College Strength Training
by Ben Bruno T-Nation
College is the time to lay the groundwork for your future. But like most things in life, you get out what you put in. If you take care of business in class and keep the keg parties to a minimum, you greatly increase your chances of landing a good job and having a successful career.
On the other hand, if you half-ass it and focus more on going out and chasing skirts, all you'll have after four years is a smothering student loan and an advanced degree in herpes.
The same can be said about your life in the gym. College is prime growth time for a lifter as your hormones are raging at an all-time high. Everything is in place for massive gains, but it's up to you to turn that potential into reality.
Play your cards right and you can build a tremendous base of strength and add slabs of muscle that will serve you well in your future lifting endeavors. If you don't and choose to squander your opportunity...well, that's four crucial muscle-building years down the tubes that you'll never get back. Your choice.
This article will outline how to get the most out of your time in college.
The biggest obstacle holding college students back is the school gym. Unless you're a varsity athlete (in which case you likely have your training program taken care of for you anyway), it's likely that the "regular student" facility is going to suck bad.
Not only are they often crowded, they're chock-full of people doing some of the dumbest things imaginable. Normally I'm really enthusiastic to train and could stay in the gym all day if time permitted, but whenever I find myself in a school gym it's like I have the life sucked out of me. All I want to do is get the hell out.
Furthermore, they're generally full of useless crap and low on useful equipment. My school gym had two ab/adductor machines and only one power rack. During peak hours, I had a better chance of winning the Megabucks than I did getting to use the rack. Heaven forbid I interrupted someone from their precious circuit of biceps curls, shrugs, and posing.
While I can empathize about having a lackluster training environment, it's really just another excuse. Losers make excuses. Winners, on the other hand, focus on the positives in any situation and find ways to get it done regardless of what's going on around them. Which do you want to be? If you chose the former, you'll be in good company with all the other students that mindlessly slog through their workouts and spin their wheels.
If you chose the latter, keep reading.
Basics, Basics, Basics
While it might seem like the odds are stacked against you between the lousy gym atmosphere and your busy schedule, it's really a blessing in disguise as it forces you to pare down your training program and focus on what's truly important: the basics.
Strength training programs are a lot like coursework. Sure, you'd like to skip ahead to the sexy classes, but before you can do that, you've got to pay your dues hammering away at the simple stuff to build a baseline of knowledge before moving forward.
Your professors the ones that seem to know everything all did it. There's just no other way. Imagine jumping right into Calc 4 or Differential Equations without first taking Pre-Calc, Calc 1, Calc 2, etc. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
The same goes for lifting. Everyone wants to bypass the basics and move right into the fun and glitzy stuff, but just like coursework, you've got to first put your time in building a foundation of strength.
Unfortunately, unlike school, where there are policies and pre-requisites put into place to protect you from your own overzealousness, you're free to do whatever you want in the gym.
It would be nice if everyone with less than three years of solid lifting experience were mandated to follow a simple program like Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 or Bill Starr's 5x5, and all gyms were equipped with enough racks to accommodate it, but that's not likely to happen any time soon.
Here's a template you can put into practice in the circus otherwise known as the school gym.
Template Versus Program
I deliberately say template as opposed to program. Programs are rigid do this, then do this, then do this. Templates, on the other hand, are malleable and allow some leeway. In most circumstances, I recommend that a beginner (I consider anyone with under three years of solid lifting experience a beginner, so basically every college student) follow a set program to take out any guesswork because more often than not, if given the opportunity, they'll guess wrong.
With that said, programs don't always work in busy gyms. What do you do if the program calls for squats but the rack is being taken and you don't have time to wait? In these cases, a template works better. The key is to create a template with as little guesswork as possible.
The training week will look like this:
Saturday "Free Day" (Optional)
Each workout will consist of four total exercises: three exercises specific to that particular day plus one core exercise.
In each exercise slot for a given workout, you'll give yourself two choices, each using different equipment. This ensures you won't spend what little time you have standing around twiddling your thumbs while also offering some variety to keep you from getting bored. At the same time, keeping you tied to only two choices provides structure to your workouts so you aren't just "winging it."
You choose all your own exercises, within reason. If it's a compound movement using barbells, dumbbells, or your own bodyweight, it's fair game. No machines. You'll get more bang for your buck using free weights and bodyweight.
I give you choices because I want you to be able to individualize your program based on your personal preferences, injury history, equipment availability, etc. Don't abuse this privilege. Pick exercises according to what you think will be the most productive, not necessarily the ones you like best or that can be performed near where the freshman girls all stretch. We aren't doing many exercises here, so make each one count.
Now let's get to the actual workouts.
Pull day will be structured as follows:
Exercise Sets Reps
A Deadlift variation (conventional, sumo, or trap bar) 3/1 4-6/6-8
B Chin-up variation (any grip)* ** **
C Row variation (dumbbell row, barbell row, inverted row, etc.) 3 8-10
D Anti-extension core variation (rollouts) 3 8-15
* If you're unable to do chin-ups, you must take the walk of shame over to the lat pulldown machine while making it a primary goal to work up to full bodyweight chin-ups ASAP.
** With chin-ups, alternate between weighted and bodyweight days. On weighted days, work up to a top set of 3-5 reps. On bodyweight days, do five max sets record your total number of reps and try to beat that the next time around.
You shouldn't have a problem finding a place to deadlift since all you require is some open floor space. Just pick one variation and stick with it. Work up to a heavy set of 4-6 reps and then do a back-off set of 6-8 reps, leaving one rep in the tank on each set. Avoid bouncing the bar and "touch and go" reps as this often causes form to deteriorate. Pause momentarily and reset each time.
If you're unable to deadlift for injury reasons, you can single-leg deadlift for less spinal loading, or just stick to chin-ups and rows. If you're unable to deadlift due to gym policy (sadly this is becoming an epidemic), try Romanian deadlifts or rack pulls with the pins on the lowest setting.
Staging a student sit-in such as 'Occupy Weight Room' until they rescind their moronic no-deadlifts policy shows passion and initiative, but likely won't work. Part of the college experience is also learning that the real world can be a cruel, dumb place.
Pick two row variations to have in your arsenal dumbbell rows and inverted rows, for example and alternate them based on what you feel like doing that day and where there's free space. Be sure to log your workouts and always strive to beat your previous performance each time you repeat the exercise.
For your core, use some form of rollout progression depending on your current ability. Start with the stability ball if you have one, then move on to the ab wheel and finally to a barbell loaded with 10 lb. plates. Once you can get 15 reps with a given variation, move to a harder version.
No space? Use my personal favorite: hand walkouts (these can also be done from the knees).
Push day will be structured as follows:
Exercise Sets Reps
A Barbell press variation (bench press. incline, military) 4 4-8
B Bodyweight or dumbbell press variation (push-ups, dips, incline dumbbell press, dumbbell floor press, etc.) 4 10-15
C Shoulder pre-hab (band pull-aparts, YTW's, etc.) 4 15
D Anti-rotation core (Pallof presses, renegade rows) 3 8
Finding a place to do barbell presses should be easy. If worse comes to worse and the racks and benches are taken, just go to an empty corner with a barbell, clean the weight up, and do military presses. Whatever exercise you choose, work up to a heavy set of 4-8 reps, going to technical failure (the point where form begins to break down) on the last set only. No forced reps.
If barbell presses bother your shoulders, try substituting a dumbbell floor press for your first exercise, doing 4 sets of 6, and put push-ups as your second exercise.
If regular push-ups are too easy, elevate your feet on a bench and have someone put a plate on your back.
Don't worry about beating the logbook with the shoulder pre-hab stuff. Just get some good work in and focus on doing the movement properly. It shouldn't be hard, but it's important, so don't skip it.
Ah, my favorite. Leg day will be structured as follows:
Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat variation (back squat, front squat) 3/1 4-8/10-15
B Posterior chain exercise (RDL's, single-leg RDL's, hip thrusts, single-leg hip thrusts, dumbbell leg curls, glute-ham raises, back extensions, etc.) 4 8-10
C Single-leg variation (rear foot elevated split squats, lunges, single-leg squats, etc.) 4 6-8
D Weighted carries (farmer's walks, suitcase carries) 2 30 sec.
If the rack is being taken at the start of your workout, begin with the single-leg variation and come back to squats at the end of the workout. This is also a good strategy if you have back problems as it helps limit the amount of weight you can handle for squats. You can read more about that here.
If you deadlift on Mondays, it's wise to avoid doing RDL's as your posterior chain exercise to prevent overtaxing the lower back. If you feel strongly about them and want to incorporate them into your plan, do them every other week and substitute something less lower-back intensive on the other weeks.
Glute-ham raises and back extensions are the only "machines" you're allowed to use. I consider these to be bodyweight exercises. Most school gyms don't have a GHR, but many have a 45-degree hyperextension bench, which also works well.
For weighted carries, pick up a heavy dumbbell(s) and walk around for 30 seconds. It may be too crowded on the gym floor, but there might be an empty court or hallway that you can use. If that's not possible, substitute one of the core exercises from the prior workouts.
"Free Day" (Optional)
The free day, as the name suggests, is a chance to do whatever the heck you want.
Maybe you want to have a "vanity" day where you sell tickets to The Gun Show, along with calves, traps, abs, and flexing to failure? Fine.
Maybe you want to use it to hammer a particularly weak exercise or body part? That works too.
Maybe you missed something during the week and want to use this day as a make up? Another great option.
Or maybe you want to skip the workout all together and just catch up on sleep? That's probably the smartest idea of all.
It doesn't matter what you do as long as it doesn't negatively interfere with the rest of the week's workouts, as those are what make or break your results. See the Free Day as a chance to just have some fun, an extremely important and often overlooked part of training. By putting the fun day on a Saturday, it also gives you a little incentive to refrain from going too crazy on Friday night.
Keep a logbook. If you only take one thing from this article, let this be it. Seriously, I can't stress this enough. Stop over-thinking the minutia and focus on this! The success of this template hinges on progressive resistance. I care much less about what specific exercises you're doing and much more that you're getting stronger at them each week.
Each time you repeat an exercise, you should be fighting tooth and nail to improve on your previous performance.
There are no percentages with this template. Whenever you fall within your given rep range for that exercise, add weight the next time. If you fall short of the rep range, keep the weight the same and try to add reps next time. Simple.
Exercise variety. Stick with the same exercises until you stall. You need continuity to develop mastery. Oh, and stalling out doesn't mean that you only went up three reps on bench this week. If you fail to beat your prior week's performance, give it another chance the next week. If it's still down, then move on to another exercise.
Don't get overzealous with the weight jumps. I recommend going up five pounds at a time (yes, that means busting out those sissy 2.5 pound plates). Trust me, it adds up over the long run.
Start on the high end of the rep ranges. If you start too heavy, you'll stall out quickly. Results come from consistently beating the logbook over time, so don't blow your load right off the bat. In other words, training sessions shouldn't resemble your last date.
Rest periods? Don't worry too much about rest periods. Go when you're ready. Don't rush it, but don't extend rest periods by talking and texting, either.
Focus! This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Don't let the stupid stuff going on around you bring you down that's the sign of a mentally weak person. Now if you want to people-watch between sets for some comedic relief, by all means, but when it's time to lift, it's time to lift.
Warm up well. I hate warming up. There's no bigger buzzkill than walking into the gym raring to go and having to stop and warm-up first. Do it anyway. Almost every little tweak I've had in the gym can be attributed to a crappy warm-up.
At the very least, do a few static stretches for the muscle groups you're planning to work that day followed by some generalized dynamic mobility drills to loosen up and get the blood flowing. I also like to include two quick sets of five bodyweight squat jumps to wake up the nervous system.
You can also incorporate mobility into the workout by using it as filler between sets. I'll often do lower body mobility work on upper body days and vice versa so as not to interfere with my lifts.
On the mental side of things, the warm-up is a great chance to transition into the right frame of mind to lift. Leave your problems at the door and start to visualize what you want to do and develop a plan of attack
Conditioning. Do some form of hard conditioning work at least 2-3 times a week, either after your workouts or on your days off. Complexes and jump rope are great when space is limited. If you have an athletic field nearby, you can also do sprints or run stairs.
Nutrition. Don't undermine your efforts in the gym by eating like a moron. Take advantage of your dorm's meal plan, eat protein at every meal, and buy a high-quality protein powder like Metabolic Driveฎ Low Carb to tide you over between meals. Try not to overcomplicate it. Weigh yourself once every two weeks and adjust your food intake accordingly.
College is about experiencing things that help you grow into the person that you want to be. It's also about having the discipline to get **** done while still being able to enjoy everything that's happening around you.
Training combines both into one kick-ass opportunity to enjoy life and grow at the same time. Take this template and have some fun with it, and sprout some serious muscle in the process. You'll not only build a great physique that will help get you noticed by the ladies, but you'll build a rock-solid foundation that will propel you through the rest of your lifting career.