can build a strong, muscular body – you may never be Mr. Olympia, world Powerlifting champion or world Olympic-style Weightlifting champion, but you can look and be impressive. Maybe, in time, you will rise to the top of the drug-free Bodybuilding, Powerlifting or Weightlifting world. Who knows. Maybe you wouldn’t want that. Perhaps you just want to have a strong, healthy, attractive body. Well, now you have the knowledge to get started off on the right foot and the rest has to come from within you. The weight training world is full of success stories, and you can be another one. I don’t care how skinny, fat or how old you are – I’ve seen them all fail and I’ve seen them all succeed. Desire and patience was at the root of all those failures and successes. Follow the ‘Rules’ and you will succeed. Remember the tortoise and the hare.

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