Guest Post From Renegade Inner Circle Coach, Sean Hyson
1) Periodization is Overrated
Unless you’re an athlete with a firm schedule of competitions and a clear off-season, pre-season, and peak-season, you’re better off not planning your training too far into the future.
Pick a variety of exercises that you want to get strong on or need to bring up weak points, find the appropriate rep ranges to work them in, and cycle through them.
Allow yourself to adjust workouts based on how you feel on a particular day. Arnold and the other bodybuilders of yesteryear who never read a book or website on training would tell you that’s all they ever needed.
While Jay’s programs, like Renegade Strong, are sophisticated, you’ll notice that they’re also simple. He doesn’t ask you to break out the calculator too often. I’m not saying that periodization is a waste, but thinking about your training too critically can lead to overanalyzing it, and that leads to a slew of problems, not least of which is a loss of confidence.
The more complicated you make your workouts, the less you’ll believe in them, and then you CAN’T make progress.
2) Autoregulation is Underrated
Call it autoregulation or the good ol’ “Weider Instinctive Training Principle”, but being able to recognize what your abilities are in the gym before you put them to the test is an awesome skill to have. As I mentioned above, you have to be able to go by feel. That doesn’t mean that you skip an exercise because you just don’t feel like doing it, but rather you decide how much you can put into it while you’re warming up.
If your goal is to work up to 315 for five reps but 275 felt slow and heavy, this may not be a good day to hit 315. Most of us can’t accept that. We can’t get out of our own way to make progress, so we push through and go for 315×5 as planned. Form goes out the window, some muscle or joint gets “tweaked”, or it’s such a grind that the rest of the workout is compromised.
But God forbid we don’t top last week’s performance. That would mean we plateaued, right?
Look, all it means is that this isn’t a good day to hit 315. Train with whatever weight FEELS like 315 for the time being so you have a productive workout, and aim to come back stronger the next time. You’ll be back. You can ALWAYS come back.
3) The Exercise That Takes the Most Setting up is the Bench Press
I think the best reason to give up benching is the fact that it’s almost impossible to do it properly in a commercial gym by yourself. If you don’t have good equipment or a partner, you’ll always be held back and in harm’s way. Most commercial gyms have narrow, slippery benches when they ought to offer ones that are 12 inches wide and upholstered with soft leather so your upper back sinks in firmly. Furthermore, you typically find J-hooks so deep you need to protract your shoulders to press the weight out of the rack before you even begin your first rep. All of these things reduce the effectiveness of the exercise and put you at risk for injury.
But what the hell. You still want to bench, right? Me too.
If the above describes your situation, this is what I’ve learned to do about it. Forget the bench press stations in your gym and drag a flat bench into a power rack whenever possible. It’s much safer to let the spotter bars in a rack catch a missed lift than rely on a spot from some guy you just called over between sets to help you.
In my experience, NO ONE in your average gym knows how to spot a bench press. They either give you too much help or none at all, their lift-offs can knock you out of your groove, and their very presence can be distracting. You know how these guys sometimes drip sweat on your face while they’re standing over you? Another distraction you don’t need.
Set the bench far enough back in the rack so that when you take the bar out your arms are only slightly back toward your face (not quite perpendicular to the floor). Note that this is not the ideal way to unrack the bar, but nothing about this scenario is ideal.
In a perfect world, a competent spotter would give you a lift off and help you PULL the bar forward from its position over your face so that it then settles over your chest. Without someone to give you that handoff, your only option is to press the bar out of the rack yourself, but you need to set yourself up so that pressing the bar out amounts to only an inch or two.
The J-hooks shouldn’t be so close to your body that you complete a half rep just getting the bar in position and your upper back loses its tightness. Be aware at the same time that if you or the bench are too far forward and you have to reach backward to the J-hooks to grasp the bar, you simply won’t be able to unrack once the weight gets up to a certain point.
4) You Can’t Improve on Some Exercises
There has been a great discussion on the Renegade Inner Circle forum recently about how to progress exercises by means of weight, reps, rep speed, frequency, and so on.
I made a point on there that progressive overload can’t be applied to every lift all the time—you simply can’t expect to improve your performance every week.
I’ll take it a step further now and say that there are some exercises that you probably just won’t ever improve on past a certain point.
Relax, I’m not talking about your deadlift or bench press. Those can go on and on (albeit slowly). But exercises like pullups, hanging leg raises, and curls generally top out when you’re somewhere in your intermediate years of training.
This isn’t to say that if you prioritize them for a month you won’t see improvement, but you won’t look at your training journal five years from now and see that they’ve gone up by leaps and bounds.
How many guys do you know who can perform a 20-rep set of hanging leg raises? Or 20 reps of pullups? I would guess that most people can work their way up to 10–15 reps on these moves and remain at that point, give or take a rep or two, for the rest of their training lives. But that doesn’t mean their cores don’t get any stronger, or that their lats stop growing.
Rumor has it that Schwarzenegger never curled dumbbells heavier than 65 pounds—and even then he only used that much weight occasionally. Yet his arms continued to improve throughout his Olympia appearances.
There comes a time when you just exhaust your potential to do more reps or handle heavier loads, so you need to get creative and experiment with holding contractions longer, upping or lowering the frequency, resting less or more between sets, and using other tricks. Sometimes simply doing the exercise for an arbitrary total number of reps is enough, such as aiming for 50 pullups in a workout. At this stage, all you’re trying to do is put some work in and keep the muscles conditioned.
It’s a mistake to think you’re wasting your time on an exercise because you can’t blow your old record out of the water anymore. You’re not supposed to be able to. Assistance exercises “assist” your ability to do bigger, more meaningful lifts. Use them as a means and not an end unto themselves.
5) You Can’t do it All at Once
For years, I thought of the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press as the best measures of overall strength. Now I realize there’s more to it, but I still think these lifts are good barometers for progress. I used to train them all, or slight variances of them, every single week. That’s four training days per week, four heavy sessions, four times my spine and shoulders were being loaded up.
There’s probably nobody who has more than a couple years’ training behind them who can schedule workouts like this and make steady gains. As much as you may want to train your favorite lifts frequently, you have to space them out for the sake of safety and recovery. That’s where the classic “high/low” system that sprint coach Charlie Francis recommended comes in and Jay uses in Renegade Strong.
You can train the squat and bench press in the same week (high-intensity, heavy days), but then your remaining two workouts have to be easier. So for the purposes of the recreational lifter, you’re looking at two heavy, powerlifting-type workouts and two lighter, higher-volume bodybuilding sessions. Each feeds into the recovery of the other and the central nervous system gets a break.
From here, you simply rotate these main lifts on the high days. You can do the bench press one week and the military press the next for sets of 5 or fewer, and the same goes for the squat and deadlift. (You can rotate more lifts than that for more balanced strength work and to target weak points, too.) Light days will have you doing easier (dumbbell and body weight), supplemental lifts for reps of eight and above. You still train all the lifts you want to improve, but now you can actually improve on them.
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