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How to Organize Your Workouts for Optimal Muscle Building

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A Brief Discussion of Performance, Specificity of Demand, and Creating the Ideal Training Session

When it comes to setting up an effective, ass-kicking workout, you have more options than Ben & Jerry’s has flavors. Unfortunately, whether it’s ice cream or program design, too many options can get downright stressful.

Before you know it, you’ve spent two hours in front of the freezer, trying to decide if you’re in the mood for Chubby Hubby or Half Baked.

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So. Many. Choices.

Eventually, you get so frustrated you wind up saying screw it and just go with plain vanilla, and your once exciting ice cream adventure ends in bitter disappoint.

Well, the same thing happens when it comes to designing training programs.

But instead of deciding between delicious chocolate covered pretzels vs. brownie bits, you’re looking at everything from exercise selection to the order you perform them in. If you can’t figure it out, you’ll wind up with the same old vanilla ice cream program, and the same old vanilla results. 

And with all of the experts in the industry pushing different methods, how do you know what’s really best

Today, my goal is to answer that question. And, thankfully, it’s not as complicated as you might think.

It all comes down to one basic principle: When it comes to organizing workouts, your best bet is to base exercise order on maximizing performance by prioritizing neural demand.

Neural Demands Are King

This is the most important thing to understand. When setting up any training program or workout, you need to place more neurologically demanding exercises early in the week, and early in each session.

In the interest of clarity: Neural demands are the requirements placed on the nervous system for the proper execution of an exercise. 

For high-speed, high-weight exercises, nervous system function is the driving force for performance. When fatigue sets in, the nervous system doesn’t send signals fast enough for muscles to execute movements precisely, allowing to technique to change, and training to suffer. 

In other words, performing intense exercises like sprinting, power exercises like cleans, or near-maximal lifts without full recovery and function is a first class ticket to mediocrity, not high performance. 

The force velocity curve plays an important role in the programming of exercises, as exercise selection is based on the needs of your goal or sport.  

Exercises towards the velocity portion of the graph (i.e. speed) are obviously faster and more sensitive to changes in technique than slower speed exercises like heavy deadlifts or squats.  

Suffice to say, if you want to be explosive or jacked and big as a house, your training should reflect that. 

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Photocredit: Bretcontreras.com

According to the NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, “Compound power and core exercises require the highest level of skill and concentration of all exercises and are most affected by fatigue. 

Athletes who become fatigued are prone to using poor technique and consequently are at a higher risk of injury1.”

All of which is to say that you need to respect your nervous system. If you’re training session calls for high-speed exercises performed with a reasonable amount of resistance, placing them earlier in the workout is going to be necessary for both optimal progress and injury prevention. 

Having established that, let’s go through the steps for constructing the optimal workout for maximum muscle building

Step 1: Warm-Up

Whether you’re blasting through a 30-minute metabolic session to shred fat or a two-hour performance based workout, you need a warm-up

A 5-10 minute warm-up reduces injury risk, improves muscular function, activates proprioceptors and deep stabilizers, enhances movement quality, and improves performance through the creation of more efficient and powerful movement patterns2

When properly implemented, a well-designed warm-up maximizes performance in two ways:  

  • Improve the physiological response to exercise 
  • Improved mental focus 

A combination of dynamic exercises focused on hip/trunk activation, stabilization through the joints, and movements similar to the upcoming training are vital to high performance training. 

Your warm-up doesn’t need to be uber complicated, but it must be done. Focus on movements that active the major muscles and movement patterns of your training to increase performance and decrease injury risk. 

Optional Step: Movement Training 

If you’re an athlete, no mode of sports training has more on-field carryover than direct movement training, even glorious deadlifts and absolute strength work. 

This means acceleration, top end speed, and movement training must be placed at a premium because of their high neural and technical demands, even over heavy strength training.  

Before you get all hot and bothered, keep in mind that athletes run, jump, sprint, and move on the field, not pick up weights in a controlled environment. That is true transfer of training. 

If you’re solely focused on looking good naked and getting jacked then don’t fret about sprint/movement training early in your training, but don’t dismiss it either. 

Like weightlifting, sprinting requires high-impact muscular contractions that cause the release of growth hormone and testosterone as well as potentiating the nervous system for strength gains. 

Step 2: Jumps & Throws 

Being jacked and strong is nice, but expressing strength fast and generating tons of power separates the contenders from the pretenders. 

Moreover, rather than spending countless hours refining technique on Olympic lifts, it’s best to use exercises with an accelerated learning curve to train the same qualities: explosive power, nervous system activation, and activation of high threshold muscle fibers for hypertrophy. 

Whether your goals are physique or athletic oriented, you’ll reap huge benefits from explosive throws, pushes, and jumps. By bridging the gap between strength and speed, your nervous system functions at a faster, more efficient rate to improve firing rates of muscles on your big lifts. 

Add in jumps for the lower body and push-up variations or explosive throws for three sets of five reps with light resistance after your movement training or directly after your warm-up.

You’ll add “pop” to your big lifts and wake up high-threshold muscle fibers for new gains in muscle mass. This allows us to prepare for the meat of the program: strength training.

Step 3: Explosive Strength Training          

Explosive exercises with maximum bar speed are highly technical and require full nervous system recovery for maximum gains. This means cleans, snatches, and dynamic effort training should be the first barbell exercises performed in your workouts. 

This can also include anything performed explosively, even bodyweight movements. 

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Because these lifts are highly technical, they’re more prone to breakdown from fatigue. If explosive exercises are done after heavy, compound exercises then technique breaks down, and you’re more likely to miss lifts.

Keep your recovery full, weights submaximal with two to five sets of two to five reps with 30-60% 1-RM, and bar speed on blast to maximize explosive exercises. 

From here, we can move on to heavy strength training; it’s less neurally demanding, but equally important for max gains.

Step 4: Heavy Strength Training

Maximum strength exercises are king. Without a base of maximum strength, it’s damn near impossible to be good at anything.  

You need a base of strength to improve work capacity for building muscle. You need a base of strength to improve relative strength for athletic tasks like jumpin’ out the gym, racing cheetahs, and push-up contests at the grocery store.  

Training with heavy weight is obviously important when training to gain mass. However, it can be equally important when cutting fat, as it will help prevent losing any hard earned muscle or any rampant decreases in strength.  

As mentioned, heavy strength training is less neurally demanding and technical than explosive exercises like cleans and sprinting; so your heavy deadlifts, presses, and all that fun stuff need to come a bit later in the workout.

Place a premium on strength with multiple sets between 2-6 reps and weights 75-95% 1-RM, but do so in the correct order to optimize performance and gains.

Step 5: Hypertrophy/Isolation Work

Getting jacked has more to do with making an exercise “feel” hard than only training heavy, eating for a family of four, and sleeping.  

Contrary to explosive exercises focused on improved performance, you need fatigue and insufficient recovery to maximize hypertrophy training

To break it down further, in Brad Schoenfeld’s review of “The Mechanisms of Muscular Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training”3, he covered that the three most important mechanisms for hypertrophy are: 

  1.  Mechanical tension
  2.  Metabolic stress
  3.  Muscular damage

Mechanical tension is the result of heavy strength exercises performed through a full range of motion, which is addressed by your explosive or heavy lifting earlier in your training. 

From here on out, metabolic stress and muscular damage with longer duration, shorter rest period sets become more important to maximize muscle building. 

Fatigue and insufficient recovery are exactly what you do want for hypertrophy and isolation work, so embrace it. Perform explosive exercises and heavy strength work as it pertains to your goal, and then move to pure hypertrophy work later in your workout. 

Step 6: Conditioning

Last but not least, we’ve got conditioning. Of course, it can also be taken care of via density training, sports specific training, or another workout on its own; but, unless trying to improve some specific  of conditioning, this stuff should always come last in your workouts. 

Conditioning work is meant to push your body to the limits for higher levels of endurance and performance. Just about anything can be turned into a conditioning workout, so you have the option to select some stuff that also relates to the other categories.

Med ball slams, for example, are great for conditioning if done fast enough, while also being applicable to the jump/throw category.

Whether it’s submaximal sprinting, kettlebell workbarbell complexes, or jumping rope (the most underrated form of conditioning) your conditioning should be secondary to neurally demanding exercises that improve performance, but still must be included in some fashion. 

That said, conditioning is demanding, and can drastically impede performance if you’re performing it early in the training session. 

Considerations 

You don’t need to add in every component of exercise into every one of training sessions (nor, even, every program), but leaving the details any of them out would be a major disservice. 

In training, your actions must be aimed at your goals or they’ll be unattainable. Base the types of training to and your focus on the variables that best fit your goals. 

For Maximum Athletic Performance 

Follow the order as listed with an emphasis on movement skills, explosiveness, and explosive training, especially for movement-based sports. 

Strength athletes will have a greater emphasis towards absolute strength and hypertrophy training. Conditioning work should come primarily through sports specific practice, and is highly variable based on your needs.  

For Maximum Muscle Gain 

To get jacked to the max your primary emphasis is to spend time in the weight room both getting stronger and creating muscular damage. In this case, movement training is likely omitted with jumps, throws, and explosive exercises being trained secondary in importance to pure strength work and hypertrophy training. 

For Maximum Strength 

To maximize gains in strength it’s important to include both explosive and top-end strength components. While movement training isn’t necessary and may be risky without sound mechanics, jumps and throws are still great options to improve neuromuscular function and develop explosiveness in major movement patterns. 

Focus primarily on absolute strength work with explosive lifts, jumps, throws, and hypertrophy work to minimize gaps in strength development. 

To Maximize Fat Loss 

For fat loss the most important factor is putting the damn fork down and creating a caloric deficit with your diet. 

Besides that, your training will vary based on goals and preferences while including a range of exercise types. 

That said, include some absolute strength and explosive work to retain muscle in a caloric deficit and plan conditioning or density circuits to increase caloric expenditure. 


The Bottom Line 

The goal of any training programming is to enhance performance towards a goal while minimizing injury risk. This starts with exercise selection and placing exercises in the correct order so you don’t waste your time in the gym, miss the boat completely on your goal, or drop a barbell on your face during technical exercises. 

Don’t accept mediocrity; instead, seek to optimize all facets of your training to accelerate progress and smash your goals.

 

Citations
  1. Baechle, Thomas, and Roger Earle. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. 3rd. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics, 2008. 390-391. Print.
  2. Shellock, F.G. and Prentice, W.E. (1985). Warming up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports Medicine, 2, 4, 267–278.
  3. Schoenfeld, Brad. “The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2857. Web. 21 Nov. 2013
About the Author

Check out Eric's free ebook to build athletic muscle on his blog Eric Bach, CSCS, is a Strength Coach Denver, Colorado where he helps Pros improve their game and Joes look better naked with high performance coaching. He loves Wisconsin Football, #gainz, and mixing his creatine with espresso.

  • Nice Information Eric, I hope it would be helpful for all fitness lovers.

  • Great point Adam, some is better than none. You’re welcome and thanks for chiming in

  • Very interesting article! As for the Warm Up section of the article, I am not sure if we simply use different terms to describe the same thing, but I would lobby to say that the warm up, alongside improving “physiological response” and “mental focus” you are also improving ROM, while reducing soft tissue build up in joints. I focus on Athlete training, personally, but I always recommend everyone incorporate a warm up that includes ROM “enhancers” as an added performance increase (especially when squatting). Anyway, great article!

    • Hey Brandon, you’re right on, simply using different terms. Thanks for the kind
      words brotha!

  • Greg Giordano

    Half baked always wins. Nice article otherwise. Jumping rope has quickly become one of my favorites, I think because I suck at it and there is so much room for improvement. Got a set of crossropes from you other article. Great investment for anyone who likes to jump rope.

    • Great to hear Greg, keep killin’ it!

  • Philip Kastinger

    I like everything about this article: style, length, content and quotations. Thank you very much. (Laughed hard at the end: “For fat loss the most important factor is putting the damn fork down and creating a caloric deficit with your diet.” haha, still laughing)

  • Shane Mclean

    wow, you just covered this subject in one post!. Great work Eric really enjoyed it. Maybe a part 2 with some training templates? I’m a visual kind of guy :)

    • Thanks @shane_mclean:disqus! That may be in the works :)

  • Tom Mcdonald

    Great article Eric, what does “with countermovement” mean, vs no countermovement

    • Thanks Tom! The countermovement is when you start standing tall and rapidly descend into an athletic position and simultaneously bring the hands up while jumping. Non-countermovement would start from a static squat or athletic position