It was the summer of ’88.
School had just gotten out a few days earlier and I was up at 6am getting ready for my first day of hard manual labor.
I was a skinny punk with my hat tilted and my shorts sagging.
Even though I was going to the gym regularly I had no idea what kind of workload I was about to encounter.
From 7am till 4:30pm we hoisted heavy bags of concrete and piles of plywood, dug ditches, cleaned garbage and loaded dumpsters.
At night I would go to the gym and do my 80’s body part split, hitting the guns with fifty sets in two hours.
Of course, I never gained an ounce of size but it wasn’t necessarily because the job I had was over training me, as I would think a few years later.
The human body is very resilient and can tolerate a very large work load… as long as you gradually build up to it over the course of many months and years.
While I was just a lowly laborer I always admired the skillful work done by the masons who were at the construction sites along side me each day.
Those dudes could walk pallets of bricks across a muddy, unpaved driveway like nobody’s’ business. The craziest part about it is they barely ate all day and usually drank at least a six-pack of beer each, if not a case.
The roofers were exactly the same. I particularly remember two of them named Bob and Marty.
They were some big boys and had a reputation that they were not to be messed with. I remember trying to pick up some of those humongous wooden planks those guys would hoist overhead with ease and I couldn’t budge them off the ground.
I also remember them all laughing at me and joking about how I go to the gym all the time and apparently had gotten nothing out of it.
High Frequency Training = Hypertrophy
The reason the masons and roofers possessed such incredible strength and far more muscle than the average guy is because of their enormous, high frequency work load.
The body can and will adapt to most challenges you throw at it. If you lift a ton of weights (or do advanced bodyweight stuff) with high frequency, be it in the gym or at the construction site heaving bricks, you will build muscle.
Sometimes, even in a caloric deficit. Like I said, the masons barely ate all day yet they still defied logic and grew.
Teenage female gymnasts don’t purposely go on a Ronnie Coleman bulking diet yet they all build significant amounts of muscle mass despite having the testosterone levels of, well, a teenage girl.
If I had to bet I’d say that most teenage females, regardless of what they do, would choose to eat below maintenance calories each day rather than significantly higher than that.
Soccer players build big calves simply due to high frequency loading. Cyclists and speed skaters usually have quite well developed quads for the same reason. And wrestlers have thick necks from all the bridging they do.
That said, I think you should still make sure you are in a slightly hypercaloric state if your goal is to gain muscle. That much should be fairly obvious.
Even though I’ve listed examples of people growing without an excess of calories you will still reach your goals faster if you provide your body with the fuel it needs. Just remember not to go overboard and turn into a fat slob either.
Eat what you need to make slow, consistent lean muscle gains and not a huge amount more than that.
When it comes to building high performance muscle, high frequency training reigns supreme.
That’s why my Minimalist Training program has you training each muscle group three times per week and in Body Weight Body Building everything gets trained four times per week. Same deal with Yoked, an upper back specialization program that hits that area four times per week.
It’s why a lot of the best results I’ve gotten throughout the years with many of my clients have been with high frequency programs.
Often times that means training 5-6 times per week, if their schedule allows it.
(NOTE: I am NOT saying that you should or have to train 5-6 times per week. Three days is fine. I’m just making a point.)
Even when we do upper/lower splits there is still a purposeful amount of overlap. The upper back gets worked every day and the legs get hit quite often with all the sled drags and sprints.
Take It Slow
Now, before you abandon your current routine and decide to start doing double sessions seven days per week you need to realize that this type of volume and frequency takes quite a while to work up to. In some cases that could mean years.
If you have never done a minute of hard labor before and then you go work with the masons for a full eight-hour day tomorrow you will be crippled the next day.
But if you needed to feed your family you couldn’t quit. So you’d soldier back in the next day and battle through. Eventually you would adapt. Just like all athletes and members of the military do.
When it comes to training, the smart approach is to slowly build your work capacity up over time. Add an extra set here, another there then hold that work load steady for a while. When you have adapted to it add a little bit more.
Maybe on the weekends you take the sled out and do two sets each of forward and backward dragging along with some presses and rows. Since there is no eccentric component it won’t be difficult to recover from and may help you build muscle and stay lean.
With every single person I have ever worked with I always prescribe low volume training to get started. If you are starting at zero sets per week there is no need to go straight to seventy sets.
One set is more than you were doing so it should theoretically be enough. Only increase volume when what you are doing is no longer working.
Even when a guy who has been training for a while comes to me I always cut volume at first. That’s because I usually want to increase frequency and get him off of whatever type of split he is on.
In either case I usually prescribe three full body workouts per week and then we take it from there. Even if we eventually move to an upper/lower split we will still be training each muscle group an average of three times per week.
Over time we will build up his work capacity and add more total training volume throughout the week, but ONLY if it is going to help build more muscle.
Never add more just for the sake of adding more. It has to be well thought out and you need to be sure it’s helping. If it’s not, don’t do it just for the sake of doing it.
But remember that Olympic lifters, gymnasts and the dudes on YouTube who can do 500 muscle ups in 30 seconds all train every day. So do the masons and roofers.
But they worked up to that level of volume and frequency over the course of many months and years.
Start slow, with low volume and a three-time-per-week frequency and gradually increase your work load from there.
A Final Lesson From the Masons
Over the course of a few years I got to know some of the masons a bit better and learned about their families and personal lives. They finished working each day around 4 or 4:30 and headed home for dinner and some quiet time with their wives and kids.
They weren’t jerking around on Facebook till all hours of the night or texting their buddies, and it really didn’t seem like they were getting too stressed out about too much.
They had a big family dinner, drank another six-pack, played with the kids and crashed for a solid 7-8 hour, stress free night of sleep before starting over again the next day.
In other words, these Portuguese powerhouses lived quite the opposite existence of most high strung Americans.
I learned a lot working summers alongside those masons. It just took me two plus decades to realize it.