Trimming the Fat: Some of My Fastest Gains Ever

Every now and then I like to peruse my old training logs, peeking back in time to take a glimpse at what I was doing in the weight room; be it three months ago or three years ago. The other day I decided to flip through my logbook from college, and was suddenly reminded of the sudden, and dramatic, shift my training took at one point. You could call this my "Enlightenment," or, when I discovered that it was possible to accomplish more in less time. You see, for the first few years of college, I was following a classic bodybuilding split, utilizing tips I had picked up from the muscle mags and various personal trainers that crossed my path. I would work 1-2 body parts a day, training six days per week on the average. Each of these training sessions lasted about 90-120+ minutes, and I would utilize about 4-5 exercises per muscle group, performing 4-5 sets for each exercise. I'd incorporate just about every exercise I could think of, "attacking my muscles from all different angles" just like the magazines told me I needed to do. I was doing pretty well for myself, too: adding some muscle here, getting stronger there, maybe getting a new vein in my arm. *high five!*

After all, the more I could squeeze in, the better, right?

However, toward the end of junior year, I decided it was time to seriously investigate my training. This meant looking beyond the magazines in the grocery aisles, and seeing past what the majority of gym-goers were doing. To make a long story short, this is when I discovered some extremely valuable information and began reading from authors/strength coaches who actually knew their stuff. The strength coach for Virginia Tech was also extremely accommodating and patient with me, answering the endless slew of questions I incessantly threw at him as I first began to shadow his work with the athletic teams.

I suddenly realized that I didn't actually need to train 12 hours per week to become bigger or stronger. It was far from essential to do 25-30 exercises per week. It wasn't necessary to spend an entire day on one body part. And it wasn't required to perform countless drop sets and supersets of isolated delt, bicep, and tricep work to make my shoulders and arms grow. In fact, it turned out that a mere 20% of my efforts was responsible for 80% of my results. I became educated on the minimum effective dose, or, the minimal stimulus required to produce a desired outcome.

It was time to "trim the fat," so to speak, with my training. I wanted to test this for myself, to see if it was REALLY true. I mean, it's one thing to read about it, hear others talk about it, but it's a completely different bear to induce change upon YOURSELF, especially when there's a young ego at stake.

As such, I made up my mind to undergo a plan that would have me training no more than four days per week, and my sessions would be required to take no longer than an hour (excluding warm-up). Inspired by Alwyn Cosgrove, I decided to choose only two different workouts, and I would alternate between the two every time I set foot in the gym. I had a "Workout A" which was essentially lower body emphasis, and a "Workout B" which was upper body dominant. Here it is below:

Workout A (Lower Body)

Workout B (Upper Body)

A) Squat B) Deadlift C1) Bulgarian SplitSquat C2) Barbell Step-Up

A1) Incline DB Press A2) Seated Cable Row B1) DB Military Press B2) Pullup C1) Close-Grip Bench C2) Ab something

That was it. For six weeks, that is all I did.I would typically perform Workout A on Mondays and Thursdays, and Workout B on Tuesdays and Fridays. A method of undulating periodization was applied for the sets and reps each day.

And what do you know? My arms, shoulders, chest, and legs all continued to grow, despite the fact that I was I was training only four hours per week. This was one-third of the time I was spending in the gym all throughout high school and the first half of college. I had more free time, the workouts were surprisingly brutal (especially on the high rep squat days), I didn't constantly feel sore, and I was receiving an increasing number of the "So, what have YOUbeen doing?" or "What supplements have you been taking?" (<== lol) questions.

Now, there's no doubt that some of my gains can be attributed to the fact that I dialed in my nutrition further, and was actually deadlifting for the first time (in fact, I'd go so far as to say that deadlifting alone attributed to the majority of my gains). Also, one will almost always experience progress in one form or another when switching up the routine. However, there was no doubt that something was working.

In fact, things were working so well that I decided to enter a new eight-week cycle:

Workout A (Horizontal Push/Pull)

Workout B (Lower Body)

Workout C (Vertical Push/Pull)

A1) Bench Press A2) Bent-Over BB Row B1) Incline DB Press, Neutral Grip B2) Seated Cable Row

A) Snatch-Grip Deadlift B1) BB Forward Lunge B2) BB Step-Up C) Ab something

A1) BB Overhead Press A2) Pullup/Chinup B1) DB Arnold Press B2) Lat Pulldown

And the gains continued to come. I was stronger and leaner, I felt better, and, yet again, was accomplishing this in far less time that I had for the years prior.

An Important Note Were these "perfect" programs? Not at all. (Is there a such thing anyway??). In fact, looking back, there are quite a few obvious tweaks I would make. HOWEVER, at the time, I was trying my best to apply the principles I had learned in my research. And that's the important part.

Summing all this up, here are the take home points:

  • Less is more. You can nearly always accomplish the same, if not more, by trimming the fat in a training program. Water boiled at 100ºC is boiled. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.
  • While the high volume bodypart split routines can work for the genetically elite, they often aren't the best choice for the majority of trainees (and, as a side note, certainly not athletes).
  • You don't need 6+ hours a week to get stronger, lose fat, or put some lean body mass on your frame.
  • When in doubt, choose exercises that are multi-joint over single-joint.
  • Deadlifts are awesome.