Chuck Miller Elite FTS
Arthur Jones, he of the fitness boom that brought Nautilus gyms to strip malls across America in the 1980s, once cleverly observed that the goal of many self-proclaimed experts is more about positioning themselves as authority figures in order to sell something based on our belief in that authority than about conveying any really useful information. While I agree with his assessment, its irony is also not lost on me — Jones, himself, was one of those experts.
Science certainly has made its share of contributions to training, especially for top-level athletes or those, like professional strength and conditioning coaches, who need to know how to best train large and diverse populations. The rest of us can probably get by just fine on something a lot less confusing than the latest scientific text. We’ll likely also enjoy our training a hell of a lot more if we don’t need a physics degree to understand it.
Basing our training on the practical experience of those who’ve been there is a great place to start. I’ve personally been training for over 30 years. Though I’ve remained fairly grounded much of the time, influenced by heavy hitters like Marty Gallagher of The Purposeful Primitive fame and Stuart McRobert of HardGainer notoriety, I’ve also done plenty of experimenting with training methods that might make them shake their heads in disgust.
Beyond training myself in my own personal little Dr. Frankenstein lab, I’ve trained hundreds of other people. Some were paying clients and others were just meatheads who wandered in from the cold, but they all had one thing in common: they expected results and were looking to me to put them on the right path.
See, I’m doing it, too, trying to establish myself as some sort of authority figure so you’ll listen to what I have to say. Ah, but hang in there, and I promise to convey some useful information. Lucky for you, I don’t even have anything to sell unless you happen to be in the market for a leftover extra small T-shirt in a ladies cut from a now-defunct gym.
Training the gamut of people — men, women, old, young, heavy, skinny, athletes, and sedentary folks — I became pretty good over the years at separating the wheat from the chaff and focusing on the training methods that were most likely to deliver results to the largest segment of the population. Sure, we’d all like to be special little snowflakes, and maybe you do have some secret music or artistic or oratory talent that sets you apart, but when it comes to training, I can say with confidence before we ever meet that you’re not an outlier.
What works for the vast majority will work for you as well. With that said, some unscientific training advice explained as simply as I can explain it as follows.
Squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, row, and chin. You may as well commit that list to memory because it’s an important one. Those six compound movements, or variations of them, are your bread and butter.
Notice the caveat, “or variations.” I grudgingly admit that not everyone is well-suited to the plain old barbell versions of the classic lifts.
Fine, but that’s pretty common and still doesn’t make you some special case for whom traditional training advice won’t work. You just need to make some relatively small modifications.
So, before you run over to the leg press — incidentally, a machine that can wreck your lower back in short order if you round and lose contact with the pad at the bottom of the movement — at least give some of the very good squat variations that may better suit your body type a try. Many who struggle to barbell back squat will do well with front squats or safety bar squats. Even Bulgarian Split Squats are a decent choice that can leave you wobbling out of the gym on shaky legs if you push yourself.
Here I am squatting in Hawaii. In case you had any doubts, I really like squatting.
The same is true of deadlifting. Those who struggle to get into a good pulling position with barbell conventional deadlifts or feel the movement concentrated too intensely in their lower back may thrive with sumo or hex bar deadlifts. If the setup is still less than ideal with deadlift variations from the floor, rack pulls with the pins set so the bar rests just below the knees can be a great alternative.
The crux of the message is this: stick as closely to the six movements as you can. The further you deviate, especially before you have plenty of experience to better understand how your body responds to different training stimuli, the more likely you are to head down a futile path.
Furthermore, the six compound lifts do an excellent job of working every major muscle group, and you don’t need to add anything to the list to “target that troublesome inner head of the triceps.” You may, however, cautiously add a few isolation movements you happen to like if you wish.
Despite my eye-rolling, direct arm work is an obvious addition many will enjoy. But like mom used to say at the dinner table when we were growing up, no dessert until you finish your main meal!
Divide the six lifts just about any way you want. Train two, three, or four days a week; it doesn’t really matter.
Whoa, nelly! What the hell do you mean it doesn’t matter how frequently you train? We debate this all the time. Of course it matters!
What I mean is simply to take the same exercises and split them up differently. The total weekly workload remains the same. I’ll illustrate with an example.
Say you normally squat, bench press, and row on Mondays. Then on Thursdays, you deadlift, overhead press, and chin. That full body routine is one I personally adore; it’s like the Holy Grail of training templates.
But I also like splitting the same six exercises over four training days sometimes for a few months. When I do it this way, I squat on Mondays, bench press and row on Tuesdays, deadlift on Thursdays, and overhead press and chin on Fridays.
Here you go, in two neat little tables. I did add two isolation movements in italics just to show you the types of small additions that could augment your training without taking away from the focus on the compound lifts that really build muscle and strength and without negatively impacting your ability to recover for your next session.
Training Two Days Per Week
Training Four Days Per Week
As you can see, the second table is just my two-day full body program spread over four days as an upper/lower split. I don’t add any lifts when I move to the four-day template. I just do four short workouts of about 30 minutes each instead of two longer ones in the neighborhood of an hour each.
The main point is that the total weekly workload should be the same regardless of the schedule you follow. Trainees get in trouble when they move from two days to three or four because they start adding a bunch of crap. A three- or four-day program can work wonders but only if the volume is the same as with the two-day. Many trainees will even prefer the shorter workouts they can perform if they train more often.
It’s probably worth noting that I’ve occasionally trained folks who struggle to recover from squats and deadlifts spaced just a few days apart as in my examples. Usually, those for whom this is an issue are either a bit older (40+) or are already quite strong and handling loads in excess of 500 pounds that can really fatigue the lower back even with excellent spinal bracing. Sometimes they’re both old and strong, but I’ll take that over old and weak any day! Before I’d drop to even less frequent training, I’d first try alternating intensity for squats and deadlifts (one heavy and one light), moving them to the same day in an upper/lower split, or both.
OK, so now we have a decent understanding of how to set up a training week to hit the major movements, but what do the individual sessions look like in terms of workload? We’re down to volume — the old sets and reps discussion that seems to be such a source of confusion.
I’ll say it as simply as I can. Do three to five work sets per movement. Any less and most trainees won’t be providing the muscles with enough stimulation to grow. Any more, and you’ll likely have to reduce the weight on the bar so much just to get through all the sets that you won’t be able to train with the necessary high level of intensity to induce gains.
There are exceptions, but these are reserved for experienced lifters who know how to really push themselves to get the most out of each set, whether they’re training with a limited number of sets or many. Even if you are one of these exceptions, it’s going to take you several years of training to figure that out.
We’ve established that we’re doing three to five sets per movement. Now, what about the number of repetitions per set and loading?
You can either take small jumps up in weight, ending with your heaviest set — those are called “ascending sets” — or you can do all your work sets with the same weight — those are called “sets across.” Both loading schemes have their advantages.
By pyramiding up to a top set in an ascending sets format, you can reach a higher peak, but you’ll have to go lighter on the lead-up sets to reserve some energy for that top set. You’re climbing the big elevations of the Rocky Mountains with this one.
With sets across, you’ll do all your work with just about the midpoint of your ascending sets plan. You’ll not train to a peak set, but you also won’t have to start down in the valley. You’re the Lord of the Plains (huge bonus points if you know the film reference), just cruising along on flat, open ground.
Rest assured though, the workload will accumulate and extract its pound of flesh either way. The first couple sets may not be too difficult, but by the last two sets, you’ll be laboring some with either loading method.
There’s also a mixed approach many thrive on, whereby you combine pyramiding and static weight sets. You’ll see what I’m talking about as soon as you look at the example.
Sticking with the mountain metaphors, here we have something resembling West Virginia’s rolling hills. You don’t start quite as low as with a pure ascending sets model, nor do you end as high. Nevertheless, you do introduce some peaking elements.
All three approaches work well, and debating the pros and cons of each isn’t where you want to spend your energy. I’ve laid out a 5,000-pound total workload in my examples regardless of which you select.
To calculate workload, simply multiply the weight used by the number of reps completed for each set. Add the set totals together to arrive at the workload for the movement.
With managing workload, it’s just a matter of some basic math: pick one of the three loading methods and strive to add a little weight to the bar whenever you can. If your workload is trending up over time — allowing for occasional dips that are a perfectly normal part of the body’s fluctuations and unpredictability — you’re getting it right.
Train hard but don’t always go to your limit. Rest anywhere from two to five minutes between sets, increasing your rest time as the weight on the bar increases and striking a balance between allowing your body time to recover for the next effort and dawdling. Some form of poundage cycling, even just changing the rep range periodically so you’re handling different loads, is also important in managing fatigue.
Percentages and spreadsheets aren’t for everyone. I don’t get why you might not share my obsessive affinity for tracking everything in neat little charts, but OK. If you’re not an enlightened spreadsheeter, you can just use what I call my “training cycle for nitwits” and drop your reps at the beginning of each month for three months. Yes, I just called you a nitwit, and it was fun.
If you’re more focused on building size than strength, do work sets of eight to ten reps for a month, then sets of five to seven reps for a month, and then sets of three to five for the final month. If you’re training mostly for strength with size as a secondary consideration, it’s fives, then threes, then doubles or singles. For the best of both worlds, try the low rep progression combined with a higher rep back-off set.
After training uninterrupted for three months, take a week off before starting over with hopefully a bit more weight on the bar. I believe in most everything that’s ever been written about the New England Patriots’ philosophy of building a winning culture by just doing your job day in and day out, but we do occasionally take a few days off around here to recharge and so do they. Don’t believe the “no days off” hype. It’s a catchy slogan but little more.
So you don’t just gloss over it, I want to make a point to draw attention to that statement about adding weight to the bar from one training cycle to the next. That’s called “progression,” and it’s pretty much the entire point of your training, but it won’t happen magically.
Becoming stronger and putting on muscle is difficult. Beyond those first few beginner months where progress comes quickly, you have to struggle and earn every ounce of iron and muscle you add.
That’s true of any training program, regardless of how well-thought-out and grounded in proven principles it may be. If you really want to be a stronger and more muscular version of yourself, there’s simply no shortcut around training with focus and determination.
I’m not sure why it seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years, but any balanced training program should also include a conditioning component in addition to strength training. Granted, conditioning will be more important to a 50-year-old man trying to stave off the well-documented negative effects of belly fat and an expanding waistline on cardiovascular health than to a 16-year-old ectomorph standing six feet tall and weighing all of 150 pounds soaking wet, but just about everyone should include a little conditioning in their routine. Chalk that opinion up to plain old common sense or perhaps to my years of sports participation where you could lift all the weights in the world, but if you hadn’t done your running, everyone knew it as soon as you hit the field and began gasping for breath.
Eschewing debate since I’m right, here are the two simplest and most time-efficient ways to incorporate conditioning. First, you can include it at the end of two or three of your weekly weight training sessions. You’ll have already been training for at least 30 minutes if not a little longer, so energy reserves may be depleted. As such, you’ll want to limit the amount of time you spend on conditioning.
Toward this end, higher intensity interval-style training will be your friend. Try doing as many 10-yard sled pushes or farmers carries as you can complete on a 10-minute timer. Rest just long enough to catch your breath in between each and go again. When you’re making 10 or more trips in 10 minutes, add weight. If you’ve been properly trained by a certified instructor on the kettlebell swing, 20 swings a minute on the minute for 10 minutes will also smoke you pretty thoroughly.
Probably a more commonly practiced way of including conditioning is to do it on two or three days a week when you’re not weight training. Some moderate conditioning the day after squatting can be particularly beneficial in reducing soreness and enhancing recovery.
If you’re doing conditioning by itself, you can still do interval training if you want, but you’ll also be fresher and may not feel as compelled to cram your session into a 10-minute window. If that’s the case, you might enjoy the long slow distance form of conditioning performed at low to moderate intensity over an extended duration.
The implement you choose doesn’t matter, and your heart won’t know the difference between an elliptical trainer, bike, treadmill, rower, stair stepper, or whatever. Many find simply going outside for a brisk walk over hilly terrain to be far more invigorating, both physically and mentally, than being confined to one of these hamster wheels anyway. The important point is to elevate your heart rate to about 70 percent of your age-adjusted maximum and keep it there for a minimum of 20 minutes. This time in the target zone should be preceded by a five-minute warm-up and followed by a five-minute cooldown to take you up and bring you back down gradually.
With a handful of exceptions, don’t miss weight training or conditioning sessions. A sub-optimal training program repeated consistently always beats the perfect program performed only sporadically. Despite the admonishments of a few chest-thumpers, however, there are a few legitimate reasons to forgo training. These include injury, illness, or family matters.
All of the other stuff can literally be summed up in a few sentences.
Getting eight hours of sleep a night is critical if you’re training hard. I don’t know if there’s any real science behind this, but my middle school algebra teacher way back in the early 1980s was a really smart guy who repeatedly told us that every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after.
Maybe that was just his way of coaxing us into going to bed a little earlier, but I always feel better when I get at least an hour or two of my eight before midnight. That’s pretty much a prerequisite anyway — unless you’re planning to sleep half your morning away.
Eat nutritious foods to meet your caloric requirements, adding a slight surplus to gain or a slight deficit to lose. Weigh yourself twice a week, always at the same time, and adjust based on the direction the scale’s needle is moving or not moving. Regarding macros, eat about a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight and fill in the rest however you prefer. Some thrive on higher carbs and some on higher fat.
The best meal planning advice I ever received came from McRobert. I’m certainly indebted to that man for putting me on the right training path all those years ago. This particular tip, however, came much more recently.
I was struggling with meal planning some time in my late 40s; a topic I admittedly didn’t spend much thought on in my younger years when all I wanted to do was get bigger and just about anything I ate worked for that purpose as long as I ate enough of it, especially medium-rare ribeyes and baked potatoes slathered in butter and sour cream.
This dumb ass doesn’t know what a macro is, and he doesn’t care.
I still like a thick steak, but at some point, I realized a vegetable or two besides pizza sauce might be a good idea. I was just struggling with how to dial in my diet day after day. Like anything else training-related, I knew consistency would be the key.
McRobert, true to his uncanny ability to distill complex subjects into messages normal folks can understand and apply, told me simply to make breakfast, lunch, and one or two snacks identical, or nearly so, every day. These are meals you often consume alone anyway on a busy workday, so the monotony will be only yours to bear and not an entire family’s, he reasoned.
By working out the nutrient composition and total calories you need from those meals and just consuming the same foods every day, the healthy eating battle will be nearly won. When dinner rolls around in the evening and there are other people’s tastes to consider, you’ll still need to make healthy choices but won’t be obliged to eat so blandly. Following this tip greatly simplified my meal planning, so I’m paying it forward for you to consider.
Several years ago, I interviewed McRobert, and we wrote Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon. Occasionally, someone will ask me why I never followed that up with a book of my own training philosophies. Simple answer… there’s just not that much to be said about training that wasn’t already said years ago or that can’t be effectively restated in an article, though said article may run a little long without a mean old editor to tighten it up.
Oh, how I’d love to take your money. Few things would bring me more joy than reaching right into your wallet, pulling out all the bills, and stuffing them in my own pocket. Until I have something that’s really worth selling, however, or at least a unique way of presenting old information, I won’t do that just to reiterate these universal truths, even if they are the absolute keys to training success.
Unless you happen to live near yours truly, save that money you were thinking of spending on a trainer or some exotic program, and implement these basic principles instead. Train regularly and track your progress for a full year before you even look at any other training methods.
This advice may not be very scientific, or profitable for that matter, but it works for me and has worked for many people I’ve trained through the years. With patience and self-discipline to stay the course and train consistently, it’ll work for you, too.
Train like we do and maybe you’ll win a cool skull trophy, too.
Chuck Miller writes stuff on platforms for people with dubious credentials. The two best things he wrote, however, are quite credible. Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon is a strength training book. His latest, Will Little Roo Ever…?, is a children’s picture book about a little girl striving to overcome developmental delays. Visit his website for more of his work that’s surprisingly been published a bunch of different places and read by a lot of people.